Explore the New Virginia Dare Winery
The property that formerly housed Sonoma County’s iconic Geyser Peak Winery, founded in 1880, is now Virginia Dare Winery, founded in 1835 in North Carolina. Say it again? Exactly.
“Say it again, Virginia Dare” was the memorable jingle adopted by this winery, which was moved from its second home in New York to Rancho Cucamonga, California after Prohibition. In print and on radio, it was a media-savvy brand for the times. Director Francis Ford Coppola fondly recalled that jingle from boyhood days of the 1940s, associating the pretty blond on the wine label with an idyll of California wine.
Having transformed the former Chateau Souverain property into a wine the film memorabilia wonderland, Francis Ford Coppola Winery, and having rehabilitated the former glory of the Inglenook brand, the untiring auteur has brought another American classic back to life.
Coppola’s latest Sonoma County wine project may require a bit of explaining, but it’s a fascinating story, and well worth the while: “Look it up,” as Coppola has said in his “teaser” signs and announcements leading up to the brand’s unveiling in October, 2015.
Say It Again
The modern Geyser Peak facility was built in the 1970s. Like Virginia Dare Winery, the winery’s story was not one of uninterrupted vintages (the company that made Virginia Dare a success, in fact, still manufactures flavorings for wine and food—an expansion made necessary by Prohibition).
Geyser Peak garnered its greatest acclaim under the ownership of Sonoma County’s Trione family in the 1980s and 1990s, but then went through a merry-go-round of corporate owners. Coppola purchased the facility in 2013; the Geyser Peak brand lives on at the former Alderbrook Winery in Healdsburg.
The tasting room has basically the same, modest footprint as the Geyser Peak tasting room, minus the disconcertingly noisy refrigerator. Namesake Virginia Dare plays second fiddle to Native American artifacts and representations. Items on the top shelves include vintage Virginia Dare bottles and antique drums, for display only; throughout the retail area, coasters, wine toppers, Pendleton blankets, and even mini cast iron skillets mix with jewelry and arrows.
Displayed in a hallway adjacent to the tasting room, and in a handsomely refurbished conference room that overlooks the barrel room, a series of prints (reproduced from a book originally commissioned by the U.S. government) depicts leaders and representatives of Native American tribes of the 1830s. The blend of tribe-specific styles and European influences, like hussar-style pants, is fascinating.
One man, a great-great-grandson of one of the tribesmen depicted, made a special trip to visit the collection.
Incredibly, there is a restaurant planned for the site. Restaurant-and-winery combinations are very rare in wine country, because new permits are not issued. But Geyser Peak possessed a grandfathered permit that was never exploited. I’m hoping for a fusion menu of English pub fare and Native cuisine from coastal North Carolina.
Touch the Lips
Released in November, 2015, the first of the new Virginia Dare “American wines” are a Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($25) and Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($25), both palatable wines that represent the varietals and this Sonoma County wine region for a fair price.
In advance of the winery’s naming, Coppola released four “teaser” wines that gave clues to the legend. White Doe ($18) is a serviceable Chenin Blanc blend; Lost Colony ($23) is a juicy red blend with Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Malbec; Cabernet Sauvignon firms up the Manteo ($22), a blend of Dry Creek Valley reds. Most exciting is Two Arrowheads ($23), a classy blend of Viognier and Roussanne.
Although there are no plans to release a varietal wine from the Scuppernong grape, which is native to the East Coast and is central to Virginia Dare mythology, the friendly tasting room staff passed me this tip: a cutting from the “mother vine” in North Carolina, said to be 400 years old, will be propagated near the winery. Each vintage of Virginia Dare wines thereafter will contain a small portion of the blood of those grapes.
History Geek Out
Clues like “Lost Colony” and “White Doe” should have been a giveaway, in retrospect—but largely for people who went to school on the East Coast. Here in Sonoma County, California, it is not taught so much.
Back in the 1800s, I’m told, it was popular to name products after Virginia Dare, who was a real person, albeit perhaps too briefly: she was the first child born in the Roanoke colony that the English attempted to establish in 1587. Three years later, the only trace of the colonists was an inscription on a tree: Croatoan. That’s the reason that America’s first English colony does not make for much of a Thanksgiving story, but an eternal “WTF?” story, instead.
Over the years, a legend was created about the fate of Virginia Dare, notably in the book The White Doe, by Sallie Cotton. Reprints of this book are for sale at the tasting room.
Get Lost in the Woods
Just up the road, try to make sense of the clues left behind by artists on the Sculpture Trail. The town of Geyserville is sprinkled with sculpture, and has art galleries, as well. For a bite to eat, or a hearty plate of rabbit ravioli, head over to Catelli’s Italian restaurant. Just up the old, raised sidewalk, Diavola serves salumi and wood-fired pizza.
Virginia Dare Winery: 22281 Chianti Road, Geyserville. Open daily, 11am–4pm. Tasting fee, $10. 707.735.3500.