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Jason Tesauro, chief sommelier for Barboursville Vineyards, tends the grapevines at the governor’s mansion. Below, Gov. Bob McDonnell and first lady Maureen McDonnell film a greeting for the 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference.
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Even though guests are arriving for a party that Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell is hosting with her husband at the Executive Mansion, she starts fussing with the grape vines that grow along the edges of the mansion's garden. "It's leaning, Jason," she says, gesturing to the wire trellis that the vines are growing up. "We need to find a way to anchor these vines. They're drooping." McDonnell starts pushing on the structure to see if it will bend back in place — and it's an odd image, this perfectly made-up blonde in high heels and pearls quickly trying to get her garden back into shape.
McDonnell takes the vineyard (as this group of 10 vines is referred to) very seriously. "When I [originally] brought them, she was out on her hands and knees, getting dirt under her fingernails helping to plant them," says Jason Tesauro, chief sommelier for Barboursville Vineyards and author of The Modern Gentleman (and a former Richmond magazine columnist). With Tesauro and McDonnell that day were Barboursville's winemaker, Luca Paschina, viticulturalist Lucie Morton and Todd Haymore, Virginia secretary of agriculture. Together, they had selected Chambourcin vines to grow at the edge of what had once been part of the parking lot on the side of the Executive Mansion.
"We picked [this varietal] because it's a hearty vine — a French-American hybrid grape — that's planted widely in the mid-Atlantic region," says Tesauro. It doesn't demand the kind of man-hours that a more delicate vine requires. "It's like having a house cat instead of a show dog. It can take care of itself."
The day that I visited the vineyard and met the first lady, she and Gov. Bob McDonnell were filming a greeting to be shown at the 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference. This national conference was held in July in Charlottesville — a first for Virginia.
Virginia wine doesn't have the best reputation. Although there have been exceptions, until recently, according to wine aficionados, there hasn't been a lot of good wine produced in the state. Patricia Kluge's bankruptcy precipitated the recent collapse of the Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard (soon to be re-opened as Trump Vineyard Estates, headed by Donald Trump's son Eric) and that didn't help matters either, as far as credibility goes. To the rest of the wine world, it made Virginia winemaking seem like a pastime for dilettantes, and that's far from the truth. There are more than 200 Virginia wineries in operation, and the industry continues to improve and expand. Maureen McDonnell wants to get the word out.
"I wanted to help with the governor's focus on economic development, and so I decided that one area that I could promote would be Virginia wine," she says. "I have found that a lot of people are surprised by the caliber of wines being produced in Virginia. When they can get out to Virginia wineries and see the wines being made and talk to the producers, they come away with a new understanding and appreciation."
History inspired her to go one step further and plant vines at the Executive Mansion. "The 10 grapevines are planted in honor of Acte 12, one of the first legislative acts passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1619. Acte 12 mandated that all Virginia landowners plant 10 grape vines and harvest the fruit from them."
These grapes won't be ready to harvest until 2013 — in time for the Executive Mansion's 200th anniversary. According to Paschina, that first year's batch of grapes should yield about one to three cases of wine, depending on the grapes' weight (rain or the lack of it during the growing season can change the amount of juice extracted).
For the first two years, the grapevines at the Executive Mansion will be pruned so that they don't bear fruit, in order to allow the roots to strengthen ("Any time I saw [flower] clusters, I've pulled them," McDonnell whispers to Tesauro). A vineyard grower's mind inevitably drifts to thoughts of potential disasters. "We want a really cold, long winter because the vines need to hibernate, then a gradual warm-up and no spring frost or the vines will be dead. And hail would decimate the plants," Tesauro says. It's hard to imagine as I stand in the summer heat, watching vines growing so vigorously that they're pulling down their own trellis.
"The idea," says Tesauro, "is to have a productive vineyard to inspire people to cultivate their own vines." For the less energetic, the first lady hopes the project will encourage them to try Virginia wine. And keep trying it.