College of Integrated Science and Engineering

ISAT Project Uncovers Forgotten Vineyards


By: Daniel Vieth

Over the past 40 years, the wine industry in Virginia has rapidly expanded from a small number of family-owned vineyards to more than 230 wineries. Aided by the growing popularity of wine tourism, Virginia is now 5th in the nation for vineyard acreage and grape product. What experts are now finding, however, is that this is not the first time wine has been a staple for Virginia. For instance, Shenandoah National Park holds the remains of one of the largest wineries in Virginia history: Belmont Vineyards. Over the past 4 years, ISAT professor Dr. Carole Nash, assisted by a host of students, the park, and advanced geospatial technologies, have helped uncover the vibrant wine industry that existed in Virginia over 150 years ago.

Left: North Wine Cellar ~1890. Right: Remains of North Wine Cellar Foundation, 2013Belmont Vineyards was founded in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1858 by Marcus Buck, whose wealthy family controlled a large amount of land in the Front Royal area. By the end of the 19th century, the winery had grown to over 120 acres of grapevines, which is large even by today’s standards. Contrary to modern wines grown in Virginia, however, the Belmont Vineyards produced a very different kind of wine. While earlier vineyards like those owned by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson tried and largely failed to grow grapes from French and German stock, the Belmont Vineyards grew sweeter native grapes that are no longer the focus of viticulture in Virginia. Despite the popularity of Belmont’s wines, the vineyard had been almost completely lost to history. That is until Shenandoah National Park wilderness ranger Steve Bair discovered a large growth of grapevines along Dickey Ridge within the park during his time there.

JMU Geographic Science students using survey-grade GPS to map wine cellar foundation.

After talking to locals who mentioned an old winery located in that area, the ranger reached out to Nash, who has been the park’s archeological expert since 1999 thanks to an agreement between the park and JMU. “We had to cut our way through grapevines with machetes just to make our way up the mountain,” said Nash. “When we reached the top, though, we found the structures were all gone.” Only after looking through the archives at the park did she realize that they had located Belmont.

Since that time, Nash and a number of Geographic Science and Anthropology student teams have discovered the ruins of two three-story underground wine cellars, the seven farmsteads associated with the vineyard, an extensive road system, and the over two miles of stone walls that once marked the fields. “We have worked on many projects in the Shenandoah National Park, but this is one of our largest because it incorporates many hundreds of acres of land,” said Nash. “Because of this, the students have done a tremendous amount of research both in the archives and in the field with me.”

2011 LiDAR image of BelmontMuch of the work that has gone into this project has been mapping, without which the teams couldn’t fully understand the vineyard. Some of the technologies that the teams have used for this purpose include highly accurate global positioning systems (GPS) and LiDAR, a sophisticated aerial image technology that sends and scans millions of photons of light from the belly of a plane. “Using LiDAR, we can see the patterns on the ground and the layout of Belmont, even though the place is fully overgrown with vegetation,” Nash continued.

Even though most of the physical structures have been lost, the remains of Belmont are still inundated with what appear to be the original grapevines. “Typically grapevines are pretty thin, but when they aren’t pruned, they will just keep growing and growing,” explained Nash. “We found monstrous vines that are eight inches in diameter!” The fact that these vines are still producing grapes means the team may be able to pinpoint what varieties they are. “We’ve been talking with viticulture expert Dr. Tony Wolf from Virginia Tech about the possibility of gathering samples of these grapes for genetic testing,” Nash continued. “There are a lot of people now who have learned about Belmont and are interested in knowing whether or not any of these old varieties might still be viable.”

Once this extensive project is completed, Nash hopes that both the Shenandoah National Park and modern Virginia wineries will be able to use their findings. “We have the potential for learning techniques from Belmont that are relevant and could assist the wine industry today,” said Nash. The Shenandoah National Park has also expressed interest in developing the area into an interpretive trail for visitors to learn about the Belmont Vineyards and the history of wine in Virginia. “It’s been pretty wild to do this work,” exclaimed Nash, “but nobody has done this kind of research on the history of Virginia wine, and it’s a magnificent story.”

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Published: Monday, March 9, 2015

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2018

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