Have I really just finished my 13th harvest in Virginia? Indeed I have, and maybe now would be a good time to reflect on the decision to come to the Old Dominion and where the future lies for the 5th largest wine-producing state in America.
As a young winemaker in South Africa, having just finished harvesting with Flagstone Winery I was afforded the incredible opportunity to come to the States to make wine. I was offered a job at one of the largest wine-producing estates in Napa Valley, arguably one of the most recognized wine-producing areas in the world. Producing incredible Cabernet & Chardonnay and many other fine wines’ this would have been a wonderful learning experience. yet I turned it down to come to a lesser known area on the other side of the country, the Monticello A.V.A in Virginia. It all came down to opportunities and being exposed to new things. Who would turn down the opportunity to work for a brand new winery, one that had not yet made a drop of wine. To be exposed to varietals that I had never had the opportunity to work with such as Viognier, Chambourcin, Touriga Nacionale and Norton [my love/hate grape] was far more intriguing. At that point the intention was to only be here for a year or so and head elsewhere, ultimately ending up back in South Africa making wine.
“Virginia, huh?” said my father. Yup VIRGINIA. “Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah Valley, Monticello, UVA, the canoe capitol of the world, but the wine is kind of crappy” said someone familiar with the area. Okay he did not say crappy, he used a much more colorful word to describe the wines, one that does not leave much to the imagination. “The wine is that good?” I replied sarcastically, sounds like a challenge and the perfect opportunity.
Thomas Jefferson never produced a single bottle of wine from his Monticello vineyards and neither did George Washington at Mount Vernon, yet that pioneering spirit endures today in our wine making community, for walls are to be broken down and challenges met. Virginia might in many ways be one of the most challenging grape and wine-producing areas, but that did not stop Mr Zonin from establishing Barboursville Vineyards in 1976, hiring one of the most iconic figures in our wine industry, Gabrielle Rausse, to plant vineyards. If memory serves me correctly, Virginia had 6 already established wineries by 1970, 46 by 1995, 105 by 2007 and today a little over 200. People are starting to recognize the potential for producing fine wines in this area and are not deterred by the challenges that face them, for, as the saying goes, nothing worthwhile comes easily. I think Mr.Jefferson would be quite proud of how far the Virginia Wine industry has come, measured by growth alone.
But hang on a moment, we are in the business of producing wines, and success is measured by quality not quantity. How we are perceived by consumers and critics, measured against the benchmarks of the American wine industry? Surely this is a better indicator of our success? Leading the way in the American wine industry, in my opinion, is California. Napa has been joined by Sanoma, Paso Robles and other areas in producing distinctive wines reflecting regional character. wines that receive critical acclaim by consumers and wine writers alike. And let’s not forget the states to the North, Oregon and Washington, who are also producing many world-class wines. Try Cabernet from Washington State and Pinot Noir from Oregon to see what I am talking about.
So the big question.
” Are we making wines that are world-class and can compete with anything the West Coast can throw at us?”
If we are comparing apples to apples, Cabernet to Cabernet, then the simple answer is No, not every year. However, every now and again we get vintages like 2009 and 2010 where we produce something special, our 2009 Estate Grown Cabernet was one of only 22 wines that received a double gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. So there is certainly potential there, even if mother nature only allows us the opportunity once every 4-5 years. If we talk about Viognier, Cabernet Franc and blended reds, then the answer, in my humble, biased opinion, is that you bloody well betcha. I have tried some Meritage blends, Cabernet Franc and Viognier wines that I think can more than hold their own with our West Coast counterparts. I would even go as far as to say that they can hold their own with other wine regions in the world. Not consistently year in and year out, but us winemakers are working on achieving that.
I think the biggest issue facing Virginia and the future is one of identity. in that I think we currently lack one. Using Viognier as an example, purely because it is the State grape of Virginia, does a distinctive style come to mind? Not really. Viogniers can be sweet and syrupy, austere and centered on acidity, over oaked and dry, light and thin or rich and unctuous. Viognier wines run the gamut and in a lot of ways lacks a regional identity, i.e. the customer can not readily recognize it as Virginia. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, is distinctive and unique, as is Cabernet to Napa, Blends from the right bank of Bordeaux, Pinot Noir from Burgundy and Shiraz made in Australia. Wines that scream of place, un-ashamed and loud. Virginia needs this, needs a wine [or wine style] that proudly claims to be ours. Unfortunately, I think it will take a few more years to get there, but the results and the improvements over the last 10 years are nothing short of miraculous.
So what are consumers saying about us ?
If growth and sales of Virginia wine are anything to go by, then we are doing really well. Domestic sales of Virginia wine went up by 6% and exported wine sales went up by 70 odd %. We have seen increases in sales out of state, out of country and within the state itself, which points to recognition from consumers that Virginia is producing world-class wines. I have always said that the best of Virginia can stand alongside the best from anywhere else, seems like I am not the only who now thinks that. FANTASTIC.
I would like to recognize a few people who I think have been instrumental in promoting our wines and our State. I think Governor McDonnell and the First Lady deserve a lot of credit for promoting our wine industry. Emerging markets have been opened through trade missions to Asia and to Europe, our wines are now being exported to China and London. By serving only Virginia wines at the mansion and by creating the Virginia Wine Summit, the Governor has really put a focus on our wines. Wine Enthusiast named Virginia as one of its top ten wine destinations in the world. Along with Secretary Haymore and the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, we producers have the backing of people who can make things happen and get the word out there, a big thank you to you.
In Tony Wolf and Dr. Bruce Zoecklein we have two gentleman whom I admire tremendously. Their work and willingness to be available to us has certainly increased the quality of our wines and vineyard practices. One need only attend any of the number of technical meetings to see the amount of work and effort being put into our industry, benefits that a
re reaping big rewards today. And of course all the winemakers and vineyard managers in the State. I am amazed at the talent and the enthusiasm shown for this profession, combined with the willingness to work together. Lead by stalwarts such as Luca Paschina, Dennis Horton and Jim Law, the future of Virginia wine is in good hands and I for one am excited to write another blog in 10 years, raving about how our wines have progressed.
There is still a lot of work to be done, we cannot rest on our laurels and we need to recognize that we are not there yet. We are moving in the right direction and at a frenetic pace, and people are noticing.
So do I have any regrets about coming to Virginia and making wine? With the state of this industry, a beautiful wife and daughter to show for it and some decent wines in the library and nothing but a bright future ahead, WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Proud winemaker in Virginia @ Keswick Vineyards