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Virginia’s Rogue Winemaker
Vintners since Jefferson have tried to make great wine in Virginia’s soil. Has this man finally succeeded? By Todd Kliman
Comments () | Published May 10, 2012
Rutger de Vink has created the first $100 bottle of Virginia wine--a controversial line that no one has dared to cross before. Photograph by Stephen Voss.

There's no sign to tell you that you've arrived at RdV, a small winery and 16-acre vineyard in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Delaplane, Virginia. Ascending a steep rise toward a white barn with cathedral-style windows and a silo, you wonder if you've missed your turn and mistakenly trespassed onto private property.

Here's what else you won't see: picnics on the lawn on weekends, a gift shop stocked with cheese boards and napa is for auto parts bumper stickers, or weddings on the property. Such accoutrements to attract the casual wine drinker are common throughout Virginia but anathema at RdV, which has styled itself as a purist's operation. The emphasis is on the wine. Not that it's easy to get your hands on a bottle. RdV has a tasting room, but it's closed to visitors. Sampling the two wines, produced in limited quantity, is by appointment only.

The air of secrecy more befits a covert military operation than a winery, but what's going on at RdV does amount to a grand experiment, one that might well alter the landscape of wine in Virginia--and beyond.

RdV is the vision of a man with the spy-novel name Rutger de Vink, who is bent on proving that the state can produce world-class wines. He speaks with the earnest high-mindedness of a scientist at work on a breakthrough drug and has supreme confidence in his plan, which he has executed with patience and deliberation over the past eight years--prioritizing the vineyard above the cellar, limiting the number of wines he'll make and the size of the crop he'll grow each year, engaging the services of the leading viticultural minds of France and California for guidance on everything from the moisture in the soil to the sweetness of the grapes, and refusing to distribute his wines to the public until last spring.

This mania for detail is reflected in the prices. His RdV--a big, soft red--costs two and three times as much as the state's best wines. He sold the 2008 vintage for $88 a bottle. The 2009 will be bottled as Lost Mountain.

That cost immediately puts wine collectors in mind of Bordeaux, among the most expensive, most sought-after wines in the world. It's a comparison de Vink encourages. "We respect the terroir of Virginia," he says, "but we don't see ourselves so much as a regional player. We want to be a great American wine and a world-class wine."

De Vink is not a provocateur, but he has emerged as a divisive figure in the world of Virginia wine. Some see him as a potential savior, an ambitious winemaker who may succeed in redeeming the dream of Thomas Jefferson, who struggled in vain to replicate the wines of the noble chateaux of France. Others regard de Vink as a threat, dismayed that the hard-won present may unravel as winemakers indulge, once more, in the 400-year-old dream of copying Europe--and charging accordingly. All are watching closely.

After years of carefully guarded work--de Vink bought the property in 2004--RdV became an overnight sensation last summer when the eminent English critic Jancis Robinson, a guest speaker at a conference of wine bloggers in Charlottesville, tasted RdV's wines for the first time. In the world of wine, only Robert Parker is better known, and Robinson might be more widely respected for her opinions.

She came away impressed. The wines, she thought, possessed density without heaviness or elevated levels of alcohol. Robinson later posted a gushing profile of RdV on her blog, concluding: "I sincerely believe his considerable efforts stand a good chance of putting the state definitively on the world wine map. . . . I suspect they will have a long and glorious life and, doubtless, raise the bar for other vignerons in the native state of America's most famously wine-loving president."

Not since wine made from Daniel Norton's Virginia Seedling won world acclaim in the 1870s had a Virginia wine been so lauded in the international press. Almost instantly, RdV went from obscurity to the one Virginia winery that oenophiles outside the state want to talk about.

Among the most ardent enthusiasts is Jennifer Knowles, the 37-year-old wine director at the Inn at Little Washington, who added RdV to the restaurant's vaunted wine list last May. Knowles describes her first taste as a revelation: "I don't know that I've ever been this excited or enthralled about something. It's like not knowing Bordeaux existed and trying that wine for the first time and going, 'Whoa--my God.' "

Not everyone is so captivated, a fact that speaks less to the quality of the wines than to de Vink's ground-shaking statement of intent.

Winemaking in Virginia has been a 400-year struggle between desire and reality, want and need. It's a battle marked mostly by failures. The past two decades have been a breakthrough period for Virginia wine, as new technologies and discoveries have led to a change of direction.

The breakthrough has occurred in large part because of the efforts of the so-called "terroir-ists," a crop of winemakers who contend that fighting nature is fruitless, that the future of wine in the state lies in heeding what the place--the soil, the air, the water--dictates. Some have given up their dreams of making elegant Bordeaux-style blends and Chardonnays and have instead devoted themselves largely to producing vin ordinaire--table wine--from such grapes as Viognier, Norton, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.

Sitting at a table in his tasting room, his large hands laced behind his head as he slouches back in his chair, the strapping de Vink--a former Marine who did a stint in Somalia--has the slyly confident air of a man who believes he has cracked a code. His ease in a rumpled, open-collared shirt and boots suggests that, all things being equal, he'd rather be out pruning vines.

By all accounts, there's family money at his disposal--his father, a pharmaceutical-company executive in Europe, moved the family across the pond when de Vink was a teenager--but that isn't immediately apparent. De Vink lives in an Airstream camper on the edge of the property.

Before he takes me on a tour of his immaculately kept cellar and pours me a flight of his wines going back three years, he shows me the silo that juts up from the property. The silo is empty; it performs no real function at the winery. De Vink has turned it into a piece of pure architecture--a kind of secular cathedral.

"The message," he says, "is we are an agricultural venture. What matters, first and foremost, is the land. Great wine is made in the vineyard, not the cellar."

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Posted at 11:40 AM/ET, 05/10/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles