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Photos courtesy RdV Vineyards
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Rutger de VInk wants to produce "a great American wine."
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When Rutger de Vink joined the U.S. Marine Corps in his freshman year at Colgate University, his Dutch family was taken aback. Although military service is compulsory in Holland, it isn't seen as a career path. And when he later bought the hillside where his vineyard is located, the farmer who sold him the land thought he was crazy, says Joshua Granier, technical director of RdV Vineyards.
Delaplane, in Fauquier County about 50 miles west of Washington, is a rocky part of Virginia, skimmed over with just 18 inches of topsoil. Not much of anything can grow there other than grass, and most of the surrounding farms raise either cattle or horses. But de Vink saw something entirely different. He saw a perfect site for growing grapes.
Focused is probably the best word to describe de Vink. Back in the '90s, the Marine Corps wasn't merely a job for him. "It was a passion. It was a way of life. And that's what I wanted to find." After leaving the Marines, he worked during the height of the telecommunications boom for U.S. Sen. Mark Warner's venture capital firm, Columbia Capital.
"In 2000, I realized that I [couldn't] continue working for weekends or holidays," he says. "I really wanted to enjoy what I was doing." He wanted to work outside, work in agriculture, and winemaking seemed a natural fit. He prevailed upon Jim Law of Linden Vineyards to take him on — after some initial hesitation — as an apprentice. "I joined [Linden] in 2001 right before harvest, and I knew immediately that this is what I wanted to do with my life," says de Vink.
A trip to Bordeaux in 2002 with Law proved propitious. He met Kees van Leeuwen, another Dutchman and viticulturist at Château Cheval Blanc. Van Leeuwen was trying to understand why some vineyards produced better wine than others. It seemed to come down to the soil — the terroir — and its water-holding capacity. De Vink asked van Leeuwen to help him find a site where a great wine could be produced successfully. He had looked in California, but something kept drawing him back to Virginia. With the financial backing of his well-heeled family, de Vink started searching. "I asked soil scientists to find me the droughtiest, crappiest site you can find — on a hillside," he says.
"Virginia storms are intense," says Granier. "In a half an hour, you can get an inch or two of rain. A hillside is a natural slope, and because we don't have that much soil to saturate, the rain water runs off it very quickly."
That's what grapevines need to produce great grapes. If the soil were rich and fertile, the energy of the plant would go to making leaves instead of to producing fruit and seeds. The environmental challenge that the site provides paradoxically enhances the quality of the grapes.
The vineyards in Bordeaux are similar — the vines are grown on hillsides, and although the rock underneath the topsoil is gravel (the RdV Vineyards are located on top of solid granite), the sites are well drained, with clay deep underneath. The Bordeaux-style blend that RdV produces is made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot grapes. The 16-acre vineyard itself is arranged in specific blocks. "The vines [in each block] are determined, one, by variety, but also by the soils that are underneath them, the slope on the hillside," Granier says, "[and] whether it catches the morning sun, the midday sun and so forth. That all affects ripening."
The reason for this precise, almost monomaniacal attention to the detail of the terroir is to create a wine that transcends the region. With the help of oenologist Eric Boissenot, consultant to Château Latour, and viticulturist Jean-Philippe Roby, a professor at the University of Bordeaux, de Vink says, "We want to create a great American wine."
The goal isn't to outdo the Old World wines of Bordeaux. "It's to say, ‘Does RdV belong on the table [with those wines]?' "
So far, the answer seems to be yes. After the vineyard's initial release in 2008, the 2009 RdV Lost Mountain, at $88, and the 2009 Rendezvous, at $75, have broken past the initial resistance to their price, and now the winery is working to achieve the name-recognition consumers demand of high-priced wine. "It's a significant challenge," says de Vink. "People buy labels; they're not comfortable buying wine on taste." The Wine Advocate's Robert Parker won't review his wine because he says readers are uninterested in Mid-Atlantic wines.
Fortunately, sommeliers disagree, along with international critics like Jancis Robinson, who wrote in the Financial Times in September 2011, "I suspect [RdV's wines] will have a long and glorious life and, doubtless, raise the bar for other vignerons in the native state of America's most famous wine-loving president."
De Vink has no plans to expand his production or open up his winery for events or public tastings. He hosts a few chef dinners a year, and private tours are available by appointment only. "We have a commitment not to do that," he says. "The more focused we are, the better we are."