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Episode 17: Roadtrip to Barboursville Vineyards (Part 1)

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

Brady and Alvin hit the road to visit Barboursville and learn how Luca Paschina has become one of the most influential and respected winemakers in the country. In the first of a two-part interview, Paschina talks about how he rebuilt the vineyard from the ground up and developed Barboursville’s signature wine, Octagon.





Episode Transcript

September 10, 2020


Brady Viccellio

Welcome to The Check podcast. I'm Brady Viccellio, owner of Steinhilber’s restaurant and La Bella Italia on Laskin Road in Virginia Beach.

Alvin Williams

And I'm Alvin Williams, co-host of the check and owner of Cobalt Grille restaurant at Hilltop, Virginia Beach. If you've listened to our podcasts before, you know, we've been talking about restaurants, people who work in restaurants, who own restaurants, and the people who like to dine in restaurants.

Brady Viccellio

That's right, Alvin. And of course, we also talk about the reasons restaurants exist, which would include food and wine. We've taken our podcast on the road, and we're at the beautiful Barboursville Vineyards not far from Charlottesville. Today, we have the honor of speaking to one of the best wine makers in the country, Luca Paschina. Thanks so much for hosting us and joining us on The Check.

Alvin Williams

Luca is the real deal. Here's a bit of background about him and this is really only just scratching the surface of what he's accomplished during his career. Born in Torino, Italy, he was an assistant winemaker at an Italian winery where his father was the head winemaker has been the general manager of Barboursville for 30 years. His wines have won multiple Governer’s Cups, named by the James Beard Foundation as one of the 25 most significant wine professionals in North America. He was inducted into the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. The Order of Merit is the highest distinction in occupations that reflect the honor on Italy and its people in cultural pursuits, the economy, public service, the military, philanthropy, and humanitarian activities.

Luca Paschina

Thank you for having me. Welcome to Barboursville.

Brady Viccellio

Let's go back to 1990 when you first arrived here. At that time, Barboursville Vineyards had 42 acres of vines and produced 6,500 cases of wine annually. Today, the vineyard has more than 105 acres of vine and produces more than 37,000 cases of wine.

Alvin Williams

Luca, what brought you from Italy to this small vineyard in Central Virginia.?

Luca Paschina

It's a long story.

Alvin Williams

It’s okay, we’ve got time.

Luca Paschina

And thank you for saying that because really it's a very crucial part of my life. The early 90s basically I started making wine when I was 14 years old. My father's a winemaker, I learned from him a lot, but the main thing I got from him was his passion. It permeated into me and I did become very interested and passionate about wine at a very early age, as I said, when I was 14. I remember my dad said, Well, you know this harvest. I'm going to let you do your own first batch of wine. And it was so fascinating that I decide to shift to this. I was in a school of agriculture, and I switched to a school of winemaking and grape growing in Alba in the northwest of Italy, which is one of the most famous region of Italy. And I worked there, then with my father in his company from 82 to 90. During those eight years, I had a chance to travel quite a bit. I did internships in Napa Valley for six months. I was in upstate New York. I did three months in the [?] close to Barcelona. I worked in Italy, I work a lot in Piemonte where I was from. I spent two years in Switzerland actually trading wine from all over Italy, all over Europe. So on those two years, I was detached from the vineyard and detached from the cellar, I was basically trading bottle wines, and shipping wine in bulk from Italy, all over of Europe. As I said, at the end of that period, in Switzerland, I came to understand that my future should have not been in, in the commerce of wine, and I had a strong desire to go back to the vineyard. I told the owner of the estate I said, Look, I don't want to do this anymore. I know I'm doing good work. But this I have no passion behind. And I say, I want to really be in charge of your vineyard operation. And I think he thought perhaps I was a bit too young. Yeah, for some reason, and their answer was no. And I say, well, then I have to leave the company because I can no longer do this work. I sent out 70 letters to all the family of Italy that I know they were committed to quality. One of them was the Zonin family that owns this estate. They said we read your curriculum and it's of interest to us because when I stayed in Virginia, and would you consider to go there for three months as a consultant and then come back and tell us what we have to change to improve the future of Barboursville. That's why I'm here.

Alvin Williams

Small world. So your passion stemmed from your father initially and him trusting you with the vineyards and then all that travel around. I mean, that must have been interesting, to try all those different countries and learning new things.

Luca Paschina

It was, especially because I like to travel. But really, it was really a time of my life when, when I needed it. I needed my eyes open to different experiences, new languages also, new winemaking and grape-growing techniques. I understood how the world of wine was no longer just the region where I grew up. But it really opened me to many other styles of wines and winemaking techniques that I couldn't learn in school.

Brady Viccellio

When you first came to Barboursville , you came as a consultant. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey over the years here at Barboursville? And what did you find here when you first arrived? And what's the current situation?

Luca Paschina

Yes, what i what i found here was a 42-acre vineyard already planted with many different varieties --some of them planted in the 70s. Some very obscure varieties like Elegante [?] for example, just to name one. Or [?] Bianca, and then the classics, the Merlot, the Cabernet Sauvignon, the Cabernet Franc, the Riesling, Pinot Noir -- they planted many, many things here to understand what would fit best in this climate and this soil. The thing that really I understood clearly is that that type of plant material, the origin of the plant material, from the 70s was of low quality. You have to think of grapes a similar way you think of a breed of a dog. There are a lot of English Setters, but some have better features than others. The same thing is for grapes. They’re called clones. They're not clone like the sheep that we heard from England years ago. They're just plants selected in existing or vineyards. They identify one vine that has the best traits and from that vine, they propagate other vines. That's something that was not done yet in the US. A lot of the US nurseries have plant material that came her in the late 1800s, early 1900s, very generic. And so what they planted was not really the best genetic plant material that was then existing at that point in Europe. And I learned in the 80s that in California, they were starting to do joint ventures between nurseries in Italy, France, and California. So in the early 90s, I knew there was access to great plant stock. And when I went back, I told the owners upon the end of my visit, what do you think we should do there? So, there are many things to be addressed, but the number one is, we have to gradually remove all living here we planted and plant better plant material. That was the biggest limitation not only for Barboursville, but for Virginia as a whole and that's what we did.

Brady Viccellio

Good wine always starts with the farming. Good winemakers are always good farmers,

Alvin Williams

That must have been a shock to them when you said, you know, you need to pull all this stuff up and we need to replant. Because you know, you want the Best in Show and you know you want the best.

Luca Paschina

Yes. And I knew that it could have, perhaps be not the thing they like to hear. Although the answer was very much in agreement, and Mr. [?] said, I know that the plants don't have the best rates. I know some of the vines have viruses, they have diseases because of the origin. And I'm glad that you figured that out and say what the problem is -- are you ready to go back and take care of what we need to do?

Alvin Williams

Do you think they were testing you to see if you were the right guy when they I

Luca Paschina

Pretty much, yeah, absolutely. They didn't tell me go there and they didn't list the problems. Just go there, work the harvest there with the winemaker who was here at that time, come back and tell us what you think about the place and how we can improve it and go to the next level.

Brady Viccellio

It sounds like you got to that next level. That is the current situation.

Luca Paschina

Yes. To get to the next level, it took, like I said, planting new vineyards with better stock, removing the existing vineyards and also replant them. It took many years to do it. We didn't remove everything at once--it took about 15 years to move everything.

Brady Viccellio

So what are the oldest vines you have on the property?

Luca Paschina

The oldest vines at this point are from the early 90s. We started planting very aggressively especially in the mid 90s. We then had unfortunately a poor quality of harvesting in 96 because of weather with these new plantings. In 97 in 98 we had incredible great vintages when it comes to to weather conditions. And that's when we produced wines that were so good that I personally even thought it was way beyond what my expectations were. And I remember talking with the founder upon his annual visit after the fall, we tasted the wines. He was so happy of course. Since 1976, 20 years later, finally you drink the first glass of wine--great glass of wine, world class. And I told him, look, the thing is now the next hurdle is that we have the great wine but we have to promote it. And I don't believe promoting with strictly just advertising. I think the best thing to do is to open a great restaurant, and we did open Palladio restaurant in 1999. This is really the way that a wine traveler, somebody who travels for wine tourism will experience in full why we make wine. And the experience is going to be staying there forever. I want to create a lot of wine ambassadors. And so we opened Palladio in 99. And then in the early 2000, we had some great reviews and, and we were finally established as what I say a world renowned wine estate. It was late 90s.

Alvin Williams

Absolutely. We're in Thomas Jefferson country, Monticello and the University of Virginia, just right down the road. Jefferson was passionate about wine and even try to establish vineyards at Monticello. Can you give us a quick history lesson, Luca, about Jefferson's connections to Barboursville in those early days of Virginia wine?

Luca Paschina

Yes, Jefferson becomes I would say almost the first wine aficionado for the simple reason that he spent several years in France as the ambassador to the US. So there he was exposed to the great wine of France, the great cuisine of France. He then also traveled to the north west of Italy, actually through the region where I'm from, and discovered, like rice, for example. So he collected a lot of information there, is exposed to many different things that were not existing in the US. And so when he comes back, and when he comes back to Monticello he has this desire to establish a vineyard entirely with grapes brought from Europe. He even brings in a family of grape growers from Italy, the Giannini, and he did seven plantings. He was never able to produce a bottle of wine from it. Most of the planting died he had to replant and replant. The last big planting was in 1807, he planted 22 different varieties. All the vines died again, a couple years later, and he gives up at that point in 1807. So you go from 1807, all the way to 1976 to have another serious attempt of planting many varieties of European grapes, finally successful. So that's a very interesting element to the history of Virginia today.

Alvin Williams

That was major space in time between trying and failing and then to now success. But it was worth it.

Luca Paschina

Absolutely. It was worth it. We could have been much further ahead if somebody would have been successful, but that's what happened.

Brady Viccellio

Let's widen the lens to take a look at the modern day Virginia wine industry. A few years ago, Todd Heymore, former Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry said, “Luca has done more to enhance Virginia's reputation in the global wine industry during the last two decades than any other person I can recall.” What's been your role in the growth Virginia wine industry?

Luca Paschina

You know, the destiny brought me here in Virginia at a time where the Virginia wine region was not even yet considered a wine region, it was still searching for what we can grow, the style of wine we can make. So the timing was right, personally, to be in a place where I could put to work the experience I collected. I found a very friendly environment, a lot of support, for example, from the state of agriculture and the tourism. And, and I was in a place where I had a lot of an open book, to start drawing whatever I wanted on it. And it just worked. It took time and also with other growers, and vintners in the early 90s, they were doing similar things. We joined a lot of knowledge together and we shared a lot of knowledge.

Brady Viccellio

I understand Jefferson had some ties here directly to Barboursville and the ruins represent that.

Luca Paschina

Yes. On the estate there is a registered historic landmark that was designed from Thomas Jefferson for governor James Barbour, who was the governor of Virginia. And as he ended his term as governor in Richmond, he comes back and they start construction of this beautiful building. It took them seven years from 1814 to 1821. Coincidentally, 1821 is the year that the Italian family is founded in Veneto at the same time, Jefferson, besides learning about wine and agriculture, he also admired the architecture of Europe. He purchases without the four books of architecture Andrea Palladio, who is an architect from Vicenza in the northeast of Italy. That's what the founder of this estate is from. So there were a lot of things connecting Jefferson to wine, Jefferson to architecture of a region where the Zonin family founder is from. So that was another element that to the founder was of interest because there was a history going back and forth from the old world and the new world. And so, today they're still standing as a ruin and they’re open the public to that every day of the week. We maintain them as a ruin and all around we created the estate of wine with the vineyard.

Alvin Williams

Obviously Jefferson had his challenges growing vineyards back in the day. What are the biggest challenges that Virginia winemakers are facing now? And how have you been able to overcome them?

Luca Paschina

I like to say that the biggest challenges for me here are two -- the weather. Like most farmers, we do face challenges. Virginia can be from a very dry season to a very wet season. Because the topography and geography of where we are between the Gulf Stream, the jet stream can do all different types of take a different type of shape -- bring us high pressure from the north, humidity from the south. So that's the biggest challenge. Another challenge is the people and I'm one of them.

Alvin Williams

People, ok. Explain, what do you mean?

Luca Paschina

Well, unpredictable. It's a way to say that for me to produce a quality wine, I have to face challenges with weather and be a good person, treat people with respect and even in a bad day be able to put up my best effort. And that's what I look at surrounding myself is with good people. The rest is really not, I don't consider that a challenge because equipment, you can buy equipment. And today with technology, you can communicate efficiently. Still, to me, the biggest challenge is be able to get up every day as a human being having the right attitude. And then there is the weather.

Alvin Williams

Yeah, yeah, that conquers all. Do you ever have snow here?

Luca Paschina

We do.

Alvin Williams

And how do you deal with that?

Luca Paschina

We have tractors, we have to plow everything. Some of our workers actually that prune the vineyard, they go in and there’s a foot of snow -- you just have the right boots and the right gloves. Farming grapes is a whole year-round season, we start in the fall. Eraly November we start pruning, we finish pruning in March. Then we have to tie the vine, pull the leaves, tuck all the growth into the canopy, edge the vines, pull weeds, then pick the grapes with a little break for a month. Leafs go down, here we are again.

Alvin Williams

That's a lot of work. You have to wake up with the right attitude every morning.

Brady Viccellio

You produce a wide variety of wine here at Barboursville. But Octagon is your centerpiece. Can you tell us more about how Octagon came to be such an important wine for Barboursville?

Luca Paschina

Yes. We created this brand in the early 90s. My goal was to produce the most beautiful red wine I could from this estate from whatever grapes I could select within the farm. The big change came as I said in the late 90s when really not only I had access to different type of grapes from different than your sites but we really get like the right plant material that produce this very very high quality. What really made octagon such a well known wine nationwide and internationally was its quality. The name is also captivating. Of course we call it Octagon, octagon is a shape that you find the Jefferson’s Rowling's and to me also was a way to connect the history of this place, that desire of Jefferson for grape growing and the owners coming from the region of Italy. Its name is easy to remember but it has some meaning. Another element that made often Octagon important is that category of wine, the Bordeaux blend. Bordeaux is a region of France where they blend predominantly Merlot, Cabernet Franc […]. But we also chose a blend in a category which is world renowned. By doing that we position our wine in the middle of a lot of competition. And when you can have a very high rating within another group of wine that are very well renowned, you elevate very quickly, the exposure and the potential for recognition.


Robert Viccellio

Hey, it's Robert, the producer. We had such a great conversation with Luca Paschina at Barboursville Vineyards that we decided to split our conversation into two parts. So please tune into The Check next week to hear part two of our conversation. In the meantime, please visit thecheckpodcast.com to listen to this podcast, see pictures and check out all of our other podcasts from the past weeks. Thanks again for listening and we hope you'll catch our podcast next week -- part two of our trip to Barboursville.

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