Virginia Is For Wine Lovers
Maya Hood White (left) and Ben Jordan of Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison, Virginia. They are making leaps and bounds each vintage and proving the immense potential in Virginia.
Virginia has a lot going for it. They are close enough to a number of East Coast metropolitan centers to thrive, but land prices are not nearly what they are in much of coastal California, or Long Island, for instance. Much like in Texas or, again, Long Island, a lot of people come into contact with Virginia wines through weddings and events that are held at picturesque wine-growing properties. When wedding guests and banquet attendees are your core customer, it doesn't exactly encourage anyone to push the boundaries of style.
Though Early Mountain Vineyards is an in-demand wedding venue with an expansive, modern tasting room, there are subversive wines in the works just across the parking lot. It's here that Ben Jordan and Maya Hood-White are making some of the most exciting wines on the eastern seaboard. Having one foot in pleasing tourists and wedding attendees while another firmly planted (pun intended) in natural wine is not for the faint of heart. This requires patience and baby steps: and yet I have seen leaps and bounds in the past few vintages. I've even seen wild differences since September 2020 when we sent our last mailer about the wines being made by Ben Jordan and Maya Hood-White at Early Mountain in Madison.
Early Mountain was started in 2010, not by winemakers, but by Jean and Steve Case of America Online fame. Steve was the CEO during the 1990s and Jean was the marketing director. Yet they have placed their trust in winemaker Ben Jordan and viticulturist/assistant winemaker Maya Hood-White. Both are doing the hard work of pushing boundaries in Virginia's difficult growing climate. Not just winemaking styles — though they seamlessly move from classical profiles to zero-sulfur Pet Nats and chillable reds — but also in their farming approach. They've not only acquired some excellent vineyards but are employing organic practices as well as moving towards no-till farming.
Virginia is subject to a lot of disease pressure for vines. This is due to the significant rain they get combined with heat and humidity. The Bordeaux varieties commonly found in Virginia are not necessarily the best for the climate. Ben and Maya have become growingly obsessed with Petit Manseng, a white grape that hails from South West France, particularly the Jurançon appellation. Where most grapes are going to be compromised by excessive rain, Petit Manseng thrives. In addition to this noble variety, they work with American hybrid grapes as well, mostly Chambourcin. The natural disease resistance that comes from the wild American grape genes means that far less spraying is needed, and fully organic practices are possible. Of course, convincing the public of the merits of wine made from obscure varieties in a developing wine region is not easy. This is where Maya and Ben's work has been really paying off, because the wines are not just good for Virginia, but becoming world-class, with a proud identity of their own.
Ben, in addition to making the Early Mountain wines, has two side-projects focusing on Shenandoah Valley fruit. One of them is Midland, a project with his brothers, named for their father's carpentry business. They managed to produce a stunning dry Riesling in 2019, which I really lost my mind over. Again, this was not a wine that needed to be contextualized or rationalized as good for the region and the local challenges. Instead, it was one of the best examples of winemaking that transcends all that to get directly at your nervous system, lighting up all of your synapses with pleasure and excitement.
I was able to visit Early Mountain in July of this year and it brought home for me even more how the qualities needed to make great wine are not the flashy, romanticized clichés we are used to on Instagram. Instead, it's a long arc that rewards perseverance and demands humility: climate destruction continues to erode many winemakers' long-term plans. But even more, it's the hard work of compromise. The team at Early Mountain is such a lovely reminder that compromises can result in both progress for a developing region as well as thrilling creative breakthroughs. Are they going to please everyone? No, but their ability to walk the tightrope of innovation and approach-ability should at least garner a lot of respect. My feeling is that the wines are speaking for themselves and, more and more, commanding that respect.