How do you take a terrain like Virginia, with a climate that is humid and muggy (and thanks to climate change there is now a monsoon season) in the summer and unpredictably cold in the winters, and make wine that competes with California and France?
Or maybe that is the wrong question.
I had the opportunity on Sunday, July 14, 2019 to sit with Jason Murray for about an hour and a half to talk about wine, his philosophy and his goals for Arterra. Jason is one of the most easy-going, down-to-earth winemakers I’ve met, and he loves to talk about wine, terroir, and what he is after. I find his winemaking philosophy ties into his approach to life, and he really is living his values. I originally wrote this as a longer narrative to tell the bigger story of their approach, but felt that was better saved for a different venue. Because I didn’t record the whole interview, the answers are paraphrased and summarized from my taking notes so I am giving you the gist of his responses, but not verbatim quotes.
How did you get your start in winemaking?
Jason followed an evolutionary process, rather than having an “aha” moment when he decided this was his passion. He grew up in an agricultural family and some of his first jobs were in farming and nursery work as a teen. In college, he started out pre-vet and eventually switched to horticulture, doing work on the impact of irrigation (and low-water stress) on crop growth. One of his first full-time jobs was as a commercial horticulturist for Loudoun, right at the time wineries were booming in Loudoun. Since his future in-laws were very interested in wine, he got to know a lot about wine. He eventually took a position as a grape grower for a winery starting up in Markham, started the vineyards, and when they were established, hired staff to work on those while he used industry contacts to learn winemaking.
Do you have a specific philosophy in winemaking?
Jason has also evolved in this area. At first he took advice from others in the area making wine, and the trend was to make wine that would make Virginia grapes taste exactly like Napa or Bordeaux. So he did the same things with the grapes coming out of these up and coming vineyards he’d established. Jason notes that because of his background in farming he could see that this wasn’t a true expression of the fruit growing on this land in this climate, and he was researching top chateaus who were using traditional approaches that were foregone in the era of mass production through mechanized means. So he began experimenting with what he was learning, trying native yeast fermentation and neutral oak. At this time, wife and co-owner of Arterra Sandy was experiencing food sensitivities and was examining their diets to look for natural ways to resolve these issues, eliminating chemicals and processed foods. So his philosophy evolved into a place where it really became about not adding external factors (chemicals, additives, commercial yeast, new oak, etc) but rather letting native and ambient yeast express the true nature of the fruit in this terroir. Jason has also been examining which grapes are best suited to this terroir, focusing on those that grow well given our wet, hot summers and regular cold snaps in the winter to focus on the grape varietals that thrive here and don’t require lots of intervention and additives to cover any faults in the grapes that may not have ripened well or have lower than expected flavor concentration. He notes that winemakers are finally acknowledging that cabernet sauvignon, while commercially desirable, really isn’t suited to Virginia’s cold winters and wet summers, and many are considering ripping it out now, in favor of grapes that do thrive in this specific climate. Making wines that taste like Napa and Bordeaux from Virginia costs a lot of money, as they grapes don’t grow well here and require so much intervention to taste like those wines. So maybe it’s not about producing wines exactly like the wines in the grocery store and winning awards, but rather, it is determining what works best here and expressing that fully and completely.
Wabi Sabi defines their winemaking and art. Nature does it best, imperfections that occur in nature are better because they are real. His philosophy can be summed as full, clean expression of these grapes in this terroir – nothing added, nothing covered up.
What wines are you making that exemplify this philosophy?
Jason lists four wines that really showcase this style. He strongly feels his tannat, petit verdot and roussanne really showcase his low-intervention philosophy. These grapes grow well in our climate and when they are mature, the vines stop taking in water and start drying the grapes and concentrating flavors. As long as the grower is diligent about monitoring for rot, these grapes can withstand the effects of climate change in this space. The red grapes pack a lot of flavor and make very rich wine and the roussanne makes a wine that has lots of layers to it. He also feels Chardonnay expresses his philosophy well, because many try to make Chardonnay using a California Chardonnay “formula” but Virginia can produce the wine in a way that is crisper and expresses the fruit in a unique style.
What was the first wine you made that you liked, and why?
The first that really showed potential were the first tannat fermentations, because they showed the potential of this grape in Virginia. This work began his path toward darker, richer red wines made from grapes better suited to our unique terroir.
Aside from your own wine, what are you drinking?
Jason focuses on wines that are aligned with his winemaking and life philosophy – naturally produced, low-intervention wines. He is currently enjoying Saperavi and RKatsitelli from producers in Georgia, using ancient techniques like qveri fermenting and aging, and looking for wines that he can bring into his classes and cellar seminars at the winery that showcase natural winemaking and terroir. Interestingly, when you follow his twitter and instagram feeds, you can see that he is going to places such as Dio wine bar in DC that have a large clean wine selection and he has done a seminar on clean wines with them. He’s making the type of wine he likes to drink.
What do you want people to experience when they come to Arterra, and what do you want them to know about your winery?
Jason wants people to know they’re here – as people seek clean wine and clean food, Arterra can give them that. They’re not looking to get big and grow volume, but stay at a level where they can have their hands in the winemaking work. They’re not trying to market to you or use gimmicks to get customers into a club. They want people to come and try something they haven’t tried, and hopefully they will like it. Jason wants to connect with you in this place where you don’t have to have your defenses up because someone is trying to trick you or market to you – you can relax and enjoy and try something new and connect. Jason mentioned “forest-bathing” as an essential for life – and with an outdoor seating area surrounded by woods, you can get in plenty of forest-bathing to restore your soul. He wants people to know that the people here are the ones working with the wine and creating this laid back experience for you. Arterra cares about the wine and that comes through in their approach and the experience you will have here.
Jason’s Big Quote:
I’d rather drink a wine that doesn’t fit the definition of perfection. Maybe you won’t want to drink it again – but don’t you want to have the experience of drinking something unique?
I can’t not write about Wabi Sabi. The words are on the tasting room wall, and the approach summarizes their philosophy. According to Wikipedia, Wabi Sabi is:
In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”
What Arterra is doing, with wine and art (really expressing the Art of the Land, Arterra), is expressing what nature is producing and giving us, rather than striving for an external standard of beauty. I liken it to movements in art and architecture that strive to move away from the traditional standards of perfection toward a different expression that is authentic, and fits in the place it is in, rather than looking like something we saw somewhere else and trying to be exactly the same. It’s the wine we can make in Virginia, in this climate, at this time, with these grapes, in this season.
I felt that the time we spent talking really helped encapsulate Jason’s approach and philosophy. The overall Arterra experience is going to expand, as they are adding a classroom for the art part of the experience – a studio where co-owner Sandy will make her own pottery and teach her classes, another way to connect with the land, the people, the wine at Arterra. I chose them as my first interview because Arterra is currently one of my favorite wineries at this time, because of this philosophy and approach, and because the wine is so good, and the experience is always relaxing. It’s off the beaten path, but well worth your day. Even in these heat waves, you can sit outside under an umbrella or in the shade of the trees and enjoy your wine, a picnic, and soak in the forest air.