Monticello viticultural area expands into Fluvanna

By Ruthann Carr, correspondent

Their hard work paid off.

Fluvanna winery owners George Cushnie (Thistle Gate) and Bruce Deal (Cunningham Creek) waited for close to five years to have Fluvanna included in the Monticello American Viticultural Area.

On Friday (Dec. 14) the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury published a final rule that expands the Monticello American Viticultural Area (AVA) to include a section of Fluvanna County.

The area of Fluvanna designated as part of the Monticello AVA includes both Thistle Gate and Cunningham Creek wineries, said Cushnie.

“Virginia is now the fifth-highest producing wine state in the U.S.,” he said. “Within our state, there are seven AVAs. The Monticello AVA is easily the best. Wineries within Monticello AVA have probably won more Governor’s Cup Gold Medals than the other six AVAs combined.”

Deal said he and Cushnie worked on the petition for a year before submitting it in March 2015.

“It took almost four years to have the government do something about it but it was worth the wait,” Deal said. “Fluvanna County is now part of a world-recognized grape-growing region and shares its qualities.”

Leslie and George Cushnie started Thistle Gate in 2011 and had a banner inaugural year. They earned two medals in the Governor’s Cup: a silver for their Chardonnay and a bronze for their St. George Chambourcin.

When they opened their tasting room in 2012, Thistle Gate became a gathering place with live music, displays by local artists, craft shows and of course, award-winning wine. This year Thistle Gate won a Governor’s Cup Gold Medal for their 2015 petit verdot – the first and only Governor’s Cup Gold by a Fluvanna County winery.

Thistle Gate, on Route 6 near Scottsville, also hosts weddings and community events.

Bruce and Debbie Deal started planting grapes at their Cunningham Creek Winery on Ruritan Lake Road in 2013. They opened the tasting room in July 2016 and it quickly became an active meeting place.

Among regular offerings:

  • Unwined yoga classes Thursday nights from 6-7:30 p.m.;
  • Acoustic Sundays during winter;
  • Saturday night music during summer hours;
  • Artist exhibits;
  • Seasonal celebrations;
  • Farm store offering local eggs, craft products and local chocolates; and
  • Weddings and local events.

Becoming a part of the Monticello AVA comes with a certain cachet that is sure to boost the vineyards’ bottom line.

That was what Cushnie and Deal hoped for when starting the process years ago.

“Being located in Fluvanna County, just a few miles from the Monticello AVA border, we suspected that Thistle Gate Vineyard’s growing conditions were very similar to the AVA,” Cushnie said. “Working with Cunningham Creek Winery and our county agent [John Thompson], we did the research over a two-year period and developed a petition to include a slice of Fluvanna County into the Monticello AVA. This week that hard work paid off.”

TTB designates viticultural areas to allow vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to the wine’s geographic origin, often referred to terroir.

Their petition included evidence connecting Fluvanna’s viticultural properties, such as climate and soils, and historical relevance to the existing Monticello AVA. It was supported by the Jeffersonian Wine Grape Growers Society, an organization of over 30 wineries within the Monticello AVA.

Will and Leah Wentz wrote letters of support as well.

The couple moved from Bethlehem, Penn., to Fluvanna in 2017 to live their dream of starting a vineyard.

“Leah’s aunt lives in Palmyra and she visited her a few years ago,” Will Wentz said. “They went to a winery. Leah came home and said, ‘We really need to look at the area.’ We visited a few wineries and started looking for some land. Fluvanna was more affordable [than Albemarle] but it has the same soil structure. We wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle and the madness.”

Wentz said Cushnie mentored them and in the process, they learned of the petition to have Fluvanna named part of the Monticello AVA.

The newly designated area includes the Wentz property just south of Palmyra.

“George made us aware of the AVA, helped us construct our letter and we put our own spin on it,” he said. “I was thrilled when he sent me the news Friday. We have him to thank for that, that’s for sure.”

In the summer, the Wentzes planted one acre of cabernet franc grapes and plan to continue planting yearly until their 10 acres are full of grapevines.

Because of the new designation, their grapes will be worth more, Cushnie said.

“My wife, Leslie, is the vineyard manager,” Cushnie said. “From now on, the wines made from the grapes she grows will be labeled as Monticello AVA. For us that is very satisfying. Generally, we grow more grapes than we actually use. The surplus grapes are sold on the open market. Because they are now Monticello AVA grapes they will bring a higher price.”

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