Presidential hopeful (and, to many of us, hope-not) Donald Trump served several Trump-branded wines from Virginia in March at a conference in Jupiter, Florida. Shortly thereafter, President Obama, speaking at a Democratic fundraiser, dissed the stuff. "Has anybody bought that wine?" he asked. "I mean, come on. You know that's like some five-dollar wine. They slap a label on it. They charge you $50 and say it's the greatest wine ever."
Are Trump wines really five-buck muck? No, not really. And they have an interesting story behind them — one that Donald Trump probably won't tell you, because he doesn't seem to have the details down.
I know something about these wines, or at least their predecessors, because I was in on their birth, in a minor way. In 1999, a friend of mine in the PR business asked me if I'd be interested in consulting on a new winery project near Charlottesville, Virginia. I had a small business on the side at the time, advising hotels and resort properties on their food and beverage service, and since I had also written extensively about wine — and the winery being planned was eventually to include a hotel and some restaurants — it didn't seem like too much of a stretch, so I said yes.
The person behind the project was Patricia Kluge, ex-wife of Metromedia founder John Kluge, at one time ranked as the world's richest man. Her divorce settlement is said to have amounted to about $100 million, in addition to several properties — among them an art- and antique-filled 45-room mansion on a couple of hundred acres of prime Albemarle County land. Her collection was amazing; as she and I walked together down a long hallway lined with ancient Greek red-figure vases, on the first of my several visits to her property, she nodded towards the museum-quality artifacts and volunteered, "Yes, they're real" — as if worried that I'd think they were cheap copies.
It turned out, though, that Kluge had ambitions far beyond being a mere chatelaine.
Though born in Iraq to an English father and a half-Iraqi mother, and a resident of London before moving to the U.S., Kluge had developed a great affection for Virginia (which extended to a very close friendship with Douglas Wilder, the state's first black governor), and had an ambitious vision for her portion of it. Believing that tobacco, one of Virginia's most important crops, was on the way out, she wanted (as she told me in one of our first conversations) to make the state "the Champagne capital of America." I pointed out that the premium sparkling wine business in this country was moving away from labeling their output as "Champagne" and also that no one had, till then at least, had much success with sparkling wine in Virginia.
This scarcely mattered to her, and, anyway, her plans went far beyond just something in a bottle. On 1,300 acres of land adjacent to her estate, near Thomas Jefferson's Monticello plantation, she envisioned an "exquisite winery" designed by the classicist architect and interior designer David Easton; a country store and bakery; a raw bar and barbecue restaurant; and a "grand country inn." The plans later expanded to include not one but two wineries (one exclusively for the sparklers), an Asian fusion restaurant and/or a Mongolian hotpot place, an American restaurant, an elegant French restaurant, and not one hotel but two — a modest B&B and a luxury inn. Then there was Vineyard Estates, conceived as a gated community of multi-million-dollar homes on lots of five acres or more surrounded by vineyards and woodlands.
Other than advising her not to go off in too many directions at once (and questioning whether she'd be able to obtain the necessary permits for that kind of development in this rural setting), I couldn't help with most of this. I did, however, put Kluge in touch with good people to consult with about the country store and bakery — and suggested that she bring on Gabriele Rausse as her winemaker. Rausse is a legendary character in the Virginia wine industry, an Italian who first came to the state to work for the massive Italian wine firm Zonin at their Barboursville Winery. He became fascinated by Jefferson's (failed) attempts to grow European wine grapes, and eventually became Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello, where he was able to make the kinds of wines our third president could only dream of. (Rausse still holds that position, and also makes good wine at his own Gabriele Rausse Winery.)
Kluge didn't know much about wine at first — she suggested adding a bit of bourbon to her sparkling wine to make it "more American;" she seemed to think that the liqueur de tirage, the mixture of yeast and sugar (and sometimes wine) added to Champagne-method sparklers to induce secondary fermentation, was liqueur in the sense of a sweet after-dinner drink — but she knew enough to hire people who did, and she learned fast.
Rausse was her first advisor, recommending, among other things, that she plant cabernet franc, which ripens earlier than cabernet sauvignon, for her red wine blend, and later actually blending samples of the first red for her once the vines started producing. Next, she brought on Emmanuel Fourny of the respected Veuve Fourny Champagne house to advise on the sparkling wine. Michel Rolland, the highly influential Bordeaux-based "flying winemaker," joined the enterprise, too, and supervised the planting of new vineyards and the modification of others and told Kluge to harvest later than she had planned. He also convinced her to make some pricey improvements to the winery, including buying expensive French barrels from numerous specific sources. (Robert Mondavi and his sons counseled Kluge for a time, as well.)
My tenuous association with Kluge came to an end, amicably, shortly before she made her first commercial wine — a 2001 New World Red, a Bordeaux-inspired blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and a bit of malbec. I was frankly leery of tasting it when it was released a couple of years later, but it turned out to be nice enough, a soft, well-rounded specimen with plenty of fruit and a ripe berry finish, not bad for first time out. The winery's subsequent vintages, including several whites and sparkling wines as well as reds, were all credible at the least and sometimes actually pretty good — though nothing you'd forsake California for. A nice start, though.
In 2000, Kluge had married former IBM executive William Moses, and he supported and collaborated on her efforts. Unfortunately, Kluge and Moses were so committed to their imagined wine-based empire that they took out huge loans and refinanced their estate (some reports estimate that they poured as much as $200 million into the winery, vineyards, and associated projects). They also found themselves producing more wine than they could sell. When the economy went south, their loans went into default. They were forced to auction off the art and antiques and to sell the mansion and its property (they moved into the single house that had actually been built in Vineyard Estates), and then to unload the winery and vineyards.
Enter consummate deal-maker (just ask him) Donald Trump, who had reportedly been introduced to Kluge and Moses by Kathie Lee Gifford. Though he is a lifelong teetotaler, Trump was apparently attracted by the gorgeous Kluge property and by the financial possibilities of the winery, and in 2011, managed to pick up both the estate and the adjacent wine operation at a fraction of their appraised worth. He reopened the latter six months later as Trump Winery (and later turned the house into a posh B&B).
The following year, Trump gave or sold the winery to his son Eric, who now runs the property. That fact aside, the elder Trump recently told CNN that "I own [the winery] 100 percent. No mortgage. No debt." (The winery's own website states that "Trump Winery…is not owned, managed or affiliated with Donald J. Trump…") But then he also proclaimed that John Kluge — not Patricia — established the winery and planted the vineyards (which, of course, is "one of the greatest vineyards of all time"). Apparently Trump has the same regard for factual accuracy when talking about wine as he does in other matters.
But back to Trump Winery's output being "some five-dollar wine." I hadn't tasted any bottlings from the property for years, until a few weeks ago, when a friend from Virginia brought me three bottles on a trip north. I sampled a 2009 Blanc de Blanc ($28), an all-chardonnay sparkler with some nice acidity and citrusy notes but a hint of a strangely oily character; a 2015 chardonnay ($48) that was pleasant enough though with a peach-and-honey character that recalled sauvignon blanc more than chardonnay; and a 2012 New World Reserve ($26), soft and smooth, with some nice fruit leading to a rather flabby finish.
In all, I'd say the wines were OK, though hardly the best Virginia has to offer. Overall, my feeling was one of disappointment: that Patricia Kluge's quixotic dream, which got off to a promising start — the winery part, at least — hadn't blossomed into a more consistently impressive reality. But "five-dollar wine?" Hardly.