Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Recap: Charleston Wine and Food Festival

I was pleasantly proven wrong, both about my perceptions of the Deep South and of Southern food, especially grits, when Caitlin and I traveled down to Charleston for their annual Wine and Food Festival. Both are worthy of praise, but the festival’s offerings were the main reason for our trip. Neither of the Carolinas have become great wine-growing states yet. North Carolina has a few notable vineyards, like Biltmore Estates, which was at the festival, but I still haven’t had too many Carolina wines that have impressed me.

Although Biltmore had a presence at the festival, this was not just a regional festival in terms of the wines that were available. There were plenty of importers, wineries and regional distributors on hand pouring samples. Many wineries from California made the trip across the country to participate…had I known that there would have been so many good Lodi zins, I probably would have paced myself on the shrimp and grits front…But I didn’t, and I don’t really have any regrets about it.

There were many great wine options to choose from – including some fantastic wines that are usually out of my price range. I can’t tell you how many times I went back to get another sample of the thick, jammy, fruity deliciousness that is Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon. Sonoma-Cutrer’s light, crisp, sweet, pear-heavy chardonnay was a great white wine standout. Same for Kim Crawford’s slate and citrus-laden, almost tart Sauvignon Blanc. Mr. Crawford is one the best winemakers in New Zealand, and I was happy to suggest that everybody I was with try some of his wines, especially the Sauvignon Blanc, which has done so much to put New Zealand wines on the map.

What I did notice was surprisingly absent from the Charleston Wine and Food Festival were wines from Virginia. I tend to look for Virginia wines whenever I am at such an event. I noticed that they were glaringly absent from the moment we entered the tent…Actually, I noticed it after we each were treated to a breakfast brownie as our first food sample of the day. I thought that Virginia wines would want to take full advantage of a major food and wine festival to expand its regional reputation, but I didn’t see any wines, wine organizations, or wineries from the Old Dominion.

While wines from Virginia were themselves noticeably and unfortunately absent, I was happy to talk to some people from other wineries about Virginia wines and was shocked at how strong the state’s wine reputation is becoming. While Caitlin, her brother and his wife were getting their sample of grilled antelope – I am still upset I never got any – I spoke to Andy Wilcox from Lambert Bridge Winery in Dry Creek Valley, CA. After trying Lambert Bridge’s wines, where the peppery zinfandel which had a nice kick, plenty of tannins and a rich, molasses-like body was the standout (I do use “molasses-like” primarily because I was in the South) I asked Andy about Virginia wines. Andy was a good sport when I asked him to say, again, what he thought about Virginia wines when my iPhone camera didn’t record his statement the first time. The key takeaway is that Virginia wines are good, are getting better, and people in California are taking notice.

So often, I compare wines from Virginia and New York – where Caitlin and I do most of our tastings – to wines from more well-known wine-growing regions in California and overseas. Because of that comparison, I tend to find a lot of the wine we try flat and one-dimensional, especially reds (save for some really good Cab Francs from Virginia). So I say with no disrespect or ill will to Lambert Bridge that the Viognier I tried from their winery was less impressive than some of the Viogniers from Virginia I have discussed in the past. Virginia just seems to do Viogniers very well, and the state’s wine reputation continues to grow. Now if only Virginia wines would show up at festivals, such as Charleston’s Wine and Food Festival, even more people could learn about wines from Virginia.