Coppola Pens New Story for Virginia Dare

Winery shares name with historical figure and longstanding wine company

by Paul Franson
The name behind the new Virginia Dare winery in Geyserville has a long history in wine and beyond.
Geyserville, Calif.—When Francis Ford Coppola, who bought the former Geyser Peak Winery in Geyserville, disclosed the new name of the facility on Sept. 24, a venerable name returned to the business: Virginia Dare.

Coppola has been teasing the market for a year as it introduced wines called The White Doe, Manteo, Two Arrowheads and The Lost Colony under the auspices of the American Pioneer Wine Growers.

“The myth of Virginia Dare always intrigued me,” said the legendary screenwriter and director, who also owns the nearby Francis Ford Coppola Winery (formerly Chateau Souverain.)

His Virginia Dare Winery plans to release its flagship wines—Virginia Dare Chardonnay and Virginia Dare Pinot Noir, both from the Russian River Valley—in November.

Corey Beck, president, director of winemaking and general manager of Francis Ford Coppola Winery says the company also will use the facility to make some wines under the Francis Ford Coppola label.

“The goal of the winery is to dedicate it to Sonoma County wines.”

He added that the property has a visitor center and has already broken ground for a restaurant. The winery’s tasting room is open daily from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Geyser Peak’s history

Geyser Peak Winery was founded in 1880 by Augustus Quitzow, a pioneer in Alexander Valley winemaking and an immigrant from Germany, who put up a small wooden winery in 1880. By 1884 he had lost it to a local bank.

Large-scale operations began when New York liquor importer Edward Walden bought the property and built a bulk winery and distillery in 1887.

By the 1890s Walden & Co. was one of the largest brandy producers in the world. But in 1904, the family lost control of the Sonoma business, and for a few years it was run as a growers’ cooperative by W. S. Kelley and Oscar Le Baron.

In 1911 A.G. Dondero formed the Ciocca-Lombardi Wine Co., tore down the old winery and built a new one, calling it Geyser Peak. He operated there into the 1970s.

When Prohibition came, the company produced vinegar.

Dondero started up bulk commercial winemaking in 1933, but the Bagnani family bought the place after his death in 1936 and concentrated on Four Monks vinegar

In 1972, George Vare convinced the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. to buy the plant and turn it into a winery, creating Geyser Peak. He was president of the winery from 1972 to 1979, when it grew into one of California’s larger wineries, producing 700,000 cases per year.

Schlitz built a modern winery in 1976. Sales reached 1 million cases of value-priced wine by 198o.

Then Schlitz was acquired by another beer company, Stroh Brewing Co. of Detroit in 1982, and Stroh quickly sold the winery to Victor and Mark Trione of Sonoma County.

In 1998, the Trione family sold Geyser Peak Winery for $100 million to Fortune Brands, which later sold it to Constellation for $885 million in 2007.

Ascentia bought Geyser Peak and seven other wineries from Constellation Brands in 2012.

Accolade bought the winery property from VinREIT, a subsidiary of Entertainment Properties Trust, now EPR Properties, after it assumed the lease from defunct Ascentia Wine Estates. It was one of the last remnants of Entertainment Properties’ ill-fated entry into the wine business.

Accolade had been Constellation’s arm for Australian and European wines until the investment group CHAMP purchased an 80% stake in the businesses in 2011.

Coppola bought the winery from Accolade Wines in 2013. Accolade kept the brand name and produced wines under contract there.

Virginia Dare’s colorful past
Virginia Dare, originally known as Garrett & Co., was started in 1835 as a winery in North Carolina.

The name came from Virginia Dare, who was born Aug. 18, 1587, on Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She was the first white, English-speaking, Christian child born in what is now the United States. (Of course, the Spanish had settled Florida and the Southwest long before, and children likely were born there.)

The baby was named after the Virginia Colony, which then included the area.

virginia dare winery
A Scuppernong mother vine still grows on Roanoke Island.

What became of Dare and the other colonists remains a mystery. John White, Dare’s grandfather and the governor of the colony, returned to England in 1587 to seek fresh supplies, but when he returned three years later, the colonists were gone.

What is known is that wild Scuppernong vines grew at the colony, and the colonists ate the grapes and surely made wine. A 400-year-old “mother vine” still grows on Roanoke Island.

Virginia Dare red and white wines were some of the most popular wines sold during the early 1900s and before Prohibition. Although Virginia Dare wine was a grape blend, each variety contained Scuppernong—a Muscadine grape. The wine was noted for its sweet taste and commonly was used as a dessert wine.

virginia dare winery
Garrett & Co. produced a line of Virginia Dare wine in the early part of the 20th century.

Mission Vineyard winery in Cucamonga, Calif., operated under the name of Virginia Dare Winery in the early part of the 20th century, after Garrett bought it.

The product’s popularity rested in great part because winemaker Paul Garrett led an innovative and aggressive advertising campaign.

After Paul Garrett’s Special Champagne won the coveted sparkling wine prize at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, he used the new fame to create a winemaking empire.

He published The Art of Serving Wine to introduce wine etiquette to a potential market using Scuppernong wines as examples and promoting Scuppernong’s history among the earliest English settlers.

To that end, he also used Sally Cotton’s fanciful The White Doe: The Fate of Virginia Dare to promote his wines.

The first radio advertisement for wine, according to historian Clarence Gohdes, was a Virginia Dare wine jingle. Across the nation people heard the words, “Say it again—Virginia Dare.”

Around 1920 Garrett & Co. moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., just as the country went dry and Prohibition forced Virginia Dare to reconsider its business model. Garrett & Co. continued to make wine, but they took out the alcohol and tried to retain the wine’s flavor.

The extracted alcohol was used to make pure fruit and vegetable flavors ranging from vanilla to onion.

The plant continued to turn out more than 15 million quart bottles of Virginia Dare non-alcoholic “wine” per year as well as 20 million bottles of flavoring extract.

So rapidly did the flavoring business grow that Brooklyn became a leader in the field, and the company opened a new plant in St. Louis, Mo.

The company also sold concentrated grapes with instructions for making wine at home. (Home winemaking was legal—and still is—up to 200 gallons per year.)

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the company resumed selling wine. By 1941 the company was producing sparkling wines (then called Champagnes) as well as its regular wines and employing about 200 people.

Grapes from New Jersey were made into wine at the plant, and wine imported from California and North Carolina was bottled there.

The sparkling wines were made from New York state vineyards at Penn Yan, N.Y. By 1945 the company owned 10,000 acres of vineyards in New York, North Carolina and California. That year, it bought the plant of the Italian Vineyard Co. in Guasti, Calif.

In 1965, Canandaigua Vineyards (now Constellation Brands) bought the company’s wine business.

The flavoring extract side of the business, however, continues to operate out of Brooklyn and supply the wine world.

“The Virginia Dare Flavor Co. is completely separate, and the Virginia Dare Wine label was sold to Constellation some years ago,” Beck told Wines & Vines. “We bought the label/name from Constellation.”

Virginia Dare’s wine flavor portfolio consists of TTB-approvable stock flavors for commercial-scale wineries such as sangria, mulled spice, peach, strawberry and chocolate. A complete line of fruit flavors is available for adding taste accent notes to wines. Virginia Dare has an enologist on staff and technical and regulatory staff familiar with TTB requirements.

Paul Garrett made Virginia Dare wines popular with his clever marketing; it looks like Francis Coppola, who has also turned his wines into a success story, seems a worthy successor. But though southern-born proprietor Paul Dean of Spiriterra Vineyards of St. Helena, Calif., in Napa Valley grows Muscadine grapes and makes wine, it’s unlikely the new Virginia Dare Winery will follow suit.

If they did, they’d probably find it a hard sell among most wine drinkers. Though Scuppernong and other Muscadine wines contain a high level of polyphenolic antioxidants, they are definitely an acquired taste. Nevertheless, Duplin Winery of North Carolina makes 400,000 cases of the wines each year.

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