Virginia Wine: Steve and Jean Case’s Early Mountain

Clearly I’ve been bought off. Why, with so much to cover in the world of Virginia wine, would I dedicate an entire article to a single winery?

Clearly I’ve been bought off. Why, with so much to cover in the world of Virginia wine, would I dedicate an entire article to a single winery? Admittedly, as the expectant father of triplet boys, I am not above compromising my journalistic integrity for a little extra scratch.1 Alas, that is not the case this time.

The answer, quite simply, is that Early Mountain Vineyards is much, much more than just a winery. But first, a little backstory.

Early Mountain is the labor of love of longtime Virginia residents, Steve and Jean Case. By the end of the aughts, the Case’s were bored. Steve had retired from his job as CEO of America Online and Jean was languishing in the role of your typical kept woman—watching soaps, eating bonbons, fighting malaria, curing brain cancer, and helping to negotiate peace in the Middle East. After a trip visiting wineries around Charlottesville, the two were blown away by the quality of the wine yet baffled at the lack of national attention. They saw enormous potential for Virginia wine and wanted to be a part of it.

In 2011, the Case’s purchased the bankrupt Sweely estate in Madison County and immediately got down to business, gutting what wasn’t working and strengthening what was. The Sweely tasting room, described by many an anonymous source as a cross between Cracker Barrel and Medieval Times (in other words, the most perfect place on earth) was renovated into an airy and inviting space. Out in the vineyard, the Early Mountain team augmented Sweely’s thriving, seven year-old vines of Petit Manseng, Muscat Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Cab Franc, Cab Sauv, Peitit Verdot, Malbec, and Merlot, with fresh plantings of Chardonnay and some additional Cab Franc.

But money alone does not a good winery make, and far too many newcomers underestimate the level of expertise required to make a good product (“Hey, my nephew loves to drink! He can be my head winemaker!). Thankfully the Cases did not succumb to that cliché and hired a team with shiny degrees and loads of on-the-job experience both at home and abroad. For a first showing, Early Mountain’s 2011 vintage is shockingly good. Especially considering what a historically difficult year 2011 was for Virginia wine—imagine learning to walk during an earthquake.

But Early Mountain the winery, is just one facet of the Early Mountain’s business plan. Driven by a mission to “elevate, celebrate, and champion the finest Virginia wine,” their tasting room offers flights, bottles, and by-the-glass pours of wines from all over the Commonwealth. By highlighting their own wines alongside a carefully selected group of Best of Virginia (BOV) partners, Early Mountain offers guests “a virtual Virginia wine tour under one roof.” And this commitment to the cause surpasses mere shout-outs into full-blown social enterprise, as all of Early Mountain’s profits are poured back into the Virginia wine industry.

A sense of serving the ecosystem plays out in the vineyard as well. Early Mountain’s ambitious green initiative shuns herbicides and other caustic “conventional” practices while embracing natural soil amendments, organic sprays, and cover crops to attract beneficial insects.

All this good energy undoubtedly enhances the experience. Yet Early Mountain’s charm would be hard to deny even if the vines were pummeled with Agent Orange and harvested by undocumented Oompa Loompas. With a cool bar, two-way fireplace, and seemingly endless cozy nooks in which to curl up, the main room feels less like a turn-‘em-and-burn-‘em tasting area and more like your living room–well, your living room if you happened to be the former CEO of AOL. Early Mountain’s “Marketplace” offers artisanal specialty foods and a full menu of fantastic snacks, sandwiches, and small plates; take-home bottles from Early Mountain and all their BOV partners; and an encouraging absence of bedazzled t-shirts. And then, of course, there is the incredible selection of local wines, carefully compiled by Early Mountain’s in-house sommelier (yup, they have one of those too).

Order yourself a glass of the Thibuat-Janisson bubbly and pull up a spot by the fire. Now that, my friends, is pleasure you can DEPENDS™ on!

Up next: It’s thick-skinned, resilient and notoriously hard to work with—no wonder it’s from Richmond! The Norton Grape, when our series on Virginia Wine continues.

Want to learn more? Check out all of Virginia's wine regions and AVAs. And if you're looking for something specific you can search through Virginia's 210 wineries.

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  1. In truth, the idea of selling out has come to feel as comfy and familiar as my favorite pair of DEPENDS™ brand adult diapers. DEPENDS™, these ain’t your grammy’s adult diapers! 

Photo courtesy of Early Mountain Vineyards

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Matt Brehony

When he’s not musing on food for his blog, or working as a server/Minister of Propaganda for Secco Wine Bar, or writing editorial pieces for various media outlets, or starring in sketches and commercials, Matt Brehony doesn’t do much of anything.

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