Celebrating Virginia Wine

by Raymond Vance Olszewski

This article originally appeared in the Harvest 2005 issue of the Virginia Wine Gazette, published by The Recording Publishing Co., a New Jersey Corporation.

The growth and expansion of Virginia’s wine industry has been phenomenal, to say the least, thanks in part to the annual Virginia Wine Festival. The very first, held on Saturday, Aug. 28, 1976, was a one-day event attended by 800 enthusiasts who enjoyed wine, from Meredyth, Piedmont and Farfelu, and fried chicken box lunches. 
It was originally a part of our nation’s 200th birthday celebration and offered many activities throughout the day. One of which was a wine tour that started out at the Middleburg Community Center where audiovisuals were shown all day. The tour then took the wine lovers on a route towards The Plains where they visited several vineyards. 

In addition, live wine auctions were held, along with a Waiter’s Race competition where waiters from several Middleburg restaurants balanced trays with opened bottles of champagne and filled glasses; the prize awarded to the winner was a case of donated wine. The event raised $1,795 to benefit the restoration of the Rail Road Station in The Plains and the Aldie Mill near Middleburg. 

The Vinifera Wine Growers Association (VWGA), a non-profit organization originally founded in 1973 by Treville Lawrence, a resident of The Plains, has been the host of 30 annual Virginia Wine Festivals since that first one. (Mr. Lawrence is noted for the book he authored that was published by the VWGA in 1976 entitled: “Jefferson and Wine: Thomas Jefferson: The Wine Connoisseur and Wine Grower.”)

In 1979, the number of Virginia’s operating wineries had grown to six. Today there are nearly 100; about half of which participate in each year’s festivals. 
Keeping in direct step with and in support of this extraordinary growth, the VWGA has been instrumental in its promotion of the industry through its annual festival characterized today as the nation’s largest and oldest wine event on the East Coast. 

30 years of wine

Ever since that first one, thousands of wine lovers and enthusiasts, notables from the wine and tourism industry and local, state and federal government officials arrive to celebrate each year. They honor the winemakers, winery and vineyard owners, wine writers and reporters and educators and students in the field of enology and viticulture for their exceptional and steady growth, and for the continuous promotion, guidance and support of Virginia’s wine industry.  

The annual festivals were held in the Northern Virginia countryside, during the month of August (just before harvest) and at such quaint and historic venues as in/near the towns of The Plains, Middleburg, Front Royal and now in Millwood. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, the estates of Piedmont and Swedenburg played host to many of the festivals before they became too popular. The event was moved to the Great Meadow Polo Field in 1993 to accommodate the growing crowd of 11,000 attendees.
Some of the earlier events included grape stomping contests, waiter races, jousting tournaments, barrel rolling contests, cork-throwing competitions, wagon and pony rides. Crafters, art exhibitors, food concessions, live music, and other entertaining activities have been added over the years.     

Farm Act key to sales

In 1977, the Virginia Wineries Association (VWA) was established and later, with the help of individual members, became instrumental in the passage of the Virginia Farm Winery Act in 1980. By this time, there were six wineries operating in the state. Passage of the Act allowed farms to grow grapes, produce and sell wine at their facilities. 

By 1984, there were 24 licensed wineries, “with four more to come.” In 1985, the Virginia Winegrowers Advisory Board (VWAB) was established to encourage the increased productivity of all phases of grape and wine production and sponsor research, education, promotion and marketing of Virginia wines. 
Gordon Murchie, a retired Foreign Service officer, has been the longest serving VWGA president since he was elected in 1989, and for the past six years has served as VWA executive director. Juanita Swedenburg, owner of Swedenburg Estate Winery, remains the longest serving member.

Corresponding with the wine industry’s growth, the annual festivals began to recognize individuals and organizations for their contributions to the exciting growth of the industry in the eastern United States. In lieu of having one big banquet at the end of the year, the VWGA decided early on to establish long-term perpetual trophies as rewards for meaningful accomplishments in support of the wine industry in general and here at home.

There are three awards: the Vinifera Perpetual Monteith Trophy (probably the most elegant and expensive award in the industry today); the Virginia Grape Wine Productivity Trophy (a handsome, large Sheffield tray, embossed with vine leaves and grape bunches); and, the Jefferson Wine Trophy (a Tiffany-made silver loving cup), awarded to the Best-of-Show and top gold medal winner resulting from the Annual Virginia Wine Competition. Later, the Distinguished Restaurant Award was added.    

To honor contributions

The very first formal Virginia Wine Competition took place on Aug. 18, 1982, and was held at The Red Fox Inn in Middleburg where nine judges tasted 46 different wines from 11 Virginia vineyards. That year, the “Best of Show” award went to Piedmont Vineyard for their 1980 Chardonnay. Lieutenant Governor Dick Davis made the presentation on Festival Day, Aug. 28. Ten years later, 16 judges tasted 126 Virginia wines that were submitted to the 1993 competition.  

At the 18th Virginia Wine Festival in 1993, an announcer from WMAL, the popular Washington, D.C., area radio station, reported the sighting of an individual who “looked a lot like Thomas Jefferson” strolling along the hillside on the festival grounds. The sighting was later verified: “Indeed, Mr. Jefferson and his gracious wife, Martha, both handsomely dressed for the occasion, were seen mingling with the festival guests, discussing wine, politics and other matters of concern to the populace of the Commonwealth.”  The gentleman portraying Mr. Jefferson was none other than William “Bill” Barker, an actor who has played the character for the Williamsburg Historical Foundation at Colonial Williamsburg.

At the 1997 festival, Bill “Tish” Tisherman, executive editor and senior vice president, who was there to accept The Perpetual Monteith Trophy on behalf of Wine Enthusiast magazine, wrote later about the experience that he would bet Mr. Jefferson’s favorite wine would have been “…Horton Norton, made from the native Virginian grape in a fresh, light, cherry-accented style that seemed perfect with a slight chill.”  
In his acceptance of the trophy, Tisherman further wrote: “I think Jefferson would have gotten a kick out of seeing this bubbly-sparkling wine filled Monteith being passed around a tent of people who took undaunted if awkward sips from it.” 

Promotion & recognition

Shows, Inc of Annapolis, Md., who became involved in the yearly event in 1993, worked to raise the attendance to 20,000 attendees over two days at the polo grounds at Great Meadow in 1998. The Festival remained there until moving to its current location at the historic Longwood Estate, located in Millwood, last year. 
For the past 32 years, the VWGA has successfully contributed to improving the recognition and status of Virginia’s wines and in promoting the industry throughout the U.S. and the world. It’s the state’s oldest and one of the most active wine associations dedicated to the promotion and protecting the interests of wine grape growers, wine producers, and the wine consuming public through education. 

Even though California began growing wine grapes in the 1800s, Virginia in just a short 30 years has matured its wine industry from growing grapes to producing award-winning wines. The numerous wine trails in the region are visited annually by some 500,000 tourists who not only enjoy seeing the state’s beautiful countryside, but also taking the opportunity to stop at one or several of the nearly 100 wineries. Mr. Jefferson’s dream of a robust wine industry in his beloved state has come true and his spirit is found in Murchie who each year now officiates at the annual festivals. 

In 1998, the U.S. Congressional Wine Caucus recognized Murchie for his devotion and promotion of the Virginia wine industry. In 1999, at a session of the Congress, the Honorable George Radanovich of California bestowed on him the title “Virginia Wine Person of the Year.” 
Supreme Knight Gordon Murchie is only the second East Coast wine industry individual to ever receive the coveted ranking. A Scotsman by ethnic origin and a Californian by birth, he will turn 73 in October and has been married to his lovely and very supportive wife, Anita, for 50 years.  Like Mr. Jefferson, he’s also a wine writer, consultant and trade representative. Murchie is to be congratulated for his tireless efforts in making the annual Virginia Wine Festivals the success they have been and will be for years to come.