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Fire on the Mountain

Patricia Kluge tries to enter the world arena with her new winery.

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Two new vineyards have been planted adjoining each other — Kluge Estate and Blenheim Vineyards. They could, in the near future, make wines that would put Virginia on the map once and for all. Both wineries have the same things in common: experience, boldness, a carefully thought-out vision and, oh yeah, limitless resources.

The first part of my look into these two new wineries is an interview and exclusive tasting with Patricia Kluge, founder of the Kluge Estate. When John and Patricia Kluge moved to Virginia more than a dozen years ago they ranked as one of the world's richest couples. They purchased large tracts of land in the Carter's Bridge area, including the historic estate of Morven, designed by Jefferson. Little known at the time is that partial ownership of a local winery was included in the purchase. Patricia Kluge joined the board of directors of Montdomaine cellars, a high-quality local winery, and began a learning experience that would culminate with the Kluge Estate of today.

After the Kluges divorced, she spent years creating the Virginia Film Festival and returned to the idea of creating her own Virginia wine. She had the land on that mountain after all. Gabrielle Rausse, the vineyard guru from Monticello, was brought in to choose and plant the vines. And Michel Rolland, the world-renowned consultant from Bordeaux, tastes, blends and advises on the quality of the reds. The winery itself will be built in 2004 for $4 million to $5 million.

In a cold cellar full of barrels, Kluge holds a sample of the unbottled 2001 vintage. "At the end of the day we need to be international to go against the best outside the state and country," she says. "We must be world class." The 2001 Kluge Estate Merlot from the barrel is tannic, powerful and aggressively sturdy stuff. The 2001 Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend is young, full of character and has a wonderfully young finish for a barrel sample. The 2001 Cabernet is powerful with incredible potential.

As we ponder the fates of these wines, which will be blended to become her new world red, she looks up and says, "You know, you either live in the winery or you automate it." There are no signs of automation — just all of those French oak barrels. We are tasting from a total production of 1,200 cases — a less than minuscule amount on the world's stage. These are very much Patricia Kluge's wines: bold, powerful and with a clear idea of who they are. In wine it is all about impact, not quantity.

Take the 2000 vintage New World Red. Its 298-bottle production (not cases), makes it a rarity and it is priced as such at $495 per bottle, with its own specially made wooden box.

Kluge holds up a bottle with her likeness on the label, returns it to its box and quietly says, "I have a passion for this place." But in the world of wine, money and passion sometimes don't cut it. The performance of wine in a glass is always the final achievement. Quality is either there or it isn't.

The Wine Spectator, the world's most-followed consumer wine magazine, published its "Wine Across America" issue Nov. 30, 2002. Its last major inquiry into wines outside California, Washington and Oregon was 10 years ago. (They appear not to have an abiding interest in our part of the world.)

But the November article examined some Virginia wines. It reported that Thomas Jefferson would be delighted, but when the final scores of all the Virginia wines were revealed, no one received the hallowed 90 points (out of 100). In the wine magazine world less than 90 points is like saying, "Try again next year, you didn't make the team."

We all know what would delight Mr. Jefferson: the first 90-pointer for a Virginia wine. Wine Spectator tasted only 61 wines from here, a minuscule quantity, and the story wasn't fresh. Kluge's winery is what's hot. Spectator revisited places they'd reviewed before. So much for our 10-year wait.

Kluge Estate hopes to change that. If Patricia Kluge can hit the first 90-point or higher score in an international wine magazine, Carter's Bridge could very well join names like Stage Leap and Howell Mountain as great international wine places. Still, comparing us with Napa Valley without that accomplishment is jingoism and propaganda at its worst.

Kluge's secret weapon is the bringing-in of Frenchman Michel Rolland five times a year. This is the first time that a Virginia winery has brought in a winemaker of international stature. It is difficult to say that what I tasted from those barrels will produce that long-sought, 90-point wine, because there is much growing up to do. But it is clear that all the pieces are in place.

Next week we'll take a look at Blenheim Vineyards, a very different winery on the same mountain. S



The Kluge Estate Farm shop will open mid January. You can reach them online at www.Klugeestate.com or phone them at (434) 977-3895.

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