Thursday, March 12, 2015

Another fight on the way, wine-wise...

 More change is in store for the largest vineyard on the East Coast, which may be the most controversial yet.                                                                      
     “This is the board room,” says Ashley, the twenty-something sales manager in a black cashmere sweater. She's showing me around The Barn on the old Kluge estate just south of Charlottesville, formerly the property of multi-media billionaire and philanthropist John Kluge and his wife, Patricia. “You can’t have a Trump building without at least one boardroom.”
   You can rent it if you’re a corporation, or have a wedding party if you’re a potential bride. The Pavilion next door can accommodate lots more guests. Through wrap around windows you see artificial lakes, vineyards, and rolling meadows and woodlands at the eastern base of the Blue Ridge.
   Ashley then slips behind the wheel of the “farm vehicle”-a jet-black Cadillac Escalade-and drives me past vineyards with rolled white netting attached to all the stakes, to foil the birds. "It's like pantyhose," she says. "You roll it up, and when you're done with it you roll it down again."
   We tour the 34,000 square-foot Great Hall where a towering flagpole supports a very large American flag, de rigeur on Trump estates. In the suite upstairs she opens windows onto a view of the chapel and lots of nice country, all for rent. “It smells of the outdoors without being, you know, barnyard-like.”
   This is the latest development in Virginia's galloping use of wineries to generate income having little to do with wine. Albemarle House, the Kluges’ former residence, is a 25,000-square foot Neo-Georgian manor built on a hillside, soon to be an uber-B&B with a 10-car garage and an entire room devoted to china.
   The wood-paneled library lost its books, along with the heirloom Purdy side-by-side shotguns and other rare collectibles, before Donald Trump acquired the whole thing. (The new property manager ordered replacement volumes en masse, online.) In the halls and art gallery hang oil paintings of stalwart figures in red jackets riding to hounds over grasslands like those visible outside.
   “We have everything here for your history enthusiast, your art enthusiast, your wine enthusiast,” concludes Ashley, without saying how Patricia Kluge let all this slip through her fingers.                      

She was formerly Patricia Rose, the third wife of John Kluge. She entertained royally, mixing celebrities and Virginia politicians. With divorce she received a big settlement plus Albemarle Farms, and since she had long been interested “in how wine and food interact,” she tells me by telephone, she decided to “start farming” in the belief that “great wine can be made anyplace in the world.”
   It's an unsupportable claim, particularly in the piedmont where Jefferson had serious viticultural problems. There have since been clear successes in Virginia, but lots of skepticism greeted Patricia’s venture. The soil happened to be loamy, though, which is bad for most crops but good for vines, and vineyards went in.
   Decisions were made about viticulture with the crucial advice of Gabriele Rausse, a respected winemaker with his own label, and Michel Rolland of Mondo Vino who visited the Kluge vineyards often, called for more investment and involved himself in fermentation and blending decisions that produced wines surprising everyone.
   “Patricia was committed to making the best wine in the world,” says Rausse. “Hiring Michel was an adventure for her. He was very expensive but she did it anyway, and a lot of wineries started to worry. People understood that it was time to stop playing around with the grapes and to get serious.”                      

She decided to include sparkling wine, although the late Robert Mondavi warned her against it because there was so much competition. “He scared me,” says Patricia, but as usual she went ahead, reasoning that since sparklers use chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, which ripen early, they have a better chance of surviving Virginia’s cold, rainy autumns.                      
   “She had a lot of heart,” adds Rausse, “but she’s one of those people who don’t know what money is” meaning that it can eventually run out and that serious efforts have to be made to sell a product, particularly wine. Consequently, banks pulled loans and the property went into bankruptcy. As everyone knows too well by now, The Donald bought the property in its entirety for pennies on the dollar, and a new era began.
   I asked Patricia if she’s concerned about the eventual fate of old Albemarle Farms. “Now that I don’t own it anymore, I don’t care what happens to it.”
   That's not the most endearing sentiment from the perspective of people in the neighborhood, or in fact in the Virginia's burgeoning viticultural community. What's happening next is the subject of my piece appearing in April in Worth magazine, involving both Trump wine and the possibly explosive environmental/political impacts of the family's plan.
    Sniff sniff...                              


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