Monday, February 28, 2011

DC International Wine and Food Festival Emphasized Emerging Regions

The DC International Wine and Food Festival lived up to its name. There were wineries from all over the world – not just California, France and Italy. In fact, the representation of those three wine powerhouses was pretty scarce. Perhaps a better name for the Festival would have been the “DC Emerging Wine Regions Festival.” The large contingent of wine from New World regions such as South Africa, New Zealand, Spain and the Finger Lakes far surpassed the representation from more well-known wine-producing areas.

Even Virginia had a pretty good showing with about half a dozen wineries on-site. The Washington Wine Academy was also on-hand pouring local wine – and had good crowds throughout the day. I was impressed that there was such a big showing by Virginia wineries, given that the DC festival was held on the same weekend as the Virginia Wine Showcase.

There was a large turnout, making it difficult to get samples and tastings from some vendors, but that isn’t unusual. Regardless, there was enough to do and see that it was not a major issue except with a few vendors. And seriously, if you are giving out samples of foie gras, there is going to be a wait. Like most festivals of its ilk, there were cooking demonstrations with celebrity chefs, food and wine vendors and myriad other businesses attracted by the demographics of the attendees.

South Africa had the largest presence of any wine region that I saw, with Spain being a close second. I am glad they did, as I am not all that familiar with South African wines and was glad to have the opportunity to try a number of styles of South African wine. Aside from more traditional varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa offered attendees samples of alternative varietals that they do very well: Pinotage (red) and Chenin Blanc (white). I tried both, which were both quite good. The Pinotage had a deep red color with a light-to-medium body and a lot of smoke, oak and blackberries on the nose and finish. The Chenin Blanc had a lot of vanilla and banana throughout.

Spain also had a big presence, too, but there was too much of a cluster for me to spend too much time tasting their wines.

The Finger Lakes also had a large turnout. From the wines on hand, as well as the marketing material about the region, it’s easy to figure out what the Finger Lakes does well: Riesling. Every winery was pouring at least two different styles of Riesling, and the literature quoted the rave reviews that Finger Lakes Riesling has received. Riesling is being embraced as the grape of the region. Sweet, dry, and semi-dry styles were all well-represented at the festival. Many of them were done very well. If you’re not a fan of Riesling, there were several Finger Lakes Pinot Noirs and Gewürztraminers available too - but they were supporting characters to Riesling. Chambourcin also has a lot of potential in the Finger Lakes. I have tried several very good ones, and have been impressed with the versatility and complexity of Finger Lakes Chambourcin.

There was, in fact, so much talk and literature about Finger Lakes Riesling that the region could run the risk of becoming a one-trick pony. The region should embrace what it does well, but it does wines other than Riesling well, too. I wrote about some producers making fantastic reds a while back, but the marketing collateral that the region is using so emphasized Riesling that it might make it difficult for other wines to get the respect and attention that they deserve. Still, Oregon's wine industry certainly hasn't suffered from emphasizing its Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.

It is interesting to contrast the strategy of the Finger Lakes to that of Virginia. They are both emerging wine regions that are gaining more and more recognition within the industry. But where the Finger Lakes is leaning on one grape varietal hard, the Virginia wine industry emphasizes its history, diversity and innovation. Even though Cabernet Franc and Viognier grow well in Virginia, neither varietal has been highlighted to the extent that Riesling has been by the Finger Lakes industry. It will be interesting to see which strategy is more successful in the long run. I hope that both regions continue to develop and produce great wine that is reflective of their respective climate and geography.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Virginia Vs .The World

At the Virginia Wine Showcase, a blind tasting was held that pitted Virginia wines against those from “The World.” “The World” being California and France. The tasting was conducted by Brandon Walsh of Hosted Wine Tasting. The tasters served as judges and chose the winning wines. About 60 attendees participated.

The results were a mixed bag for Virginia wineries. A Virginia Viognier beat a California Viognier, a Virginia Merlot beat a French Merlot, and a California Cabernet Franc beat a Virginia Cabernet Franc. The fact that Viognier, Cabernet Franc and Merlot were the varietals that were judged is not surprising – I’ll mention for the umpteenth time how well Viognier and Cabernet Franc grow in Virginia – why not give Virginia wines a home field advantage?

What is surprising is that a California Cabernet Franc beat out a Virginia Cabernet Franc and that a Virginia Merlot beat a French Merlot. I have not been a huge fan of the Merlots I have had from Virginia, but have said plenty on Virginia Cabernet Franc. The judges have spoken, though, and have declared Virginia Merlot superior to that of France and California Cabernet Franc superior to that of Virginia. The Viognier judgment isn’t all that surprising. Have I mentioned how good Virginia Viogniers are?

The fact that such blind tastings can be held at all shows how far the Virginia wine industry has come. It is not quite the 1976 Judgment of Paris, but the fact that Virginia wines can hold their own against their bigger, older siblings is impressive.

I wasn’t able to attend the blind tasting myself, but am interested in which wines were included. Was it high-end Virginia wine vs. Vin de Pays wine from France? Were the wines from similar price-points? What criteria were used to judge the wines against one another?

Regardless of winners and wines, the Virginia wine industry can be proud that it stood its own against wines from California and France. It is unfortunate that the winery that produced the winning Merlot - White Fences Winery – is closing this year. They made consistently good wines and will be missed. White Fences did a lot to promote the Virginia Wine Industry and should consider this win their victory lap.

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.

Happy President's Day!

"Good wine is a necessity of life for me." ~ Thomas Jefferson

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Up Next for the Capital Wine Festival: Clos Pegase

The Capital Wine Festival is now in full swing. The weekly wine and dinner pairings have already featured winemakers from the Russian River Valley and Tuscany. Tomorrow, the wine will hail from Napa Valley and the winemaker will be Clos Pegase’s Richard Sowalsky. Richard has a unique background for a winemaker. He began medical school only to realize that he didn’t want to practice medicine. He then went through culinary school and realized that while he liked to cook, he didn’t like working the line at a restaurant. He finally discovered winemaking and has been making a name for himself – as well as really good wines – ever since.

Richard has worked for some of the biggest names in the American wine industry, like Robert Mondavi, and now oversees winemaking for Clos Pegase, a 450-acre estate vineyard in Napa Valley. We discussed his approach to winemaking, issues facing the industry, and of course, tried some of his wine during our meeting. It was a fascinating conversation, and Richard will no doubt leave the attendees at the Winemaker Dinner impressed with his knowledge, his enthusiasm and the wines that he makes. On a side note, he is of the opinion that Syrah is the most under-utilized grape in California and raved about the Syrah that Clos Pegase makes. It is, however, only available at their tasting room and to wine club members.

The two wines Richard brought with him were the 2009 Mitsuko’s Vineyard Chardonnay and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. The Chardonnay was more yellow than clear in color with hints of citrus, melon and vanilla on the nose. The thing that impressed me the most about this wine was that it didn’t finish in an overly oaky way. Instead, the 2009 Mitsuko Chardonnay left a hint of something more akin to toasted pecans lingering on the pallatte. It was a nice – and surprising - finish to a well-balanced Chardonnay. If you have any friends who have been turned off to Chardonnay because they have had so many overly oaked, overly buttery ones, this wine would be the perfect antidote.

As for the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, it reminded me why I became such a fan of Napa Valley Cabernets in the first place. There is a rich, fruity and mellow smell to Napa cabs that distinguish them from other wines, and this one is no exception. With a medium to full body, this wine is gives off flavors of dark cherries and dark chocolate, blackberries and a mix of herbs and spices on the finish. It is a smooth wine that is dry, but not too dry, on the finish.

We discussed everything from the role of a winemaker – Richard sees himself more as a caretaker ensuring that the grapes reach their full potential – to issues facing the wine industry - both in Napa and globally – to his thoughts on the Virginia wine industry. His prediction is that as the locavore movement continues to gain in popularity, locally sourced wines will become more and more popular, too. Napa is starting to pay attention to Virginia wines insofar as their reputation is growing, though it is difficult to find Virginia wines in California. Still, the state’s potential is luring talented people from California back East. Clos Pegase’s former cellar manager is now at Hillsborough Vineyards in Loudoun County.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Good Food, Good WIne, Good Cause

This is one of those weekends where I love that I care passionately enough about wine to write about it. With all the great events going on, it is hard to make time for them on, but I soldier on…

At the Virginia Wine Showcase I got to talk to people from wineries all over the state about the overall health of the industry and their own respective wineries. The short version is that Cabernet Franc and Viogner grow really, really well in Virginia; everyone is extremely optimistic about the direction the industry is headed; and if it weren’t for restrictive, outdated and downright asinine wine laws is nearby states – specifically Maryland and Pennsylvania – Virginia wines would already be reaching a much wider audience and gaining converts.

More on the Virginia Wine Showcase and the Virginia wine industry will be coming in the days to follow. But as the weekend is halfway over, it is important to look at the other wine-related events that are happening in DC. Specifically the 12th Annual Washington, DC International Wine and Food Festival. If the Virginia Wine Showcase focuses on all things local, the Washington Wine and Food focuses on all things global. There are wines from Spain, Italy and France represented, as well as an impressive showing from the Finger Lakes.

After a weekend of wining and dining, it’s important to mix it up a bit… Like wining and dining for a good cause. And you have the opportunity to do just that on Sunday. Why not spend brunch trying wine and gourmet food by one of DC’s preeminent chefs at his namesake restaurant? With all the proceeds going to the DC Central Kitchen? That sounds like it just might be crazy enough to work! And that is what the organizers of the 12th Annual DC Wine and Food Festival are hoping for. Tickets are still available on the Wine and Food Festival Website.

Starting at 11.00 am tomorrow, Chef Ris Lacoste will prepare an exclusive brunch at his namesake restaurant, pair it with wine and champagne and give all the proceeds to DC Central Kitchen. It couldn’t be a more worthy cause, and all it takes is to buy a ticket and continue doing what you have been doing all weekend. It’s the very definition of win-win.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Getting the Word Out on Virginia Wine

It's hard to believe, but there was a time before the Internet. In those cold, dark days, people had to learn about wine through their local wine shop, newsletters, and local wine festivals. Basically people had to interact with other people. Luckily, those days are long gone. The problem is you still can’t taste wine online. Hopefully this will change one day in the future - I’m looking at you, Google Labs - but until then, there are plenty of resources available.

Just this week Virginia Wine Trips launched. It is a blog that not only focuses on Virginia wine but also outlines specific itineraries you can follow in different parts of the state. As the blog grows, more itineraries will become available. Virginia Wine Trips is a welcome addition to the Virginia wine blog community. Virginia Wine Trips is from the same team that is responsible for the always-enjoyable Swirl, Sip, Snark blog.

Other Virginia wine blogs worth reading are My Vine Spot, Drink What You Like, Virginia Wine Time and Virginia Wine in My Pocket. These blogs and the myriad others vary in depth, breadth and scope. Each offers a different take on the wines and wineries throughout Virginia. There are many others, but these are a good place to start.

If you want to get out from behind your computer screen to actually taste, rather than just read about, Virginia wine you can still do that, too. There is no better place to start than the Virginia Wine Showcase which is happening this weekend. With close to 40 Virginia wineries, chefs giving cooking demonstrations, wine seminars, a blind wine tasting – “Virginia vs. The World” - and even speed dating, this year’s Wine Showcase is the perfect opportunity to spend a weekend familiarizing yourself with all that Virginia wine has to offer.

Last year’s Virginia Wine Showcase was hampered by Snowmageddon. This year promises to be different. The weather looks like it will cooperate, and I am looking forward to actually attending the Showcase this year. Tickets, a schedule of events and a layout of the Showcase are all available on the website.

As the Virginia wine industry continues to grow, so too will your options for learning about all Virginia wine has to offer. There is still, though, no substitute for visiting a winery and trying their wine firsthand.

Take a Walk on the Ingleside

When a story begins with the clichéd opening: “it was a dark and stormy night,” you know that something unsavory is going to happen. Almost as clichéd is that opening’s bastard son: “it was a cold and rainy day.” Luckily, when Caitlin and I visited Ingleside Vineyards recently on a cold and rainy day, there was nothing unsavory about it. In fact, just the opposite was true. We had a great time tasting and touring one of Northern Virginia’s oldest and most well-established wineries.

Ingleside has been producing wine since 1980, and that history and experience is evident in all aspects of the winery’s operations. The smooth functioning of the tasting room, the large gift shop selling any number of Virginia and wine-centric tchotchkes, the impressive calendar of events and, of course, the wine itself all serve as a testament to the value of experience. I was pleasantly surprised by some of their wines and downright impressed with a few of them – particularly the Petit Verdot - which we couldn’t help but buy a bottle of.

One of the things that really impressed about Ingleside is that it both produces an impressive array of wines and also grows an impressive array of their own grapes. Included in the grapes that they grow are Sangiovese, Charbono and Syrah - varietals that aren’t normally associated with Virginia wine. Many wineries grow the grapes that go into their wines, yet I don't know of another winery in the state that is growing such a wide variety of grapes and producing such a wide range of drinkable wines.

If you visit the winery I would recommend taking the tour. It is short and informative and you get to visit their barrel room, which is available to rent for private parties. It is an impressive, yet intimate room – though I thought only college dorm rooms decorated with year-round Christmas lights.

As for the wines themselves, they offer several different tastings: Chesapeake, Premium and Inclusive. We chose the Premium tasting that included their Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot and a dessert wine. I really liked both the Chardonnay and the Cabernet Franc. The Cabernet Sauvignon just couldn’t compete with its Napa Valley relatives in my opinion.

And then there was the Petit Verdot. With a deep, dark, purple color and smelling of licorice, coffee, chocolate and a hint of fresh tar – trust me on this one - you know almost immediately that this wine is going to kick you in the teeth when you drink it. And it does, but in a good way. The wine is very full-bodied with a nice dry but not overly dry finish.

What you smell is what you get. Chocolate, licorice, coffee, and yes, a bit of fresh tar, make this big, well-structured and balanced wine one that lingers long after you have taken a sip.

On a related note, the Virginia Wine Showcase is being held this weekend. Ingleside will be one of the 40 or so wineries that will be there. The Virginia Wine Showcase is one of the best opportunities to try myriad different wines from around the state in one location.

I hope to see you there. And to try the Ingleside Petit Verdot again.

Monday, February 7, 2011

We All Watched the Game. At Least the Wine was Good

Football is a sport that is intimately associated with beer. The bevy of beer commercials - none of which mention the taste or quality of the product, by the way - during the Super Bowl only reinforces that relationship. There have been many a tailgate, game watch and trips to the concession stand in the stadium where I have been given funny looks, mocked or ridiculed for coming back with wine instead of beer. And those are my friends and family doing the mocking. Still, I prefer wine. Caitlin does, too. And I refuse to drink crappy, watery beer just because I am watching sports.

I get that beer and football go together. Even though I was watching a game between one team I don't particularly like and one team that I could never, ever cheer for as a loyal Bears fan, I watched the game. And I watched the halftime show – poor sound and all. And I watched the commercials. I watched the pregame pomp and pageantry. And I watched Christina Aguilera botch the National Anthem.

I watched it all with a glass of wine in my hand because, to be honest, watching the Packers dominate for most of the game then hoist the Lombardi trophy over their collective heads was painful enough without drinking bad beer. We were drinking wine that I enjoyed but Caitlin wasn’t a fan of: Anakena Single Barrel Rapel Valley Pinot Noir. There was a bit too much spice and earthiness to the wine for Caitlin, which were the characteristics I liked in this wine. For a light-to-medium bodied wine, I appreciated the tobacco, spice and earth flavors that dominated the palate. With a darker color, more spice, and far less berry flavors than many California Pinots I’ve tried, I found the Anakena Single Barrel to be well-balanced, complex and enjoyable, especially for the price.

When Green Bay was doing well, I could think about the tastes and flavors in the wine I was drinking instead of the game I was watching. To be fair, the game was pretty good, especially compared to some other Super Bowls that have been totally lopsided and uninteresting. The exception being, of course, the 46-10 Super Bowl XX beat-down between the Bears and the Patriots, which was awesome.

There were points during this game, and all the coverage leading up to and after the game, that I just didn’t want to watch. During those times, I was glad I was able to have a decent glass of wine that would take my mind off the madness of a Packers championship instead of a weak, watery beer. I made the right choice and am sure that as wine becomes more approachable, more people will, too.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Little Cabin in the Woods. Serving Sweet Wines

Virginia's wine industry is still young and growing. It has not had much opportunity for family-owned wineries to pass from one generation to the next like in some more well-established wine-producing regions. I have heard some winery owners say that their children have an interest in the business. Others have told me that their son or daughter is going to college so that they may take over the winery one day. Yet with the reborn Virginia wine industry still in its first generation, there hasn’t been much of a chance for wineries to be bequeathed from parents to children.

Hidden Brook is not a generational winery, either, but it is pretty close. Owned by a husband and wife team, the couple bought land adjacent to the husband’s parents. The parents own Lost Creek Vineyards and the two properties are separated by rows of vines each uses to make their own wine. If nothing else, Hidden Brook’s story shows that Virginia winemaking is taking root and influencing others’ decision to have a go of making wine in the state. I like the story, and I was eager to visit the winery and try the wines.

Apparently I was the only one. When Caitlin and I visited Hidden Brook we were literally their only customers, which is too bad because the winery itself is a pleasant setting: a log cabin on a wooded lot with a big fireplace. Not a bad place to spend a winter afternoon. Since we were the only people there, we had the attention of one of the owners all to ourselves. She told us a little more about the brief history of the winery, and walked us through a tasting.

The wines all tended to be a bit sweet for my taste. The owner mentioned on several occasions that they make their wines in a sweeter style because that is what their customers want. I wasn’t entirely sure if she was being defensive or apologetic about Hidden Brook’s wines, but she seemed to be of the opinion that Hidden Brook’s wines were not living up to their potential, and I would have to agree. While it never makes sense to alienate your most loyal customers, it also doesn’t make sense to make wines in a style that you don’t personally like. What’s the point of putting that much time, effort, energy, money and toil into something that you will think is, at best, decent?

Still, of the wines that we tried, Hidden Brook’s Chambourcin was the standout. The Chambourcin had a lighter body than many I have tried, but it had a nice flavor profile that combined vanilla, tobacco and raspberries with spice, pine and cloves. The owner, by way of explanation, told us that it was a very young wine and could stand to be aged a bit longer. I could see how a few more years would allow the wine to grow and develop, and, as such, Caitlin and I walked away with a bottle. I am interested to revisit the wine in a couple of years and see if it actually has matured the way I think it will.

While not a great wine, Hidden Brook’s Chambourcin was the best of the ones that we tried. It was by far the least sweet and I can see some potential in it. With a great story, great setting and friendly owners, the only thing missing from Hidden Brook is better wines. And more customers.