Monday, February 21, 2011

Freedom, Democracy and Wine. Thomas Jefferson would be Proud

With the Virginia Wine Showcase having come and gone and the Virginia Wine Expo fast approaching, what better time is there to take stock of where the Virginia wine industry is and where it is headed? My own humble answer is “none.” On display at the Showcase, along with wines from close to 40 Virginia wineries, was an unwavering confidence about the health and the direction of the industry. Not that there aren’t problems that need to be addressed. The fact that Virginia cannot ship its wine to nearby Maryland and Pennsylvania is criminal - and a constant concern to many people in the industry. But given the quality of wine, the growing reputation of the state, and the increasing number of wine producers, the overwhelming feeling is that the Virginia wine industry is on the cusp of gaining the reputation so many within the business feels it deserves. The wine is where it needs to be, it is now a matter of developing better reputation.

I was shocked by how often I heard this sentiment - it was practically universal. Admittingly, most people working for Virginia wineries - i.e. those who were pouring and selling wine at the Virginia Wine Showcase – have a somewhat biased and rosy view of where the industry is headed. Still, I got the same sense of enthusiasm from attendees, volunteers and other vendors. Though I tend to pooh-pooh those who set up shop to sell gutter cleaning services, paintings of cats made out of seashells, window installers, and knife companies at wine events, they do offer a perspective that is different than the wineries and attendees that attend. They too seemed excited about Virginia wine and the industry as a whole.

From the wine I was able to sample, Virginia wine is also diversifying. Wineries are making wine from well-known and less well-known varietals, in sweet, dry and semi-sweet styles. There are reds, whites, rosés and even fruit-flavored wines. The different styles all speak to the level of talent and commitment people have to making Virginia wine some of the best in the country. It is also, many winemakers told me, one of the great advantages of Virginia’s wine industry – there is more freedom to experiment with different styles of wines, different grape varietals and different blends. This is all resulting in an increasingly complex, interesting and enjoyable portfolio of wines coming out of the state.

I got to try some of my old favorites as well as some new ones at the Showcase. The standout of the new ones I tried was Hume Vineyards. Hume’s mission is to create Old World-style wines from grape varietals that grow well in Virginia. One of my favorites was their Chambourcin. While it is not a traditional Bordeaux varietal, Hume makes one that is deep red, fruity, spicy and medium-to-full bodied. It is an elegant wine and shows the potential that Chambourcin has in the state. As a native of the Loire Valley, Stephane – Hume’s owner and winemaker – told me that they are going to unveil a dry rosé wine this spring, which I am also very eager to try.

Virginia is attracting new wineries because it’s hit a sweet spot where winemakers and prospective winery owners have heard about Virginia wines, have been impressed by what they have tried, and see tremendous promise in what they can accomplish by opening their doors in the state. And while the market does drive some decisions – both Chardonnay and Merlot are musts – there is more freedom to experiment. Chambourcin is a great example, and Hume shows that it is paying off extremely well. With so much potential in the state, a friendly climate for new wineries to open, and a growing reputation, winemakers have the ability to make the kinds of wines they want to, find out what grows really well in Virginia - Cabernet Franc and Viognier are the early leaders - and grow their businesses along with the industry as a whole.

Stephane chose to open his winery in Virginia rather to return to France because he saw “tremendous promise” in Virginia and did not want to be as restricted as he would have been in France. His story is not unique. Many people I spoke with chose Virginia because of its promise and freedom to experiment. We are lucky that Hume’s owner made that choice. It would’ve been a real shame if he opened his winery in France where he would be unable to make his impressive Chambourcin.

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