The growing of grapes for the purpose of winemaking is not entirely new to Virginia. With the first exploration of Jamestown Island (1607) the settlers were encouraged by the vines and the grapes that surrounded them. However, years of frustration with the taste of native grapes and difficulties growing the European varieties were to discourage many and fascinate the few determined to succeed.
When the House of Burgesses first convened in 1619, their twelfth act made it mandatory for land owners to “yearly plante and maintaine ten vines, until they have attained to the arte and experience of dressing a Vineyard, either by their owne industry, or by the instruction of some Vigneron. And that upon what penalty soever the Governour and Counsell of Estate shall thinke fitt to impose upon the neglecters of this acte.”
As well, The London Company of Virginia sent vignerons to the colonies to develop the wine industry. In 1623, the House increased the plantings of the original act to “20 vines for every male in the family above the age of 20,” showing that both the London Company and the settlers were eager to develop a wine industry in Virginia. However, it was to be tobacco and not wine that would thrive.
Still, there were those such as Thomas Jefferson who continued the battle for success. In 1769, “An Acte for the Encouragement of the Making of Wine” was passed in Williamsburg. The land marker still stands on Penniman Road where an experimental vineyard was established to encourage the planting of European varietals. It lasted only eight years when money ran out, the Revolution began and the colonial vineyardist was at a loss to deal with phylloxera, climatic unpredictability, and black rot.
By the 1800′s American hybrids had been accepted and most Virginians had given up on the European varieties. For the next fifty years and until the Civil War, Virginia would see some success in the hybrid wine industry, including award winning wines entered in the Paris Exhibition of 1878 and 1900.
It was not until 1960 that a renewed interest in raising wine grapes returned to Virginia. Mostly hybrids at first, until the 1970′s showed success with French hybrids and in the 1980′s vinifera vineyards began to prove their viability.
There are currently 1,400 acres of vinifera vineyards in Virginia and over 42 wineries.
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