Patricia Kluge Talks Wine

Former winery owner breaks silence in exclusive interview with Wines & Vines

by Jane Firstenfeld
patricia kluge
Patricia Kluge (second from left) listens with Eric Trump (left) and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (right) as Donald Trump speaks about the Trump Vineyard Estate in 2011. Photo by Linda Jones McKee
Charlottesville, Va.—Patricia Kluge, who founded and lost one of Virginia’s largest and most prestigious wineries, has endured a couple of rough years. The bank foreclosed on Kluge Vineyards in December 2010 and sold off her carefully nurtured wines at bargain bin prices. The following year, she and her husband, attorney William Moses, declared bankruptcy. Their palatial home and furnishings hit the auction block.

Last year, Donald “no introduction needed” Trump purchased the winery from the bank, bragging he’d got it at a bargain $6.2 million, which included 776 acres (200-plus planted to vinifera vines) and a winery equipped with high-end gear specified by Kluge’s famed consultant Michel Rolland.

Kluge and Moses accepted a contract to help during the transition to Trump Vineyard Estate, and moved into a still-luxurious rental home on the property. The contract expired this summer, prompting gleeful media tweaks, e.g.: “Trump to Kluge: You’re Fired.”

Throughout the turmoil, Kluge maintained a dignified restraint. No stranger to publicity, the former New York socialite once widely considered “the world’s richest divorcée” graciously appeared with Trump and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell at the winery relaunch in October 2011.

At the time, she was briefly quoted in The New York Times, saying, “No one should feel sorry for us. I have a great family, a wonderful marriage and loving children and friends. We are not looking at this bankruptcy as if our life has ended. We see this as an opportunity to recreate ourselves.”

When her contract with Trump expired in June, she told the Washington Post, “I will be forever grateful to Donald for saving the winery. There is no rift. The deal was a one-year contract with the notion of getting the winery back on track.”

Let’s talk about wine
Throughout the debacle, Kluge never addressed her wine industry colleagues nor the wine press. Last week, from the vineyard home in Albermarle County, Va., she spoke with Wines & Vines about her winegrowing past and plans for the future.

Established in 1999, Kluge Vineyard Estate was initially planted in the typical Virginia density of 600 to 900 vines per acre. Preparing to release her first vintage of the winery’s flagship New World Red blend in 2001, Kluge retained globetrotting consultant Michael Rolland, of “Mondovino” notoriety.

As Dave McIntyre reported for Wines & Vines in March 2007, Kluge began replanting the vineyards with the high-density, low-yield designs favored by Rolland.

“At Rolland's urging, subsequent vineyards were planted at 1,875 vines per acre, with the vines trained lower to the ground, as is more typical in Bordeaux. These bore their first fruit in 2006.…The 2007 plantings will increase that density to 2,500 vines, and in 2011, the winery intends to replant the initial vineyards at a density of 3,500 vines per acre,” McIntyre wrote.

Kluge wines began to achieve international recognition, and the winery is now among the largest of 211 in Virginia, producing some 15,000 cases annually that retail for an average $28 per bottle, according to WinesVinesDATA.

Was hiring a multi-national, movie star winemaker Kluge’s downfall? Not al all, she said. “I very much stand by the decision. Under his tutelage, we made elegant, world-class red wines, and the first Virginia classic saignée rosé.”

In addition to replanting vineyards, Rolland recommended a dazzling list of expensive winemaking upgrades. “We weren’t building a backyard winery,” Kluge said.

“Our intention was to build a world-class winery with the kind of equipment, lab and cellar to support it.” She pointed out that sophisticated wine labs were not available in Virginia, and that Rolland insisted on barrels sourced from seven different cooperages.

“You don’t work with Michel Rolland and an investment banker like Rothschild and not do it right. It was a large endeavor, with intelligent people who knew what they were doing,” Kluge said. “It’s not like a woman who buys more shoes than she can ever wear.”

She remains a Rolland booster. “Anyone who knows him personally and professionally knows he’s a wine genius,” she said. “He’s got a great sense of humor, is loyal and honest. He took great winemaking out of France and gave it to the world.” She noted that Rolland recently was hired by the Chinese government to produce national wines there. “Great wine does not happen by just wishing it,” she said.

Kluge reserved her only harsh comments for the bank that sold off the inventory of bottled Kluge wines on the cheap. “As for the bank treating our wine as if it were Two-Buck Chuck, I was sad for the bank. (They) confirmed they didn’t know what they really had. I was dealing with ignoramuses,” she said.

Trump took over the stock in barrels and tanks. “It’s still the same wine. Trump will put his label on it. It’s their winery, they can do what they want,” she acknowledged.

Kluge said that her wine-producing tenure led to her discovery that Virginia—and Albermarle County in particular—also can deliver topflight sparkling white wines using the traditional Champagne grapes. “Virginia is an East Coast Chardonnay contender,” she said, and “Albermarle is the epicenter of where the industry is going.''

Was marketing the problem?
Prior to the bank takeover, according to Kluge, the wines had distribution in 20 states, and 75% of national media that wrote about Virginia wine recognized Kluge Estate. She acknowledged the industry’s relatively recent adoption of consumer-direct wine sales as “the most profitable” channel and said that in Virginia, “Now everybody’s contending for the wedding business.”

Was the demise of Kluge Estate perhaps a matter of too much too soon? Kluge lauded France’s style of marketing. With winemaking, she said, “It’s the marketing, stupid. If you don’t face it, you may get away with it in year one. But you need consistent, true marketing, not fake marketing, and no one knows that better than the French. They’ve been at it for hundreds of years. They’ve got a head-start on everyone.” She also cited the sudden, spectacular success of Grey Goose vodka. “They’re in front of the consumer all the time.”

She denied that the Kluge Estate plan for residential development was responsible for its crash, although similarly ambitious winery/residential projects notoriously soured during the recession.

“We actually did very well with the real estate development,” she said. “Our cost was $1 million; we sold 25% (of the property) for $10 million.” The developer, however, went bankrupt, according to Kluge.

Farm girl in New York
“Both sides of my family owned farms and estates for 800 years,” Kluge said. “I come by farming honestly.” What’s at stake when planting a vineyard? “It’s farming, stupid.”

She said, “Of course, I will always be in the wine industry.” At the moment, “I’m studying more sustainable farming that will be impactful for viticulture. I’m developing products for urban farming. We have to farm in a different way.”

She and Moses are establishing a new base in New York and plan to divide their time between 60% there and the remaining 40% in Virginia.

“I feel we put Virginia on the map in terms of wine,” she said. She and her “sweetheart,” Moses, are “very happy, having lots of laughs” and looking forward to working on new projects.

A remnant of the grande dame emerged, however, when Kluge complained of the ongoing record heat in Virginia. The air conditioning in her 6,000-foot home had failed, and repairs weren’t swift to arrive.

“My son suggested we buy back our castle and go back to Scotland,” she said.

Posted on 08.15.2012 - 13:50:00 PST
It's a simple question: where did the money go? So many other businesses left cleaning up the Kluge mess. The only way Patricia Kluge put Virginia on the map in the wine industry is as the butt of jokes.