Pursuing the Best Wines in Virginia, or Anywhere!
By Vicki Ruckman
Alexandria, VA – The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is among the most distinctive regions in the state. Known for its natural beauty and national forests, the valley offers a rich diversity of attractions. On a hot summer day, you can cool off in the unique and famous limestone caverns. Or sip a cool glass of wine, or two, at one of the valley’s many and diverse vineyards.
The winemakers, wines, and vineyards of the Shenandoah Valley have played a key role in raising the stature of Virginia wine. Initially established in 1982, the Shenandoah Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is the oldest and largest AVA in the Commonwealth, covering 2.4 million acres with over 450 acres under vine.
The Shenandoah Valley AVA was approved just before Christmas in 1982, but the way it came into being was a bit convoluted. In September 1980, the Amador County (California) Wine Growers Association applied for approval of the Shenandoah County AVA. When official notice was published in the Federal Register, Virginia Governor John Dalton and other state officials protested that California was trying to steal one of Virginia’s proudest names. The story got widespread media attention.
To complicate matters, Virginia and California each had a winery named Shenandoah Vineyards, licensed within two weeks of each other in 1977. When this error was discovered several years later, each was required to add the state name after the winery name on their labels. When Virginia also applied for the Shenandoah Valley appellation, the dispute was settled by allowing Virginia to put only “Shenandoah Valley” on labels, while California was required to put “Shenandoah Valley California” on theirs.
“Virginia was surprised California had a Shenandoah area,” said Virginia wine marketing specialist Lou Ann Ladin, “and California was surprised to hear Virginia had a wine industry. [The publicity] did us a lot of good.”
Virginia’s Shenandoah Vineyards was started by Jim and Emma Randel in 1976 on a family farm outside Edinburg. Although the Randels lived in New Jersey, they spent a lot of time in Edinburg, Emma’s hometown, after Jim had a heart attack in 1974. He saw an article in Commonwealth Magazine about growing grapes in Virginia and was hooked.
He educated himself (and Emma) about grapes and wine by reading and attending classes. Then they planted 8,000 hybrid vines (eight acres, by hand!), bought juice from a Pennsylvania vineyard, and made their first wines in new garbage cans.
Emma’s brothers had been running cattle on the Edinburg farm, and the entire family undertook the Herculean task of cleaning the barn to convert it into a tasting room and winery building. The tasting room, only the fifth one in the state, opened in the summer of 1979 with Jim and Emma commuting from New Jersey on weekends.
After Jim died from heart problems in 1985, Emma moved back to Virginia, into the house where her mother was born next to the winery building. Finally ready to retire in her early 90s, Emma sold Shenandoah Vineyards to renowned winemaker Michael Shaps, who kept the historic name.
One reason Shaps bought Shenandoah Vineyards was the same reason most other valley wineries located here: “In many regards, it’s one of the best places to grow grapes with higher elevation, less rain, cooler temperatures, and an already existing farming culture,” says Lee Hartman, winemaker at family-owned Bluestone Vineyard in Bridgewater. The valley’s mountain ranges protect against excess rainfall, and its elevation allows grapes to achieve a high level of acidity. And grapes love the limestone soil that is prevalent in the valley.
The Shenandoah Valley Wine Growers Association, aka The Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail, is a nonprofit trade association founded in 2003 to promote the cultivation of wine grape varieties in the Shenandoah Valley AVA, to educate the public about the wines produced from Shenandoah Valley vineyards, to provide the free interchange of information and ideas among winemakers and vignerons in the Shenandoah Valley, and to promote economic growth and tourism in the valley.
Like the Virginia wine industry, the group has expanded exponentially since it was established and now includes 20 wineries, a cidery, a meadery, three vineyards, ten lodging members, an insurance agency, a real estate agency, a tour company, Shenandoah Caverns, and a gourmet wine shop. In addition to a website and publishing a first-of-its-kind-in-Virginia complimentary travel magazine, the organization places rack cards and the magazine at state Welcome Centers.
Two years ago, the Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail founded the annual Shenandoah Cup competition for members’ wines. The 2019 winner was Barren Ridge’s 2015 Meritage. Last year’s winner was Cave Ridge’s 2017 Petit Verdot. The trail also hosts the Shenandoah Valley Wine & Music Festival, which will be held at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester for the first time this year. The festival will take place on Sunday, September 5, from 1:00 to 7:00 pm. It is the group’s only fundraiser and helps valley wines reach a larger audience. Learn more at www.shenandoahvalleywinetrail.com/?page_id=93.
Vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley have experimented with growing both hybrid and vinifera vines for over three decades. By trial and error, they have determined which varieties do best in specific locations. Most popular are Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chambourcin, Traminette, Viognier and Petit Verdot. Petit Manseng is the up-and-coming white. Rockbridge and CrossKeys Vineyards grow Pinot Noir, and Cave Ridge has been very successful with Riesling.
Other uncommon grapes and wines include: North Mountain and Muse grow Zweigelt, North Mountain and Jump Mountain grow Gruner Veltliner, Barren Ridge and CrossKeys grow Touriga, and Rockbridge has Pinot Noir and Vignoles. Muse has the most uncommon varieties: Teroldego, Gamay, Grenache, Marsanne, Rousanne, Muscat, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese.
These grapes are used to make single varietal wines, blends, and rosés. Earlier this year, 56 of them won a medal at the 2021 VA Governor’s Cup competition, one of the most stringently judged in the country. Bluestone’s 2019 Petit Manseng was ranked among the top 12 wines and became part of the Governor’s Case, which is sent worldwide to market Virginia wines.
Plan a day or weekend trip to the Shenandoah Valley to enjoy naturally beautiful views while sipping award-winning wines and staying at a quaint B&B. To plan your trip, go to www.shenandoahvalleywinetrail.com for links to all of our members. Cheers!