Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Victim of Success

When people think of Virginia wine, they most likely think about Viognier for whites and Cabernet Franc for red. Despite the spirited debate and range of opinions the last post on the subject received, Cabernet Franc remains both the state's workhorse and showhorse and likely will be for some time. The challenge becomes how does a region continue to showcase signature varietals while at the same time branching out, diversifying and making a wider range of wines that will be accepted and enjoyed by consumers?

In Virginia, winemakers are having great success with Bordeaux-style blends, and are experimenting with traditional blending grapes - like Petite Verdot and Tannat - and non-French varietals - like Nebbiolo and Barbera. The state is also far from the only one that is trying to expand while also continuing to produce what has been successful and what people expect. 

The Paso Robles AVA in California is having a similar dillema. Long known for its big, fruity Cabernet Sauvignons and Zinfandels, some wineries in Paso Robles are also looking for ways to diversify. At Villa San-Juliette, for example, they offer the traditional wines the region is known for - Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel - but they also produce several different red and white blends, a Petite Sirah and a Cabernet Franc. 

Villa San-Juliette's blends - Chorum White and Red - are more unique than the Rhone Ranger varietal blends that Paso is also known for. In fact, its Chorum Red Blend contains Rhone varietals (Syrah and Grenache), Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot and Cabernet Franc) and more unique varietals such as Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet.

Given the blend, the Chorum red is a big, smokey red with a lot of blueberry, blackberry and chocolate mixed in and goes very well with grilled meats. 
2011 Chorum, Paso Robles
VSJ's Chorum Blend is a big, bold mutt of a wine, which is a compliment.
As for the Petite Sirah, it is also a big, smokey wine with a lot of tannins, cedar, oak and vanilla on it. To be honest, I am not all that familiar with the Petite Sirah grape or the wines it produces. I know enough to know that it is totally different from Syrah, and the style of the wine is also vastly different from most Syrah/Shiraz I have had. 

The Villa San-Juliette is a good introduction to this varietal, and has intrigued me to want to try other ones. And isn't that really what offering more than just the known varietals is all about - giving people choices and letting them grow their love of different types of wines?

Virginia, like Paso Robles, has found success with a few very popular varietals and styles of wine.  The challenge now is how to continue to give people what they have come to expect while also expanding the types of wine a certain region produces. Given how strict rules for winemaking are in Europe, this is pretty much a New World problem, but it is a wonderful problem to have. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Cabernet Franc and Virginia... Is the Romance Gone?

I recently asked some of Virginia's  winemakers, bloggers and marketers to assess the relationship between Virginia and Cabernet Franc. Long considered the state's signature grape, Cabernet Francs have been losing ground recently - particularly to blends - and last year, not a single Cabernet Franc wine was included in the Governor's Case. 

Does this mean that the red hot romance between the state of Virginia, its wine industry's marketing arm and Cabernet Franc is starting to cool off? 


"Cabernet Franc, you're great, but I want to start seeing other grapes. Can we still be friends?"
Though exclusion from the Governor's Case is not the only criteria by which to judge Cab Franc's popularity - and indeed, there were several that were Governor's Cup winners - the fact that seven of the twelve wines selected were blends, the other reds included in the Case were Tannats and a Nebbiolo and the remaining two wines were a Chardonnay and a dessert wine. It certainly seems as though Cabernet Franc - once heralded as the grape that would put Virginia on the wine map like Malbec did Argentina - is losing some of its luster.
  


Once thought of as Virginia's signature grape, Cabernet Franc seems to be reverting back to its historical role as a blending grape
The responses to the question, "is Cabernet Franc losing its luster?" resulted in many varied and passionate responses, with the consensus being that, while Cabernet Franc is still an important - if not vital - grape to Virginia's wine industry, it should not stand along as a signature grape. 

Below are some of the responses I received. Thank you to everybody who added their comments and insight to this question.

"Cab Franc is certainly an important red in Virginia, and the most dominate red by acreage and tonnage in Virginia...I would argue Petit Verdot has more of a future in Virginia than Cab Franc for several reasons. At least to equal as the other primary flagship red varietal.

For consumers, Cab Franc as a lighter, red fruits, with spicy notes to Petit Verdot as a dark and broad shouldered, black fruits and leathery nuances. They are paired opposites.

For growers, a good producer and hearty; for wine makers, it’s easy to make into a good wine when ripe.  

If I had only 2 reds to work with in Virginia, these above would be my 2 choices.     
This applies as a grower, winemaker, winery owner and consumer." 
Chris Pearmund
Managing Partner,
Pearmund Cellars

"I don't think its loosing its luster but rather settling into its place. I think it produces a certain style wine in Virginia, which is great. Sort of becoming our Pinot Noir in body, style, and finesse whereas a varietal like Tannat has the weight, structure, tannins, and age ability to produce a heavy Napa Cab like wine...rather than anointing a king, its a sign of an emerging wine region to appreciate different wines at different times."
Kirk Wiles
CEO
Paradise Springs Winery


"Cab Franc still has the shoulders and stature to be Virginia’s Red.  Blends are being very well received and in 2011, it was critical to do great blending, especially with Cab Franc.  Tannat is great but not widely planted, is a little fickle in the vineyard and is not very winter hearty.  I have tremendous damage in my Tannat from the below zero temperatures in January while the Cabernet Franc right next to it is looking well.  Merlot in my opinion needs to be blended. Other varietals are great but Cab Franc is a work horse and still stands strong."
Doug Fabbioli
Co-Founder and Winemaker
Fabbioli Cellars 


Once the cool kid's table, these Cab Francs have growing competition from within the Virginia wine community

"I do not think Cabernet Franc has lost its luster. It’s just sharing the stage. What you’re seeing are vintners and marketers doing their part to create better name recognition for other varieties. This in turn drives consumer demand for those varieties. This is similar to how Cabernet Franc, one of the region’s work-horse varieties, became such a household name. 

Growers and producers created demand for it and that demand is still present. Of course, with the up-and-coming varieties, there needs to be enough planted, produced, and there should be consistency in quality, not so much style, to help foster its success. In that respect, the Old-Timer, who we will call Cabernet Franc, has proven its worth."
Dezel Quillen
Blogger,

"We are clearly moving to red blends as being the prime red wines produced in Virginia.  I think the trend away from varietals to blended wines is nationwide. So in that sense, Virginia is part of the trend.  2011 is the vintage when the wisdom of blending really hit home for many Virginia winemakers.  While I think Virginia makes better Merlot than Cab Franc on average. Cab Franc as a single varietal was more unique nationwide, and therefore more noticeable. There is a lot more Merlot to compete against for recognition than Cab Franc. Some are touting Tannat or Petit Verdot as potential varietals for Virginia to achieve fame with, but those are harder to sell in the marketplace too."
Kurt Jensen 
Blogger,

"At this point Virginia winemakers are trying to determine if its better to make wine like Chinon or Bordeaux.  Also, this could be a result of the Virginia grape shortage where growers are experimenting with other grape varieties and not planting enough Cab Franc...I don't think we will have the answer for quite a while."
Todd Godbout
Blogger,

Lonely Cabernet Franc grapes will wait outside of wine judge's windows in the rain with a boombox over their head if it comes to that. And if they had arms.
"Cabernet Franc in Virginia produces inconsistent results. People thought that Cabernet Franc would be Virginia’s answer to Cab Sauv because it seemed easier to grow and ripened better. However, we’ve tasted Francs that are “green” or overly oaken. Another practice is to blend Franc with other varietals such as Tannat, but the result is that the Franc gets lost somewhere in the blend.

The trend amongst winemakers is to focus on the red blends as opposed to bottling single varietals of the bordeaux grapes. These do tend to produce the kind of color and complexity that suggests a well crafted wine. There may be an exception with Petit Verdot. More winemakers are bottling that one on its own perhaps because it seems to ripen well in spite of adverse weather conditions. We heard fewer complaints from winemakers about Petit Verdot during the 2011 harvest, a year that was washed out by hurricane Irene.

The underestimated grape in Virginia might be Merlot."
Warren Richard
Blogger,

"I fought for a long time when I first moved here that Cabernet Franc is not and will not be the best grape to put Virginia reds on the map.  I still believe this, and think it is not suited to a lot of the state.  Where it does well, it does very well and can make some great wine.  It is certainly one of the varieties I am finding is most sought after of ours, but I don’t think it is as good as Merlot or even Syrah in our Estate Vineyard Nevaeh.  

I personally think it was chosen as the variety to tout for two reasons.  There was a string of good vintages for ripening Cabernet Franc, and it makes the most logical sense from a marketing standpoint.  

No one wants to promote themselves as a Merlot region at the moment and we can’t ripen Cabernet Sauvignon in most sites in most years.  Looking only at the big three Bordeaux varieties this leaves Cabernet Franc as the easiest to market.  We will never be able to compete with Argentina on Malbec and Petit Verdot simply does not ripen well in most places... We ignored all the great varieties around the rest of Europe. Bordeaux varieties just have great market appeal.

In the end, Virginia does not and will not have a solid state grape.  We are a hugely varied state climatically and with soil types.  We are also currently a tourism-driven industry, so many wineries attempt to make styles for the people being drawn to the area instead of what is suited to where the grapes are growing. We need to start looking at the different regions of Virginia instead of Virginia as having something we do well."
Jordan Harris
General Manager and Winemaker
Tarara Winery

Thank you to all the Virginia wine folks who provided their insight. This is clearly a hot topic right now, and will likely continue to be for some time. 

Have something to add? Feel free to post a comment and join the conversation!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Take that, France!

Congrats, America. We are now the largest wine consuming nation on earth! True, it took a while for this humble nation of over 300 million to overtake a country with less that 70 million residents, but we've gone and done it.

U.S. consumers bought 29.1 million hectoliters of wine in 2013, a rise of 0.5 percent on 2012, while French consumption fell nearly 7 percent to 28.1 million hectolitres, the International Vine and Wine organization OIV said recently, though they also did state that, "U.S. drinkers are, however, still way behind in terms of consumption per head."


If such wine-based drinks such as Boone's Farm and Mad Dog 20/20 are included, no doubt the U S of A would have taken the top spot a long time ago.


According to a recent Reuters article:

"The United States became the world's biggest market for wine last year, beating France into second place for the first time as consumption slides in the country long seen as its natural home and Americans develop a greater taste for it.

U.S. consumers bought 29.1 million hectoliters of wine in 2013, a rise of 0.5 percent on 2012, while French consumption fell nearly 7 percent to 28.1 million hectolitres, the International Vine and Wine organization OIV said on Tuesday.

Though the study does state that, "U.S. drinkers are, however, still way behind in terms of consumption per head," wine consumption is clearly on the rise. Several trends account for the rise of wine consumption in the US and the fall of wine consumption in France and throughout wine-producing countries in Europe.

France is still - far and away - the leading producer of wine in terms of tonnage and hectoliters produced, and still consumes much more on a per capita basis.

Given that France and wine are still so intimately, deeply and intrinsically linked, there is little worry that these results will have too much of an impact on overall wine markets. For the US, these findings only reinforce that our enjoyment of wine continues to grow - and that is likely due to the rise in wine regions around the country, a boom in winemaking in other New World regions, and a chipping away of the notion that wine is the preferred drink of foppish, effete snobs and old ladies.

As wine continues to be enjoyed and produced in greater quantity and quality throughout the US, hopefully, more and more people will develop a taste and appreciation for wines of all different styles and prices.

The only real barrier is the patchwork collection of Prohibition-era regulations throughout the different states that severely restrict access and choice of wine for their residents... Pennsylvania, I am again looking at you and your notion that a panel of state functionaries should be the be all and end all when it comes to what wines may be bought and sold in your state. This ridiculously insulting practice must end.

Back off the soapbox now, and another huzzah for wine consumption in the Untied States, and France, I still love you, too.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Is Winter Finally Over?

The country had one hell of a winter. The DC area felt like Chicago, Chicago felt like Minneapolis, and Minneapolis felt like Hoth. Here it is in early May, and the question of whether or not winter is finally gone is asked only half in jest.

So what does a winter that stretched from October to April with plenty of snow and rain mean to the DC area's wineries? Some winemakers have called the season "challenging," others have called it "brutal" and others still have called it "labor intensive" and even "nightmarish."

As long as the region doesn't experience a late freeze now that the buds are opening up, however, optimism is starting to bloom along with Northern Virginia's allergens.

Oh yeah, and Virginia also passed the Farm Brewery Act meaning that wineries and other farms can start brewing beer, which should make for some interesting developments.

Given so much that has happened with the weather and legislation, below is a reprint of Fabbioli Cellars' May newsletter so you can get more information straight from the source:

"We all knew that sooner or later the snowflakes would stop flying and the temperatures would warm up a little. This was my hardest winter in my 17 years of farming in Virginia, but thankfully, it is finally behind us. We still have a chance of frost as of this writing, but our buds have not fully opened yet so we are still protected from possible damage.  At this point the pear buds are at popcorn stage and the black raspberry buds are just starting to show their leaves.  Hopefully there will be no late frost this year.

We have had to deal with heavy rains this year, as well. We recently installed drain tile into the new planting section to help drain the water away from the vines and towards the Potomac River. This was a very labor intensive project involving a rented machine and plenty of hand digging around wires, pipes and connections by our field team.  (Thank goodness we have a great team, with experienced hands teaching the newer guys.)  Next, the vines will hopefully be planted in 10 days.

The new project that we started last year is growing hops. Below is a photo of the 2nd year cascade plants pushing up towards the sky. These will get 20 feet tall climbing the special coconut husk twine (coir) trellis. When I talk about growing hops, I always get the question from folks, "Are you going to make beer now?" No, I am not looking to make beer. My vision of these hops is to grow and process them to sell to local brewers. Since I'm in the agricultural processing business, I see an achievable goal of creating a processing center for hops that we (and some of our neighbors) can use. 

One advantage of growing hops is that the timing of the hops harvest is earlier than grapes, so my crew is available to work both crops.  Also, hops are easier and more cost effective to grow than grapes, because we can set up smaller acreage plots. We do not need to worry about deer or frost, either; and hops do not require nearly the amount of spraying that grapevines require. Many local land owners that would like to have grapes are disappointed to hear of the challenges of growing quality wine grapes on sub par land plots. Hops are not nearly as picky, and with the lower maintenance, it makes sense to do smaller plots for some  growers. 

With the passage of the Farm Brewery Act in Virginia, farms that are growing some products for beer will be allowed to open up a brewery with a tasting room. Unlike wineries, which must grow at least 51% of their raw materials, the brewers just need to grow something on their farm. As hops are one of the key flavoring ingredients to beer, sourcing local hops will be part of a marketing plan for many operations.

Now, I am not giving up on growing grapes. I am looking ahead, to fill a niche. We are looking forward to pushing this positive product towards profitability. The popping of the plants helps us all prosper. Cheers!"

Monday, March 17, 2014

Wine and Saint Patrick's Day? It Can Be Done!

With the middle name of "McLaughlin" and the last name of "McGurn," a wife whose maiden name is "Holmes," whose mother's maiden name is "Byrne," and a son named Finn, it's impossible to get around the need for a Saint Patrick's Day post.

Remember, "Whiskey" is Irish while "Whisky" is Scottish, and neither are made from grapes.
Given that I am posting midday, most readers may already be drunk off of whiskey and Guinness, yet soldier on I must...

Obviously, today celebrates the Irish, and Ireland is not known for producing wine, nor consuming a great deal of it. They are known for whiskey and dark beer - preferably served at room temperature. That said, wine is slowly making its ways into the pubs and restaurants of Ireland. That said, Ireland only recently seen as a major cheese producer, so perhaps they could learn a few other tricks from the French...

For the purist, of course, today will be drenched in Guinness, and there's nothing wrong with that. If you can find Murphy's Irish Stout, there's an entire region of Ireland that prefers this lesser-known Irish beer its massively larger cousin. Admittedly, I do, too. 



What goes well with Irish whiskey? Banjo music, obviously
 As for wine, the Irish themselves are now drinking a lot of wines from Argentina and Chile. Even though it is far closer to Spain and France - both of which are producing very approachable wines fit for a pub - when I was last in Ireland, the wines from South America - Chile in particular - were the wines of choice. 

See! Wine! Most likely a Chilean Merlot, as it was quite prevalent.
Editor's note, this picture was actually in Scotland, but the same thing applies

Perhaps it is EU trade rules, cost-to-value ratio or just some industrious Irish businessman began importing the stuff at the right time. Whatever the reason, along with the choice of Irish beers, American beers and whiskey, almost everywhere we went also had wines to offer. 

If you are so inclined, follow the new Irish trend of enjoying South American wine on this most Irish of holidays. I have raved about Chilean Merlot in past posts, and I have not softened on them at all. In fact, they are still some of the most complex, best value wines available. If you are more daring, take this opportunity to try a Chilean Carmenere with your corned beef tonight. Other options would be Malbec or Cabernets from Argentina or Tannat from Uruguay. 

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! 
Whatever you choose to drink - and however you choose to celebrate - do it responsibly, and keep in mind that Ireland, like the rest of the world, is fast evolving and developing a more sophisticated view of wine - with increasing consumption and enthusiasm for it. That, along with the Irishness of the day, is cause to celebrate.     


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hope in the New Year



This late into January, most New Year's Resolutions have long found their way to the curve along with the Christmas tree, the broken ornaments from the season and the cheesy gifts you can't return and feel too guilty to regift or even give away. 

Gone are the good intentions of losing weight, becoming a better person, being more assertive at the office, getting more involved in the community or the seemingly endless list of improvements people make late in December or early in January. By the time late January rolls around, everybody is - more or less - back to being themselves and their resolutions are boxed up and forgotten for another year. 

For those who are looking to still do good while not necessarily exerting too much energy, there is hope. Specifically, there is ONEHOPE Wines. ONEHOPE Wines gives half of their profits to social causes depending on which wine. Looking to help fight breast cancer? ONEHOPE's California Chardonnay will help you do that. Was your New Year's Resolution to go on a mission trip to provide clean drinking water for children in the developing world? That probably won't actually happen (again) this year, but you can crack open ONEHOPE's Central Coast Pinot Noir and help get clean water to those in need. 

Other causes associated with ONEHOPE wines is autism research, ending Alzheimer's disease, supporting our troops, ending childhood hunger and pet adoptions. 

2011 ONEHOPE California Pinot Noir
One Hope's California Pinot Noir. Half of All Profits go Towards Pet Adoptions

ONEHOPE recently sent me a bottle of their California Pinot Noir - where half of the profits go towards pet adoptions. 

The wine itself was light-bodied with a nose of chalk, cranberry and spice and full of cranberry  flavors. I couldn't help but think that these wines try to appeal to two different groups: those looking for a decent under $20 bottle of wine, and those who are looking for a wine that supports the same causes they do (Pinot for Pooches, etc.) and don't really care what the wine tastes like. 

Both motivating factors will help people purchase ONEHOPE wine and be satisfied with their decision. I would be interested to try some of their higher-end wines as a comparison to their under $20 California-appalated wines to see if there is a bit more complexity and character to them, but that will be another post for another time. 

For those who are looking to support good causes and drink drinkable, reasonably-priced wines at the same time, give ONEHOPE a look and a try. Better yet, host a Pinot for Pooches part and serve ONEHOPE to all your guests... Just a thought. 



Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Washington Wine Academy's "State of Virginia Wine" Tasting

Jim Barker is passionate about wine. For the past 15 years or so, he has done everything to educate Washingtonians about how to properly appreciate, drink, buy, taste and enjoy wine through his Washington Wine Academy. He has been able to turn his passion into his profession and it shows with his dedication to any and all things wine.

Go to the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse on a Friday, there he is, pouring wine and trying to take a few moments to share what people are tasting rather than just pouring. 


If you happen into Crystal City seemingly any time during the summer months, there's Jim and his Washington Wine Academy volunteers pouring wine and appearing to have a great time. 



Barboursville is ubiquitous at Virginia Wine Events, as well as being one of the industry's leading spokeswineries

In a city that has both an established as well as an emerging wine culture, people like Jim and organizations like the WWA are vital - especially when the focus changes to wines that are produced locally. Such was the event the WWA recently hosted in a vacant storefront in Crystal City - the "State of Virginia Wine" tasting. 

Pearmund was serving their Bordeaux-style blend as well as a Chardonnay and Viognier during the "state of Virginia Wine" Event

The tasting brought together some of the state's most prominant wineries, and the $55 price tag meant that the crowd - while small - was a good mix of wine lovers and hipsters who felt like paying $55 to hang out in an empty retail space, drink wine and snack on cheese and crackers. There were good numbers of both types of people at the event. 


Tasters sampling some of Virginia's best wines: Linden, RdV, Barboursville

"I wanted this event to be all about the wine," said Barker. "I didn't want to put on another event where people can see how much wine they can drink for twenty bucks."


Jim Barker chatting with a sleazy member of the wine press
In order to keep the event all about the wine, Mr. Barker used his extensive contacts in the Virginia wine industry to get both the big names - Barboursville, Trump - and the elusive, craft wineries - RdV, Linden - to participate. Ten wineries in all were present, many of them highly rated or highly regarded in their own right. If the purpose was to highlight the "best of the best," the sample was well thought-out.

"The DC market still doesn't understand what Virginia wine is all about," said Barker. "We're damn lucky to be here and wanted to showcase the best of Virginia wine to the DC area." 

Indeed, Virginia wine is starting to become a victim of its own success. With so many wineries moving into the state, Barker predicts that there may be a serious grape shortage in the near future. There are now over 200 wineries in the state, and the quality ranges from highly sought-after, coveted bottles - Barboursville's Octagon, RdV's Rendezvous - to low-quality, fruit wines that are designed to lure tourists to a tasting room, but little else. 

With demand rising, wineries continuing to open their doors, and massive amounts of money flowing into the industry from people with names like "Trump" and "Case," the sense one gets when speaking to Barker, those who work in the wineries, or those who cover Virginia wine is that between the continuing increase in quality wines being produced in the state, the increase in money being pumped into the industry, and the increase in accolades that wine writers are giving Virginia wines, Virginia wine is poised to take off in a serious way.  

The "Taste of Virginia Wine" reflected the Virginia wine industry's recent self-confidence and demand to be seen as a major region in the world of wine.