Jean and Steve Case walk through Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison.
Photo by Jeff Greenough
The Visionaries: Tech-world entrepreneurs Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, and his wife Jean Case, a former AOL executive, now owners of Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison.
■ The “Aha!” Moment: First sampling Virginia wines in the 1990s, the Cases were not particularly impressed. A few years ago, a wine connoisseur convinced them to give their home state’s best wines another try. The result was a major change of heart—and a determination to help Virginia wines gain the recognition they deserve on an international stage.
■ The Vision: To create a world-class wine at Early Mountain while using the vineyard’s profits to promote Virginia as a world class wine-growing region.
When you’ve made your name as Internet pioneers, partnering with Mother Nature for your next venture can demand a reboot of your expectations—it’s kind of like going from 4G wireless to dial-up modem. Or maybe to semaphore. For Steve and Jean Case, ages 56 and 55, making the transition from dot-com to domaine has been a venture into the capricious realms of weather and soil, leaf and fruit, and the implacable arc of the growing season.
“The nature of the businesses we have been engaged in and the work we have done, is that we are into fast results,” says Jean Case. “But the wine business teaches you patience. Things take time to grow; it takes time to produce excellence, and you can’t speed this process.”
But if the saying in the wine business is true, that the way to make a small fortune in winemaking is to start with a large one, then the Cases are uncommonly well prepared to go the distance. And wielding the clout that comes with the international recognition their name and résumés afford, they have dedicated themselves to serving as world ambassadors for Virginia wine, promoting the bounty of a state the Cases have called home for more than 30 years.
“Virginia wine can hold its own now against any wine region in the world,” says Jean. “We felt that Virginia wine was under-celebrated and under-recognized, so we thought we could bring a megaphone to the region and to its wines.”
Their purchase of Early Mountain in 2011 was a step towards that goal. The Cases have put their focus on the vineyard, says Jean, with a particular emphasis on sustainable and biodynamic practices to create the best possible growing environment for the grapes.
The Cases understand it will take at least several more years for their investments in Early Mountain to bear fruit, both in the wine they are creating and the profits they hope to direct towards their vision. In the meantime, however, the couple, accustomed to the fiercely competitive world of technology, where information is a jealously guarded commodity, has been inspired by the entirely different collegiality among winemakers.
“There is a wonderful spirit in the wine sector,” says Jean, “and we have benefited from a lot of really nice people who have taken us under their wing—not just just in Virginia but in other regions as we have travelled globally—with arms wide open, saying ‘How can we be helpful?’”
As part of their efforts, the Cases want to pay that energy and knowledge forward, so they’ve committed $50,000 to support educational opportunities for Virginia winemakers. Future anticipated profits from the vineyard will be focused, according to Early Mountain’s statement of purpose, on “strengthening Virginia communities and encouraging continued growth, innovation, adaptation and learning in the Virginia wine industry.” In addition, at Early Mountain and beyond, the Cases are promoting the region through a “Best of Virginia” strategy, introducing people not only to their own wines but to those of other vineyards that they believe are among Virginia’s most exceptional. They’ve recently purchased an Airstream trailer to serve as a kind of mobile tasting center, which will allow them to showcase the wines elsewhere as well.
“Virginia has made the most important leap, which is proving that beautiful wines can be produced here,” says Jean. In a blind tasting at the first Virginia Wine Summit, in 2012, a panel of experts selected Virginia wines as superior or equal to 7 out of 8 comparable wines from around the world. Virginia wines perform particularly well in blind tastings, Jean notes, where the wines, and not preconceived notions about the region, speak first.
“It is going to take perseverance. But there were pioneers here long before we arrived, and even in the time we have been engaged, we have seen a real openness developing that we didn’t see at the start,” says Jean. “Producing great wine is a challenge no matter where you are. But there are people who rise to challenges. We live by the motto that everything seems impossible—until it’s done.” EarlyMountain.com
Find All the Visionaries here:
Steve and Jean Case, Early Mountain Vineyards
Brooke Curran, RunningBrooke Fund
Gary LeBlanc, Mercy Chefs
Erik Robinson and Billy Wagner, Second Chance Learning Center