Archive for June, 2010


It’s a Jungle Out There

Posted on Jun 14 2010 | By

From a distance it often looks like an enormous green flag lying softly upon the land. Row upon row of sculpted grape vines undulating over the hills and swales. The vineyard beckons.

We know the scene well because countless works of art have depicted the iconic view. It embodies all that is rewarding about working the land. Woodie Guthrie memorialized it in his song Pastures of Plenty with the line, “Cut the grapes from your vine…to set on your table your light sparkling wine.”

But like many of life’s visions, there is the reality of it all. Especially in Virginia. Growing European wine grapes in the Old Dominion can be as difficult cultivating corn in Alaska. Well, maybe not quite that hard.

Virginia’s emergence as a promising wine powerhouse has been a long time coming. About 400 years long. The English colonists who landed at Jamestown in 1607 recognized the lucrative potential in winemaking. Their new home abounded with native grapes and within two years they had produced the first wine. It tasted awful.

Thus began a 350-year trail of tears, as generation after generation of winemakers tried to commercially produce wine in our state. The vintners encountered a host of problems, not the least of which was our climate, soil, and varied insect life, or what the French call terroir…the “somewhereness” of the fruit’s cultivation.

One of the major hurdles that could not be breached was the disappointing aroma and flavor of our native grapes. Yes, they grew in profusion and still do. But achieving anything resembling a quality bottle of wine from them was not possible. One of the abiding characteristics of indigenous wine is its foxy aroma and taste, or more pointedly, “wet dog” nuances. Taste a cabernet sauvignon along side a scuppernong and you would not be spending a lot of time fermenting the latter.

An interesting cultural phenomenon emerged because of this failure to produce wine in America. Our nation was launched on a path of beer and hard liquor consumption. Since fruits, grain and corn were cultivated with relative ease, folks fermented or distilled these agricultural products so as to have an alcoholic drink at hand. Alcohol was consumed in prodigious amounts in our nation’s early history. Think of it as that era’s social libation, plus an over-the-counter painkiller and physic drug cabinet, containing Prozac, Zoloft and Valium. Alcohol was the genie in a bottle and it granted our ancestors many wishes.

After the initial failure to produce palatable native wine, French vines were imported, followed by French vinegrowers, or vignerons, to work their magic. This time the vines did not even reach maturity before they withered and died. It became apparent wealth was not going to be amassed pursuing winemaking. Instead, the colonists decided to plant a crop that grew like a weed, tobacco. And while it was commercially viable, it also destroyed the land not to mention countless addicted smokers.

So what were the mysterious problems the early winemakers encountered? Why couldn’t they make decent wine? Let us count the ways.

First, ninety-nine percent of all wine is produced from the grape species Vitis vinifera. The grape is commonly referred to as the Eurasian grape vine because its origins were at the meeting point of Europe and Asia. Over eons the fruit developed traits enabling it to thrive in these environs. Unfortunately, this was not the grape species our colonists stumbled upon.

When the delicate European plant was shipped to America it landed on hostile shores. Cold winters, hot humid summers and a host of above and below ground insects were lying in wait for the tasty, little plants. No matter how experienced a winegrower was, successfully growing such tender fruit was not in the cards. Most vines succumbed within a few years of planting. An entire vineyard could be defoliated in a matter of days by beetles alone. It must have been heartbreaking for those early winegrowers to encounter failure year after year, while gazing at the thriving native grapes all around them.

Even Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s first wine connoisseur, tried to grow the European grape for over thirty years without success. Nonetheless, over time, the native grapes did hybridize with its high-class kin to produce wines that were more acceptable to the taste buds. But American hybrids never achieved more than regional curiosity status.

Then in the 1970s, vine growing embraced science and a wine industry began to emerge. One early leader was Dr. Konstantin Frank, a winegrower from New York State who expounded the idea that the delicate Vitis vinifera grape could thrive in the mid-Atlantic region. The good doctor traveled to Virginia and instructed a small group of dedicated growers on the methods of deep vine planting, proper root stock selection, correct trellising systems, canopy management, targeted spray programs and a host of other techniques he had perfected in the Empire State.

Virginia began to take some tentative steps into the world of serious winemaking. It was a thrilling and scary time for these wine pioneers as they rolled grapes onto the roulette wheel of fine wine production. It was also when the technique of keeping your fingers crossed while holding a wine glass was perfected.

After proper rootstock selection, canopy management and spray programs are the keys to the successful production of the classic wine grapes. Because Virginia’s soil is largely clay, it easily retains water and stimulates excessive vine vigor. Unless relentlessly pruned, the unchecked foliage can swamp a vine, denying the fruit of much needed air and sunlight to ripen the berries. It also can incubate lethal funguses and mildews waiting to spread across a vineyard, defoliating vines and limiting the cover and nutrients necessary for successful fruit maturation.

So with today’s vineyard successes, is this end of our story? Not at all. ‘Tis just the beginning. What started as an embryonic industry with one commercial winery in 1975 has blossomed into some 160 Virginia wineries and 3,000 acres of vineyards. The next ten years will see even greater progress and recognition of our wines as the caliber and knowledge of our viticulturalists and winemakers advances even further.

Indeed, Virginia is poised on the threshold of wine greatness. Our first winemakers must be softly smiling.

Published in the Summer 2010 edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Winemakers Roundtable

Posted on Jun 12 2010 | By

Northern Virginia winemakers sip together before selling independently

It’s a bit risky…maybe even threatening, but several times a year a group of professional winemakers gather to discuss and evaluate each other’s wines.

Baby Wines

The bottles they pour from are not the classy ones sold at their wineries. These nascent wines come in unadorned vessels with handwritten labels and have been drawn directly from tanks and barrels. It’s the ultimate, “So tell me, what do you think,” exercise.

And they do it all for us wine lovers.

In February this year, with snow on the ground, some thirty winemakers gathered at Breaux Vineyards in Loudoun County to discuss and evaluate their new red wines. As they filed into the expansive cellar, chatting and recognizing each other with vigorous handshakes and animated conversation, it was obvious camaraderie—not competition—would be the spirit of the day.

Unlike most businesses in today’s competitive world of commerce, Virginia winemakers are supportive of each other’s efforts to build the reputation of the state’s wines. It’s not an easy task.

Notwithstanding the surge of wine quality in the Old Dominion, there are many outside the state that still view the industry as provincial. With a preponderance of the state’s boutique wineries averaging around 3,000 cases a year—Gallo, by the way, sold 68 million cases last year—much of the supply is consumed by Virginians who know and enjoy the wine.

As a result, there is precious little product to sell to the rest of the country. If you can’t taste or buy a Virginia Viognier or Cabernet Franc outside of our state, building a national reputation becomes a formidable challenge.

The pursuit of excellence is critically important to achieving national recognition. Quality will beget quantity if the public demands greater production. Today, there are over 6,000 wineries nationwide. Virginia has less than 170. And as amazing as the explosion of tasting rooms has become, today’s production amounts to just a few drops in the bottom of the nation’s wine bottle.

Enter the Northern Virginia Winemakers Roundtable. The group’s membership is largely comprised of Loudoun County wineries, but membership is open to all winemakers in the northern part of the state. There is a similar group in the Charlottesville area.

As the meeting began, attendees settled in at long rows of tables set up in a canyon of tall stainless steel tanks lining both sides of the cellar. Jim Corcoran, proprietor of Corcoran Vineyards is the group’s organizer. Dave Collins, winemaker at Breaux Vineyards, was the day’s host.

Collins spent the first hour sharing his perspective on winemaking. His discussion ranged from vineyard practices—“One technique I use to determine if the grapes are ripe, is to crush them between my fingers and see if they bleed red,”— to an in-depth discussion of his fermentation processes.

While all winemakers employ the same fundamental procedures, there is a wide variety of techniques—from yeast selection, fermentation temperatures, barrel or tank aging, and other important minutiae—that differ between them. Collins described his best practices and answered questions from his colleagues.

The heart of the meeting began with the distribution of a sheet describing three different flights of wines to be evaluated: Cabernet Franc; Varietals (75% or more of a single grape); and Blends. Each flight consisted of about five different offerings.

With empty wines glasses and a plastic pour cup set before each participant, staff from Breaux Vineyards began pouring an ounce of wine into every glass. The first flight of Cabernet Francs featured five wines from four wineries. After a few minutes of sniffing and sipping, Collins commented on the wine. After his assessment, observations from the assembled vintners began to tumble out.

Throughout the afternoon, the language of winemakers resonated around the cellar: “Nice color and good fruit with firm acidity. Should age nicely.” “Spicy with a touch of Jalapeno on the mid-palate.” “Very dense color with a rich mouth feel. Balanced.”

One immediately noticed observations were couched in terms not meant to offend, but rather constructively interpret aromas and flavors. “I pick up a touch of H2S on the nose,” states one evaluator (that’s hydrogen sulfide, a flaw that produces a rotten egg aroma). Almost in unison, the room hoists the targeted glass and sniffs deeply. “There might be a bit of it, but it should blow off. I’d suggest some splash racking and additional barrel time,” responds an experienced vintner.

After all of the comments are aired, Collins turns to the vigneron who produced the wine and asks for a summary of how it was made. This triggers a few more questions. “Did you use medium toasted French oak or medium plus,” inquires one person. Another query seeks to understand, “Is this all oak or oak and steel aged?” And so it goes throughout the afternoon, with information exchange in full mode.

The second round of wines is varietals. In the United States, a wine can be labeled by its varietal name, say Cabernet Sauvignon, if it contains at least 75% of that grape. This requirement offers winemakers an opportunity to enhance palate flavors by blending in small percentages of other wines. It would not be unusual to taste a Cabernet Franc enhanced with 20% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot, or similar type blend.

Collins again offers comments on the first wine in the flight and then asks for additional reactions. Here it becomes apparent, as with most group dynamics, certain individuals are the first to respond. Often, these are the more experienced bulls with years of accumulated industry skill.

The third and final flight focuses on blends. Typically, extensive “bench trials” have been conducted to achieve a blended cuvee.

The wines being evaluated range from very small producers to some of the largest wineries in the state. When asked how a particular wine was aged, one winery owner responds, “Carboys.” These are six and seven gallon glass vessels that are typically used by only the smallest and newest wineries. Nevertheless, it showcases the diversity of size among the industry participants, and reinforces the value of group feedback, especially for the newcomers.

As before, each wine is quietly evaluated and then openly discussed. During the entire process there is no food served with the wines, not even crackers. Only a bottle of spring water is used to cleanse the palate between flights. This is an exercise in concentration.

As the meeting draws to a close, everyone is thanked for his or her participation. Yet, there is no rush for the doors. Small groups of winemakers chat animatedly as if attending a family reunion. It’s evident friendship and respect knits this assembly together—all in search of world-class wine.

So the next time you’re sipping wine in a Virginia tasting room you might ask, “Who’s your winemaker?” And perhaps the answer will be, “The Northern Virginia Winemakers Roundtable, of course.”

But if you don’t get that response, one thing’s for sure, the group’s spirit will certainly be in the glass.

Evaluating Wine

Published in the 2010 summer edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Machine Made Wine

Posted on Jun 11 2010 | By

Wine embodies the essence of simplicity. Fruit fermented by nature producing a liquid that enhances the joy of living. ‘Tis wondrous.

But not so fast. Is making wine really just the simple act of letting natural yeast transform grapes into nectar? Well, yes—and no. Consider that the smallest winery in the world is a single grape. Just one grape contains everything required to make wine: natural yeast clinging to the waxy skin, the juice and pulp providing the needed liquid and flavors, and moderate temperatures igniting the love affair. Of course, adding a few more grapes to the process helps satisfy our desire for the end product.

It really takes minimal intervention by man to produce wine. Oh, you want good wine? Different story. That’s a bit more work. Over the centuries, wine has steadily grown in quality. Today, the finest wines in the history of the world are readily available in almost any price range. There would be little competition today between a 16th century wine and a modern rendition of the same grape. Modern would win hands down. Another gift from science.

And advancements continue to unfold. We are poised to enter a new and fascinating era of wine production. Virtually everything created by man from food, to electronics, to health care, is changing at blinding speed. What’s new today is passé tomorrow. Just keep your emotional seat belt buckled because we all are traveling on Interstate Technology and there is no speed limit.

Nonetheless, there are some enophiles that posit progress is not our most important product when it comes to wine. Serious discussions are waged daily about the growing homogenization of wine. Because the science has advanced so dramatically in last twenty years, many connoisseurs worldwide claim wine increasingly tastes the same. The effect of terroir—or the somewhereness of the grape’s character—is being lost. French, American, Spanish, Chilean, South African or Australian—many believe we are rapidly losing the ability to tell the difference.

Here are three interventionist technologies that are being used today to manipulate wine in an effort to achieve greater winemaking control, while simultaneously producing bigger, bolder, more concentrated high end wines. Like everything man pursues with gusto, money and fame seem to be driving these new machine-made wines.

Reverse Osmosis

Reserve Osmosis Machine

For the production of flavorful, rich tasting wines, grapes need to have a reasonably high level of sugar when harvested. This is becoming less of a problem than in the past because of rising global temperatures. Unfortunately, high sugared grapes also produce high alcohol wines, a characteristic often resulting in hot and unbalanced flavors. To solve this dilemma, a process called reverse osmosis is increasingly being employed that removes a percentage of the alcohol in the finished wine while retaining its flavors, resulting in a denser, more balanced and fuller bodied wine. It is estimated over 500 wineries in California employ reverse osmosis for alcohol reduction. And in Bordeaux—the heart of France’s classic red wine producing region—it’s reported over sixty of the machines are in operation.

This process can also be used to remove excess water from just harvested grapes. This is especially useful in regions where fall rains over saturate grape juice levels, diluting the resulting wine. In this instance, water is removed prior to fermentation producing wines with greater depth and concentration.

Spinning-Cone Column

This technology removes alcohol in fermented wine through centrifugal force and vacuum. While the process is different from reverse osmosis, it achieves the same result. The equipment is quite expensive and often a winery will enter into a service contract to have its wines treated. A US company developed the equipment but it is now being used in wine growing regions around the world.

Vacuum Distillation

Yet another technique for removing water from “must”—the slurry of crushed and destemmed grapes prior to red wine fermentation—is distilling under vacuum. Concentrators heat the must up to 86 degrees under vacuum, removing the desired amount of water. Two drawbacks to this process are the diminution of aromas in the final wine and the higher cost of the process versus using reverse osmosis.

While these three processes do achieve their objectives, it’s tempting for a winemaker to over apply the principles to produce wine beyond just the basic reduction of alcohol or water. Success in the wine business today is heavily dependent on earning rave reviews from the critics, as expressed in a numerical rating. A 94-point wine will often fly off wine shop shelves while its almost equally tasty 87-point brother may languish unnoticed, perhaps ultimately destined for the special deal bins. The desire to become highly profitable and well known drives a growing number of producers to tweak their wines in whatever ways necessary to attract the critics’ attention. These machine-made wines can take a bottle to places not possible if vinified under natural conditions.

All of this leads to the question, is this good or bad? It depends on your perspective. If you are inclined to think natural and want to drink as pure an expression of the winemaker’s art as possible, you would object to these emerging wine technologies. Conversely, if you enjoy wines that are big and flavorful but perhaps similar in taste regardless of the region or producer, then interventionist wines would be your ticket. Let’s underscore that none of these techniques affect the safety or quality of the wines. Both approaches produce clean, healthful products.

Here is Virginia you will rarely see these technologies employed because they are more suited for large volume producers. All of the processes are expensive and ill suited for small boutique wineries found in the Old Dominion. In Virginia, you are more likely to encounter true and pure examples of wine that reflects the region in which it is grown. Here wines are more closely aligned with the traditional French style. Our climates are not too dissimilar to our Franco brothers turf and are more focused and defined on the palate than the jammy California or Australian offerings. Each approach showcases the manner in which the wines were created.

Man-made or machine-made, the delicious choice is yours. Just another beautiful example of the diversity of the world’s most seductive libation….ahhh, wine.

Published in the Summer 2010 edition of  the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Wineries Unlimited 2010

Posted on Jun 10 2010 | By


Take 1,600 winery employees, 221 industry exhibitors, a host of nationally known winemakers, viniculturalists and marketing mavens, blend them together for four days, and it becomes obvious why the largest east coast winery trade show is called Wineries Unlimited.

Sponsored by Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, the conference successfully completed its thirty-fourth annual extravaganza on March 9-12 in King of Prussia, PA. If you are in the wine industry and did not attend, it’s called: Missed Opportunity.

The theme of this year’s show was Balancing Quality and Costs for Profit. And given the state of the nation’s economy, a more appropriate theme would be hard to conceive.

The annual meeting is actually two shows in one. The conference is a four-day cornucopia of seminars covering all aspects of growing, making, and selling wine.

The trade show serves as a counterpoint offering attendees a seemingly endless supply of equipment and services showcased by manufacturers’ reps. Nowhere else can so many wine folks examine so many products from so many vendors. They came. They saw. They purchased.

Perhaps one of the more impressive aspects of the show was the caliber of speakers arrayed before the attendees. Andy Beckstoffer, one of California’s most renown wine grape growers, was both the presenter at the viniculture seminar and keynote luncheon speaker on day two. At the luncheon, he gave an inspiring address saying that East Coast wineries could create an industry equal to that of Napa Valley if they fully commit to quality.

During his seminar session, he highlighted the importance of vineyard site selection, creation of targeted viniculture plans and the commitment to employing dedicated professionals to implement and closely monitor grape growing programs.

The conference theme of balancing quality and costs is one all wineries residing in the Continental climate of the eastern United States must constantly confront.

Unlike California’s mild Mediterranean environment, cold winters, humid summers and the relentless assault of fungi and mildews require serious money to produce quality fruit east of the Mississippi. Skimp on any aspect of wine production and your customers are going to melt away. Nonetheless, costs must be controlled or making a profit becomes an even greater challenge. Think tightrope.

All of the seminars were purpose driven. Experienced growers and winemakers shared strategies on what worked and what didn’t in 2009, focusing on combating fugal diseases, developing canopy management programs, implementing cost cutting cellar practices, employing effective distribution channels and more. This was the enlightened leading the eager to be informed. Attention deficit was not a problem.

One of the more popular seminar series focused on sales and marketing and was attended by standing room only crowds. Led by the marketing powerhouse duo of Paul Wagner, President, Balzac Communications & Marketing—and an instructor at Napa Valley College—and Elizabeth Slater, a marketing savant with extensive experience in the industry, they covered marketing theory, assessment of the current US market and the how-to of developing and implementing a marketing plan for boutique wineries.

Wagner & Slater had obviously worked together in the past given their humorous interaction. Both presenters offered a wealth of ideas on increasing wine sales in three story-filled sessions.

At the close of one session, Wagner emphasized consumers do not want to know about pH, acidity, and residual sugar levels in wine, “Your job is to make us fall in love with wine, not educate us about it,” he said. Slater suggested that, “Instead of pairing wine and food, present the food and let your guests pair it themselves. It’s just as interesting to find out what doesn’t go together as what does.”

Another fascinating observation from Slater was the exploding use of the web site Yelp. Social media is increasingly used by millennials—the population ranging in age from 18 to 30 years old—to critique shopping and dining experiences. She stated one of the first things she does when consulting for a winery is to see what the public is posting on the Internet about the hospitality and wines of a given establishment.

She underscored many wineries have no clue they are being so publicly evaluated in these open forums. The message was clear. Every encounter at a winery can go worldwide with a brief critique followed by a single “send” keystroke.

When not attending seminars, delegates roamed the exhibitor’s hall gathering sales literature and samples from the over the two hundred firms specializing in wine related products. The number of items available was staggering and ranged in size from multi–ton mechanical harvesters to almost weightless corks, and from 1,000-gallon stainless steel tanks to tin capsules. If it could be employed in the growing of grapes or the making wine, you could buy it here.

And many did. A considerable amount of product disappeared off the floor as the show progressed, including purchased oak barrels being wheeled out of the convention hall and onto trucks headed back to wine cellars.

After observing this unusual trade show up close, one is struck by how much time, money and dedication is expended in producing quality wine in the eastern United States. And the commitment is catapulting the East Coast to the top tier of American wine.

Watch out Napa Valley.

Published in the Summer 2010 edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES