- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2008

Virginia’s rolling hills, scenic shores and towering mountains are a haven for more than just outdoor enthusiasts and bucolic farms: The state’s wine industry has boomed during the past few decades, with lush vineyards and nascent wineries sprouting up in nearly every region of the commonwealth.

But how does Virginia’s wine country stack up to California’s Napa Valley, Washington state’s Columbia Valley and other better-known U.S. wine regions? Connoisseurs say the vintages compare quite well, even as the industry faces challenges ranging from government regulation to the state’s different climates.

“It’s almost been an explosion,” said Dan Berger, a syndicated wine columnist in California who has written about Virginia wine for the Los Angeles Times. “The real message is things have changed and changed and changed, and Virginia is up there with some of the best wines in the country, and we should be recognizing that.”

Since 1980, the number of wineries in Virginia has skyrocketed from about six to more than 130. The state ranked eighth nationally last year in commercial grape production, though it had just 50 acres of wine grapes in 1973.

As the number of vineyards has grown, in-state winemakers say the quality of their product has risen dramatically as well - a claim they say is backed up by growing consumer acceptance.

Jonathan Bess, owner of the Eastern Shore’s Holly Grove Vineyards, bottled his first wines in May of last year. He won 15 medals in roughly nine months for his vintages, earning awards in international contests held in California and Indiana.

The state’s famed Barboursville Vineyards near Charlottesville also has won more than 20 gold medals in the last seven years for its hallmark Octagon blend alone.

“Wineries, especially in the last 10 years, have really come a long way with growing quality,” said Jonathan Wehner, owner of Chatham Vineyards, also on the Eastern Shore. “The flavors are made in the vineyard. People are really starting to do a great job of growing grapes.”

Carlo De Vito, a New Jersey-based wine writer and blogger who authored the book “East Coast Wineries: A Complete Guide from Maine to Virginia,” said the state’s wines now compare to the country’s best in part because of the improving skills of those joining the industry.

“You can find great dessert wines, you can find some great white wines in Virginia, and today you can find some wonderful red wines as well,” Mr. De Vito said. “In a blind tasting, they would do very well against other red wines produced in the United States, no problem.”

Mr. Berger, also a judge in international wine competitions, said Virginia and New York are locked in “a [heck] of a race” in terms of quality wine production. The state is trailing California, Oregon and Washington in wine quality but has improved dramatically, he said.

Still, not everyone is convinced. Andrew Jefford, a British journalist and wine expert who writes for publications like Decanter and the World of Fine Wine, participated in a tasting of Virginia wines held in London last year.

He said he was struck by the welcome “lack of size” in the state’s wines, which can prove to be “lighter, fresher, smaller-boned wines than most of their American counterparts.”

But he said Virginia’s penchant for stormy summers makes it difficult for native wines to compete with vintages from drier regions.

“Based on what I have tasted, I don’t think they yet compare to the four better-known regions,” Mr. Jefford said. “If climate change provides drier, calmer summers, Virginia may compete squarely with other world regions and perhaps in North American terms with Oregon.”

A little help from the state

Behind the state’s surging wine industry are factors like increased farming knowledge among grape growers and generous government support, industry members say. A romantic perception of the industry also is a likely factor in attracting would-be vintners, while Virginia is home to various climates that can be conducive to growing different types of grapes.

For example, the eastern portion of the state is generally wetter and provides for better production of Norton grapes, while vineyards in the northern Shenandoah Valley are drier and typically do well with varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier.

Norton grapes are named after Dr. D.N. Norton of Richmond, who first grew the hybrid in 1820. The oldest cultivated American grape, Norton has been dubbed “The Cabernet of the Ozarks.”

The state also is not so far south that its crops typically face relentless heat, and it has a cold enough climate to largely avoid Pierce’s disease - a deadly disorder spread by insects called sharpshooters that has wiped out thousands of vines in the wine regions of California.

“There’s such a variety of beneficial places in the state that make it very feasible to grow great grapes,” said Rock Stephens, president of the Virginia Vineyards Association.

Still, winery owners and grape growers say a primary reason for the boom is an unprecedented amount of government support for the industry: The General Assembly in 1980 passed the Virginia Farm Winery Act, which allowed state wineries to skip a three-tiered process and self-distribute their own product to restaurants and stores.

In addition, members of the governor-appointed Virginia Wine Board use tax revenue to fund efforts like marketing and research in the industry, which also receives a boost from research at Virginia Tech.

“I will say that probably the biggest success in getting us where we are today is the state’s support that has gone into the industry,” said Tony K. Wolf, a professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech who has led efforts to boost grape-growing in the state. And “it takes people with creativity and energy to make an industry like this succeed.”

However, a 2005 federal court ruling found that state wineries’ ability to self-distribute violated the Constitution by giving state wineries privileges not extended to those outside the state.

State lawmakers then eliminated the privilege, forcing smaller wineries to find a distributor and placing much of the industry in jeopardy.

“People started opening wineries and educating the public,” said Robert Giardina, who along with his wife, Francesca, opened the first winery on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in 2004. “Now that we did all the dirty work, they come in and say ‘Thank you very much, you can’t do that anymore.’”

The new law left about two-thirds of state wineries without a way to distribute their brands, and the ban’s impact on the industry could have been “devastating,” said Elaine Lidholm, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“The intent was not to shut down the industry, but that’s what in effect they were doing to the small wineries,” said Mr. Bess, who produced 650 cases of wine last year. “The growth could have been more explosive than it had been.”

In April, the state launched the Virginia Winery Distribution Co. in association with the agriculture department. The mechanism allows wineries that choose to participate in the program to distribute up to 3,000 cases of their product through the company.

Eighty wineries participated with the service this summer. But how the abolition of self-distribution - and the interim period before establishment of the distribution company - will affect the industry remains to be seen.

Some say barring the distribution right harms smaller wineries and holds the industry back. Time will tell if the boom continues.

“The industry needed it and it’s a temporary fix, but a better fix would be to allow it up to a certain quantity,” Mr. Stephens said. “If I was getting into the industry, I would think about it twice … in Virginia.”

‘I used to have a job’

Mixing and matching the right type of grapes with the state’s varied conditions is key to producing quality wines, vintners say. But just as important are the hands that grow the grapes.

“I love the work. That’s what will always keep me going,” said Jim Law, owner of Linden Vineyards in Linden. “It’s really exciting. You just keep building. There’s not many careers where you can do that.”

On the state’s Eastern Shore, a series of small vineyards accompanied by wineries have sprung up in the last decade, taking advantage of the area’s maritime environment and drawing tourists traveling along the coast.

At Bloxom Vineyard and Winery, Mr. Giardina and his wife, Francesca - both natives of Casablanca, Morocco - found the perfect spot to continue Mr. Giardina’s hobby of the last 20 years. In 2000, they planted six acres of Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The couple opened a winery on the Eastern Shore four years later. Now, with a young daughter to raise and the bulk of the work done by the couple themselves, the romance of the venture has given way to the challenges of managing a business.

To draw more visitors, the couple has hosted festivals pairing wine, food and music, and served pizzas homemade in a stove imported from Italy.

“We never expected so much work, but it’s been a good experience,” Mrs. Giardina said. “Tough, but good.”

About 30 miles south, at Chatham, Mr. Wehner and his wife, Mills, run a 20-acre vineyard planted in 1999 and a winery that produced 2,200 cases last year.

The vines, with French vinifera varietals like Merlot and Chardonnay, soak up the sun on an old soybean field next to a historic farmhouse. Mr. Wehner’s parents bought the house in 1979.

Mr. Wehner formerly worked in real estate development and construction in the District, and said the choice to start Chatham was “a quality of life decision,” based in part on knowledge gleaned from his parents’ weekends spent running a Fairfax County vineyard as he grew up.

“I love it,” he said. “This is a lifestyle, this isn’t work. I used to have a job.”

Chatham has been in the process of working to expand its operations by connecting a historic house on the grounds to its winery tasting room, which will feature a mezzanine and catwalk.

The business, which Mr. Wehner said costs roughly $200,000 per year to run and makes a “modest return,” also helps host a kayak tour and wine-tasting combo that lets visitors create a sense of place.

“The great thing about coming to a winery is people become personally attached,” Mr. Wehner said. “It’s very different than buying a wine off a store shelf.”

Closer to the District, Mr. Law’s Linden Vineyards sits on rocky, “hardscrabble” terrain in the Blue Ridge Mountains that he says provides diverse soils perfect for grape-growing. The 24 acres making up his main vineyard hold red-wine grapes like Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, and Mr. Law specializes in blends.

After traveling to California for years to learn vineyard techniques and ideas, Mr. Law - who honed his farming skills with a Peace Corps stint growing fruits in the Congo - said he later turned his attentions to France because its grape-growing climate is similar to the climate affecting his vineyard.

France has a range of soils and unpredictable weather, Mr. Law said. French vintners have learned to adapt their practices to correspond with climatic changes in the growing season.

He said his business, which also produces white wines and brought in more than $1 million in revenue last year, focuses on getting and then keeping its customers.

“In the short run, you can have a nice view and that sort of thing,” said Mr. Law, whose winery features a wood-paneled deck overlooking the surrounding mountains and serene grounds. “Our goal is to attract people who love wine. If we can get a reputation, which we have, it just makes it a lot easier and people are predisposed to like your wine.”

Reputation also is important at Barboursville Vineyards, a sprawling estate about 20 miles northeast of Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello.

The 900-acre grounds hold about 150 acres of wine, the ruins of a mansion built by Jefferson for former Virginia Gov. James Barbour, an upper-tier restaurant called Palladio that boasts delicious Italian cuisine and historic cottages now renovated and used as an inn for guests.

Barboursville also boasts the historical significance of being the first vineyard to follow up on Jefferson’s failed and famous attempts to grow strictly European wines in Virginia.

Its success in the modern day is apparent: About 75,000 people visited the grounds last year, the winery produced between 28,000 and 32,000 cases of wine the last three years and the combined businesses on the estate grossed $5.5 million in revenue last year.

Luca Paschina, Barboursville’s head winemaker, who hails from Taurino, Italy, repeated the tenet that quality farmers produce quality wines by matching grapes to the surrounding soil and climate.

For Virginia, that means a constant cycle of new challenges for the state’s vintners, who in recent years have risen to the task.

“There’s not the perfect growing region, I believe, anywhere,” Mr. Paschina said. “The key is which grapes to grow and how to grow them. That’s true for any new wine district.”

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