by Jim Law
Once harvest winds down I try to take some time to put things in perspective. Since March, my focus has been on the immediate demands of running a vineyard and reacting to the variability that our fine weather presents. Along with resting, looking at the long view are my most important post-harvest priorities.
I would like to apply this idea of taking stock to the Virginia wine industry. However, the focus will be more on the impacts on vineyards. Because of this I will go in “reverse order”, starting with marketing, then to winemaking and finally, vines.
Virginia excels at marketing. When I first came here in 1981 it became obvious that the state had its act together, both in the private and public sectors. We have been a benchmark for other wine emerging states. Years ago Linden hosted internships for French technical students. Their thesis reports tended to focus mostly on our amazing prowess for direct marketing rather than viticulture or winemaking.
Direct to consumer sales have been the foundation of the economic vitality of our industry. Tasting rooms and festivals account for the majority of sales. In this scenario wineries need to have a broad spectrum of wine styles and choices in order to please most palates. The result is that on the growing side, a diversity varieties needs to be grown to satisfy the marketing end.
We’ve heard comparisons made between Oregon and Virginia. Oregon found Pinot Noir as their signature grape. Virginia feels the need to follow suit. After this winter one has to question the wisdom of jumping on Viognier. The difference is that Oregon has a bigger industry and a smaller hometown market. They needed to go outside their comfort zone in an organized focused way with a signature wine.
Relying almost exclusively on the low hanging fruit of direct to consumer sales can only take us to a certain level. Getting into the big league marketplace of restaurants and retail shops is a whole different ball game. Until Virginia has a better presence in traditional distribution we will continue to be minor league players. Prestige publications such as Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate will not take us seriously.
Virginia has seen a significant improvement in winemaking over the past few decades. This is due to critical mass; meaning lots more (well funded) wineries and therefore more winemakers. Most Virginia wines are now serviceable and technically correct. While these wines have an important place, they do not contribute to reputation and more importantly, do not depend on the uniqueness of a specific vineyard site or skill of a grower. They are winemaker’s wines, not winegrower’s wines. When winemaking includes the regular addition of multiple additives one has to conclude that there is a problem either in the management or initial vineyard establishment decisions.
It takes more than a few vintages in one place to learn the personality of a vineyard. We are now benefiting from the longevity of a number of winemakers who have years or even decades working with the same vineyards. As winemakers become more comfortable and at ease with their terroir, they are able to make wines in a more thoughtful, non-interventionist way. They also can be very influential in guiding long term vineyard decision making in a quality-oriented direction.
If the vineyards are the foundation of a region’s wine industry, ours is presently somewhat shaky. Wineries with no producing vineyards have been popping up like mushrooms, putting pressure on an already fragile grape supply. 2011, 2013 and now 2014 vintages have been short. Pricing doesn’t seem to reflect this scarcity or the reality of growing grapes in Virginia. Perhaps this is because the shortage is being filled by sourcing out of state grapes.
It is more challenging to grow grapes in Virginia than in California. Weather risks are greater. However, there is no correlation between difficulty of viticulture and quality. Our Burgundian and Bordelais colleagues can attest to this. It is much easier to grow grapes in the south of France. Could it be that greater risks equal greater quality?
As Virginia pulls away from treating grapes as a commodity and pays according to quality we will begin to enter the next stage of evolution. Well-managed Napa To Kalon Cabernet fetches $9,000/ton, while just 100 miles away, Central Valley Cabernet can’t get $900/ton. Provenance counts.
In Virginia, steep slope, rocky sites are capable of producing very high-end wines. This viticulture is expensive and farming costs need to be recouped. On the other end of the spectrum, easy to farm, high yielding, mechanized vineyards have an important place in the more affordable wine price range. We need both, but the farming, pricing, winemaking and marketing need to reflect these differences.