When UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce hosted a wine symposium, there was some sniping over the fact that no wine was served with the box lunch.
After all, the keynote speaker, Robert Mondavi, godfather of the American wine industry, made a glass of wine sound essential to the good life– “the essence of civilization,” he said. So after the April 26 symposium, thirsty believers flocked to the wine reception in the Colonnade Club where– finally– they could have a taste of what they’d been hearing about all afternoon.
The nearly 90-year-old Mondavi, whose longevity is certainly testimony to the power of wine, lodged at Albemarle House with nouveau winemaker Patricia Kluge. That visit capped off a busy week for Kluge: before the Mondavis she hosted sold-out Garden Week tours.
Kluge calls Mondavi “a good friend and mentor.” She says, “He encouraged me with my vision, and he believes in the potential that Virginia has for wine. “
It was Kluge’s desire to farm and her passion for wine that led her into the wine business. “What else can you grow in Virginia?” she asks.
In the fall, Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard will bottle its first two offerings, which also happen to be Kluge’s favorite wines: a Bordeaux blend called New World Red and a blanc de blancs champagne. Specializing in just one or two wines was the advice of several wine experts on the panel.
Kluge plans to produce 14,000 bottles of the red wine and 8,000 of the champagne. But this is not a wine for the masses. In a February 27 appearance on CNBC, Kluge reportedly startled interviewer Liz Claman by announcing that her wines will range from $80-125 per bottle, which Claman dryly called "an interesting price point."
At the UVA symposium, Kluge declined to talk specific prices. “It’ll be an expensive wine," she says, "but worth it.”
The symposium drew Delegate Rob Bell and a number of Virginia winemakers, including representatives from White Hall Vineyards, Rockbridge Vineyards, and Wintergreen Winery, to listen to the wisdom of Mondavi.
The old vintner started in the wine business in 1936, at a time when Napa Valley was best known for the Institute of the Insane. “I decided to put Napa on the map,” he says, “and that’s what Patricia Kluge wants to do here in Virginia.”
“Common sense” was the phrase used most frequently by Mondavi to describe his success in making wine and changing the way Americans viewed the grape.
It’s been quite a change. Wine writer Paul Lukacs reminded the audience how bad things were for the American wine makers after Prohibition had wiped out much of the industry. “The beverage of choice on skid row was wine, and the word ‘wino’ was an American invention,” he says.
“It wasn’t until we started making good wine in this country that it took off,” says wine consultant Vic Motto. Mondavi was instrumental in that when, in 1966, he started his own winery and decided it was just “common sense” to make better wine.
A wine drinker since he was four years old, Mondavi says he’s never seen anyone in his family abuse wine. That early-age familiarity with moderation has led him to another crusade: to teach young people the truth about moderate consumption. Mondavi believes that, as currently preached to young people, “alcohol education gives absolutely the wrong idea about wine in adult life,” not to mention that casting alcohol, including wine, as forbidden fruit until kids are 21 might contribute to binge drinking– and death– on college campuses.
That’s why he’s pushing the University Project to integrate the study of wine, food, and art into campus settings. So far, UC Davis and UVA have signed on.
Of course, as Lukacs points out, “Wine education at universities isn’t going to happen at the undergraduate level as long as the drinking age is 21.”
The symposium also brought together both sides of the current court case on direct shipping of wine to consumers. At the symposium, Tim Gorman, president of the Virginia Vineyards Association, said the wineries that support direct shipping are just trying to level the playing field. “Over 40 percent of winery visitors come from out-of-state,” he noted, leaving visitors no way to obtain the Virginia wine they tasted on vacation.
On the other hand, Tom Hairston, a southwest Virginia distributor, argued that distributors have to service under-populated areas. He has over 2,000 different items in his inventory, “and I’m just a small distributor.” He adds that distributors offer about 10,000 wines in Virginia.
So why would the seemingly staid McIntire School of Commerce even offer a wine symposium? Director of communications Jim Travisano lists the Jefferson connection and the fact that wine is becoming a significant industry in the state.
“We often have hedge fund or banking events,” says Travisano. “This crosses a lot of boundaries. It’s fun.” We’ll drink to that.