by Jon M. Casey
Following a recent visit to Monticello in Charlottesville, VA, I was invited to visit the winery of Gabriele Rausse, director of gardens and grounds for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc. Rausse, who is known throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region’s wine and grape growing industry as “The Father of Virginia Wines,” welcomed us to his personal winery located in a small building attached to the basement of his home several miles from Jefferson’s historical property.
So much has been written about Rausse and his career that there is little more to be said about his accomplishments. Nevertheless, his tenacity, perseverance and ultimate successes during this time warrants an overview. His personal label graces the bottles of more than a dozen wine varieties, garnered from grapes grown within the local area surrounding his winery.
Gabriele says that his journey into the U.S. winemaking industry began a little over 30 years ago when he came to America as an alternative to going to Australia to live. A native Italian, he was looking to emigrate from his home city of Vicenza but because of a change in the Australian government leadership, the administrative change was going to delay his Australian entry visa for a year or more. With that problem facing him, he decided to come to the U.S. to wait for a change in Australian policy and for his visa approval to take place.
After settling in the U.S. for a year or two, Gabriele could see that he would have as much freedom working on the soil here as he would in Australia. Therefore, he decided he would stay.
Rausse’s first job in Virginia was at the Barboursville Vineyards near Charlottesville. Rausse says his initial challenges were to establish plantings of Vitis vinifera, a species of grape that is very popular in winemaking in Europe. As a degreed agricultural engineer, his first love is plant propagation and working the soil and his vision for vineyards filled with European varieties seemed to be a natural thing.
“I had the feeling from the beginning that European grapes would grow in this area because the climate of Charlottesville was the same average climate of the town in Italy where I came from,” he said. “I was told it couldn’t be done, and that is all it took for me to be determined that it could!”
Today, Virginia’s wine industry is achieving national recognition for its quality wines. Rausse was at the forefront of it all.
Rausse was hired at Barboursville Vineyard to help establish the vineyard there. After approximately five years, he moved on to establish the Simeon Vineyards, now called the Jefferson Vineyards. In 1999, he went on to oversee the efforts at the Kluge Estate Winery, a nearby vineyard and winery that is now under the ownership of the Trump family. Along the way, he was also instrumental in the startup or growth of several other Virginia vineyards including Blenheim, First Colony, Stone Mountain and Afton Mountain to name a few. Over the years, since coming from Italy, it is reported he has helped to open more than a dozen wineries and has helped plant more than four dozen vineyards. He says he has probably planted or propagated more than one million plants.
It is with this background that he received the distinction of being called the “Father of Virginia Wines.” Today, he oversees the gardens and grounds at Monticello and Montalto. At the same time, he also does some lecturing, instruction at local colleges and is vintner at his own winery with the help of his sons Tim and Peter.
Gabriele Rausse Winery
In 1995, Gabriele built a new home for his family and in 1996, he added his winery, a building and storage area connected to the lower level of his home. In 1997, he started his own Gabriele Rausse Winery label, a delightful line of wines that today graces the shelves of local wine shops in central Virginia. It also is featured on a kiosk at the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center at Monticello.
“I wanted to make some wines for my own personal use,” he said as we descended the stairs into his winery. “This is what I love to do.”
Rausse says in any given year, his winery produces approximately 2,000 cases of wine under his own label. More recently, he has had the opportunity to produce and bottle wine made from the grapes grown at Monticello. That is a very limited production since there are but a few acres of grapes currently harvested from the vines to the rear of the Monticello residence. Once the vineyard at Montalto is producing with regularity, Rausse says he will be able to make more Monticello-labeled wines in the coming years. The first batch of wine from those vines will be forthcoming following the 2014 harvest.
“I first came to Monticello in 1995 as an assistant director, with no intentions of staying,” he said.
“I was brought in to do plant propagation and oversee the greenhouse operation. I moved on as I mentioned, but three years ago, the Jefferson Foundation came under new leadership, and when the current Director of Gardens and Grounds retired, they offered me the position of director with the idea that as a part of the overall plan, we would improve upon the vineyards at Monticello. With the acquisition of Montalto, which long years ago was a part of Monticello, that gave us the land that could be developed into vineyards for our winemaking here.”
As we toured Gabriele’s winery, he explained how he and his sons work together during the harvest to bring the grapes to the winery, pressing them in his nearby press. From there they go into the stainless steel vats through windows in exterior walls, built above the vats expressly for that purpose. After that, it’s a matter of time until the wine is ready for bottling. Watching Gabriele describe the process demonstrates the extent of his passion for the vintning process.
“These are two of this year’s varieties,” he says as he holds bottles of Pinot Noir and Vin Gris de Pinot Noir. He is one of few of the local vintners who harvest the Pinot Noir black grapes early in order to make this wonderful white wine from the otherwise red wine grapes. “These grapes come from Albemarle County,” he says.
In the coming months, he will be busy at Monticello, overseeing the daily operations of the gardens and grounds keeping. He loves what he does and this is what he has always wanted to do. His sincerity, charm and devotion to winemaking are clear.
It’s no wonder Gabriele Rausse has been dubbed “The Father of Virginia Wines.”
“Doing this kind of work is peaceful to me,” he said. “It is very satisfying and tranquil.”
Father of Virginia Wines loves what he does
by Jon M. Casey