Wine by Bubba

Feb 11, 2019

Virginia’s wine industry has a surprising ally -- a 36-year-old man who’s expertise lies not in farming  or wine-making. 

Ernest William Beasley IV, AKA Bubba (left) with the winemaker at King Vineyard, Mattieu Finot.
Credit Sandy Hausman

For years, wine-lover Thomas Jefferson tried without success to grow grapes.  Today his home state is producing award-winning wine thanks, in part, to one man.

Ernest William Beasley IV – better known as Bubba -- got the nickname as a joke,  but it hasn’t discouraged clients like Matthieu Finot – the winemaker at King Vineyard in Crozet.

“I don’t judge people by their name.  I judge people by their quality and what they’re able to provide.  He delivers,” Finot says.

That’s because Beasley is a geologist – an expert on rock and soil.  For a price, he will study your land using satellite images and advanced sensing technology.

“It all looks pretty uniform, but a lot of times what we find when we map the area is it will be underlain by two or three distinctly different  kinds of soil,” Beasley explains.

Then, he heads into the field, explaining that "you’ve got to dig holes in the ground to know what’s going on for sure.”

He finds that in Virginia, where rain is plentiful, the best soil is studded with rocks, so vines don’t get too much water.

“The presence of rock in the soil – you hear all this fluff about minerality coming from the rocks and the soil.  That’s not how it works.  We care about the rocks in the soil, because it occupies space that the soil cannot occupy, and therefore water cannot occupy, so if you have a higher rock content, you’ve got lower plant-available water, and that works out really well for certain grape varieties.” 

Like Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Viognet – grapes that grow especially well in clay-rich central Virginia. 

“A lot of these reds -- later ripening, finicky varieties that grow in our climate –  they tend to produce higher quality wine if they’re grown on a soil that has lower plant-available water.”

Winemaker Matthieu Finot says that knowledge can save growers money and time.

“It takes a long time to establish a vineyard – a very long time.  I mean you don’t get fruit for almost three years when you plant, so in my opinion doing the proper legwork before you start your vineyard is very important, because if you realize five or ten years down the road that it wasn’t the right varietal, then you’ve lost ten years.”

And that’s time modern winemakers don’t have to waste.

“It took centuries in Burgundy and Bordeaux and all these other places when they didn’t have the modern technology to do it," Finot says. "We don’t have the patience that the monks could have had to experiment for centuries before finding the right place and the right terroir.  If we want to make good wine, we need to have good grapes, and if we want to make good grapes, we need to understand where we are.”

Which brings us to the question of why Jefferson never realized his dream of making wine here.  Some believe the vines he imported from Europe died en route to the new world, but Beasley disagrees.  He notes that Europe had to replace many of its vineyards in the early 20th century, because an insect native to the Americas was accidentally imported.  That bug devours the roots of grape vines, and in the absence of Bubba Beasley, Jefferson did not know that Philoxera was likely dashing his dreams of decent American wine.