A Vintner’s Vintner

Gabriele Rausse has been dubbed “The Father of the Modern Virginia Wine Industry,” and with good reason: He’s been involved in the startup of numerous wineries, including his own, since he first came to Virginia from his native Valdagno, Italy.

Rausse’s first job in Virginia was to help start Charlottesville’s Barboursville Vineyards, and ever since then he has been known as the go-to guy for aspiring wine makers. He was involved in the establishment of Simeon Vineyards (now called Jefferson Vineyards) in 1981 and, in 1999, Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard. He was also a consultant on several other startups—including Afton Mountain Vineyard, Blenheim, First Colony, Stone Mountain and White Hall among others. He started his own label, Gabriele Rausse Winery, in 1997, and today is Monticello’s assistant director of gardens and grounds. The Virginia Agribusiness Council recently lauded Rausse for his distinguished service to the Virginia wine industry.

The modern Virginia wine industry is now about 35 years old. In terms of overall quality, how would you characterize it?

There are beautiful wines made in Virginia, and I am not talking about my wine. I am talking in general. There are wines which are beautiful; there are wines which are good. There are wines which are mediocre; there are wines which are untouchable. Do you know that the same thing happens in Bordeaux, in Burgundy, in Piemonte? Everywhere. I mean it’s unbelievable! You go wherever you want, you will find a wide range of wine.

Jim Law of Linden Winery said a couple of years ago that it takes a decade for a winery to start making “interesting” wines. True?

Well, I have a great respect for Jim Law. He always made good wine. I have to say he focused and tried to improve himself in a way that, for me, is unbelievable, right? There are so many things that you can do with grapes. And I tell you this: You can give the same grapes from the same vineyard to three different winemakers, tell them exactly what you want them to do, and you will have three different wines.

It doesn’t take a decade, but a decade helps you to make a better wine. I tell you a beautiful story. This happened when Jefferson ordered the vines for this vineyard, right? He asked the American consul in Livorno, Italy, to get him the vines. The American consul goes to the Botanical Garden in Florence, and he asked the director to get some vines for him, right? So he makes a list of the vines—half of those vines are of Italian origin—and they send them to Jefferson. So the consul asked the director of the Botanical Garden, ‘Which one of these grapes will make the best wine?’ And he answers, ‘All of them…if you have a good winemaker.’

Barboursville is consistently cited as the best winery in Virginia, or certainly one of the best. What has it done right—and can you describe your role in helping to get it started?

If you turn off this tape, I’ll tell you (laughs). I’ll tell you the very heart of the matter: The owner realized, maybe because I told him, that America was new to the consumption of wine and was not going to accept what the industry was selling then. The consumer in general was paying attention to what he was getting. I said to Luca (Paschina, Barboursville’s winemaker and general manager), you cannot sell any more mediocre wine here.

   In Italy, wine is part of our culture. So you need a bottle of wine on the table every day, not to get drunk but as part of your meal. So, if you don’t have the best wine you will have a glass of wine anyway, right? The people in America, because they were new to wine drinking, they were really looking for the best, over and over and over. I think I convinced him that he had to produce the best he could produce. And, of course, when he realized that what I was saying had some truth, he went in that direction.

There are a lot of vineyards in this state, most of them young. What are the keys to making good wine?

I’m not going to tell you everything. I’ll give you a very simple example: If I produce five tons of grapes per acre, it will be like a mother with 15 children. How can she have 15 good children? She cannot keep track of them, right? But if she decides to have three children instead, she can take care of them properly. There might be the one that is crazy, whatever, but in general she can raise them all properly.

It is the same thing for the grape. The volume of grapes per acre, in my opinion is one of the most important things. In terms of disease, if you have 15 children and one gets a fever and one breaks his leg and one gets a terrible disease, you focus on the one that gets the terrible disease and you let the other ones go. A small crop—fewer grapes per acre produced by many vines—is more resistant to disease. A mother for each child. I can have a vine that produces five tons that’s a disaster. I can have 2,000 vines that produce five tons. I can have 2,000 vines that produce three tons or two tons or one ton—that’s the beautiful result. Fewer grapes per acre, and more vines to produce a few grapes.

What mistakes do aspiring winemakers most often make?

My boss at Barboursville always told me the most successful wineries are the ones where the winemaker is in charge. When for some reason the farm owner or the farm manager is in charge, it is no good. When the winemaker is in charge, the results are beautiful. Does it make sense? He is the one who tells you what he wants, right? So that makes a big difference.  

Where did Patricia Kluge go wrong with her vineyard—Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard?

First of all, I respect one thing about her, and nobody can challenge me on that. She spent a lot of money to try to make the best wine she could. A true business person would not do this, right? A business person tries to balance the best product with the money. She was committed to produce the best wine possible.

The fact that there were too many chefs involved in the vineyard and all these things is another story. Also, the label she chose to use would only have been successful, in my opinion, if you had an infinite amount of money to support it. I could put a zero on my label and everybody would say, “Oh, you put a zero on the label, the wine is nothing.” But if I keep promoting ‘Zero’ as the best wine, after fifty years people will say, “Zero is the best wine.”  

She used a label called “Simply Red.” You know, “simply” is a negative thing, right? So for the person who doesn’t know Kluge, doesn’t know anything about Virginia wines, why should they pick up a bottle labeled “Simply Red”? Taste it. If you find it is good, you’ll forget that it is labeled “Simply.” You say, “Oh that’s good.” But the problem is not selling the wine when in your tasting room or at a festival; the problem is getting people to choose your wine when it is on the shelf with 500 other labels.    

Weren’t the price points really high on Kluge’s wines?

If you don’t produce much, higher prices might not be a bad idea. There is the person who wants to impress and invites you for dinner. I know that you know the wine costs $250, so I want to show off with you and I buy that bottle, right? The pricing was not the mistake. The mistake was to produce so much and have a high price. You know the wine was good. She never produced a lousy wine, but the combination of two or three things which were not right made a disaster. But what I respect of her is the fact that she always tried to produce the best wine possible.  

Tell us briefly about the Northeast vineyard at Monticello—and Jefferson’s original plans. What grapes are planted there?

This one is the collection of 22 of the 24 vineyards that Jefferson planted in 1807. It is 9,000 square feet in size. I grafted the vines in 1983, and it was planted in 1984. Some of the Italian grape varieties, like Mammolo Toscano, Trebbiano and Malvasia Bianca are blended with the Sangiovese from the Southwest vineyard. Some are eating grapes like Luglienga, Muscat d’Hamburg and Muscat of Alexandria. They might end up being blended in my wines, and some are left for the birds, so they don’t try to get what is under the nets. There is also a variety called Alexander that is found in the garden of William Penn in Philadelphia.

And what about the Southwest vineyard —replanted in 1993?

That one is Sangiovese. The Sangiovese wine from Monticello is made with grapes from the Southwest vineyard plus the varieties mentioned before. A couple of years, 1999 and 2002, we had more than 1,000 bottles. The maximum bottles I made are 1,300. Now we are down to a very small crop because the 16,000-square-foot Sangiovese vineyard has been replanted due to a vascular disease called Botryosphaeria. The 2009 vintage was only 75 bottles. The best years I had were 1999, 2000 and 2009. The wine is sold only at the gift shop at Monticello.

Tell us about the Fruit Garden. What is planted there?

We have two orchards. One is the North orchard, which has only a variety of apple called Ewe’s Crab. I remember the first time that I squeezed them; I was amazed at the sugar–the brix [a measurement of sugar content] that were in those apples. I made apple cider in the past with apples whose brix content was around six, 10, or 12. On these apples I see 20, 21–it is unbelievable! From the cook’s point of view, you would never choose to buy it except to make salad or apple cider.

This one, the South orchard, is the gentleman farmer orchard, because there is a little bit of everything—apricots, plums, peaches, cherries, gooseberries, raspberries, red currents, golden currants, figs, quince, you name it. Jefferson also planted almonds. It is strange that he said he had a good harvest of almonds, which seems impossible to me because they bloom in February, and here it is too cold in February. But it is a collection of everything, including the grapes, which is something that we cannot grow in Virginia, right? (Laughs.)

Why are you working in plant propagation at Monticello as opposed to working as a winemaker for a specific vineyard or two?

Tranquility. •

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