Gabriele Rausse has pioneered the modern Virginia wine industry for over three decades and can truly be considered one of its founding spirits. Gabriele’s work consulting with dozens of vineyards and managing his own, has brought his expertise from his home country, Italy, to the Commonwealth. It’s hard to imagine Virginia without the 280 vineyards that fill the state. Just this year, US World and News Report ranked Charlottesville #6 as a global wine destination.
In 1976, Gabriele first began his career in Charlottesville with the Zonin family in what is now Barboursville Vineyards. Having grown up in Valdagno, Italy, he immediately saw the similarities in climate. However, the biggest difference was in the extremes of temperature and rainfall, which Gabriele had noted was different from anywhere in Europe where vinifera is grown. “In my town, in the Veneto, you don’t have 106 F in summer and negative 10 F in the winter.” With his vision and understanding of the Charlottesville soil, climate and most importantly the American wine consumer’s taste, Gabriele set out to develop a world-class wine region.
As the Director of the Grounds and Gardens at Monticello, Gabriele is charged with the continuation of Jefferson’s legacy in agriculture. He has found both tranquility and satisfaction in overseeing the gardens and cultivating native plants. Of course, he has not stopped making wine. Gabriele Rausse Winery continues producing 2,000 cases of wine per year with the help of Gabriele’s two sons.
The early days in the Virginia wine industry were interesting because nobody believed it could happen. I remember a very friendly extension agent who was coming to visit me and telling me that what I was doing was very “ interesting.” Shortly after, the Commissioner of Agriculture, Mr. Carbaugh, told me that the future of Virginia was in tobacco and not grapes. And then somebody from the USDA came down from Bethesda, Maryland,to tell me to stop what I was doing. Finally, in November 1978, the Commissioner of Agriculture called me to Richmond where a dozen scientists from Virginia Tech explained why I was going to fail to grow vinifera grapes in Virginia.
I had already made 400 bottles of wine in 1978. I recall that my response was simple: “I was in the land of freedom and I wasn’t bothering anybody. I had the right to continue with my experiment”. The professor of plant pathology from Virginia Tech stood up and said: “As long as you throw away your money or the money of the people you work for we have no problem. but the moment the Virginia farmer gets excited about something that doesn’t make any sense, then we have the moral duty to stop you.” It was then and there, I promised that I would never say another word about what I was doing. When I told my boss what happened, he asked me how many vines I had grafted that year. There were 110,000. He said it was too risky to plant all of the vines and he asked me to sell as many as I could. I sold almost 100,000 and he said; we might not be able to grow grapes and make wine but we can sell grafted vines. So I kept going. Today wine grapes are the second biggest agricultural product in Virginia, behind lumber.
The difference today is that there is definitely more pressure. In the beginning, there were very low stakes. It was just an interesting and entertaining project. Now there is a real commitment to make wonderful wine.
My passion to work came from my father. After he got married and started his family he tried to go on “a vacation,” but it didn’t work out. The whole family left to go to the seaside on Friday; it was the first time I saw my father go on vacation with us. But the next morning he had a telephone call from the woolen mill in Valdagno that he was managing, so he left to go back to work. He never re-joined us for the rest of the vacation. My father loved to work and I found that I also loved to work. My father retired when he was 89.
I like to work so — it doesn’t matter to me what people say — ”verba volant.” The fact is, in Virginia, we can make very good wine. I didn’t know much about Virginia when I came here in 1976. The only thing I knew was that the climate was similar to that of my village in Italy—the average temperature was the same and the average rainfall was the same. I also knew that the Virginia soil was poor, but grapes like to grow in marginal soil. Because of this I had some hope that Virginia could produce good grapes and good wine.
When my wife had to remove our name from the telephone book! People started expressing interest in what I was doing, and stopped telling me to go home. I think one project in the wine industry that gave me the biggest satisfaction was when I started the Kluge vineyard in the 1990s. The initial plan was to plant a small vineyard and sell the grapes. The first year we planted 10 acres and the number of plants lost was only 1%. After this success everyone involved got very excited and it ended up becoming the largest vineyard in Virginia at 207 acres.
The Successful Entrepreneur…
Never gives up.
I am sure I had some setbacks, but I try not to remember them. I try to remember only positive things. Success is not something attractive to me so I keep working because I like to work.
I was propagating roses in France, I got a call from the Zonin family offering me this job to work on their vineyard. I had been waiting to get my Visa approved so I could to return to Australia (where I had been working). But my father told me that if I wanted to go back to Australia, I better improve my English in America rather than France. So I accepted the job in Virginia with the understanding that when my Visa came through I would go back to Australia.
Both the beauty of the area and my children keep me here.
My two sons. I like that after adventuring themselves in different directions my sons ended up to come back home and enjoy what I was doing in the winery. When I started Gabriele Rausse Winery in 1997 I did it for my family, so I am happy that my sons are now happy to make wine. One is like me and he doesn’t stop working. The other is more like his mother. He is an artist but he doesn’t mind to work when the job needs to get done and he can fix anything.