During my interview with Steven Spurrier at the Virginia Wine Summit in Richmond earlier this month, I asked him about his impressions of U.S. wines, 36 years after his famous Paris tasting put California on the world wine map. The first thing he mentioned was the regional wine boom.
“Well, in 1976 there was California and a little bit in Oregon with David Lett [of Eyrie Vineyards], almost nothing in Washington state. In the Finger Lakes there was a little bit, but American wine was basically California,” he said. “Today there is an unstoppable boom in wineries – even Oklahoma has 80 wineries!”
One of the reasons Spurrier loves Virginia wines is that he’s been able to taste them. The government in Richmond has been very supportive of its wine industry, even before the current governor, Bob McDonnell, has made Virginia wine a cause celebre. The Virginia Wine Board invested in an expensive trade tasting in 2007 at Vinopolis, a London wine museum, where Spurrier first encountered Virginia wines. Virginia has maintained a booth at the London International Wine Fair each year since.
These promotional efforts, plus the energetic exporting of British ex-pat Christopher Parker, who founded New Horizon Wines to introduce his countrymen to the wines of Virginia, have kept the Old Dominion’s vino in front of Britain’s vinoscenti. Thus Virginia has a leg up.
“From my point of view, which is English, we don’t see Washington and Oregon wines any more, and we don’t see many California wines anymore because they’ve become too expensive,” Spurrier said of the London market. “California is established – they’ve created their own price structure, from very very expensive – too expensive in my view – down to Blossom Hill, which is entirely without interest.”
With California wine in Britain dominated by that uninteresting low end, “California wines have been replaced by Argentina and Chile. So when Brits think of New World wines, they think South America more than North America,” he said.
“Virginia started for the UK five years ago, and I think the quality of wines we’ve seen today [at the Wine Summit] is very consistent, very high, very good to drink, very true to their grape variety, not over influenced by oak. There were no exaggerated wines, and over-extraction wasn’t in it. They’re European style wines. They’re making Virginia-style wines that will appeal to the European palate.
“As a wine drinker and a wine communicator the wines of Virginia attract me,” Spurrier said. “They call for a second glass. If you can’t afford a second glass of Lafite that’s fine, but you’d like it. It’s not very often with some of these big burly 15-and-a-half degree wines from California that I even want half of the glass in front of me. So they’re very drinkable wines.”
California sells a lot of wine in the UK, “but only about 1 percent of that is the top wines,” Spurrier said. He expressed a fondness for pinot noir from Carneros and Santa Barbara, though those are hard to come by in London. “Oregon and Washington, we see not at all. New York either. And so Virginia slips in as the Cinderella in a way, that no one has thought of Virginia wine until they come across one and think, ‘Gosh that’s good! Where’s it from?’ ”
Where indeed? Right around here. In our own backyard.