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A Chat with Jim Law

Owner of Linden Vineyards Muses on the State of Virginia Wine

By JOHN HAGARTY

If you’re familiar with Virginia wine, Jim Law needs no introduction. Some would argue – but who would? – that he is one of the preeminent winemakers in the mid-Atlantic region. One is tempted to call him the East Coast elder statesman of wine, but he might protest, saying, “I’m not that old.” Which is true.

Statesman or not, he is widely respected and increasingly at philosophical odds with what is unfolding in the Old Dominion’s wine industry. Passionate to the point of creating an almost cult-like following, he has tacked hard into the winds of convention to take Virginia wine to a place many others in the state have neither the inclination nor dedication to go.

On a cold December weekday, we sat in his quiet winery and spent an hour talking of vines and wines and his comfort level with the somewhat lonely path he has chosen to take while Virginia’s wine boom unfolds around him.

Jim Law

Jim Law of Linden Vineyards Photo by John Hagarty

 

 

 

 

 

VWG: So how did it all begin?

“I was an agricultural volunteer for the Peace Corps in the late ‘70s working in Zaire, now the Congo. I grew coffee, cocoa, rubber trees and assorted tropical fruits. Even as a very young man I loved farming. When I returned to the states, I was looking for opportunities to make a living working the land. I also enjoyed wine. A career in wine made sense. I moved to Virginia from my home in Ohio and fell in love with the mountains. In ’81, I helped start a small, no longer operating, winery. I felt the best vineyard sites in the state were at higher elevations and steeply sloped, which led me to purchase this hardscrabble farm in 1983 and start Linden. At the time there were eight wineries in the state. Today there are some 180.”

 

VWG: That’s dramatic growth. Is the pace sustainable?

“It depends. For smaller wineries where lifestyle and entertainment drives the business, the future is limitless. For serious winemaking the challenge is greater and the commensurate work more difficult. The enjoyment of running a small business drives the former, but a commitment to quality and price motivates the latter. More pointedly, if you choose to compete with quality wines from around the world, you must be driven to make the best wine possible. Our proximity to the Washington, D.C., metro market and Virginia’s tourism industry assures a steady stream of customers. But if wine tourism is feeding your business, the pressure to continually increase quality can be diminished.”

 

VWG: How many wineries in Virginia are focused exclusively on serious wine?

“I’d say about five percent. Don’t get me wrong. Everyone wants to make good wine. But increasingly, I see tourism and entertainment trumping fine wine. If you are hosting large groups, weddings, bachelorette parties and other commercial activities, it does produce quick and steady revenue. But it takes a lot of discipline to keep your focus on both the vineyard and the cellar while managing an entertainment business. I believe one or the other will suffer from inattention. Usually it’s the wine.”

VWG: Your winery limits customer access to your deck and grounds unless they are members of your case club. Why so?

“Well first of all, it’s not as onerous as it sounds. If you buy just one case as a single purchase once a year, you become a member of the club. The reason for creating the club was to give my winery back to my loyal customers. I also stopped limos and buses from coming and limited the size of groups. I saw what was happening in the tasting room and on the grounds and I didn’t like it. The crowds, the noise and on occasion the over drinking, was simply not Linden. Trust me, it hurt my business for a while and it offended some people when I implemented the policy. On a more personal level, it stung all of us here to field disgruntled customer complaints and to read negative reviews on Yelp! and other web sites.

But it worked. Today, a visit to Linden is a relaxing experience with wine as the central focus. I enjoy talking with people who are curious about wine even if they know little about it. I have a beautiful property with rolling views of mountains and vineyards. I want my guests to enjoy the full experience of wine in this quiet, pastoral setting. There are plenty of wineries where people can go to experience a party atmosphere. But it’s not Linden. From a purely short-term business perspective my decision had a negative impact on the bottom line. But in the long run I now have loyal customers who are happier and so are my staff and myself.”

 

VWG: Viognier is emerging as Virginia’s white grape. Yet, you don’t grow it or make it? Why?

“Because I am not a fan of Viognier. And I don’t grow grapes unless I enjoy the wine produced from them. Virginia is doing very well with Viognier and it’s good for the state and our reputation. But I love higher acidity, elegant and lower alcohol white wines and Viognier typically has the opposite profile. I prefer Old World wine styles and East Coast Viognier has a New World emphasis. If you are in the vineyard daily, growing the best fruit you are capable of, you have to look forward to enjoying the wine produced from that labor.”

 

VWG: Virginia is the fifth largest wine producing state in the nation. What can we learn from CA, OR, WA and NY?

“We need to address the issue of variability. There are some excellent wines coming out of Virginia, but there is also a substantial amount that could not earn national recognition. We need to increase the number of top tier wineries if we want to put Virginia on the nation’s wine map. To accomplish that we need to plant on steep slopes and in hardscrabble soils instead of fertile flatlands. Once a critical mass of quality wine is being produced, acclaim will follow. It’s the only way to gain national attention.”

 

VWG: Has the state government been supportive of the industry?

“Yes, they’ve been great. It can be a tough job at times for them trying to respond to the various pressure points from within the industry. But their overall efforts over the last 30 years have propelled us forward.

 

Jim LawVWG: Pet Peeve?

“None really. I’ve reached the stage in my life where I’ve made peace with most of the things that annoyed me years ago. One phenomenon I have a hard time understanding is the almost addiction-like focus on handheld gizmos. Cells phones and Blackberries are not only everywhere but are in constant use. A few months back I was gazing out my office window and noticed a group of guests at a picnic table with wine and lunch spread before them. Their heads were all bowed as if in quiet contemplation. I was touched to see them apparently praying before their meal. But looking closer, I realized everyone was thumbing away on their little devices, oblivious to their friends, the beautiful views and the wine and food. I think our culture is losing something when we can’t let go of these crutches on occasion and enjoy the people and world around us.

 

VWG: Closing Thoughts?

“I love Virginia and how our wine culture has grown. It’s been rewarding to be part of an industry that has met with such success. One thing I would like to see is more young winegrowers take the industry to the next level. I got into this business primarily because I love farming. It’s driven everything I’ve tried to accomplish at Linden. It really is an intellectual endeavor. To plant a vineyard, watch it mature, craft wine from its fruit and then share it with guests has created a satisfying life for me. I do not want to expand. Making more money is not going to make me a happier man. My business supports my passion.

What would make me happier is for other winegrowers to pursue the quest for quality. It’s one of the reasons I have an apprentice program. We have tremendous potential in the state. There are so many sites with good slope, but poor and well-drained soils, that are ideal for vine growing. Site selection is critically important to the production of fine wine. To select land because it’s near major roads or has beautiful views might be a great business decision, but it’s not necessarily a great wine decision.

John Hagarty works at Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly. Visit him at Hagarty-on-Wine.com.

 

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