Loudoun Museum wine exhibit

Joseph Rizzo and Andrea Ekholm of the Loudoun Museum collaborated to present the upcoming "Vintage Pursuits" exhibit.

"Vintage Pursuits: Cultivating a Virginia Wine Industry," the Loudoun Museum's newest exhibit, examines the wine industries of Loudoun County and Virginia and will open to the public Feb. 14.

"From the early stages of Europeans in Virginia to the present, it's a really fascinating story of 400-plus years of a lot of struggle and some successes, too," Loudoun Museum Executive Director Joseph Rizzo told the Times-Mirror.

When deciding on a new exhibit, Rizzo and Andrea Ekholm, the museum's visitor experience manager, wanted to examine a topic of particular economic and social importance to Loudoun in recent years. The county's wine and agritourism scene, which draws thousands of visitors and pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy every year, was the clear choice.

"We wanted to kind of touch on some of the industry aspects from a business standpoint, but also from an agricultural standpoint. How does one make wine, and what kind of work goes into it?" Ekholm said.

Rizzo and Ekholm — both of whom admitted they were largely unfamiliar with wine culture prior to the project — researched the topic in-depth with help from an intern and a number of local connoisseurs. "There's a lot of local and living knowledge," Rizzo said.

Andrew A. Painter, author of the 2018 book "Virginia Wine," was particularly helpful when it came to the commonwealth's long winemaking history, the first two centuries of which were mired in trial-and-error.

Per Ekholm, colonists repeatedly failed to make local wine production thrive after they settled in the 1600s. Grapes native to Virginia weren't high in demand, but popular European grapes couldn't grow properly in the new world due to issues with climate and native pests. "The grapes they could grow, they didn't like, and the grapes they liked, they couldn't grow," Ekholm said.

Finally, the industry gained traction in the 19th century with the help of innovators such as Daniel Norton, the creator and cultivator of the Norton grape, which Rizzo said was "critical for rejuvenating wine in Virginia." Loudoun was, as Rizzo puts it, "late to the game," and didn't begin to adopt the trade until the 1980s.

According to Visit Loudoun, the county is now home to over 40 wineries. "It's crazy because it seems so pervasive, and everyone knows this area for [wine] now, but this is really only in the last 40, 50 years," Ekholm said. "It's been a long time coming."

The exhibit occupies a hallway inside the museum and comprises several informational banners and bits of local winemaking memorabilia, including a vine from the first batch planted at Willowcroft Winery in Leesburg. Also on display is a bottle from Middleburg's Chrysalis Vineyards containing the region's first wine to use the Norton grape since the end of Prohibition.

In addition, Rizzo said several of the banners used in the exhibit will be made available to borrow for display at wine-related venues and events in the area, free of charge. "They can be up at wineries, festivals, events too. It's another way for us to reach out to new people and to share that information, to help add to the overall understanding of the industry to people that we can't necessarily reach in the museum," he said.

The Loudoun Museum is at 16 Loudoun St. SW in Leesburg and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free, though guests are encouraged to make donations. The museum will also host a public lecture and book signing by Painter on March 5, tickets for which are available at bit.ly/VirginiaWineLecture. More information on the Loudoun Museum is available at loudounmuseum.org.

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