Virginia’s wine industry just declared itself ready for prime time. With quality improving year to year and the national and international press beginning to take notice, the industry has now revamped its annual Governor’s Cup competition to be a showcase for the best wines the state has to offer.
Well, you might ask, isn’t that what the Governor’s Cup was always about? Sort of. What used to be a medal factory for wineries producing decent juice is being transformed into a showcase of the best wines Virginia has to offer.
The most important of the changes announced last week is that all wines entered must be made entirely from Virginia-grown grapes. (Except for ciders and fruit wines, of course, which will have their own categories but must also verify their Old Dominion origins.) The use of out-of-state grapes – legal up to 25% of the juice – is an obstacle to Virginia establishing its own identity as a wine region. This issue was recently spelled out nicely by Frank Morgan in Flavor magazine.
Another change is that red and white wines will be evaluated together. The Virginia Wineries Association (VWA), which owns the competition, separated it two years ago into separate red and white judgings, which only confused consumers and diluted the significance of winning the Governor’s Cup.
The new format was developed by the VWA, the Virginia Vineyards Association (a growers’ group) and the state-appointed Virginia Wine Board, three organizations known more for feuding than cooperating. Their new-found comity was facilitated by Governor Bob McDonnell and Agriculture Secretary Todd Haymore, two vocal industry advocates. And the announcement of the changes to the competition came from McDonnell’s office, giving the new format greater prominence.
The new competition will be conducted in two rounds, and managed by Jay Youmans, the Washington, D.C., area’s only Master of Wine and proprietor of the Capital Wine School, which conducts wine education classes in D.C. The involvement of Youmans – one of only 31 MW’s in the United States and only 299 worldwide – gives instant international credibility to the Virginia Governor’s Cup, elevating it a step above the typical regional “best of” competition.
Under Youmans’ supervision, the first round will whittle the entries down to the 120 highest scorers, which will then be rated by a separate panel of judges to select the 12 that represent the best Virginia has to offer in 2012. The winning wines will be sent to writers and publications around the country for review, and entered into other national contests. The Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office, in other words, will be acting as a national marketing agency for the winning wines to promote the state as a whole. The two rounds of judging will take place in late January, with the winners unveiled February 23 in Richmond at the Virginia Wine Expo. (I will be a judge in the second round, so will report back after the competition.)
The Governor’s Case is designed to entice wineries that are often considered to make the state’s best wines to enter the competition. Several wineries have shied away from the Governor’s Cup’s previous “winner takes all” approach, feeling that they have more to lose than to gain from participating.
“With this format change, with the top 12 wines being promoted, these wineries have everything to gain by participating,” Youmans says. “The Governor’s Case should be more attractive to the top tier of wineries for the marketing value. You’d need a full-time PR person sending out samples to various competitions and writers to get the same impact.”
One winery high on the organizers’ list of hopeful entries is Linden Vineyards, widely considered to make some of Virginia’s finest wines but also a perennial no-show in state competitions. Owner/winegrower Jim Law confirmed to me that he will be entering wines in next year’s competition.
“It is the first time Linden has entered a competition in about a dozen years,” Law says. “I have been impressed at the focus and organization of this competition and feel that it will steer our industry in a good direction.”
If more wineries participate, this should be a case a governor can be proud of.
(This article first appeared on The Washington Post’s All We Can Eat blog on Dec. 21, 2011.)