Virginia prides itself as the birthplace of American wine. The first chapter of Virginia’s viticultural history started in 1619 when settlers at Jamestown were instructed to plant grape vines. This story is usually followed by how Thomas Jefferson repeatedly tried but failed to make wine using vinifera (grapes from the Mediterranean region) at his estate in Monticello. But the narrative usually jumps from Jefferson to the 1970s when Barboursville Vineyards and others started making local wine for the first time since prohibition.
Not nearly as well known is the century between these benchmarks, including how in 1880 Virginia was the 5th largest wine producer in the United States. Norton, an American variety discovered in the early-1800s, was the state’s main grape. It was so popular a Norton from the Monticello Wine Company won gold at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873 and silver in Paris in 1878. At the start of the 20th century Charlottesville was calling itself the “Capital of the Wine Belt in Virginia,” although vineyards dotted the entire state.
One of these vineyards was Belmont, located not far from the northern entrance to what is now Shenandoah National Park. Once reaching over 100 acres of vines, at its peak Belmont may have been the largest vineyard in the state.
Belmont was founded by Marcus Blakemore Buck (1816-1881), a member of a prominent Front Royal family. In 1847, Marcus purchased nearly 2,000 acres in the mountains just outside the city. Half he subsequently sold, but the remaining land he turned into his farm.
According to research by archeologist Dr. Carole Nash of James Madison University, by 1863 the business included 80 acres of vines and 10 acres of sugar cane, farmed by slaves. The end of slavery and destruction of the local rail network led Marcus to diversify his business, adding a distillery that sold whiskey to local pharmacies.
In 1875, Marcus fell on hard times, resulting in the sale of Belmont to his cousin T. A. Ashby, who brought the farm back to prosperity. Virginia cartographer Jed Hotchkiss included Belmont in his 1884 science and business journal, saying, “The Belmont Vineyard, on the Blue Ridge near Front Royal, Warren co., Va., is … probably the largest vineyard in the state, as it has over 100 acres in grapes of various kinds.”
By the 1880s Belmont was producing as much as 20,000 gallons of sweet red wine, port, and dry red. It was also a nursery, selling vines to other vineyards. Newspapers referenced Ashby growing over a dozen grape varieties including Catawba, Concord, Delaware, and Norton.
These wines were sold throughout the U.S. According to letters republished in the Front Royal Sentinel, “The reputation of the Belmont wines is attested to the fact that during the last year 6,000 gallons of them were shipped to Minnesota alone, besides large quantities to Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, and other states.”
Belmont’s success was also in part due to of good timing. France’s own wine industry was still recovering from the ravages of phylloxera, and the recent completion of the Transcontinental railroad hadn’t yet transformed the American economy. Virginia vineyards had unprecedented market access that allowed them to grow.
These good times couldn’t last forever. By 1900 the business had folded, likely a victim of competition from California wine, economic depression, and the state’s nascent prohibition movement.
Belmont’s remnants were lost to history until a Park Ranger discovered grape vines growing along Dicky Ridge, not far off Skyline Drive. The Park contacted Dr. Nash to investigate further.
Nash and her students explored the farm using advanced geospatial technology as well as old-fashioned fieldwork. Their discoveries included a pair of underground wine cellars, several farmsteads, a road system, and multiple stone walls that marked the vineyard’s boundaries.
Her team was also able to trace the outline of several fields. Even over a century later, Belmont’s grapes can be found growing in the wild.
Potential explorers should be warned; this is not an easy hike and its remains are protected under law. The Park Service tore down the remaining buildings in the 1950s. Only stone walls, flattened land, a large pit, and the corner of a building are visible to the naked eye.
While Belmont Vineyards is long gone, it left a legacy that was taken up by future generations.
According to Shenandoah National Park Cultural Resource Program Manager Dr. Brinnen Carter, “I think Belmont showed you that Virginia can do industrial scale production of wine.” During its peak, Belmont produced the equivalent of 8,000 cases of wine a year. That number is even more impressive when Virgina’s population in 1880 was only 1/5th of what it is today.
While vinifera grapes such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chardonnay make up over 80% of today’s Virginia vineyards, hybrid varieties such as Vidal Blanc and Traminette are widely used, primarily to produce sweet wines. And Marcus Buck would be proud to know that Norton is thriving in Virginia today, with over 100 acres planted.
Hybrid and American grapes have an important place in the overall Virginia vineyard industry due to their hardiness, an important trait as climate change causes increasingly extreme weather patterns. Their ability to thrive without requiring the same degree of pesticides and anti-fungal spraying also makes them better suited for sustainable agriculture and organic winemaking.
To learn more about the history of Virginia wine, look up The Birthplace of American Wine: The Untold Story behind Virginia’s Vines – Virginia’s Travel Blog.