Flavor Magazine

April/May 2009

Faithful in the Little Things

Grace Reynolds

As interest in good food and wine continues to soar, many local vineyards race to establish themselves as a “destination”—a place that attracts weekending wine lovers as well as those with little or no wine knowledge. At a number of Virginia wineries, visitors can not only drink and buy wine, but also eat, sleep, ride a horse, get married, or host a family reunion. The trend toward bigger and better entertainment facilities, more vines, more wine, and more customers has brought fame and awards to several local wineries. However, there is one local vineyard that, despite being well regarded by the public and the industry, has no plans for expansion— Linden Vineyards.

Small Is Beautiful

When Jim Law settled on his original mountaintop property in 1983 and planted his 22-acre Hardscrabble Vineyard, Virginia winemaking was generally a mom-and-pop enterprise in which one person or one family wears many hats—from planting to blending to bottling to sales, and everything in between. These days, vineyards often have specialists, consultants, and marketing teams whose job it is to get everyone talking about Virginia wine. Law, on the other hand, has made a conscious effort not to go in that direction. He has added 2 smaller vineyards of 4 and 5 acres, but he is still bottling the same amount of wine, 5,000 cases, that he bottled 15 years ago, and he’;s never hired a winemaker. “That’s what I live for,” he says. “Not many people can say that they’ve been working in the fields since dawn. That’s bliss to me.”

It must be bliss for his staff as well, as many of his full-time staffers have been working there for close to 20 years. His short term employees include those in his apprenticeship program—a 2-year, from-the-ground-up program that gives those with an interest in winemaking the experience they need to go on to manage other vineyard properties or open their own.

Overlooking Law’s vineyards and a gorgeous valley, Linden’s tasting room and deck are fantastic places to sit and enjoy Linden wine. However, the vineyard’s increased success has created some challenges—most notably, a deck packed on weekends with tourists. Law was led to make a tough decision: In order to enjoy the deck on weekends, visitors must be members of Linden’s Case Club, the group of customers who have bought a case or more of Linden wines within the last year. Club members are also invited to the annual barrel and pre-release tasting in the spring.

Those not in the Case Club can enjoy complimentary tastings in the tasting room and are welcome to enjoy the deck and grounds during the week. Linden Vineyards has always been a quiet, peaceful place to sit and enjoy, and Law wants it to remain so. Groups cannot exceed 6 people, and both the winery and the grounds close at 5 p.m., which is not surprising, given that Law lives on the property.

Sustainable by Definition

Being successful in an agriculturally based business in Virginia means working with your neighbors and colleagues. Linden Vineyards supports small farmers in the region and offers Case Club members wine pairings with local sausage and cheeses. Law’s success also depends on working with the land, the soil, and the weather and his commitment to sustainable methods. Law and his crew use solar energy, photovoltaic hot water, compost, and recycled packaging and light-weight bottles. “Sustainability,” in Law’s words, “comes down to how you look at life. I think anyone who works their own land and plans to do it in the future is sustainable by definition.” It also means paying good wages to his dedicated staff, which helps explain their longevity.

What’s New

Law’s background is in fruit farming. When he first planted grape vines, he planted blueberries and heirloom apples as well, the idea being that this diversification would allow him to afford to grow grapes and make wine. Those blueberry bushes and apple trees are long gone, and he’s been farming the same 3 vineyards for so long that he knows them like the back of his hand.

Law says the Virginia wine industry is now “unrecognizable from 1981, when I set foot in it.” New wineries are popping up all the time, and public interest in wine has reached such a level that visitors are no longer stopping in on their way to somewhere else—they are planning their weekends around wine tasting. He finds that the average wine drinker knows much more about wine than in the past and is especially impressed with the 20-something visitors to the winery, who have surprising wine knowledge and a genuine interest in learning more. “The difference between now and 25 years ago has been beyond my wildest expectations,” he says. Customers “value taste and so they’re willing to pay for taste. This gives me the ability to push the envelope in what I’m doing—knowing the public is out there.”

At Linden, the site is more important than the grape variety. All of the grapes are grown in Law’s vineyards—Hardscrabble, Avenius, and Boisseau—and the best wines are named for the vineyard site that produced them. The 2006 Chardonnays will be released in April 2009, after fermenting 10 months in barrels and resting 2 years in the bottle. Chardonnay grapes are grown in all of Linden’s vineyards, each with its own personality and its own label.

The reds that best show off the character of Linden’s Hardscrabble or Avenius vineyards are named for them and are produced in most years, although Law will decide against bottling these if they do not meet his standards of quality. He makes his initial blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot based on his gut feeling and from what he knows are the best barrels. Each afternoon at 4:00 there is a blending session, during which Law and his crew will fine-tune the blends with wines from other, more questionable barrels. Reds released this year include the 2006 Hardscrabble, Boisseau, Avenius, and Petit Verdot.

Like the Bordeaux wines Law holds as his benchmark, Linden Vineyards’ wines are designed to age well and to reflect the variables in each year’s harvest. Law’s approach to winemaking is not the only thing reflective of Europe; he is also committed to the “small is beautiful” mentality. More vines, more space, and more events do not interest Law. He takes great delight in receiving national and international recognition within the industry, which is granted on a regular basis. But what is even more pleasurable to him is what you will find him doing on a daily basis: tending to the vines he planted decades ago and striving to always represent the character of his vineyards in the glass of the Virginia wine drinker.