Some 300 members and friends of the Virginia wine trade merchants, grape growers, winemakers, and writers came together May 17 in the lobby of the Library of Virginia to celebrate the expanding success of the industry and to honor those whose wines were judged to be the best of the best. And there was much cause for celebration.
Since 1979, when the industry was just a toddler, the number of wineries has risen from six to 53. According to industry figures, more than 3,000 tons of grapes were crushed in 1998 to produce some 509,600 gallons of wine that were bottled and packaged into 214,340 cases. That's a big cellar! And a big seller, too. Sales topped $25 million in 1998, a 5 percent jump over 1997. It also appears that for the first time since 1985, demand is nearly even with production.
But as the manager of Lukhard's Virginia Pantry in Powhatan noted (winner of the Retailer of the Year), plans to expand his Virginia wine selection to more than 300 wines from 45 wineries wouldn't be possible "if the product wasn't in the bottle." True enough.
So who's got the product? According to the judges who spent 11 hours tasting more than 170 wines, Barboursville Vineyards'
1997 Cabernet Franc ($18) is the stuff. Judges gave this wine not only a gold medal but also the Governor's Cup, prized trophy of winemakers across the state.
"It's a long story," says Luca Paschina, winemaker at Barboursville, of his Cup-winning cabernet franc. The process he described to make the wine a blend, really, of three different wines is emblematic of the winemakers art: part science, part fodder for the journal of irreproducible results. But Paschina hailed cabernet franc as "the grape for Virginia."
Other gold medal winners were: Jefferson Vineyards
for its 1998 Cabernet Franc ($15); Rockbridge Vineyard
for its 1997 White Riesling; Shenandoah Vineyard
for its 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon ($14); and White Hall Vineyards,
whose winemaker, Brad McCarthy, walked out with a gold for each pocket: one for the 1997 Reserve Chardonnay ($18) and one for the 1998 Gewurztraminer ($15).
For attendants, though, the best part of the evening came after the awards ceremony. Amidst the clink and occasional crash of stemware, and the mix of highbrow winespeak and lowbrow honesty, winemakers from about 40 Virginia wineries poured the fruits of their labors in a mass tasting that was probably the best representation of the strength of the industry. It also gave us a chance to scout wines that rode the pine but which could enhance your lineup. We found two:Tarara Vineyards'
1997 Meritage blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot was bottled only a couple of weeks ago and was too young and sharp to really get anywhere in competition, but it has giant flavor and should soften up nicely over time, say three to five years. According to the winery, it should sell for $19 when released in November.
Another one to consider moving up in the order is Villa Appalachia's
1997 Toscanello ($14). This one was a complete surprise. The blend of cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese, the great grape of Chianti, had forgiving tannins with flavors of tobacco and cedar like the inside of a good cigar box.* Note: Prices, where listed, are those charged at the winery. Local retail prices and availability may vary.Patrick Getlein is a wine columnist and consultant living in Richmond. His columns this summer will feature Virginia wines by variety. He may be reached through the editorial office of Style Weekly, 1118 West Main St., Richmond, Va. 23220; or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org