wine: The State of Virginia Wine 

Last week’s Governor’s Cup awards were just the beginning of Warner’s concentration on the Virginia wine industry.

The Governor’s Cup Wine Competition is the occasion for the governor to boost the industry. The governor boasted, “We have seen remarkable quality improvement over the last three to five years.” Even with the governor’s help the debate still rages, and it shows no sign of being resolved soon. Jorg Lippuner of the Boar’s Head Inn believes that “California set the standard for a long time and we are matching those standards.” Dave Brown of Corks and Kegs in Richmond disagrees about Virginia’s wineries. “Across the board, they can’t compete,” he says. “The only thing they have in common is their astronomically high prices.”

Last year, I found fault with the competition because of the number of winners. This year’s competition did contain far fewer of those important gold and silver medals. The top wine this year was AmRhein Cellars Late Harvest Vidal, 2001, half bottle, $17.95. It was the creators’ second consecutive top win at this event. Their vidal has a lovely honeyed nose and ripe peach taste. If you want to see how tough wine judgings are, put it beside the Gray Ghost Adieu, 2002, half bottle, $20. There couldn’t be more than a half point separating these two wines.

The chardonnays and cabernet francs stood out this year. Wintergreen Winery Chardonnay Black Rock Reserve, 2001, $20, was a beautifully balanced wine. Christensen Ridge Chardonnay, 2001, $16, was a wine with loads of character. The cabernet francs, a Virginia staple, had a value standout that even Corks and Kegs’ Brown would applaud. Horton Vineyards Cabernet Franc, 1998, $12, for example, is drinkable tonight.

Where is the quality of Virginia wines headed for the future? The governor talked of a work in progress — Vision 2015: A Strategic Direction for the Virginia Wine Industry. Style Weekly has obtained a copy of the initial draft consisting of strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities that will form the wineries’ implementation of this study. The strengths are obvious. Tourism is the mainstay of the Virginia wine industry. Weaknesses came as a surprise. While the marketing arms of the wineries and the state stress greatness of quality, the wineries aren’t quite so sure. Leading the list: “Too few high-quality wineries and inconsistent quality across the existing industry.” Training, expertise and viable research programs were concerns. A telling problem was the “Lack of wine industry reputation outside of Virginia.” These are the issues that will be addressed when the governor’s report comes out early next year.

Tony Champ, owner of White Hall Vineyards, looked over the crowd at the event and asked, “Where are the national and international wine writers?” There were none. The winemakers are bringing the quality issue to the forefront as never before. Winemaker Shepherd Rouse told The Virginian-Pilot in May: “There is an amazing naivete in the industry. There are people who’ve got no palate, not a lot of passion and no real training.” If we are to be a world-class wine region we have to do what every other region has done. Taste and compare on all levels of quality and share that information.

I left the event, went home and opened two wines to taste: a gold-medal-winning wine, the Barboursville Cabernet Reserve, 2001, $32, and Robert Mondavi’s Cabernet Sauvignon “Marjories Sunrise,” Oakville, 1999, 200-case production, $45. The Barboursville stood up well. It lacked a little of the Mondavi fruit, but it was a wine for all of us to be proud of in my own little competition. I think that the governor will get that statue and bolster the agriculture of Virginia including the wine industry, but it will take a lot of work. S

Layne Witherell has been in the wine trade as a buyer for more than 25 years. In addition to writing about wine, he teaches classes on wine tasting at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia.


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