For our first Flavor Profile, we have decided to spotlight Mattaponi Winery in Spotsylvania, Virginia. Mattaponi Winery is an incredibly unique winery with its history steeped deep in Native American culture and Virginia history. This family-run winery also has a history of winning both national and international awards for their fruit wines. While most people would find cancer to be a devastating diagnosis, it was a motivating force in the creation of Mattaponi Winery. Met with overwhelming positivity, Janette and her husband established Mattaponi Winery as a flourishing business. Not only do they craft pure fruit wines using innovative techniques, they employ local homeless community members, providing a wage and valuable skills.
As part of our Flavor Profile, Slice & Torte conducted an interview with founder and owner, Janette Evans, and developed four original recipes incorporating Mattaponi wines:
S&T: So tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you get into wine making?
Janette: Well, my husband’s grandfather made wine in his basement as a hobby. And that was back in the day, you know, so…basically I had a job where I traveled a lot and our decision, my husband and my decision, was “hey, why do you get your grandfather’s carboys and the crocks and learn how to make wine and keep busy, so you don’t miss me”. You know, because I was, for my job, I was travelling a lot.
S&T: Oh interesting, so did his grandfather also make fruit based wines?
Janette: He did not. He just made Concord, [which] was a lot of the grape that was grown in the area because it was so hearty. So he [used] whatever grapes he could find, you know…You have to think, this was a good 60 years ago, if not more. I noticed that the property had a lot of Concord for jams. They made preservatives, jams, and jellies. And so they took those same grapes and tried to make the wine. And so, what made us get into it, was at the end of the year that I was doing all the travelling, I found out I had cancer.
S&T: Oh wow! I’m sorry to hear that!
Janette: Yeah, but you know what? It’s part of the reason for taking this business to the level that I took it to, professionally. Virginia has this law, “Right to Hire, Right to Fire.” That law, they fired me, terminated me from my job. And so, while I was going through the chemo, I decided to keep positive and I took my husband’s hobby from the crock and carboys and took it to a [professional] level, to make wine and be able to take it out to the customers. So while I was going through chemo and radiation treatments, I was getting licensed with the federal government, state, and the county. And that’s actually what pushed us too. Because, you know, I didn’t have a job because I was battling cancer. Nobody’s going to hire you if [you’re battling] and so I had to think of a business so I could survive. So I took my husband’s hobby and here we are today! You know, interesting enough, the wines were that good, and I truly felt they were, to take them to a level of professionalism to take them to our customers.
S&T: And so, you all must have a fairly large vineyard. How many acres do you think it is?
Janette: What we do is, we have property where our 51%....by law in Virginia, 51% have to come from berries that you either lease or own. And then 49% from everywhere else. And our 51% is in strawberries. Not grapes. We contract out locally to the other wineries and farmers. What we grow mostly is strawberries. But we originally, our farm was really…what we did to cut our farm and land use, so we didn’t have to pay so many taxes, we were raising Christmas trees. So we’re a Christmas tree farm and got into wine making. And we still have the Christmas trees.
S&T: Oh nice! So lets talk about…first of all actually, I should mention the name of your winery, “Mattaponi”, is a very interesting name with Native American heritage. Where does it come from?
Janette: It actually comes from four rivers near Spotsylvania and behind our winery it's the 'Mat' and the 'Ta' and then about a mile in front of our winery, it's the 'Po' and the 'Ni'. So it's four rivers and then the rivers come together as the Mattaponi River. And it actually goes through the Native American Indian reservation that's in King Williams County. My family and on my father's side, we have Native American Indian. We're part Cherokee.
S&T: Fantastic. Let's talk about the wines themselves. We spoke a little bit at the festival about how you make your fruit forward wines. Can you tell me how's the process for making, say your blackberry wine, different from making that of sort of other people's fruit wines?
Janette: Well first of all we're not fruit flavored. And we don't use concentrate. So therefore, to me, I was surprised to hear that that was unique. Because we actually pull in 100% fruit, the real berries. And then what I do is, the process is that I hire people are people from the homeless shelter, the Thurman Brisben Homeless Shelter. And then they come in, like right now, is harvest time for strawberries. And we have to take every green cap off the strawberry we're bringing in about 20 tons of strawberries. So I'm hiring about 15 to 20 people from the shelter to come out and I'm paying them by flat. However many flats they do, they get paid a certain amount for each flat. [And in all fairness, of course, because some people work faster than the others.] And all they're going to be doing is pulling the green caps off every strawberry and the winemaker will be there, which is my husband, and a couple family members that will be taking the strawberries and smashing them to start the fermentation process.
S&T: So you, in contrast to many other fruit wines, you actually ferment the berries that you use?
Janette: Yes, and that's unique in itself to because there are a lot of wineries that are picking their grapes, and you see, grapes are easier to process because they have the equipment but to do fruit there's nothing out there that actually processes and take the caps off the berries. And then the other thing we have to deal with is when you're filtering the grapes you're filtering out the sediment and all that. But if you think about all the seeds you have to filter out with the strawberries and the blackberries, it's a little bit more...well, it's a lot more expensive to do fruit wines than regular grape wines.
S&T: Right that makes sense. So really, every wine for you is a labor of love because there's so much manual work, it sounds like, that goes into it. So one of my personal favorite wines that you have, I think I'm saying it right, is Makadewàmin, the blackberry wine. So that one in particular, the blackberry wine, what would you pair that with? Savory or sweet?
Janette: Yes, Makadewàmin. The names come from the Virginia Algonquian language. Well, what we did, we actually pair it with, like for instance, I bake Brie. And sometimes I take blackberry preserves and I spread it on the Brie or, for instance, we pair it with pork. If you think about the glaze that you put on pork, it could be anywhere from Concord to blackberry and so we tell people that there are certain meats that would be paired perfect with this type of wine. Like pork or some chicken.
S&T: So my last question, you guys have a pretty extensive set of fruit wines and traditional white and red wines. How do you pick which new wines, because you've had some fruit flavored that are available sometimes and some that are available others, how do you pick which flavored you're going to do next? Who's in charge of that?
Janette: Pretty much me. I try to see what Virginia grows. See, what I'm trying to do, why we do 100% fruit, is back in the days when the settlers came, the Native American Indians, like Pocahontas, who lived in our area... Pocahontas and her family come from the Pamunkey tribe. And 32 tribes came from the Pamunkey tribe because they had to find other sources of food so they separated into 32 tribes. And Mattaponi was one of those tribes, and they got their name from the river. So we decided to go with the rivers that ran through Spotsylvania and the history of that. In addition, back in the day, when the settlers arrived, if you read in the history, a lot of the settlers didn't survive. There were very few that lived, there were a lot that were lost because they didn't know how to grow food or live off the fruit and the nuts of Virginia. So that's where the Native Americans, like Pocahontas, took the time to bring, to John Smith, the fruits and show them how to raise the food and grow it and eat it. So today, we want to present those same fruits of Virginia as a wine.
Janette Evans is the founder and owner of Mattaponi Winery, located at 7530 Morris Road, Spotsylvania, VA. You can learn more about the winery at mattaponiwinery.com. Neither Slice & Torte nor Mattaponi Winery were compensated for this interview. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity.
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