I’m beginning to feel a bandwagon effect. The buzz about local wines keeps getting louder.
I just received an e-mail from The Bottle Shop, a small specialty wine retailer in North Potomac, Maryland. The store regularly sends e-mail notices about upcoming tastings and specials, but today’s touted a visit and exclusive tour of Black Ankle Vineyards, which is leading Maryland’s quality renaissance. Black Ankle is just an hour’s drive from North Potomac, and the store customers who sign up and pay $40 will get round-trip presentation, an exclusive tour of the vineyards and winery, a tasting and dinner.
And to think it wasn’t that long ago that most area retailers would sneer at the thought of selling a local wine, much less organizing an outing to one of the wineries. In fact, too many continue to sneer, but local wines are becoming more available. There are three reasons for this, all related: The wines are getting better, younger consumers especially are asking for them, and more enlightened retailers such as Christina Findley of The Bottle Shop are sensing a marketing opportunity.
The Black Ankle outing will be Sunday, November 13, and only 25 tickets are available. I’m wagering Findley might have a waiting list.
A second sign that things are changing: On DonRockwell.com, a leading foodinista bulletin board/online community for the Washington area, the locapour movement recently got a (qualified) endorsement from the impresario himself, and Virginia’s envelope-pushing RdV Vineyards is also generating enthusiasm as “Virginia’s Cult Wine.” These are people who take their food and wine very seriously. They are willing to pay good money for high quality, just as they are quick to complain about something that doesn’t offer value for the price.
A third sign that things are changing: I visited Black Ankle’s tasting room on October 1, while researching my recent Washington Post feature about Maryland wine. It was a busy Saturday, and I stood at the bar and did the regular tourist tasting anonymously. Whoever took care of me (I didn’t get her name) was excellent and very knowledgeable about the wines. At one point, a young 20-something couple arrived and began the tasting next to me. When the server began explaining the first wine, the young woman asked, “Where is the fruit from?” This of course launched the discussion into the story of how Black Ankle was Maryland’s first fully estate winery and that they use only fruit they grow themselves. I thought it striking that the customer was concerned about this enough to ask. A fair amount of “Maryland wine” is not made with Maryland grapes – which may not matter to most people, though in my opinion it should be disclosed to consumers who think they are buying local wine. And of course, using only grapes they grow gives winemakers more control over the entire process and quality.
This issue of spiking local wines with out-of-state fruit is important as wine regions such as Virginia and Maryland seek to establish their identities, and their terroirs. Frank Morgan, who blogs at DrinkWhatYouLike.com, recently explored this issue in an article in Flavor magazine. Flavor is itself a treasure, devoted to the food and wine of the Chesapeake “foodshed.”
Morgan’s essay is an important article about an important issue. It doesn’t matter that most people may not care whether their local wine is spiked with out-of-state grapes. What matters is that more and more people do care – and winemakers want to craft expressions of their individual terroirs rather than simply produce a marketable fermented juice. That young lady at Black Ankle wanted to know whether the wine she was tasting was made from grapes grown right there. She cared about their provenance – she wanted to taste a “local” wine and make up her own mind about whether it was worth buying.
This issue gets into terroir. It gets into young wine regions such as Virginia or Maryland trying to establish their identity. It also reflects the issue of wine origins – just as “sparkling wine” is not necessarily “Champagne,” and fortified late-harvest zinfandel is not “Port,” a “Virginia” wine spiked judiciously (and perhaps legally) with California juice is not really a Virginia wine.
Virginia’s getting good enough to trust itself. So is Maryland. Even in an awful vintage like 2011, we consumers want local wines to be local.
We all should ask, “Where is the fruit from?”