After falling in love with Virginia, former NFL Washington Football Team president and owner John Kent Cooke dreamed of creating his own winery there; a lover of French wine, he wanted to create Bordeaux style wines with a Virginian accent. In 2001, he and his wife Rita bought the historic Boxwood Farm, where he planted a vineyard.
He engaged viticulturist Lucie Morton, enologist Dr. Richard Vine and, later, renowned French wine consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt. The winery was built by architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen. Between them, they created the renowned Boxwood Estate Winery in Middleburg.
“Boxwood was the only winery that Jacobsen designed in his lifetime,” says Sean Martin, stepson of John Kent Cooke and the current vice president. “Jacobsen passed away last year but we still get a lot of architectural interest because the building is so unique.”
Today, Boxwood is a leading producer in Northern Virginia, which sits an hour outside of Washington D.C. Back in 2001, there were only a handful of wineries in the area. Now, there are 24 and the region is thriving.
Trial and error
Virginia’s history with wine dates back to the colonial era. In fact, back in 1619, at the meeting of the first legislative assembly in English America, the burgesses sitting in Jamestown Church passed an act called Acte 12 which required colonists in Virginia to plant vineyards. But this was easier said than done; despite an abundance of non-Vinifera native grapes that could be made into wine, Vinifera varieties were a different matter.
Even Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, found his attempts to make quality wine defeated by the cold winters, frost, and humid summers.
But in 1976, an Italian called Gianni Zonin, who was looking to extend his wine company into the U.S., realized that Virginia’s long summers, mild falls, and low rainfall were reminiscent of Italy. He bought the historic Barboursville property, and winemaker Gabriele Rausse set to work. After a disastrous first year, Rausse realized that the vines had to be grafted differently. His experiment worked.
His success didn’t go unnoticed, and others soon followed. Today, Virginia is home to more than 300 wineries, who between them make everything from classic Bordeaux blends to sparkling wines to Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and Viognier, with grapes like Petit Manseng showing particular promise. Some winemakers are also working with Norton, an American grape.
“The amount of wineries in such close proximity to each other makes it easy to hit so many in a day, week, weekend, or whatever your time allows for.”
One of Virginia’s major regions
Northern Virginia is a spectacular part of the world, bordered by both the Shenandoah National Park and the Potomac River. It’s also a place where neighbors are not only physically close, but work together.
“People don’t hesitate to help if something breaks, or they can’t get a part right away, especially during harvest,” says Martin.
And to promote one another. Martin is currently working on an upcoming social media promotion involving four wineries, two breweries, and a restaurant called the Fox Tail Wine Bar and Gastropub.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie around not just the wineries here but craft beer and cider too,” adds Martin.
Jennifer Breaux, president and general manager of Breaux Vineyards in Purcellville, says there’s another benefit to the wineries being so close — it makes winery touring easy.
“The amount of wineries in such close proximity to each other makes it easy to hit so many in a day, week, weekend, or whatever your time allows for,” says Breaux.
Like many in Virginia, Breaux didn’t start in the wine industry. Originally trained in education, she’s always been a self-described foodie; she learned to cook from her grandparents and mother and loved to cook for friends in college. “It might have always been spaghetti, but we were all broke!” she jokes.
Breaux went on to work in fine dining, learning about hospitality at all levels. But running a winery wasn’t something she imagined for herself — even when, in her second year of college, her father told her he’d bought farmland.
“My family originally bought the farmland as a secondary home for us, a respite from our main source of income, selling real estate on the Outer Banks,” she says.
But on that property were three acres of grapes. They were in poor shape, but Paul Breaux had a green thumb, honed from his time working at a botanical garden. He nursed the grapes back to health and began making wine. Founded in 1994 and opened to the public in 1997, the Breaux family’s winery became the fourth in the county of Loudoun.
When Breaux’s father asked her to take over the family business, at first Breaux balked at the idea.
“I hesitated because I had kids and a life of my own,” she said. “At the time I had wanted to go back and get a second degree in the culinary arts. Instead, I came here and did this.”
Breaux now runs the vineyards, tasting room, and farm.
Like Breaux, Boxwood Winery is a close-knit, family affair. In fact, of the 300 wineries in Virginia, almost all are family-owned. Those small wineries make visitors feel welcome, almost like they are visiting their own family member’s vineyards for a glass of wine or two. The family-owned wineries are complemented by lots of family-owned restaurants.
“I learn something new every harvest,” Breaux said. “I came because my dad called and I have no regrets, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
“We created something out of scratch,” Martin said, echoing Breaux’s sentiments. “It’s been exciting, fun, and challenging, and we’ve grown substantially.”
3 wines to try from Northern Virginia:
Delaplane, a family-run winery, overlooks Northern Virginia’s Crooked Run Valley, making it an ideal winery to visit for a tasting. This Chardonnay offers a cornucopia of grapefruit, banana, and pear flavors, with hints of toast from the oak treatment.
The Meritage is the flagship red blend of King Family Vineyards, for which it has won multiple awards. A blend of Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc, with a touch of Malbec, it offers vibrant notes of cherry, blackberry, and spice on both nose and palate.