On the Verge of Mediocrity: Virginia Wines | October 2003

Over the years I have seen this industry evolve in fits and starts. In 1981 as a young cellar rat in Ohio I chose to come to Virginia rather than the West Coast because I knew winegrowing here would be more interesting, rewarding, and challenging. I continue to be excited about the possibilities, especially when I taste extraordinary wines coming from new wineries. I am also becoming increasingly discouraged by a small but significant trend of some Virginia winemakers. There is a disconnect between the vineyard and the bottled wine. Tractor trailers of out of state grapes, juice, bulk wine, and/or concentrates in combination with UPS deliveries of powdered tannins, coloring agents, and oak chips will keep some wineries in this state firmly in the category of mediocre rather than great.

As winemakers become confident that they can simply fix any problems “in the mix,” it is the quality oriented vineyards that will suffer. This became apparent to me last winter as I revisited several states in the Midwest and East. After 20 years their industry had not progressed, as most wineries simply called their West Coast or NY suppliers for “product.” Grape prices were low and there was no incentive to plant or improve vineyard practices. Local wine drinkers and retailers were turning from support to skepticism. Wineries were abandoning traditional marketing avenues and focusing on weddings and group events to sell wine.

Here in Virginia I am seeing some of what my colleague Mark Chien calls the “entrepreneurial impatience” of both new vineyards and wineries. We know so much more about site selection than we did 20 years ago, yet the information is often being ignored. Vineyards are still being planted on the most convenient sites rather than those that have the best quality potential. Traditional crop farming requires the exact opposite soils and slopes as vine growing. A century ago as farming became less profitable, the first fields to be abandoned were those that were marginal for corn or grazing. These now mostly scrub forests are often great vineyard sites, but they require time and money to develop.

New wineries are selling wine with their label on it yet have no bearing vines. Build a tasting room and they will come. Virginia wineries have a huge advantage over most of the rest of the winegrowing world as we can put up a tasting room in a beautiful bucolic setting close to a metro area and sell just about anything. It is easy, profitable and excludes us from competing in the real world.

The VVA and its members represent the vineyard arm of the Virginia wine industry. If grapes become simply a commodity like corn or soybeans we will all lose. I see 3 areas where a closer relationship between grower and winemaker can only improve quality:

1. Regular visits by the winery to the vineyard to discuss management strategies and goals. Timing should include: pruning, shoot thinning, leaf pulling, green harvest, and of course, several visits during ripening.

2. Per acre contracts. In my opinion two of the biggest quality issues in Virginia are overcropping and picking too early. A traditional per ton contract encourages high yields and early “safe” picking. A per acre contract addresses these issues and puts some of the financial risk on the winery.

3. Single Vineyard bottlings. There is no better way to understand a site’s terroir and to reward a grower doing the best job possible.

The wine industry has three legs: vineyard, cellar, and marketing. Marketing has always been the strongest in Virginia and has driven the industry. If we are to continue to progress past mediocre, it has to be the vineyards that take the lead.

Wine East, October 2003

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Jim Law