The following is an interview with vineyard owners and winemaker Robert Muse and Sally Cowal.
The inspiration for Muse Vineyards comes from the domaine wineries of France and Italy. Every grape used in the wines produced on the estates is grown there. And every aspect of the fermenting, pressing, aging and bottling of the wine is also done there. The resulting wine has its origin in anidentifiable place. Muse Vineyards is such a place.
Soil and Topography
The vineyards are at an elevation of one thousand feet and rest on shale bedrock. There are three contiguous vineyards, each with a distinct soil type. The top vineyard sits on a terrace formed millions of years ago by the Shenandoah River that today flows one hundred feet below the vines. The soil is a loose loam formed from crystalline rock. Red gravelly clay begins at a depth of about three feet. Gentle inclines combined with the rocky soil ensure good drainage. The middle vineyard, where Grenache and some white varieties are grown, plunges down a steep shale outcropping. The lower vineyard faces the river and consists of silt loam alluvium, formed from sandstone and shale. The wines of Muse Vineyards each subtly reflect their vineyard of origin.
The Shenandoah Valley
Muse Vineyards is located in the beautiful and historical Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, just east of the town of Woodstock. The vineyards, on the banks of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, occupy a site continuously farmed since the mid-1700s. After leaving their native Germany, Mennonites landed in Philadelphia and made their way down the "old valley pike" (now US Route 11) to the virgin farmlands of western Virginia.
Here Jacob Hockman and his family planted wheat and corn and kept livestock. The original farmhouse, spring house and smoke house, built in 1792 of chestnut logs harvested on the property, are good examples of early American frontier architecture.
The Muse Family came to Virginia several generations before the Hockmans, and for some of the same reasons: they were French Protestants (Huguenots) fleeing Catholic France after the King cancelled the Edict of Nantes which had allowed religious freedom for nearly a century, from 1598-1685. French settlers were often induced by early English settles to join southern settlements to grow grapes and make wine in the infant colonies. Sadly those pioneer winemakers’ efforts achieved little success for reasons that would not be understood for many years and will be discussed later in connection with Thomas Jefferson’s adventures in wine - who, as it happens, designed the courthouse which still stands in the center of Woodstock and is the oldest continually used court building west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Story of Muse Vineyards
“Neither Robert nor I had any experience of wine making when we purchased our first property in the Shenandoah Valley,” recalls Sally Cowal. “We had both travelled extensively and enjoyed good wine, and Robert had read quite a bit about the viticulture and the winemaking practices of the places that interested him. But that was about it.
“One wet Sunday in April, 2003 I saw an ad in the Washington Post for a house with a vineyard, and we decided to drive out to see it. The vineyard, planted by a Canadian diplomat many years before, turned out to be more of a hobby project than a vineyard. There were some six hundred vines, but it was not even clear what the grape varieties were. Was this a good location for a vineyard? Was it healthy? Was it planted facing in the right direction? Quite frankly, neither of us knew. But we liked the idea of agriculture after many years of Robert practicing international law, and me working as a diplomat and then a public health professional. Anyway, sitting on the edge of a national forest, it was a good place for hiking with our donkey-sized Bouvier dog, and it was convenient for Washington.
“We took possession in early May as the vineyard – unknown to us – was about to produce its most explosive growth. But we had to be away for a wedding, so it was two weeks before we visited our exciting new holding. In the interim it had become a jungle, with shoots over the top of my head. The previous owner had left some grocery ties, so we started tieing the vines to trellis wires.
Three years later, in 2006, Sally and Robert were able to purchase a neighboring farm with close to fifty acres of land. They expanded the vineyard until they had twenty acres of vines. “Robert had already bought his first wine books the start of a library of now over a thousand books. We could have employed a consultant and asked him to advise us on how to create a vineyard. Instead, Robert decided for himself what to plant and where. Later he retained a specialist to provide advice on viticultural methods derived from horticulture.”
As the vines matured their grapes were of such high quality that there was a ready market with other Virginia wine makers. At the same time Muse Vineyards’ own wine production increased. It currently stands at around five hundred cases a year, but as the cellar capacity expands it will increase to some three thousand cases annually. Ground has been broken to build a tasting room to allow wine to be sold on site. Meanwhile wines are available in shops, restaurants and directly from the Muse Vineyards’ website.
“At Muse Vineyards we have planted fifteen different grape varieties,” explains Robert Muse. “No sensible vineyard I know has more than four or five. So, no one could accuse us of being risk averse - though time has demonstrated in a couple of instances we should well have been!
“The varieties planted reflect my interests in wine. For instance, the Sangiovese grape from which Tuscan wines are made. Beautiful wines, mid-weight with cherry notes. The Nebbiolo grape produces the complex wines of the north Italian Piedmont, notably Barbaresco and Barolo - wonderfully cerebral stuff – Jefferson loved it. Beaujolais, properly made, can be an excellent light red wine, so we planted Gamay. All these grapes reflect my tastes in wine, but planting them was also an attempt to determine what worked in Virginia beyond Caernet Franc, Petit Verdot and several other established successes when we began planting.
Some of the varieties that were touted at one time have turned out to be disastrous. For instance, the Tannat grape, which is important in south-west France, was widely promoted for Virginia vineyards, and I bought into it. My Tannat vines died the next cold winter. Syrah has also been a disappointment. Both have come out.
“This isn’t to blame experts. We are not even a quarter of the way to understanding what Virginia’s great strengths in wine might be. So all remotely rational ideas on what to plant are open for discussion.
“I have had great success with Rhône varietals, Roussanne for white wine and Grenache for red. (The latter is the grape that makes Châteauneuf-du-Pape so distinctive). Whether they do well in the long term remains to be seen. The Grenache vines struggled through the severe winter of 2013-14.
“While the objective has always been to create a commercially viable enterprise, in its first decade Muse Vineyards has resembled an experimental research station. The goal has been to find those grape varieties that will, at the same time: (1) flourish in the Shenandoah Valley (2) produce wine to the taste of the proprietors and public and (3) keep us out of bankruptcy.”
“Both Sally and I have been successful in our professional careers, and that has given us the latitude to experiment. We didn’t have to plant high-yielding varieties and rush into wine production and sales as fast as possible to repay a bank. We’re lucky.”
Muse Vineyards was one of the first to employ the dense vine plantings found in France. Cane pruning (Double Guyot) is used throughout the vineyard. Meticulous, labor-intensive canopy management (hedging, shoot thinning and leaf pulling) allows free air circulation and mottled sunshine on the grapes to promote gentle ripening. “There is a fair amount of rot talked about “stressed” vines producing the best wine,” says Muse. “An example is the old saying that, “a vine has to suffer to make great wine.” Nonsense. Unlike a depleted, struggling vine, a healthy vine will have the energy reserves to fully ripen its grapes. So nurture the vines, don’t punish them, is the better approach.”
Sally describes the viticultural approach at Muse Vineyards as what the French call agriculture raisonnée, which can be translated loosely as “rational/restrained (i.e. minimalist) agriculture. “We aim for as little chemical use as possible, using the newest generation of low-impact materials and taking great care how we spray and when we spray. The big problems are mold and mildew, and insect pests. About once a year, for example, there is an invasion of Japanese beetles which would strip the leaves from the vines if left to their own devices. Herbicides are used sparingly”
“At its worst, Virginia wine can taste grassy. This is the result of a failure to ripen the fruit. Our grapes, however ripen extremely well, achieving a good natural sugar content that results in wine with 13-15% alcohol content. We put this down to a combination of our vines, our site and our viticultural methods.”
Making the Wine
There are nearly as many approaches as there are winemakers to the treatment of grapes on their journey from the vineyard to the bottle. Some ferment in oak barrels, others in steel tanks, and still others –in southern France – in concrete vats. Other choices are the temperature at which fermentation should occur. Should the grapes be fermented crushed, or whole, or in clusters? How many rackings? (Pumping the wines from barrel to barrel to clarify it.) To filter or not? All good questions, though none with uniform answers. In the end much depends on the vintage, so flexibility is a good indicator of a talented winemaker.
Robert Muse has adopted an approach which he describes as non-interventionist. “Years ago I took one of the winemaking courses taught by Jim Law of Linden Vineyard. He is rightly considered a great master of Virginia wine, as demonstrated by a couple of sayings that I took particularly to heart. One of them was: “I only work in the cellar if it’s raining outside.” By which he meant, great wine is made not in the winery but in the vineyard. Another saying of his was: “When you are making wine you should have the courage to do nothing.” By which he meant, don’t play with it, don’t manipulate it. Leave it alone. Best advice I ever had. If it’s pristine fruit it’s going to work its way through fermentation into good wine. Making wine is like making paella - you have to resist the impulse to give it a stir.
“When grapes are allowed to speak for themselves, they speak of the place where they were grown. They speak of the climate, they even reveal things about how the vines were treated. But you can silence them through adulteration. There are catalogs of hundreds of things to add to a wine. Resist the impulse.
“We choose to make our Chardonnay using the classic Burgundy method of fermentation in oak barrels. This adds to the complexity of the wine. Some people think barrels will make the wine taste oaky. They are right not to like a wine with a distinctly woody taste. But the better response, I suggest, is not to renounce the use of beautiful, tight-grained oak barrels in favor of an industrially produced manufactured in a tank farm and hurried into bottle. Oak barrels allow the wine to breathe and slowly develop flavors that cannot be manufactured in a lab. That’s why we make our chardonnay in the traditional way.
“But having said that, there is a fine line between wine makers pursuing their own visions and then trying to pour the results down the throats of consumers, and being respectful of other’s preferences. Nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong, drink what you like. As an egalitarian people, Americans are not wrong in wanting to hear that. At the same time though have an open mind and you’ll find a universe of new things to like in wine, many of them, paradoxically, have been around for hundreds of years.”
“By choosing to make a classic Chardonnay and Roussanne we must sell them at a higher price than mass-produced wines simply because our production costs are greater. An oak barrel costs more than $1,000 and produces three hundred bottles of wine. We grow grapes with low yields. Industrial wine production can produce ten tons per acre, whereas our Chardonnay vines produces less than a third of that. Our pruning, hedging and thinning are all done by hand. So we are never going to compete with a $12 bottle of mechanically-farmed Chardonnay from a five thousand acre vineyard.
“What we offer are hand-crafted wines, classically styled. We encourage our customers to see that our wines are an expression of a particular place and spirit, and we hope very much that they enjoy them. If that’s not the point of all this, what is?
The white wines currently produced are a Chardonnay, a Roussanne and a blend of Rhone varietals including Marsanne and Viognier.
The red wine – Clio – is a roughly equal blend of the four Bordeaux varietals, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The proportions vary according to the year.
While ambassador to France (1785-89), Thomas Jefferson became knowledgeable about wine, even taking the time to tour the main French and German wine regions. With his usual enthusiasm for a ruinously expensive new project at Monticello, on his return he planted a vineyard. He imported French vines and a talented Italian surgeon/horticulturalist to oversee the planting. (The incomparable Philip Mazzei, who arrived with a dozen vignerons, a widow he soon married and a personal tailor!) Jefferson did all this in the hope of recreating the wines he came to love in Europe, as well as laying the foundation for a wine culture in his native America.
But Jefferson’s vines struggled and died, ravaged by a root louse against which classic vinifera (wine grape bearing vines) from Europe have no resistance. Jefferson, no doubt to the relief of his many wine merchants, gave up his dream of producing a domaine wine and thereafter consoled himself with French and Italian wines. It was to be nearly two hundred years before the next attempts to produce fine wine from European vines in Virginia. That happened when another pioneering Italian polymath, Gabrielle Rausse, established the renowned vineyards at Barboursville, near Charlottesville and not far from Monticello. His son, Tim Rausse, is a talented viticulturalist and winemaker who has made indispensable contributions to Muse Vineyards’ wines.
Some might question the wisdom of growing grapes in Virginia at all, a state that can experience cold winters and hot summers, as well as high rainfall and humidity. When one thinks of typical wine regions, dry, stony terrain comes to mind.
“There is very little about Virginia that makes it an appealing place to grow vinifera vines,” explains Robert Muse. “The climate is challenging. The high summer humidity can produce leaf and grape diseases. It rains more than in most wine regions. You can buy root stocks that are less vigorous, to offset the high rainfall; but there can also be damage from deer, bear, raccoons. So, if someone wants to produce with ease large commercial crops of wine grapes, I would suggest they consider going to Argentina, settle on the slopes of the Andes where the climate is bone dry, there are no diseases or predators to speak of, and snowmelt irrigation is controlled by the turn of a valve.”
And yet the best Virginia wine makers are consistently producing some of the finest wine in the United States and rivalling the better wines of Europe.
“That,” says Muse, “is the great mystery of what the French call terroir, an expression that covers not just the geology of a vineyard, but its elevation, topography, climate, exposure, microbial soil life and everything else that has an influence on how a vine grows and produces grapes. Who could have known that the flat gravel beds of a drained estuary around Bordeaux would be the site for some of the greatest wines in the world such as Mouton Rothschild and Lafite? Or that Burgundy, with a climate that is challenging to say the least, would produce great wines in the midst of fearsome summer humidity, spring frosts and summer hail storms?
“The Romans were skilled at identifying sites that would be good for fine wine production. They planted the vines that are the famous crus of Burgundy today, as well as the great hill at Hermitage on the Rhone River, and the Moselle and Rhine vineyards. They would carefully observe where the snow melted first, little pockets of sunshine that they spotted as they floated down river. If they’d reached what is now the U.S. it is interesting to speculate where Romans would have planted vines. I’m confident that they would have given Virginia a try.
“In the end you can grow grapes at three thousand feet or at sea level, on gravel, clay, stony or sandy soils. There has to be good drainage, but if it isn’t there naturally you can create it, as they did in Bordeaux. After that it’s blind luck whether you can produce fine wine there. That’s the enduring mystery and mystique of terroir.”
The Lure of Winemaking
“We had read of how Thomas Jefferson had failed at wine making in Virginia,” recalls Sally Cowal. “But we had also read that advancements in vine science now made it possible to control for local conditions such as the humidity, the occasional excessive heat, moisture in the soil and so forth. And we had drunk some very good Virginia wines and begun to meet some of the people making them.
“The improvement in Virginia wines over the decade before we arrived had been remarkable. I can remember when I was working in the State Department in the early nineties and someone had the bright idea of serving Virginia wines in the diplomatic dining rooms. Virginia, after all, was just across the Potomac River and the dining rooms looked out in that direction. Could there be any better way to impress a visiting French diplomat? Well actually, yes. It would not be too far- fetched to trace back the decline of American diplomacy to that baleful decision.
“Muse Vineyards was far from the first to plunge into the great Virginia wine experiment. There were some forty vineyards in the state when we arrived, and a lot of thought and investment had already gone into Virginia wine. But we have played our small part in pioneering the introduction of grape varieties.
“Acquiring our original toy vineyard of six hundred vines was like getting a puppy from the pound - there were no pedigree papers. We could work out that there was some Merlot, but we had no idea which Merlot clone we had. By the time we started planting new vines in 2006 we had ideas about which grape varieties and which root stocks were likely to be appropriate. We chose low vigor root stocks which ensure the vines concentrate on producing ripe fruit rather than leaves, and French certified vines with the specific characteristics of low production and the small berries and clusters we were looking for.”
“For me this is a great part of the adventure of winemaking,” explains Robert Muse. “When you planta Cabernet Sauvignon clone it will be an exact replica created from cuttings of a vine selected perhaps two hundred years ago for the quality of its fruit, its ripening characteristics, its resistance to disease and so on. So when you select a particular clone, you are another link in a long chain of varietal winemaking with a connection to generations of past winemakers. The clonal selections we plant today at Muse Vineyards are the result of a two-thousand year odyssey that began when the Romans set about proselytizing winemaking throughout Europe. Of course, the fact that a clone has done well in Châteauneuf-du-Pape or the Pic Saint Loup does not mean it will be exactly the same in the Shenandoah Valley. It’s a bit like a jazz riff, taking off in unknown subtle directions, but always remaining true to its origins. “My Favorite Things” was, after all, still identifiable when John Coltrane played it on the saxophone.
“A lot of clonal selections are bred to produce big crops. A few, and these are the ones that are most interesting for fine winemaking, produce very small grapes, which is important because it makes the ratio of skin to pulp higher. It’s the skin that produces the color, most of the tannin, and a variety of flavors.
“But if quality wine began with the Romans, it is without doubt the French who have since thought most systematically about consistently distinctive wines being the products of very specific places of origin. They created the concept of terroir. The appellation system, created ninety years ago to establish quality norms, is the epitome of the French approach. What variety produces the best wine where? For Burgundy the answer is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. That’s it. Just two grapes.
“Some talented young French winemakers chafe under the appellation system and break away, introducing new varieties into the classic areas. They lose the prestige and guarantees to consumers that the old system provides, but the results can be spectacular. It is fascinating to observe what they are doing. But at the same time it is important to recognize that their experimentation is made possible by the systemized knowledge acquired by generations that went before.”
“While I haven’t gone as deeply into the science of wine making as Robert, I have been pretty hands on from the start,” Sally adds. “We were just getting ready for our first big planting of thousands of vines in 2007 when Robert had to make an emergency trip to Cuba and left me to sort it out with a pick-up crew. The first day it started to rain, and it didn’t stop. I was sloshing around in high wellington boots and the tractor kept getting stuck in the mud. ¿Señora, que hacer? How the hell would I know? In fact my most useful skill in all this – apart from having drunk a lot of good wine – was that I spoke Spanish. But I needed the maestro, and because of the embargo, Robert was beyond the reach of communications in Cuba. So we just got on with the planting as best we could. When eventually I got hold of Robert he couldn’t believe I hadn’t waited until the weather dried up!
“We produced the first wine we could be really proud of in 2009, our signature Bordeaux blend Clio. This was from the vines planted in thick mud under my supervision!
“It has been interesting and something of a challenge, to build up the equipment we needed. We started with a jeep dragging grapes in a little wagon to a small cellar in the basement of our house. There we had a de-stemmer with a crank you turned by hand, and a small basket press two feet in diameter. Very old fashioned, very low tech. We now have a German press the size of a small yacht that can press several tons of grapes at a time.”
“But we are not finished yet. We are planting additional vines, including the bright exotic red Teroldego grape from northern Italy. Check this space to see how that turns out!
“I love being involved in agriculture even more than I expected. I have developed a huge respect for farmers and the risky lives they lead. Viticulture is a delicate enterprise, but a corn farmer can just as easily be wiped out for a season by drought as we can by late frosts. What makes viticulture different is that it is highly labor intensive. Each vine requires several minutes of attention a year, where mechanically planted and harvested corn needs as little as one hour a year of labor per acre.
“As with all start-up endeavors, we have been through some frustrating times at Muse Vineyards,” says Robert Muse. “But at the same time I cannot imagine many activities as intensely satisfying as winemaking.”
“I have had a romantic conception of vineyards at least since I was thirty. As a lawyer, I have had probably too much involvement with Congress and the executive agencies in Washington, D.C. to be the sunniest of optimists. The idea of agriculture, the rural life, frankly seemed a lot cleaner. I didn’t like the idea of livestock, having grown up around animals on a small ranch in Arizona. That’s a twenty four-hour a day – cows birthing at midnight sort of thing. Nor was I attracted by primary commodities – especially given that there is little place in the vast realm of modern agribusiness for a small enterprise.
“Wine grapes grown on small estates offer the potential to produce something of exceptional artisanal quality, by which I mean something non-industrial, something purely local. Something that channels the place of production, everything from the geology to the weather to the methods employed in the vineyard –that something is great wine.”