By Jan Mercker

When you’re sipping a viognier at your favorite local winery, you may not be thinking about the bumpy, beautiful and fascinating history of wine in Virginia and Loudoun. But the new head of the Loudoun Museum has immersed himself in four centuries of Virginia wine. The museum’s new exhibit “Vintage Pursuits: Cultivating a Virginia Wine Industry” opens Friday.

For Executive Director Joseph Rizzo, the exhibit is part of a move to take a fresh approach to Loudoun history, with new hooks and unexpected shows, making the museum a more vibrant part of the county’s tourism landscape.

“After spending some time learning about where visitors are coming from and why they’re coming here, a lot of it’s the wineries, the breweries. Agrotourism is really starting to take off,” Rizzo said. “We can really tap into—no pun intended—what’s driving tourism.”

The exhibit follows the history of viticulture and winemaking in Virginia from colonial times with a focus on Loudoun’s wine industry.

“It’s really not about the nuts and bolts of wine growing. We wanted to focus on the social and political contexts surrounding it too,” Rizzo said.

One of the most surprising things for Rizzo as he researched and planned the exhibit was how much of a focus there was on grape growing in colonial times. From the early days, wine and grapes played a significant role in Virginia’s laws, culture and politics, he said. In the 1600s, the colonies were required to grow grapes as England looked to offset its reliance on French wine.

“The depths that colony and the state went to produce wine and make a wine industry is what stood out most to me,” he said.

But it wasn’t an easy path. The native grapes that initially excited colonists didn’t make good wine, and climate and disease hampered early efforts, despite colonial governments bringing in European winemakers.

“Nothing really seemed to work for the first couple hundred years,” Rizzo said. “One thing that stood out to me was simply how much failure there was with Virginia wine. When you look at the history, it’s centuries of failure by and large—for natural reasons, for political reasons, for social reasons.

But in the past half-century, new technology and determined winemakers have finally achieved success in growing European grapes in Virginia’s humid climate, and Loudoun is at the epicenter of the new wave.

For Rizzo’s colleague, Visitor Experience Manager Andrea Ekholm, those strides in the past few decades are the most remarkable thing she learned in preparing the exhibit.

“The ups and downs for the last 400 years and then what’s happened in the last 40 is just insane,” Ekholm said.

In fact, things are moving so fast in Loudoun, the museum team, along with Visit Loudoun, had to quickly redo a map created for the exhibit to include a brand new winery that recently opened near Purcellville ahead of opening day.

And while the exhibit tackles winemaking in Virginia at large, it reserves a special place for Loudoun’s wine industry with a focus on pioneering wineries like Leesburg’s Willowcroft Farm Vineyards and Middleburg’s Chrysalis Vineyards. The exhibit features objects from Willowcroft’s first days in the early ’80s, including a small press and one of the thick, gnarly vines that grew from the vineyard’s first plantings. The show also explores Chrysalis’ successful efforts to revive the Norton grape, a hybrid varietal created in 19th century Virginia that was nearly wiped out during prohibition.

Rizzo’s vision is to get folks who stop at the museum out to wineries and also to bring the exhibit to winery visitors. The museum has duplicated the exhibit’s informational banners to take the show on the road. They’ll be moving to wineries and set up in tasting rooms and cellars, giving wine lovers a little education with their tastings.

Like Virginia’s wine industry the museum has seen its share of ups and downs. Rizzo, a 19th century history specialist, was brought on late in 2018 at the end of a turbulent year in which the museum’s board of trustees fired its former executive director, and the rest of the museum’s staff resigned by the end of that summer. 

But the pair of young museum professionals now at the helm are focused on moving forward and taking advantage of the museum’s prime real estate on Loudoun Street in the heart of downtown Leesburg.

Rizzo is a native of western New York state and earned a doctorate in history from West Virginia University with a focus on Civil War antebellum politics. Before taking over at the museum, he worked at the Drayton Hall historic site in Charleston, SC, while serving as an adjunct professor at College of Charleston. Ekholm, who hails from Gainesville, has a master’s degree in museum studies from George Washington University specializing in collection management and object handling. Her role includes improving visitor experience while also working with volunteers to inventory the museum’s extensive collection and identify which objects are relevant to planned exhibits

“We’re trying to figure out what we have and how that can fit into the stories we want to tell,” Ekholm said.

Meanwhile, Rizzo’s mission is to come up with more out-of-the-box concepts at the downtown museum while working with other local organizations to boost tourism while educating visitors—with or without a glass of wine in their hands.

“We want to be advocates for all there is to do in Loudoun County,” Rizzo said.

“Vintage Pursuits: Cultivating a Virginia Wine Industry” opens to the public Friday, Feb. 14 at 10 a.m. and formally kicks off Thursday, March 5 with a lecture and book signing with Andrew Painter, author of “Virginia Wine: Four Centuries of Change.” Regular admission is free. Tickets for the author talk are $5 for Loudoun Museum members and $10 for non-members. For tickets and information, go to loudounmuseum.org.