Northern Virginia Wine Country
Jim Law founded Linden Vineyards over 30 years ago and seems like the kind of guy that has his priorities in the right place. Like most great vigneron his biggest concern is not wine marketing or scores, his priority is the health of his vineyards and the quality of his wines. Jim Law carved out the “Hardscrabble” vineyard way back in 1985 with grit, passion and a determination to make great wine. The wines speak for themselves and thus Jim and Linden are highly regarded in and out of the Virginia wine scene because of Jim’s dedication to making world-class terroir-driven wines. Not much marketing is needed when you are great at what you do.
Linden was the first winery in northern Virginia, well before the recently created Middleburg AVA was demarcated. It is the first Virginia winery to consistently garner scores from the Wine Advocate in excess of 90.
The tasting room staff is friendly and informative, happy to speak about each wine in regular or wine-geek-speak. The tasting room itself is clean, bright and simply laid out with warm-hued wood floors, walls, and counters giving the room a very natural feel. It comes as no surprise to see that after walking through his vineyards and speaking with him about his philosophy on making wine.
Jim is less concerned about many of the trappings you see in so many tasting rooms, especially in Virginia where many wineries require additional revenues from other businesses to survive. There is no kitsch, pastas, sauces, jams or other small food items. He does not rent the facility for weddings or corporate events that are huge business in Virginia, especially in Charlottesville. There also are no restaurants and overnight accommodations. Jim lays it out clearly on his website that his winery is also his home and not for rent. He does not have to worry about that because he has and continues to put the work in that results in Linden’s wines being held in very high regard critically and at the top of the heap in terms of quality and expression in Virginia.
Fortitude alone won’t bring about great wine consistently, site and know how are important as well. Site, just like any other successful vineyard, is the vital key to the next level of Virginia wine that Jim had unlocked.
Like most stories about making a living with wine, it’s not all sunshine and roses. It took about 15 years of experimentation and more mistakes than most people would stomach to figure out the ideal planting sites. Jim is now looked upon in reverence as a pioneer as one of the most influential people ever for the Virginia wine industry. As much as he has “figured it out”, be it site location requirements, soil-stock-vine harmony, or “water evacuation” in his vineyards, Virginia is also a fringe climate for wine chock full of variables every growing season ready to ruin a vintage’s crop. Humidity, all sorts of pests large and small, hurricanes, shorter seasons for ripening, and frost can wipe out a crop no time.
Those kinds of battles take perseverance and fortitude, both traits in Jim that helped him persist all these years in an unknown and new wine region. To complicate matters, some battles fly under the radar. One such battle Jim conquered that from my talks with some insiders in the region is one many in Virginia at this point may be fighting and may not even be aware of it. That battle I am talking about is in regards to site selection, or simply terroir or a lack of good terroir being used in Virginia.
When I asked Jim to take me through the evolution of Linden, the most important point in its history was when Jim told me the following: “I liked my wines early on but they were never getting better than a certain level. I had this one section of Cabernet that overlapped onto the soil type most of the Merlot and Chardonnay were planted on and was always my best fruit that made my best Cabernet wine”. After some research, he knew what he had to do. Cabernet vines need soils that drain well. As it turned out the Chardonnay and Merlot were planted on the well-draining soils and thus were ripped up and replanted to the soils the Cabernets were planted on those that retained moisture. The Cabernets went to the plots where the soils drained well that were originally where the Merlot and Chardonnay were planted. After another 4-5 years to get decent fruit the proof was in the bottle as the wines performed well, blowing through that initial ceiling held in place by unfortunate site planting choices. Most would just shrug their shoulders and do nothing or maybe sell, deciding to stop at mediocrity.
Jim did not settle then and even today he continues to evaluate his vineyard sites as he is still continuing to strive to make better wine. At the bottom of Hardscrabble, like most hillsides, is where in the morning the dew collects and where the temperatures are coldest (warm air rises). Planted there are Riesling vines that were performing at a moderate level so Jim is going to pull them up.
For our tasting Jim walked us through each wine, making up a large majority of the portfolio. Undeniable proof is in the bottle of Linden’s diverse offerings of Bordeaux blends or varietal reds, and what many consider the best whites wines made in Virginia (straight from the mouth of a Master Sommelier). Wines made from Riesling and Vidal show true varietal typicity with a cool climate sensibility. Even an exceptional late harvest Vidal made its way into our glasses. The stars of the portfolio were the Chardonnays that shine with a verve, showing a depth and focus uncommon in Virginia wine. The Hardscrabble Chardonnay is a world-class version of this grape, worthy of standing side by side with its Burgundian cousins from the Beaune.