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Virginia wine industry’s harvest blues
Hopes dampen for 2011 vintage, but visitors, sales still cropping up
Perhaps the first person to discover how challenging it is to grow grapes in Virginia was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson made seven attempts to grow European wine grapes at Monticello, and he failed spectacularly each time.
In his most ambitious experiment, in 1807, Jefferson killed some 24 varieties of European grapes simply by planting them in Virginia soil, which teems with phylloxera, a species of aphid that bores holes through European grape roots. Modern winemakers get around the phylloxera problem by grafting European grape vines onto American grape roots — a process now also necessary in Europe as grape growers accidentally introduced the insect into French soil in the late 1800s.
Jefferson’s grape-growing attempts probably also were stymied by fungus — which Virginia winemakers now combat with regular copper sulfate spraying. “I would imagine that growing grapes organically would be nearly impossible here,” Ms. Morgan said.
Even with modern technology, Virginia’s grape growers have to work harder than their competitors in Napa Valley, Calif., and the Bordeaux region of France, said Frank Morgan, who blogs about wine at drinkwhatyoulike.wordpress.com.
The battle against moisture, mold, rot and hungry woodland creatures is never-ending, Mr. Reagan said. Plus, in years like this one, winemakers have to get creative, sometimes drying overly plump grapes, experimenting with different yeasts to bring out subtle flavors and blending mediocre wines with better vintages, he said.
“It’s a different challenge every year,” Mr. Reagan said.
Working in their favor, however, is Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has declared October “Virginia Wine Month” and has racked up frequent-flier miles promoting Virginia wine in the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea and China. Meanwhile, the Virginia legislature has established a tax credit for wine farmers and pumped funds into wine promotion. Virginia wine boosters also have attracted some big-name investors, most notably Donald Trump, who bought a winery near Charlottesville this month and promptly named it after himself.
“Wherever The Donald goes, lots of people follow,” said Nancy Bauer, co-author of the iPhone app “Virginia Wine in My Pocket,” which describes all of the state’s wineries.
Virginia’s vigorous wine promotion, however, may be getting ahead of the state’s modest production. Sixth in the nation for wine-grape growing, Virginia falls behind Texas, New York, Oregon, Washington and California.
“We can barely feed our own state, let alone the entire world,” Mr. Reagan said.
As a result, Virginia wineries sell most of their wine in-state, rather than going through national distributors. That is why the Bellagio doesn’t stock any Virginia wines, though it’s as good as similarly priced vino from California, said Jason Smith, a master sommelier and wine director at the Las Vegas hotel and casino.
“You people in Virginia aren’t sharing,” Mr. Smith said.
Virginia wines also are relatively unknown in Europe. The notable exception is the United Kingdom, said Frank Morgan, who recently counted 15 Virginia wines on sale at the Whole Foods in Kensington, England.
While major wine distributors may prefer larger farms, wine tourists lean toward intimate operations, said Ms. Bauer. “People want to go to family-run wineries, and that’s what Virginia has,” she said. “A lot of the time, you’ll be standing at the tasting bar with the winemaker.”
You also can harvest grapes alongside the vineyard’s owners, I discovered at Gray Ghost, when Amy Payette caught me popping grapes into my mouth rather than the harvest bins. But while that level of participation may deter grape moochers, it’s what keeps tourists such as George McHale coming back to Gray Ghost year after year.
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