Keswick Vineyards’ Winemaker Stephen Barnard, began his journey with wine in South Africa. After many opportunities, including studying Enology and Viticulture at Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute, Barnard began an accomplished winemaking career. He has since helped Keswick Vineyards bring home an impressive list of awards over the last 15 years and has recently been appointed the new President of the Monticello Wine Trail

The Start of Stephen Barnard’s Winemaking Career

When did you know winemaking was your calling?

Not sure about a calling, but I do love this industry. I really enjoy all aspects of what is involved. The process for me started in the tasting room of the oldest winery in South Africa [Groot Constantia] and then had the opportunity to be involved in production. I needed to appreciate what goes into producing a bottle of wine, as well as the challenges producers, growers and owners face. At the end of the day, I just ferment grapes and put it into a bottle. But, I get to do it at a special place surrounded by an incredible team and with colleagues who are supportive and passionate. They force me to raise my game.

What was it about your first job in Cape Town, South Africa, that hooked you onto viticulture?

The people—the fact that people come together and enjoy this product that you work so hard in creating. At the end of the day, that is what it is all about … sharing and creating memories over a bottle of wine. I love the science and the art that goes into it, but it is who you share the wine with that is important.

What experiences led you to Keswick Vineyards?

I wanted to travel and experience something different. Virginia was such a young industry in 2002 when I came over, and Keswick had never made wine before. That was a blank canvas, so to speak, to work with. I intended to be here a year or two, and it has turned into 16 wonderful years. I get to work in an industry that, in my opinion, is making world-class wines.

Keswick Vineyards' Winemaker Stephen Barnard
Keswick Vineyards, © Image by Wine & Country Life

The Winemaking Process at Keswick Vineyards

How does your philosophy of minimal intervention come into play in the winemaking process?

It all comes down to reflecting in a glass how the grapes were grown, not how the wines were made. If we get that part right, harvesting grapes that give us the opportunity to make unique wines, then we try not to overdo it. For us, that means fermentation using natural yeasts. We put very little new oak on the wines and bottle wines un-fined and un-filtered. We need to promote our terroir [the soil, elevation, exposure], the very thing that makes this property so special.

What is your favorite part of the job?

The challenge of creating a consistent product despite all the challenges Mother Nature throws at you. Your job is not stagnant at all, but rather it’s always evolving and allows you to experiment and be creative.

“I love the entrepreneurial spirit of people who get into wine and the love that goes into it. I think Mr. Jefferson would be quite proud at the quality of wine being produced in Virginia at the moment.”
~ Winemaker Stephen Barnard

Which wine is your favorite to make?

I really enjoy the challenge of making Cabernet Franc in Virginia and Cabernet Sauvignon too. Cabernet Franc for the pure fact that you really need to be particular in the vineyard. And Cabernet Sauvignon since everyone says you cannot really grow it and make a world-class wine.

How is Virginia soil different than other areas you have planted grapes in?

We deal with a lot of clay, and along with Virginia’s abundant rainfall, it makes growing grapes in that soil particularly challenging.

Enjoying Virginia Wines with Keswick Vineyards

You’ve been known to identify Virginia as a “vintage state.” What leads you to identify it as such?

Simply, the quality of wine is determined by the quality of the grapes, which are affected by the growing season and year. Despite the best efforts of the winemaker, the best wines will always come from the best vintages in my opinion. Virginia’s climate is so variable, and as such, the wines will reflect that. Take 2010, when we had record heat and then drought followed by 2011 where we had 26 consecutive days of rain. The wines will inherently be different due to this climatic stress.

What do you feel personally ties you to Jefferson?

I love the entrepreneurial spirit of people who get into wine and the love that goes into it. I think Mr. Jefferson would be quite proud at the quality of wine being produced in Virginia at the moment. And made by people who are passionate and hell bent in promoting Virginia as a world-class wine producing and destination state.

What bottle of local wine is open in your kitchen right now?

King Family Vineyards Meritage, RdV Vineyards Rendezvous, Linden Vineyards Hardscrabble and Early Mountain Vineyards Eluvium, comparing them to our Bordeaux blend Heritage. Our colleagues keep raising the bar, so it’s great to see how our wines stack up against these benchmarks.

Keswick Vineyards gold cup winning wine, © Image by Wine & Country Life
Keswick Vineyards, Image by © RL Johnson for Wine & Country Life
Keswick Vineyards photographed by RL Johnson
Keswick Vineyards, © Image by Wine & Country Life
Keswick Vineyards wine, © Image by Wine & Country Life
Keswick Vineyards, Image by © RL Johnson for Wine & Country Life

What do you feel adds to the success of a wine, such as with the 2016 Cabernet Franc Estate Reserve that won a gold medal in the 2018 Governor’s Cup?

This wine is a reflection of a lot of things that went right in the vineyard throughout the year, as well as the dedication of a fantastic group of people that had a hand in growing and making this wine. All we can do is make the best wine we can, ultimately, we have to be proud of our efforts and then present that wine to the public. I am so thrilled for all of us at Keswick Vineyards that this wine was enjoyed and appreciated.

In closing, do you have a new wine/project on the horizon?

We have a few new wines that we are particularly excited about. Our vineyards have expanded; we now have various blocks of grapes that allow us to make three–four bottlings of Cabernet Franc for example. Each wine is different for a myriad of reasons, and we have the opportunity to create various wines and learn exactly how site, clone and rootstock affect the wine. 

You can find winemaker Stephen Barnard at Keswick Vineyards during most days, where you can stop by their tasting room from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and experience the luxury of their wines. Read more about the successes of Keswick Vineyards and all of the vineyards in and around the Monticello Wine Trail in our Monticello Wine Cup Competition and Virginia Governor’s Cup articles. ~

MADISON STANLEY has a degree in media studies from UVA and enjoys working in the community she fell in love with studying here.

Virginia Wine & Country celebrates elevated living in Virginia Wine Country. Virginia Wine & Country Life is a semi-annual luxury print magazine with a full digital presence. The Virginia Wine & Country Gold Book is an annual guide to the top award-winning wines, wineries and experiences in Virginia Wine Country. The annual Virginia Wine & Country Wedding Planner is an art book of elegant Virginia weddings. Virginia Wine & Country tells the stories of Virginia wineries, the farm-to-table movement, luxury travel, entertaining, art and the elegant country lifestyle. Ivy Life & Style Media also provides branding, web design and PR services for the wine industry.