A new, improved, Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition

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.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, here in an October 2011 photo, announced the changes to the Virginia Governor's Cup competition last week.

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.

Jay Youmans, MW, will lead the revamped Governor's Cup competition. (Photo: Capital Wine School.)

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.)

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 Competitions, Virginia, Wine and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to A new, improved, Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition

  1. We’re jealous of what you’re doing, Dave. Virginia cares about regional wine. Texas cares about feathering its politicians’ nests.

  2. Allen Clark says:

    Dave – Will there be some form of set-aside for different categories of wine, or will the entire field be left to stand on its own? I’m wondering how the panel will compare “apples and oranges” unless there’s a slot for dessert, sparkling, white, red, etc. among the 12 possible winners.

    • Dave McIntyre says:

      Allen – my understanding is that the Governor’s Case will not be subdivided by categories. The idea is to show the best Virginia has to offer, so if Bordeaux blends are particularly strong we might see two or three among the 12. Similarly, if Merlot is a particularly weak category one year, why showcase one?

      Sent from my iPhone

  3. This ‘overhaul’ by Jay and the VVA is certainly another big step on the road to greater international credibility and a piece of the global wine market (now, if only, wineries would produce more wine 🙂 ) I’m glad to hear that Linden wines will be entered in the 2012 Governor’s Cup Competition. I feel Jim’s participation lends even more credibility to the ’12 Cup – both within the Virginia wine industry, and to the outside marketplace as well.

    Curious as to others thoughts on the VVA ‘marketing’ these top 12 wines. A couple of winemakers I’ve spoke to have expressed concern about the loss of ‘marketing control’ of their wine if they are one of the top 12 wines (which I believe all wineries want their wines to be in this coveted top 12). Many wineries prefer to maintain control of how and where there wines are marketed, so I suspect there will be further discussion between winemakers, VVA and Jay on this subject.

    I also believe that the top 12 wineries will be expected to sell ten cases at no more than $200/case. This is below wholesale for several of Virginia’s top wines so I wonder if this will prevent some entries from higher priced wines (not too likely, but a possibility, I suppose).

    And thanks for the link to the Flavor piece – much appreciated! Have a great holiday.

    • Scott Claffee says:

      If that last part (about the $200/case) is true, I would seriously doubt that someone like RdV would enter (not that they need the marketing help anyway). But I do hope that Thibaut-Janisson enters. If they’re really seeking to showcase the 12 best Virginia wines (of any variety), their sparkling wine would clearly be among them.

    • Frank – I saw that comment on your blog and tried to address it in my piece. Wineries won’t be “losing marketing control” over their wines, that’s totally ridiculous. The VVA would be marketing the 10 cases as an example of Virginia’s best, taking on the expense of shipping them to writers around the country, and entering them into other contests. The winery would still be free to market the rest of its production any way it pleases. Why in the world wouldn’t someone want the help and the additional exposure?

      As for the $200/case figure, I wasn’t able to confirm that; Jay thought it was higher, but I’m trying to reach folks who are scattered for the holidays. But even if they will be selling the wine at a “discount”, they will be gaining the extra publicity and marketing. As Jay put it in the quote above, they would need to hire a full-time PR person to do all that work. If wineries raise these objections, I think they are just being too fusty and conservative, and that’s frankly what can keep Virginia wine locked firmly in the middle tier.

      That said, everyone has their own reasons and marketing plans. I heard back from Rutger this morning, and he confirmed that he does not intend to enter RdV in any contests. I agree with Scott that Thibaut-Janisson would be a strong contender – I think Virginia might have several sparklers as candidates for the Governor’s Case, actually (thinking Veritas Scintilla, Kluge/Trump … )

      • I think your piece did a good job of addressing the ‘marketing’ concerns, however, I’m simply communicating the concerns that were shared with me. If I were a vintner, I would absolutely welcome being included in this ‘Virginia 12’ marketing/out reach.

        I have not verified the $200/case number, but have ‘heard’ it from a couple of winemakers so I take it that the number is either $200 or very close. I view this cost as an ‘investment’ at a fraction of what it would cost an individual winemaker for the same exposure.

        I am not surprised at all that RdV will not be entering.

        • The Wine Board just confirmed that the initial proposal is $200/case plus shipping. While that would mean the winery selling at a “loss” if the wine is $17 wholesale/$25 retail or higher, there is still the intangible publicity benefit from being in the 12 and having your reputation sung from the mountaintops nationwide. It’s only 10 cases, not their entire production, and they don’t have to sell the 10 if they don’t get chosen for the Top 12.

        • And I just corrected the post to clarify that the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office, not the VWA, will be in charge of promoting the Governor’s Case.

    • Brian Roeder says:

      As Chair of last year’s VWA Gov’s Cup Committee, I was heavily involved in drafting this program based upon many discussions with people throughout our industry. I hope that the product is worthy of the goals. Of the 12 top medalists, I can say this – while nothing inhibits their marketing efforts, their wines will be bundled with Virginia’s best and shipped to the top critics under the Governor’s letterhead. Not bad. As for selling the 10 cases at $200 a case, the promotional rewards cannot be measured. I expect that they will greatly exceed the price when a winery’s wines are poured at the Governor’s mansion and taken on trade missions to the tables of foreign dignitaries. SecAg Todd Haymore has assured me that this is how they will be used in addition to being shipped to critics and the top competitions around the world by the Governor’s office.

      • Exactly. Excellent points, Brian. Thanks for sharing.

        • Brian Roeder says:


          Thank you for writing about this. It is critical that our industry back a credible, rigorous, and challenging competition that establishes our credentials as the producers of 100% Virginia-sourced world-class wines. The new Governor’s Cup does this by holding participants accountable for pedigree in ways that very few (if any) other competitions require. It is my hope that this competition in conjunction with the Commonwealth Quality Alliance (CQA) program and other initiatives that are in the works, will redefine outside perceptions of the best wines in our industry as being among the highest quality in the world.

  4. As a winemaker in Virginia, I have to applaud the new steps taken. I furthermore am thrilled that Linden wines will be entered, I have long been an admirer of Jim Laws wines and his winemaking skills. Concerns of marketing and the loss of control aside, I think this is a positive step in the right direction and will definitely be entering our wines into this year’s competition.
    Stephen Barnard
    Keswick Vineyards

  5. Past years had production requirements for entry. You had to have a certain number of cases available to sell in order to enter; at the moment, the number escapes me — but it was too high a threshold for us, so we couldn’t enter.

    The $200/case figure for 10 cases is correct, and appears in guidance sent recently by the Virginia wine marketing office: “All wineries that produce a wine that makes the Governor’s Cup Case, the top 12 wines, will agree to sell 10 cases of that wine at $200 per case to be used for marketing purposes.”

    Y’all might be thinking in retail terms — at wholesale prices, that price is about right and definitely not a burden.

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