Revisiting an early call to “Drink Local”

I wrote this exhortation to “open your mind to local wines” in Dave McIntyre’s WineLine #56, in August 2006. That was more than two years before Jeff Siegel and I created DrinkLocalWine.com. Looking at it now, I’m a bit chagrined that I still hear some of the same arguments against local wine that I lamented six years ago – especially the price/value theme. Yet think of how much has changed: “Local wine” has exploded in the market, and acceptance has grown dramatically. Virginia’s wine industry alone has nearly doubled in size and more than doubled in economic impact since I wrote this. Social media, especially blogs, have helped turn a new generation of drinking age adults into local wine fans. The “locapour” movement has, with some halting success, linked wine to the “eat local” movement. And best of all, I don’t hear the Cheval Blanc comparison anymore – winemakers are justly proud of their wines and no longer feel the need to identify with a more famous wine region. They are forging their own regional identity.

Hey, the economy's improving - time to update this poster!

Although I live along the East Coast, I find a distressing amount of consumer
resistance to the idea that good wine can be grown here. “Oh yeah, I hear there’s
good wine in New York, but we can’t get it here,” is a common complaint (or excuse) in
the DC area. Or I hear this one: “Yeah, this is an excellent wine from Virginia, but the
nerve of them to charge 20 bucks!”

There is also consumer resistance to unusual grapes. Wines from Petit Manseng or the
tongue-twisting Rkatsiteli (think of it as Fluffy channeling Animal Planet) can be ripe,
beautifully structured and thrilling (yes, I’m thinking of Horton and Dr. Konstantin
Frank
, respectively), but they are also unfamiliar to our palates, and many people just
can’t get over their fear of the unknown.

There’s an unspoken bias that says, “If the wine is from [INSERT NAME OF ANY ONE
OF 47 STATES HERE], it must be crap, unless it proves to me otherwise. If it’s from
California/Oregon/Washington, it must be good, unless it proves otherwise.”
There’s logic to that, of course. California, Oregon and Washington have a track record
of quality, while anyone who has tried “local” wines likely has some unfortunate
experiences to remember. But as local wines get better, we as consumers have to stop
expecting them to taste more like California wines.

Good wine is grown here, and it really is irrelevant that $20 will give you more options
in California Merlot than equal quality Virginia wine. There’s plenty of bad wine
produced in California, after all. We can no longer assume that local wine is bad and
insist that they prove otherwise – we just have to learn to accept these wines for what
they are, even while we encourage winemakers to keep improving.

We as consumers (and writers) need to open our minds to new grape varieties and new
flavors, and stop mentally subtracting points from East Coast wines simply because they
are not from California, Italy, France or anywhere else. They are what they are, and they
are getting better all the time. Let’s applaud that. (Note to winemakers: You can help us
change our outlook if, whenever you manage to ripen your Cabernet Franc, you stop
comparing it to Cheval Blanc.)

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About Dave McIntyre

Wine columnist for The Washington Post, co-founder of DrinkLocalWine.com, and blogger at Dave McIntyre's WineLine (dmwineline.com).
This entry was posted in DrinkLocalWine.com, Eastern US, Local Wine, New York, Virginia, Weblogs, Wine, writers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Revisiting an early call to “Drink Local”

  1. Tom says:

    Don’t leave us hanging, Dave — are you chagrined because people are still dragging out the quality/price argument, or because there just aren’t many local wines that cost less than 20, good or not? Seriously, though, I think the major problem is that we have to drive out to the vineyards to get many of these wines instead of being able to buy them at our local wine shops. Not that I mind an occasional drive to the country, but it totally negates any environmental benefit of buying local. And if you decide to buy in bulk, it’s illegal to carry more than two cases of wine in your car in DC unless you have a liquor license. (The limit is even lower for MD).

    • My chagrin is that I still hear that argument – the $20 price level is arbitrary.

      I agree about distribution, though that is beginning to improve. Several Virginia wineries, at least, are now represented in traditional distribution channels (J.W. Sieg and Country Vintner are two distributors that have stepped up to the plate). The next test is whether retailers and restaurants will stock them. And then the final test is whether consumers will buy them, or if they prefer their weekend drives to the country.

  2. Terri says:

    Cheers to your great article! I grew up in California and listened to the debate between France and California, now living here and ENJOYING the evolution of Virginia wines have grown tired of hearing all that you stated above! I have been both infatuated and impressed with the wines here and now try my best to promote them! We are not going to make a ‘California’ wine here, and why should ‘we’? This is not California! We as Virginian’s need to embrace the wonderful style and unique qualitites that are specific to this terroir! The first thing I tell people when I hear “All Va wines are sweet” or “Virginia doesn’t have what it takes to make a West coast comparable wine”, “Have you tasted any lately?” Great piece!

  3. George Christo says:

    Amen, Dave. Virginia wineries ARE making some terrific wines and are still improving, still discovering what they can do well. True story – I sent a client in California a bottle of Pearmund 2005 Ameritage Reserve for Christmas – the one with the cool painted-on label. His response? “Virginia wine? What, you don’t like me?” I said, “Open it. Trust me.” He did, asked how he could get some, called, and ordered a case to be shipped. He had friends over and pulled out a bottle. Their response? “What, you don’t like us?” He said, “I’m opening it. Trust me.” Got the big thumbs up. The moral of the story? Well, you already knew the moral of that story.

  4. Dave,
    This literally could have been written yesterday.
    Speaking of VA, I am going down to Charlottesville with my wife, son and in-laws this weekend. Will probably stop by Cardinal Point and Veratas, maybe King Family and White Hall as well.

    MK

  5. Les Hubbard says:

    Dave, Great post. Clearly distribution remains an issue. Also retailers willingness to offer a variety of local wines remains another barrier. Although we offer a wide variety of local wines from MD and a few from VA, I had a customer on Tuesday request Horton wines. This tells me those wine consumers who are willing to try local wines have found those that they enjoy and are willing to pay for them. However, among our customers, most seem unwilling to pay more than $20 for a local wine. Maybe they would rather enjoy plunk from California. Hopefully, that’s not an elitist comment, but more recognition of economic reality for those who like to enjoy a bottle with every dinner as I do.

    Cheers, Les

  6. Hi Dave! The wine business certainly is booming in VA. I’m much anticipating Richard Leahy’s new book on VA wineries. He’s been an advocate for this region for decades. Have you heard when the release date might be?

  7. Melissa Watt says:

    I disagree about the retail factor – I find a variety of Virginia wines regularly stocked at Harris Teeter supermarkets, Whole Foods, and Total Wine.

    • Dave McIntyre says:

      And that’s a great start. Kudos to those companies for doing so.

    • Les Hubbard says:

      Melissa, perhaps true in VA, but you won’t find that variety available in most MD retail outlets. To purchase some of those excellent estate grown, single varietal wines, I must still travel to the winery to purchase. Les

      • Hello Les,

        I own The Bottle Shop in Rockville. We currently carry wines from Black Ankle, Barboursville, and Jefferson Vineyards and I have carried Horton in the past. I like to keep our selection fresh and evolving so I am tasting new offerings with Seig and Country Vintner for consideration. If there is something that you want to have in closer range let me know and I’ll see if I can get it in.

        • Les Hubbard says:

          Thanks Christina. I work part time for Nick’s of Calvert in Prince Frederick and, of course, we can and do buy many selections from Country Vintner and others. So I can special order for myuself or customers about anything available from MD distributors. The point I was making to Melissa was that VA retailers make a much larger selection of that state’s wines available to consumers than most MD retailers do as they perhaps should. It’s part about distribution and part about retailer’s selection choices. I grew up in VA, but served as the director of a boutique MD winery for 20 years, thus, my loyalties to local wines are sometimes a bit conflicted. Les

  8. Jarrod Jabre says:

    I feel the price request by consumers is somewhat justified, to be truthful.

    There is a difference between ponying up $25 for a Black Ankle estate-grown Syrah, and spending $18.99 on a fruit-infused, California-bulk-grape “American” wine from your local tourist winery.

    How is it that I can retail a 1,000 > case Napa AVA cab, shipped across the entire country, for less than I can get an entry-level wine from a winery up the road? I realize there are bills to pay, but at some point, if Maryland and Virginia truly want to be taken seriously, then they have to price themselves seriously. Charge $20 for your single-varietal, estate grown bottling. Charge $9 for the summer boating wine, or that stuff you trucked in from Oregon. And for pete’s sake, $30 price points are earned by quality and prestige, not bigger bottles and slightly better labeling.

    Just some thoughts,
    – Jarrod

  9. Most wineries are only producing a few thousand cases of wine, most of which sells directly to the customer via the tasting room or wine club, which makes wholesale a small part of the business. I think the price is valid, there are some wines that are maybe a touch high but there are plenty of wines that offer much more than what you pay for. Price is relative to the quality and if you pay $50 and get a $100 dollar value then $50 is a steal. I think it is also up to the wineries to change public perception, conduct blind side by side tastings where consumer prejudice might be negated.
    To prove this point, I sat in on a tasting at Jefferson vineyards a few months back and in a blind format; across 7 varietals, Virginia wines were mostly favored against their more illustrious counterparts, and more expensively priced counterparts I might add.

    Perception of the local wines produced are changing and that is due to better vineyard practices more so than wine making in my opinion. Gosh, if only we could charge Cheval Blanc prices!

  10. Erika says:

    The wineries are smaller here and so the packaging is expensive. That’s why Michael Shaps has started boxing his everyday wines, which are great! Now at our B&B we can offer our guests at check in a glass of white or red and we don’t have to open two bottles. His boxed wine will also last for months so I can have a glass or two with dinner and not have to pump it. The price of everyday wine is now solved, he can box 4 bottles in one box, which comes to between $7-$8 a bottle. Too snobby to drink boxed wine? Fine! More for me. It’s selling like hotcakes.

  11. Rick Tagg says:

    I spend quite a bit of time at local farmer’s markets in addition to my day (very glamorous) job at a Virginia winery. When I buy a chicken at a farmer’s market I spend quite a bit more than I would if I purchased a chicken at a grocery store. Across the board, fresh food grown locally is considerably more expensive than mass produced factory farmed foods that are shipped hither and yon.
    When I buy locally produced food, I can ask the people who grew it how it was grown and how it was treated–whether it is a chicken or a broccoli. I cannot do the same thing at a chain store. Knowing where my food comes from , and knowing the people who produce it and how they produce it connects me with my food, and I am also confident that what I am buying isn’t adulterated with things that I ordinarily do not think of as food–the modern litany of antibiotics, carcinogens, high fructose corn syrup, yadayadyada.
    If we are going to eat locally, we also need to drink locally.
    I love talking to people about making wine, where the grapes were grown, how they were grown, what I was wearing the day we picked them and so on. Mostly I tell them what goes into the wine we are making–connecting them with their food. Customers can observe and sometimes even help with our entire harvest process–can they do that at Chateaux Very Expensive and Full of Brett?
    Yes, Virginia wine sometimes seems more expensive. So is my 15 dollar chicken. But I know the people who grew it, fed it and killed it and it tastes like real food. Our Virginia wines have consistently shown extremely well in national and international competitions, in many blind taste tests, and on many of your tables. They taste like real food. Real food costs a little more.

    • Dave McIntyre says:

      Thanks for chiming in, Rick. A thoughtful argument from someone working in the trenches. Or, well, at least the vine rows.

  12. Dave,
    Thank you for “Drink Local”. It’s my opinion that Virginia wines have so improved in quality because many vineyards across the state are better tended than years ago and have planted improved vines. (Let me put in a plug here for the State Oenologist and Viticulturist at VA Tech.) Winemakers are not alchemists; great wines cannot be made from mediocre fruit.
    As to price it’s not inexpensive to grow wine grapes, quality ones that is. Specialized equipment, materials, and most of all labor from the viticulturist consultant to the harvest worker/table sorter don’t come cheap.
    Also could it be that our wines have improved partly in response to the customers’ palates which have become more discerning and sophisticated? In our tasting room we rarely have customers who ask for “some of that sweet pink wine.”
    Lastly I suggest your readers try small independent wine shops in addition to the sources mentioned above. Many small wineries just don’t produce enough cases to fill large orders required by the chain stores and still have adequate supplies for retail in their own tasting rooms.
    -Cynthia

  13. Pingback: What would Andrew Jackson drink? Reflections on the $20 price barrier | Vine Art … from the palate of first vine wine online

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