To hear the First Lady of Virginia, Suzanne S. Youngkin, tell it, there is no better day than one centered around both wine and horses!
We believe her. Her enthusiasm is infectious. She loves people and they love her back. But despite the fact that this one, spectacular, Fall day fills her face with pure joy, it came with a schedule that would shatter the stamina of most women.
The day began in Arlington touring the new Google headquarters. She then dropped by Sprout Therapeutic Riding in Aldie to present a $1,000 check to the non-profit to celebrate her inaugural “Spirit of the Horse” award (https://citylifestyle.com/washington-dc/articles/life-and-culture/the-youngkins). The grant came at the behest of award winner Dorothy “Punkin” Lee who designated it her charity of choice. (For more on Sprout, watch a great video here: https://sproutcenter.org/.)
She then headed to Barboursville Vineyards (https://www.bbvwine.com/) in Orange County to release a special Virginia red wine with her own branding for charity. The latter was the capstone of what was likely a 15-hour day, whether or not it began at the family farm in Great Falls. Yet, it was a day that in many ways embodied precisely what matters to her, and the priorities that called her husband Governor Glenn Youngkin and herself to public service.
She freely admits she had other plans. The Youngkins moved to Great Falls to try to preserve some of NoVa’s vanishing horse country in 1998, establishing Mane Manor. In 2018 when their neighbors at Normandy Farm chose to sell after boarding horses for 30 years, the Youngkins acquired it with the aim of creating an equestrian facility and agricultural preserve. Proudly Suzanne said they added their first rescue colt to keep one of their new babies company.
She says she would have loved to spend her time upgrading the facilities and raising and training horses in dressage. “We were able to do that improvement during COVID because construction was considered essential work.... And then in 2021 my husband did this crazy thing.”
She explains, “When you have established a life with your partner and you feel like you're really doing a lot of good work, it feels like you're in your zone, you know?... Then, all of a sudden, your husband looks at you and says, ‘I'm really being called into public service; this is what I think God's calling me to do.’ And it strikes you as so abnormal, so extraordinary. There were times where he was running for office that I was really trying to find my way. I was trying to pick apart my inherent fear. It was mainly fear. But it was also a sense of disbelief, really, that we were going through this.”
“Where I am today is that I'm viewing what we're doing as very missional. That is the only way I can sustain the level of affinity and energy for what we're being called into right now,” she added. She’s often burdened for those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or who struggle with food or housing insecurity or in caring for their elders and the welfare of their communities. She is particularly concerned with what she senses as the anxiety felt by today’s young people. “I have to look up and say, I've been richly blessed. I'm healthy. I have resources of a loving family, a loving spouse. I'm being called to play a bigger role in trying to problem-solve and trying to comfort people who need help and that is giving us a lot of strength -- just to know that this is a season of life.”
“I think we have to look at institutions like Sprout to draw hope,” she said, “that at our core we do love one another.” Her approach to encouraging the work of non-profits is to “cast light” with her Spirit of Virginia Awards (https://www.firstlady.virginia.gov/spirit-of-virginia-award/) to those who are making a positive difference.
“Nonprofits are here, in our churches, in our municipalities, and they serve as a reminder that there are those entities and those human beings that do care and are out there to serve. I believe Matthew 5:16 which says, ‘Cast your light before others so that they may see your good works and adore your Father in heaven.’ It’s not that they see our good works, so that everyone gets excited about what we're doing as humans. They're seeing the good works that humans are doing so that they can have hope that there is this great God who loves them and is sending his foot soldiers there to serve them and help them.... By being here today, I hope that people will feel a tingling in their heart to potentially get involved in an animal therapy program wherever they are. Involvement can be very healing and can do a lot to dissipate the anxiety about whether there's a community that cares.”
“Glenn and I both came from modest backgrounds,” she relates. A four-year basketball scholarship was Glenn’s key to a college degree. “We have always tried from our very young adulthood to do the equivalent of tithing, like we're called to in the Bible. We weren't always perfect. But we tried earnestly and I really think that served as encouragement to us. It has always felt like we've gotten more out of it than we've given.... We have seen that in spades in our lifetime.”
As Glenn’s career prospered, the couple’s philosophy of giving evolved into one that demanded both their time and treasure. Suzanne says, “Very rarely do we essentially just write a check to an organization. One of our criteria is that we have quarterly or bi-annual meetings with them to understand where the monies are being spent.... The other thing we've done is that we have tried to really invest heavily in our local community. So, having lived in Northern Virginia and raised our family in Northern Virginia, the disproportionate amount of gifting that we've done has been in the greater DMV area, because we just felt like we could make more impact.”
Both time and treasure helped establish the Holy Trinity Church the family founded initially in their basement and the Meadowkirk Christian Retreat Center that it operates in Middleburg. The Youngkins donated the property for both and Suzanne is director emeritus of the latter. “One area of giving that we feel is very important is where we feel like we are shepherding people's hearts and potentially drawing them more into communion in God,” she explains.
Beyond that, most of her family’s giving has been dedicated to: “things that we believe will make catalytic change in the lives of either God's children or God's creatures.” Rather than fund bricks and mortar, for example, they incline toward projects that touch people or animals. One project is Virginia Tech’s Equine Medical Center where they’ve funded the Youngkin Equine Soundness Clinic.
The clinic is designed to study the health of horses, “but more importantly for preventative maintenance for equine athletes,” Suzanne says. Soon she hopes to dedicate a practice focused on hoof health named for a longtime ferrier in Clarke County, Paul Goodness.
“Horses have always been embedded in the fabric of the Commonwealth, in who we are as people since our founding so it’s critically important that we continue and celebrate those traditions that make Virginia unique,” she says. Both Youngkins planned to attend the Virginia Gold Cup in late October and to make it a platform for inviting businesses to consider relocating to the state. “We're doing that because we think it's so important that they understand the culture and the norms here in Virginia. The Gold Cup is a great way to show the heart of Virginians; it's emblematic of who we are as a people and how we take care of our environment and the creatures that make it so special.”
That also helps to explain the Youngkins’ affinity for Virginia agriculture and why Suzanne is an enthusiastic booster of Virginia wine. Suzanne spent the second half of her day unveiling a wine collaboration with Luca Paschina, Barboursville Vineyard’s winemaker, called Cornus Virginicus. “What better time than Wine Month to toast Virginia’s finest?” Suzanne said.
She told us the first ever bottling of a First Lady’s wine originally was suggested by Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Matthew Lohr in January. He then tapped the Virginia Wine Board to help Suzanne choose one of several blends proposed by Barboursville’s winemaker in May. Selected by general acclaim, the blend was quickly bottled and released in time Virginia’s 34th annual wine month.
Cornus Virginicus, Latin for the Virginia Dogwood, is 57% Merlot, 28.5% Cabernet Franc and 14.5% Petit Verdot. Its rich tannins mean that the wine, if enjoyed during this holiday season, should be decanted first and properly aerated. Suzanne also selected the Dogwood for her state seal, so the whole package is a tribute to “Virginia’s tradition, strength and beauty and represents renewal, tradition, family and growth,” Barboursville made just 149 cases and will donate sales of $10,000 to the Virginia FFA and 4-H programs. Beaming officers of both groups were on site to watch the First Lady launch the vintage and laud them as “the future of the Commonwealth.”
Before lifting a glass to toast them, she added, “You know Jesus's very first miracle was turning water to wine. I feel like this is a sacred environment on so many levels. I am absolutely so distinctly honored to be here with you. My husband says all the time, we want Virginia to be the best place to live, work, raise a family and I would say drink a glass of wine.”
In a night full of superlatives, Secretary Lohr noted that Luca has been named one of the 20 most admired winemakers in North America, adding that he’s won the governor’s cup for winemaker of the year five times, more than any other Virginian.
Luca quipped that Barboursville came to Virginia when there were just two other wineries in the state, “and they weren’t very good.” While he says he was lucky to be born the son of a winemaker and to love what he does, “That doesn’t mean that all sons and daughters of winemakers will have to follow in their footsteps.... Find what your passion is. Go strong, believe in it.” If that dream in in agriculture, “it one of the most beautiful, rewarding things you can do.”
Three more vineyards will be tapped for a similar bottling for each of the next three years of the Youngkins’ term, Secretary Lohr promised.
This month, look for the Governor’s Mansion to be filled to the brim with youth, veterans, Gold Star families, non-profits and museum partners. The Youngkins will draw strength from time alone with their own family at home in Great Falls Christmas weekend.
Hopefully we won’t spoil the surprise; most of her friends will be receiving a very special bottle of wine.