Before there were 300+ wineries and over 5,000 acres of grapes, there were pioneers like Juanita Swedenburg who set their sights on producing wine in the Commonwealth— pursuing the potential for a flourishing, locally sourced agriculture industry.
Though the first attempts to produce wine in Virginia can be traced back to the first settlers, and even a few founding fathers, it wasn’t until the late 1970s when the industry began to take root.
When much of the wine world dismissed Virginia viticulture as a lost cause, an eclectic handful of individuals pressed on – from European immigrants with wine in their DNA, to dairy farm matriarchs with a thirst for something different. One hard-earned vintage after another, these pioneers set the tone for the industry to come – curious, collaborative, stubborn in the face of setbacks.
The ensuing years would see an explosion in both the quantity and quality of Virginia wine, thanks in large part to the perseverance and passion of these key individuals. One by one, we’ll take a look back at the contributions and discoveries of Virginia Wine pioneers.
For many years, wineries and wine enthusiasts faced a major barrier: state lines. Juanita Swedenburg made it her mission to tear those barriers down, taking her fight all the way to the Supreme Court.
Swedenburg wasn’t a lawyer herself— a former officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, she bought a farm in Middleburg with her husband, Wayne, in 1976. During her travels, she’d developed a palate for vinifera wines, and grew chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon grapes. They opened Swedenburg Estate Vineyard in 1988, a small enterprise that produced about 2,500 cases a year at its peak.
As a winemaker and small business owner, Swedenburg saw the laws prohibiting wineries from shipping directly to out-of-state customers as discriminatory—protecting the interests of large companies with big lobbying budgets over fledging family businesses.
Swedenburg enlisted the help of the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, to wage her legal battle. In February 2000, they filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the ban on direct interstate wine shipments in New York, the country’s second largest wine market—and won. The Supreme Court overturned the discriminatory laws in 2005, giving new life to the viability of small, independent wineries in Virginia and beyond.