Early in spring I had the the opportunity to take a beautiful drive up toward Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to visit with Scott Elliff, the proprietor and passion behind DuCard Vineyards. This boutique winery sits nestled among the mountains in a picturesque setting, where it specializes in small-batch, sustainably focused wine production. I had the chance to walk the vineyard while tasting and talking wine, then later sit down to discuss what drove Scott to go beyond enjoying a glass now and again to jumping in with both feet to start a full-blown vineyard.
Tim Vidra and Scott Elliff
Coming from a corporate background in business consulting, Scott will smile telling you that what once started as a healthy interest in wine and curiosity about growing grapes for wine production turned into a successful hobby for what he imagined retirement might look like. That same smile widens as he goes on to share just how far the vineyard has come, growing into one of Virginia’s two greenest wineries and producing grapes early on for a wine, under another label, that actually won the Virginia Governors Cup as best wine in the state. With that success, Scott is proud to keep production small, focusing on quality — his wines are available to those who come visit the winery and in limited batches for sale online...and that's about it.
What started out as a passion for growing grapes has grown into some challenges. Although rewarding, there are several aspects to wine production in this format one may not realize — from agriculture to manufacturing to retail to distribution to alcohol beverage control laws to event planning at the vineyard. There are many, many hats he must wear. As a nod to his past in business, Scott has cultivated a talented family of staff, and recognizes their expertise in areas where he's learning more every day.
Scott starting this growing season with 15-year-old vines. When talking sustainability, it seems like a simple concept of going back to basics — but focusing on doing things against the grain is harder than it appears when working in nature. A healthy swarm of pests or single storm can take out an entire season's crop, so creativity and trial and error have come into play over the years to develop best practices – all of which Scott is open to sharing, going so far as to hold regular classes on the vineyard where interested or budding growers can adopt a row of vines while learning the ins and outs of everything that goes into maintaining a vineyard.
Knowing Virginia is near and dear, it was interesting to hear what regions he looks toward for inspiration. While discussing the global landscape of vineyards, Scott calls out those places that are taking risks and making innovations in best sustainable practices to help lead the way for others, namely regions like Oregon and even a local nod to Jim Law of Linden Vineyards. Also inspiring — Chateau Montelena, the trailblazer that broke the mold for California wineries in the early 1970s. While passionate about those standouts, he also states how one cannot have a winery without ignoring stalwarts such as Sonoma or Bordeaux — the practices and resulting quality from these regions cannot be ignored.
Scott points to the book Judgement of Paris as one for any enophile to see. He traces similarities to the competition in which DuCard's 2010 Signature Viognier was representing the Commonwealth of Virginia up against the 2010 Condrieu from E. Guigal Vineyards. One of the 4 judges turned out to be none other than Steve Spurrier (from the film), who actually set up that historic Paris tasting of 1976. Scott jokingly referred to this as "Virginia vs. the world," and his wine faired quite well, finishing neck and neck in a blind tasting with only the vineyard's fourth vintage.
Beyond DuCard's own work, Scott raises a glass to Oregon and California Pinot Noir, mainly because it's a variety he wishes he could produce in the Virginia climate. Unfortunately, with 90- to 95-degree days in the summer and temperatures only cooling sometimes to 65 degrees, the climate just does not suit. With that, Scott takes the opportunity to try and enjoy other wines whenever he dines out, something he notes as important for providing perspective.
To round out our chat, being the food guy I am, I couldn't resist asking Scott's take on what the perfect meal might be if paired with each of the wines we'd tasted throughout the morning. He leaned back quickly, swirling his glass and quickly built out the following menu — "with our Voigner, I would serve seared scallops; for our Petit Verdot, a lamb roast with pine nuts; and for dessert, anything chocolate pairs well with our C'est Trop," a Port-style wine.
That's a meal I'd indulge in any day, and it's one you'll be inspired to produce if you visit this top-notch Virginia winery. Learn more about DuCard vineyards and how to plan a visit here.