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.”

On Wine Writing, Insecurity and Validating Your Passions

It’s been more than a month since I’ve returned from the 2016 Wine Writers Symposium and I’ve been a little quiet: It’s amazing what less than a week immersed in your passion can do. It’s incredibly invigorating, yet its impact has left me deeply introspective. There was a lot to take in, and while I wouldn’t call it overwhelming, the symposium was a constant heightening of the intellect and all the senses. It was a special trip.

I won’t lie: Reentry into my Washington, D.C.-world was tough.

Who can resist the luxury of staying at Meadowood Resort in St. Helena, Calif:

Meadowood
Meadowood’s grounds, its details and comfort of the rooms made for quite a treat.

The stunning wines we tasted – especially those served by the master sommeliers:

Dinner with Master Somms
Forgive the blurriness of the photos – left to right: Geoff Kruth, Bob Bath and Gillian Balance. These were just three of the 12 master somms that paired wines with four courses on the last night of the symposium.

The interesting dialog and discussion that emerged from every single session:

Ray Isle and Jay McInerney
Ray Isle and Jay McInerney led a session on how to tell a story from a single glass of wine.

The chance to trounce through the tall mustard cover-crops and touch 50-year-old vines on a stunning day:

Haynes Vineyard
A tour of Haynes Vineyard in Coombsville from Ancien Wines owner and winemaker Ken Bernards.

But more importantly, being surrounded by people who share your love and interest in all-things wine.

Before I boarded the plane, I was reassured by past attendees and its organizers that everyone receiving a fellowship deserved to be there. And once I reached the symposium, that was reiterated. But each day, I woke up wondering: “Are they sure?” Fortunately, as soon as the morning sessions were underway those thoughts were replaced with a sense of “It doesn’t matter, this is fascinating! Look where I am!” And eventually it became, “Yes, I do!”

The Hosemaster of Wine – a satirical wine blogger whose first-night keynote was a healthy icebreaker on the seriousness and absurdity of what we were about to embark on – summed it up best in his recount of the symposium:

“Like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the symposium was filled with odders. It felt like a place filled with people who felt out of place.”

As writers and editors, we’re trained to be observers. But in this situation, we all share a deep love for the subject matter, too. It’s what I’ve struggle the most in my own writing – how to juxtapose that passion with the objectivity needed to maintain the right writing voice.

I had many takeaways – some fun, aha or d’oh! moments – like it’s actually possible to taste 200 wines without getting drunk (and without any spitting mishaps!).

There were also some more serious and insightful lessons, too: What sticks with me the most, is a life lesson we all know, but rarely see in action: That it’s possible to take gigantic risks, succeed and be happy. I met more people (both at the symposium and in the Napa community) who took the leap of faith to follow their passion. Unlike, Washington, D.C. – where competition is at a heightened state all of the time – the people I met across the industry instinctually want to learn more from each other, and are happy to help, too.

There were some technical lessons, as a session about the often-used but-rarely defined term “minerality” proved that consistency in language is extremely important – whether you agree with the concept or not.

There were opportunities to think creatively, as in how to use a single glass of wine to spark story ideas.

And there were some practical ideas, such as when Mike Veseth, aka The Wine Economist, rightly pitched to all of us to consider using wine as an example to tell a bigger story – whether that be a business piece or something else. (You can read his takeaways from the symposium, here.)

The most humbling lesson of all: there’s no reason for me to be insecure. Being surrounded by such talented people who share similar passions was the validation I needed to keep pushing, keep exploring, keep learning and to keep writing.

And if that wears off, I can take a bite out of my “most likely succeed” award the organizers bestowed on me during the final lunch:

most likely to succeed prize
Here’s my “payday” for being named “most likely to succeed”.

This Wine Writing Business Is Getting Real!

When I started this tumblr 18 months ago, it was an experiment. A place for personal writing, and a home to share interesting wine stories or pass along some thoughts that were longer than 140 characters. It was also a place I could geek out on wine and not bore my non-wine-interested followers on  other social media platforms. 

I didn’t know where this would take me, nor do I know now my exact destination. But writing here flooded me with confidence and sparked the creative juice that had been buried deep inside me after spending so many years focused on daily and investigative hard news. It reminded me how much I enjoyed getting lost in my own words (rather than helping someone else shine). It introduced me to new friends and new experiences. It gave me an outlet to learn. And also, a place to brag. Most importantly, it’s forced me to look deeper into my passion.

I’ve written before how understanding wine is a journey for me. There’s not one aha moment or a single bottle of wine, but it’s essentially a series of small experiences that keep building upon each other. 

So, I’m beyond thrilled and over the moon to share that another step in that journey is about to take place.

Last week I was notified that I was accepted to attend The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley. This year’s event is slightly different than the previous 11 years. The only way to attend is to be awarded a fellowship or be an “editor’s choice” from an existing wine or travel publication. So I submitted an application for a fellowship. That included professional writing samples (although I also included a few items from this site, since my professional writing on wine is still very new), letters of recommendations and a cover letter that I took particular care in writing to convince the judges I’d be a perfect participant (I’m not sure how much wine they were drinking when they read everything, but it worked!).

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This means that for four days in February, I’ll get to interact with, learn from and discuss everything wine with titans of the wine writing world, as well as meet more folks in the wine industry. It will also be an opportunity to meet other participants – who like me – share this passion. (They haven’t published a list of the participants yet, but the speaker list is beyond impressive!) Panels will take place at both Meadowood – a gorgeous resort in St. Helena – and the Culinary Institute of America. As a fellow, all expenses (except travel to Napa and a few of the meals) are paid. I’m beyond honored and humbled by this opportunity. 

It’s funny, about a year ago I followed tweets from the 2015 symposium, and fidgeted in my seat at work because I really wanted to be a part of it – and now that’s happening. It’s a fabulous reminder that anything you want is in reach if you keep focusing on what makes you happy.

Stay tuned in February, I’ll be sure to come back with a complete report! 

Cheers to a fabulous start of 2016! 

‘The Last True Thing’

I think of wine as sort of the last true thing. It’s so utterly simple, and anyone who loves wine knows how transformative it is. I’ve always been attracted by that almost archetypal pull of wine. I like that idea philosophically and emotionally, and I like the mystery of it.

 – Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible

Forbes contributor Cathy Huyghe interviewed MacNeil about how she wrote and now revised her 14-year-old book, which is an impressive encyclopedia of the wine world. It’s an interesting look into

MacNeil’s process, and I was pleasantly surprised to see her dedication to words was just as emphatic as she was to the wine. Read the full story here: How To Write The Bible Of Wine: Karen MacNeil On The Craft Of Writing .

Is Objectivity in Wine Writing Possible?

I feel sometimes like a proselytizer as well as a journalist because I do love wine and I try to get more people invested in it.

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Ray Isle, Executive Wine Editor of  Food & Wine magazine. Seen here moderating an IPOB panel on Feb. 23, 2015. | Photo by itswinebyme

I often wonder how to rectify my ability to be an objective journalist and my absolute love for wine as I explore wine writing, think about the direction of this tumblr (dare I start to call this a blog?), and wonder if my wine geekdom and career will ever intersect.

It’s encouraging to know that an editor at a top publication also deals with this issue. Isle made this comment during the first few minutes into this week’s episode of Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink To That podcast. If you’re interested in a behind the scenes look at what it’s like to be a wine editor, take a listen.

Wine on a Pedestal?

The successful wine writer always puts wine on a pedestal, speaks of it in mystical tones. Naturally, one also has to be on that pedestal in order to know about wine, to understand it. Don’t write stupid things like ‘Please join me on my journey to discover wine!’ You don’t want any company on the pedestal. On the pedestal is where the wine writer belongs all alone, gazing down at all those beneath him trying to clamber up the pedestal. From up there, your arms firmly around the mystery and majesty of wine, with your reputation and false humility, you can cast judgments and ratings and scores down upon the masses, as the Greek gods tossed lightning and fate down at mere mortals. And they have to accept it, they don’t have to like it.

Very funny advice this morning from Ron Washman (aka TheHoseMaster of Wine) published on Tim Atkin’s website. The entire column is worth a read, especially for those who appreciate good writing and are trying to understand how the wine community communicates with each other, and to newer audiences.