Recently I came across my copy of the Summer 2010 issue of Virginia Wine Lover, the enjoyable magazine edited by Patrick Evans-Hylton. Patrick had interviewed me for his “Quaff Quiz” feature, and reading it again I realized a few things. I’ve been fairly consistent in some of my themes, for one. What struck me most though is how far Virginia wine has come since then. Parsing my answers, I probably wrote these in late 2009, after the infamous White House state dinner where a Virginia wine on the menu was overshadowed by two uninvited guests from Virginia wine country. This would be before Drink Local Wine held its annual conference in Virginia in April 2010, and of course before the Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville the next year, or the annual Virginia Wine Summits in 2012 and 2013. Anyway, here are excerpts from my responses then, with bracketed comments from today’s hindsight.
How do you think folks outside Virginia view the wine industry here?
Outside Virginia, I think it is widely viewed as a novelty still. That was changing, I believe, as social media such as DrinkLocalEine.com and other blogs and web sites paid attention. However, I fear the “White House Gate Crashers” have done the industry a disservice, as they have been described as “the face of Virginia wine” in some media reports. I’d rather think of Mary Watson-DeLauder in that wonderful vine gown as more representative of what Virginia wine is all about — serious, yet playful and above all, honest and natural. [With hindsight, the White House gate-crashers were typical of most Washington scandals – forgotten as soon as a new one comes along. Virginia wine has recovered, though perhaps this incident galvanized the industry to work a bit harder at promoting its image.]
What factors do you consider in pairing wine with a dish?
I like to balance weight, acidity and particular flavors. Heavier foods need either heavy wines or fruity, medium-weight wines with enough acidity to cut through the flavors; salty or acidic foods love crisp white wines. One of my favorite triggers is ginger — it loves pinot noir! (Oops, sorry, that’s not a Virginia-centric answer!) [OK, I hadn’t visited Ankida Ridge at this point.] I’m becoming increasingly intolerant of high-alcohol, low-acid wines, though a lot of people love them.
Name three things folks should consider when choosing a wine?
… I think customers are increasingly aware of environmental concerns, as sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines are increasing in popularity. [As of the end of 2013, I’m still waiting for this … ] I tend to frown on wines that are in those impossibly heavy bottles. I’d rather pay for wine than some marketing person’s false idea of prestige. They should also look for new wines similar to ones they’ve liked; if imported wines, they should remember the name of the importers so they can try others from that portfolio. Is that three things? Sorry, I was never good at math.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges to the Virginia wine industry?
I’m going to climb on my soapbox here. Far be it from me to tell winemakers how to make wine or run a winery, but here goes from my outsider’s perspective.
1) Virginia wine should be made exclusively with Virginia grapes. Virginia wine cannot establish a market identity so long as people can shake their heads and say, “Good, must be made with California juice.” Believe me, people do say that. The law should be changed to prohibit use of out-of-state grapes, or at the very least to require honesty in labeling. [I don’t hear this disparagement much today. Good Virginia wine is no longer a novelty, though the price question persists.]
2) Expand distribution. Get the wines into D.C. and Maryland, especially. Capitalize on the “eat local” movement by courting sommeliers and converting them into locapours. [Much has changed here, and for the better! A lot of credit here goes to Gov. Bob McDonnell and First Lady Maureen McDonnell for their efforts in promoting the commonwealth’s wine industry.]
3) Wishful thinking here, but stop imagining that your Cab Franc is Cheval Blanc and charging accordingly. Focus on value. People still complain, “Yeah, the wine’s OK, but it’s too expensive.” In rare instances, with the top wines, that’s unfair and blind tastings like my “Judgment of Washington” feature in the Post last summer can prove it. But too often the complaint is justified. [This seems to be changing for the better as well – I think more Virginia vintners are focusing on making “wines of place,” and they’ve decided that they are comfortable where they are.]
4) Get the word out through social media — blogs, Facebook, Twitter. The Millennial generation is discovering wine and they are not relying on the Mainstream Wine Media to tell them what to drink. Forget about trying to get 90 point scores from Wine Spectator — it ain’t gonna happen until they’re forced to acknowledge regional wines because they’ve taken over the market. [Wine Enthusiast magazine took notice of Virginia wine in 2013, especially after Trump Winery took out full-page ads.]
I’ll put in a personal plug here: My Dallas-based buddy Jeff Siegel (aka “The Wine Curmudgeon”) and I co-founded [Drink Local Wine] last year [in 2008] because we felt the growth of regional wine is revolutionizing the American wine industry, but the story was being missed by the MSWM.
We’ve done two “Regional Wine Weeks,” when we’ve recruited bloggers and wine columnists to write about their local wines and then linked to them on DrinkLocalWine.com. At the behest of the Texas Department of Agriculture, we even held a conference in Dallas last August  that brought bloggers from across the country together to learn about and experience Texas wines, including a live Texas Twitter Taste-Off. [If anyone ever writes a history of wine and social media, I hope they will take note of this, as I believe it may have been among the first “Twitter tastings,” harnessing the power of social media to broadcast the results of a tasting far beyond the room where it is held.]
Do you have a favorite grape or two grown in Virginia, and why?
Viognier and Cab Franc are still tops, but I applaud Virginia’s vintners for continuing to experiment with others. I’m excited about Albarino and Sauvignon Blanc. I know Petit Verdot has its detractors as a stand-alone variety, but I took a bottle of Michael Shaps’ 2005 PV to that Drink Local Wine conference in Texas, and people were astonished by it. By the endo fhte conference, people who had never or rarely tasted a Virginia wine before were coming up to me and saying, “Please do this conference in Virginia next year.” [I still have a couple bottles of that wine … hmm, what’s for dinner tonight?]
What is the future of Virginia wine?
I think American consumers are going to become more aware and accepting of “local” wines — i.e., not from the West Coast. This will redefine our image of “American” wine, even if California continues to dwarf the rest of the country in production. Virginia and New York are well poised to lead that movement. Virginia benefits from proximity to D.C. as a major tourist draw — that’s why I say Virginia wine needs to cross the Potomac. Even with the stupid distribution laws in this country, it shouldn’t be as hard for wine as it was for Lee. [Much progress has been made here, on every point in this paragraph. The “new American wine” is increasingly non-Californian, proud of its diversity.]
What do you think Thomas Jefferson would think of Virginia wine today?
I think he’d be proud. But he would be miffed at all the journalists who still feel like they have to start an article on Virginia wine by talking about Jefferson’s failures as a vintner. The story is no longer Jefferson. The story is (Dennis) Horton (of Horton Vineyards), (Jim) Law (of Linden Vineyards), (Luca) Paschina (of Barboursville Vineyards), (Jenni) McCloud (of Chrysalis Vineyards), (Michael) Shaps (of Virginia Wineworks), (Chris) Pearmund (of Pearmund Cellars), and an increasingly large crowd of others.
[There were so many more I could have listed, and more even today. I expounded on my complaint about the media focusing on Jefferson’s failures in my foreword for Richard Leahy’s Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, published in 2012, but it hasn’t resonated. Even my own Washington Post acted surprised that Virginia is making great wine in a lavishly photographed magazine feature published last month. Not that the vintners were complaining about the coverage, mind you.]