Before there were 300+ wineries and over 5,000 acres of grapes, there were pioneers like Treville Lawrence 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.
R. de Treville Lawrence III
“The key to quality is vinifera. There is no other way to make a good wine. Other wines are simply hamburger wines.” That’s what Robert de Treville Lawrence III told Time magazine in 1977.
Turning a colorful phrase came naturally to Lawrence, who worked for 30 years as a foreign officer from Monrovia to Saigon, establishing small newspapers in many of the places he was stationed. He settled in The Plains after his service and started a small, experimental vineyard on his farm, Highbury. Over time, Lawrence planted cuttings from grafted chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and other vinifera grape plants—the basis for Old World-style European wines—which he championed passionately.
To support the nascent Virginia wine region, Lawrence founded the Vinifera Wine Growers Association alongside other early industry pioneers. Under their leadership, the organization grew into what is today, the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association, promoting wine made in 17 states.
Wine lovers across Virginia also have Lawrence to thank for pioneering a favorite pastime: wine festivals. He initiated the first festival in 1978, where about 800 enthusiasts enjoyed their wine with a side of spectacle—like waiters racing as they balanced precariously full glasses of wine.
Today, thousands of people toast away at wine festivals across the Commonwealth each year, connecting with their favorite wineries, trying new wines, even enjoying the occasional hamburger. We can only assume Treville has made his peace with that.