If I say Virginia (that South Atlantic U.S. state that birthed eight U.S. presidents, not the famously questioning eight-year-old girl), what else comes to mind?
Wine? Maybe not yet, because Virginia’s wine industry is still young. I was there recently for TasteCamp, an annual wine bloggers conference that gets a group of bloggers and journalists together to discover an emerging wine region. This year, we set up camp in northern Virginia. Several of the wineries we encountered have only started operations within the last decade. As you might expect, there is still a lot of experimentation happening. But I think we’ll be hearing more and more about Virginia wine. Critics like Jancis Robinson are starting to pay attention.
TasteCamp attendees were treated to a packed agenda: we started with lunch at Boxwood Winery, where artfully-arranged tables were set up amid the stainless steel tanks, and then moved outside where several wineries had set up tables for the grand tasting. That evening was a tasting and dinner at Breaux Vineyards. The next day included a vineyard walk at Fabbioli Cellars, a grand tasting and lunch at Tarara Winery, a vineyard walk and tasting at Tranquility Vineyards and Otium Cellars, and the infamous TasteCamp BYOW dinner, generously hosted by North Gate Vineyards and catered by Smokin’ Willy. The next morning, we finished the weekend on a high note with a vineyard walk and tasting at Linden Vineyards, where I tried my favourite wines of the weekend.
The weekend was made possible by many friendly, passionate people from the Virginian wine industry, people who clearly love their chosen vocation. I guess you have to love it, because starting a winery in Virginia is certainly not a surefire success. As Doug Fabbioli (of Fabbioli Cellars) told us, when he decided to become a winemaker after college, he told his now-wife that he thought he could do it, but that he would just make a living at it. She told him she’d rather be with someone who’s happy than someone with a lot of money who’s grumpy.
Getting into the business is not a decision to be taken lightly. Rachel Martin, who runs the day-to-day at Boxwood Winery, took the train to NYC to think things over for a weekend when her parents called to tell her they wanted to start a winery and wanted her to run it. She accepted, of course, and when I saw her, she had that glow of someone enjoying their lot in life. Fabbioli seems to be enjoying himself, too. He’s never stopped innovating: one of the many things he showed us was a tree full of pears growing inside bottles, to be eventually made into his “Pear In a Bottle” wine. He’s not without a sense of humour, either: he named one cuvée “Something White” for all the customers who kept arriving at the winery asking for “something white.”
Winemakers in Virginia definitely have their share of challenges: the summers are hot and extremely humid, which can be a nightmare for vineyard farmers. The use of pesticides seems to be a common way to get around the threat of vineyard diseases (the Virginia Vineyards Associations offers a summer technical-spray workshop and Doug Fabbioli teaches a course on pesticides and summer maintenance). There are exceptions: Blenheim Vineyards, partially owned by Dave Matthews of rocker fame, practices organic farming and is said to be working toward certification for their vineyard.
As Jim Law of Linden Vineyards explained, while in California they talk about irrigation, in Virginia they talk about evacuation: getting rid of the water any way you can, using slopes, weeds, etc. Innovation is necessary to come up with solutions to nature’s problems, and many of the winemakers and vine growers we met showed a passion for constant innovation. There was also an emphasis on collaboration and learning from each other. This is not, after all, a region where winemaking methods have been passed down through many generations, like in some European regions. We heard of various experiments with grape varieties, where a variety that didn’t work was pulled out to plant another.
The search for the best grape varieties for Virginia’s climate and terroir doesn’t look like it will be over any time soon. Jordan Harris at Tarara Winery told us that it can take 25 to 30 years before vines get a deep enough root structure to give the kind of true expression of terroir he’s looking for. In the meantime, he considers new vines an investment in the future of the winery. And there are heartbreaks: last year at Tarara, they left 20 tons of Cabernet Franc on the vine to rot because the grapes just weren’t ripening properly.
Especially when tasting the reds, I was also struck by the sometimes excessive use of oak: much, if not all, of the red wine we tasted had spent some time in oak, often with some new oak. Many of these wines were too oaky, heavy, and high in alcohol for my palate. This is of course my personal preference, and the palates of customers in Virginia may very well be different. Any regular readers of this blog may notice that my tastes veer toward the “natural” (contested term that that is), and that also includes preferring wine without an overt oak influence. (The boy on wine has been known to call me an “oak snob.”) But I couldn’t help but wonder what unoaked Virginia red would taste like. Without the cloak of new oak, would we be any closer to tasting Virginia’s terroir?
Yet, at our last TasteCamp stop, Linden Vineyards, I found winemaker Jim Law’s approach very refreshing. He spoke of the need to make balanced wines. “Big sugar content doesn’t make good wine,” he said. It makes wines that are too high in alcohol. His biggest fear is an early harvest: if you harvest when the nights are still humid, he explained, the whites will lose their finesse and acidity, becoming uninteresting and flabby. And with the reds, it’s all about the tannins, he said: when the grapes are overripe, you lose structure. From this, I was starting to get the feeling I was going to like his wines.
Stay tuned for part two, in which I talk about all the wines I did like!