Wines of the Commonwealth

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At last week’s Virginia Wine Summit, a well-rounded mix of sessions and people proved to be a wonderful introduction into this 40-year-old industry, that’s really only gained momentum in the past decade. It wasn’t just about the winemaker or the vineyards, the front of the house part of the industry was there, too. As I learned – great wine can only be good if there are wine drinkers willing to take a chance on a burgeoning region.

Highlights of the day-long conference at the Salamander Resort and Spa – an easy hour’s drive from my Arlington, Va., home – included:

  • A blind tasting comparing Virginia whites against their world counterparts.
  • A keynote by wine writer Jon Bonné focused on Virginia’s place in the national wine stage.
  • A tasting of six uncommon grapes produced in the Commonwealth, led by a panel of smart sommeliers.
  • And the attendance of both the governor of Virginia and the state’s secretary of agriculture, who showed genuine support and commitment to the industry (a surprise to this cynical journalist!).

Virginia Wine Summit
The blind white wine tasting paired Virginia against other regions’ Vermentino, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viogner and Petit Manseng.

Packing the morning panel with two somms, two wine writers and moderated by a respected wine educator, was a smart way to discuss the blind pairings. When you take away their daily tasks and titles, they all share the same quest to effectively communicate. It makes listening to how they describe what they’re tasting engaging.

Here’s the thing about Virginia wine: I’ve done a tasting like this before with a group of friends, and pulling out the Virginia wine isn’t too difficult. My relatively-novice palate was able to do it again this time. It’s not that wines from around the world are better or more interesting than what Virginia can produce. Virginia produces wines unlike many traditional regions. But as Bonné rightly talked about later that day in his keynote, a lot of cellar work is still happening. So the Virginia wines can come across richer, or with riper fruit or with more oak influence. The counterparts – when tasted side-by-side – come across a bit more refined.

As proof, look what happened with the Chardonnay comparison: Wine A screamed “I am that Chardonnay from the 1980s,” as Andy Myers, a master somm and wine director for José Andrés’ Thnk-Food Group, put it.  In my notebook there’s also the notation: #alltheoak attributed to Bonné. Wine B had an elegance and was flush with acidity. When the wines were revealed the room was shocked to see Wine A belonged to Virginia’s Fox Meadow, while Wine B was California’s Chateau Montelena. I’m sure organizers paired these wines to trick us and have a little fun, and it spoke volumes.

Since many of the winemakers were sitting in the audience, after each of the Virginia wines were revealed, they stood and up and answered a few questions by the panel. For a wine geek, it was fascinating!

Virginia Wine Summit
Jon Bonné addresses Virginia Wine Summit participants.

Understanding how Virginia compares with the rest of the nation was an important part of Bonné’s keynote.

Bonné wouldn’t be doing his job if he wasn’t a bit critical of Virginia and seeking out what Virginia can do to excel, but he did so in a good way. He praised Virginia for not trying to be California or Bordeaux and assured the industry that the world is taking notice. But he then took lessons from California’s changing landscape to prescribe a path for Virginia through a lens of how Oregon and Washington state have grown its industries in pursuing commercial vs. cultural success. His prescriptions included being humble and not being afraid to create a “Tuesday night wine.”

True to his writings on the “new” California, he also stressed that more vineyard management and less cellar work is needed.Virginia, he said, should learn to better understand its terroir rather than rely on the winemaking process to cover up mistakes that might have resulted from challenging weather, pests and disease.

The breakout sessions I attended on wine pairings and uncommon grapes were a chance to taste more Virginia wines, but also hear from talented sommeliers and how they see the industry. Without a strong signature grape (although Viognier has been adopted as the “state grape”), the somms discussed the challenges of bringing new wines to their patrons and whether they could include these wines on their lists.

Bonné ended his keynote with a similar thought:

“What I hope is that 10 years from now to walk into a restaurant in New York or L.A. or wherever, in this glorious new American wine era, and see a Virginia wine on the list, and it’ll feel like the most normal thing ever.”

Drought Brings Soul Searching to California Winemaking

While it’s fun to watch what winemakers are saying on social media about the state of this year’s harvest, I was happy to stumble on this well-reported story by Eric Asimov of The New York Times. If you’ve become almost as obsessive on this topic as I have, it’s a must read:

The drought may have turned all of California into a pitiless desert in the popular imagination, but a week in July spent visiting fine-wine regions all around the state painted a more nuanced picture.

From the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, to El Dorado in the Sierra Foothills, to Napa Valley and the Sonoma Coast, the drought, now in its fourth year, has affected every area differently. Some regions have been hard hit, like eastern Paso Robles on the Central Coast and the Central Valley, source of much of the grapes that go into cheap bulk wines. But other regions, like the North Coast, are bearing up well.

While individual estates may feel the pain of the drought keenly, the California wine industry has continued to prosper through it.

Keep reading here

Drought Brings Soul Searching to California Winemaking

Lessons of #Harvest2015 Told In Three Bunches

If you don’t follow Jasmine Hirsch on social media, then you missed a pretty spectacular Instagram post. I’ll let the caption and photos speak for themselves, but if you’re just as fascinated by the winemaking process as I am, this will be quite a treat:

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We all tend to post pictures of perfect clusters, as we're understandably proud of them. But that doesn't represent the full range of viticultural challenges facing grape farmers and winemakers, especially in a complex vintage like this one. Here are some examples of imperfect clusters. On the left, an underripe, rosy cluster. This will be thrown away. In the middle, a cluster that is starting to shrivel and turn into raisins. This may or may not make it past the sorting line. The last is a cluster that is shattered – bad weather in the spring resulted in only a few of the flowers pollinating and producing grapes. Shatter effects yields as well as winemaking decisions. #harvest2015

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Ancient Winemaking Tools

Do ancient winemaking tools help make better wine?

Photo via Wikimedia.

Georgia’s Giant Clay Pots Hold An 8,000-Year-Old Secret To Great Wine

From NPR:

Irakli Cholobargia, marketing director of the state-run National Wine Agency, says qvevri wine is still a tiny portion — less than 1 percent — of the total Georgian output. Yet the number of qvevri winemakers is growing: Today at least 30 artisanal winemakers use the ancient vessels exclusively, and larger wineries are adding qvevri series to their lineups.

“To stand out from the crowd, it’s good to have the qvevri wine. It’s a different thing,” Cholobargia says. But, he adds, increasingly, qvevri are not enough to differentiate a winery. “You have to have new grape varieties in your range, a new one even for the Georgians.”

So That’s Why Trader Joe’s Wine Is So Cheap!

I can’t vouch for a single word this guy says. But I thoroughly enjoyed his closing paragraph for the zeal in which he takes away all of the winemaking majesty. 

So the summary is this – to make $2 wine one must compromise all sense of integrity and quality, own tens of thousands of acres of vineyards in the worst possible wine region possible where land is incredibly cheap and yields are exceptionally high, use machines to execute every part of a homogenized system that substitutes manipulation for hand crafted quality, and own every step of the winemaking process including bottling, packaging and distribution, all while giving the finger to the entire wine industry and plowing down anyone who gets in your way.

So That’s Why Trader Joe’s Wine Is So Cheap!

Natural Wines

I’m not sure what started the online blow up of natural wines that has all the heavy weights writing and tweeting this week. It seems like the topic is more divisive than it should be, and has that childish quality of  "my toy is better than your toy.“ 

But because this crosses my own interests in biodynamic wines, the expression of terroir and curiosity of a hands-off approach to winemaking, I’m doing my best to wade through the debate. 

The first piece I spotted was this Newsweek story by Bruce Palling: Why ‘Natural’ Wine Tastes Worse Than Putrid Cider. I’m slightly appalled that such an opinionated article is under the Newsweek banner without the word "opinion” or “column” or even an explanation of who the author is. The commenters have done a good job calling him out, though.

Next, British wine blogger Jamie Goode posted on his site: I love natural wine, but…  He’s smart to talk about it from the perspective that it’s becoming too cult-like, rather than “inclusive and welcoming." 

And now, The New York Times’ wine aficionado has this to say:

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Even four years ago this was a heated argument. He writes in the column from 2012:

Almost two years ago, I likened the natural-wine discussion to a hornet’s nest, which had set off disagreements all over the world of wine. If anything, the fracas has worsened, except that now the loudest voices are those of condemnation. The criticism raises the question of what, exactly, people find so threatening about natural wines and the people who enjoy them.

Clearly, critics perceive the natural-wine partisans as self-righteous, scolding and sanctimonious fundamentalists, even if the evidence is supplied only by implication. That is, if you call your wine natural, what does that make mine? Unnatural? Manipulated?

I don’t have a firm stake in this debate, but it seems silly to go back and forth on what is the best winemaking method, when one of the amazing things (at least to me) about wine is how every drop that’s produced can be completely unique.

How to Make Mass-Produced Wine Taste Great | Magazine | WIRED

Wired has a good piece today on Paul Draper’s quest to pressure other winemakers to list all the ingredients on their labels. Among other reasons, doing so, the industry fears, will take the romantic luster out of their products. But that’s not the link I’m posting on top of this page.

As much as I’ve been reading (and trying the wines) of the In Pursuit of Balance group – who avoid many of the ingredients that would appear on the labels of mass-produced wines – I’ve never really taken the time to study the logistics of making wine at bigger operations.

But Wired was smart and keyed to this piece I missed back in April that I’m now sharing with you. It’s a good infochart that breaks down the increasing wine consumption numbers, along with the additives and other tricks that go into wine making.

But as noted in the Draper article: 

“For thousands of years, wine has made itself with guidance by man, rather than being made by man,” says Draper. The greatness of a wine should be driven by the grapes and the earth they come from, not what a tinkerer can do with them in the lab.

History has his back. In Bordeaux, vigneron is the term for a grape cultivator, the man who works the fields and tends the vines. But, notes Draper, “In French, there is no word for winemaker.”

How to Make Mass-Produced Wine Taste Great | Magazine | WIRED

The photography alone looks like this will be worth a watch – but the talk about passion and chasing your dreams is what has me hooked.

An American Wine Story is a feature documentary that follows tales of risk and reinvention for those who are ‘born again’ into the wine industry.

Featuring Drew Bledsoe, Dick Erath, Pascal Brooks, Alan Baker, Katherine Cole, Jay Selman, Mike Officer and other winemakers and industry insiders from around the country, American Wine Story is an independent documentary feature.

There’s more here.