Archive for December, 2010


The Great American Wine Buzz

Posted on Dec 27 2010 | By

In the Not Too Distant Past Wine Served Chiefly One Purpose

The debate is long over. The United States produces some of the finest wines in the world.  And its success has spawned an explosion in high caliber wine production worldwide. Today, nations as diverse as Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa have become wine powerhouses by following in the wake of California’s vinous success.

OK, the debate still rages as to the ultimate wine style: old world or new world.  The former places an emphasis on subtlety, grace and elegance while the latter prides itself on bold, expressive, and fruit forward renditions.  But wine lovers everywhere no longer reach for only European wines; California changed that paradigm over thirty years ago.

So it may come as a surprise that for a good portion of the last century wine in America was consumed for basically one reason.  To get high.

When the twentieth century dawned, our nation was on the brink of entering a golden age of wine.  Commercial success was being achieved in California with over 1,000 operating wineries, and parts of the mid-Atlantic region were experimenting with hybrid grapes that ultimately proved successful.  Then in 1919, the hammer fell with passage of the infamous Volstead Act. Our nation’s wine industry collapsed into a death spiral as prohibition crushed production of fine wine.  It took some fifty years to recover.

The difference between fine wine and cheap, fortified wine is the difference between a Rubens’ masterpiece and a delinquent’s spray-painted graffiti wall. It’s that huge.  Sadly, “graffiti wine” soon gained commercial success.

But let’s back up a bit and set the stage for the immergence of fortified wines.

Before the “Big Dry”

Moonshine Mania

Prior to Prohibition, major wine producers adopted a business strategy that eventually led to the erosion of table wine growth.   Firms such Italian Swiss Colony and others made a range of wine styles, but almost fifty percent of their inventory was sweet, higher alcohol wines, brandies and grappa.  Loathe to disassociate themselves from the lucrative liquor market, wine was inexorably pulled into the vortex of the public’s anti-alcohol sentiment along with beer and whiskey.  Instead of marshalling an effective fight to exempt wine from Prohibition, their desire for greater profits trumped their more traditional urges for making decent table wines.  In short, greed won out.

After repeal of the 19th Amendment, brewers and distillers rebounded quickly but not winemakers.  With the public’s perception as wine as booze, and reinforced with the idea that fortified wines were simply an easy fix for a cheap, quick buzz, serious wine production did not revive.  Americans, particularly in low income neighborhoods known in the trade as “misery markets”, opted to buy pseudo wines.  Quality wine’s reputation languished in this negative environment for decades.

In the mid-1950s, some 40 million gallons of table wine was produced annually as opposed to over 94 million gallons of fortified wines. Two brothers, Ernest and Julio Gallo, in their third decade of winemaking, realized that to fulfill their dream of becoming the largest winery in the world they had to come up with a creative idea to generate new customers.  It came to their attention that in inner city neighborhoods cheap port was often sold with packets of lemon-flavored Kool-Aid.  Customers then mixed the two together.

Springboarding off the idea of this homemade concoction, the Gallos conceived of performing the mixing process at their winery and created a wine called Thunderbird—a 21 percent alcohol port-style wine flavored with lemon concentrate. It was an instant success; years later Ernest claimed he thought of the beverage as a “lower-alcohol alternative to the evening cocktail.”  But of course.

One of the more famous ad slogans of the era was, “What’s the word?” “Thunderbird!” “What’s the price?” “A dollar twice.”

As always happens in a free market, competitors quickly started producing similar types of wines and selling them under names such as Silver Satin, Ariba, Golden Spur, Red Showboat, and Zombe.  It must have been great fun working in the marketing departments of these firms, conjuring up one exotic name after another for what was no more than cheap booze.  None of the copy cats, however, matched the success of the original.

Being "half in the bag" was common for fortified wine drinkers.

Over the years these wines earned some interesting and descriptive monikers, including gutter punk champagne, street wine, block party breakup, goon, bum wine, bag wine, hobo juice and poverty punch.  If the shoe fits…eh?

When the 60s arrived, wine had hit rock bottom in America.  There was no way to go but up.

Wine Revives
The United States slow ascendancy onto the world stage of fine wine began fifty years ago but did not reach critical mass until the mid-seventies.  Men on both the East and West Coasts dedicated to resurrecting wine as a lifestyle beverage played pivotal roles in not only producing but marketing their product.  Understanding that little demand existed for quality table wine, these early wine pioneers were driven more by passion than financial reward.

In Maryland, a newspaper man and amateur winemaker named Philip Wagner became convinced that French-American hybrid grapes could survive the harsh East Coast continental climate and produce quality wine.  He started the first post-Prohibition winery in Maryland in 1945, Boordy Vineyards, while continuing to work as an editor at the Baltimore Sun. His contribution centered more on imparting knowledge to mid-Atlantic grape growers and winemakers than producing large quantities of wine.  He supplied cuttings and rootstock to professional and amateur winemakers alike and lectured widely throughout the eastern United States.  Grapes he championed are still producing quality wines east of the Mississippi and include Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc and Chambourcin.

In New York, Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian émigré, arrived in the Finger Lakes region in 1951 and observed only native grapes being grown.  He was convinced that Vitis vinifera grapes, which produced ninety-nine percent of the world’s wines, had a future in the Empire State.  He successfully planted the vines and soon others were following his lead.  Dr. Frank also played an important role in Virginia wine by traveling to the state and introducing numerous vineyard techniques to budding viticulturists and winemakers.  Today, over eighty percent of wine grapes grown in the Old Dominion are from the delicate vinifera species—think Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and more.

Robert Mondavi

Out in California, similar advances were underway. Early leaders included men such as Andre Tchelistcheff, Warren Winiarski, Mike Grgich and Robert Mondavi to name a select few. The 2008 movie Bottle Shock tells the story of the revival of quality wine making in Napa Valley.  Steven Spurrier, an English sommelier and wine shop owner in Paris, was impressed with wines coming out of California.  He conceived the idea to pit the best of France against the best California.

In May of 1976, nine high priests of the French wine world met in Paris and sniffed, swirled and sipped the finest wines from each country. All of them were tasted blind so the judges did not know which country any given wine hailed from.  When the scores were tallied up shock reverberated around the tasting tables.  Two wines from Napa took top honors; a 1973 chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and a 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.  It was the wine shot heard round the world.  Jim Barrett, Montelena’s general manager and part owner said, “Not bad for kids from the sticks.”  To say the least.

Within a few years, California became a major force in global wine. Today, over 700 million gallons of wine are produced annually in the United States. The majority of this production is table, dessert or sparkling wines.  While the sale of low cost fortified wine has declined dramatically, the market hasn’t disappeared.  One popular bottling, Richards Wine Irish Rose, still sells two million cases annually.  Nonetheless, only a small percentage of total sales represent the low cost, fortified wines so widely consumed back in the 60s.

The Future is Now
Our Nation’s wine ascendency is now in full bloom.  Since 1999, there has been an 81% increase in the number of wineries coast to coast, with over 6,000 in operation today; all fifty states are producing either grape or fruit wine and are supported by nearly a million acres of vineyards.

Perhaps not even Nostradamus could have predicted such phenomenal growth. America’s four hundred year old culture of beer and distilled spirits is changing as a rising percent of the population—from twenty somethings to senior citizens—are opting for wine as a companion at social events and dinner.

With such popularity could advertising campaigns aping the marketers of yesteryear be appearing soon?

“What’s to say?”  “Cabernet!”  “What’s to like?”   “It’s so polite!”


Published in the 2011 Harvest edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

You Knew It All Along

Posted on Dec 19 2010 | By

Even the Wine Experts Can’t Get It Right

In April 2009, Wine Spectator magazine rhapsodized about a $130 bottle of 2006 Clos Otta Shiraz from Barossa Valley, calling it, “Plush, round and opulent, offering a gorgeous, showy mouthful of sweet blackberry, black currant and café au lait aromas and flavors….”

And the rating? An impressive 94 points. Should we believe it? Maybe.

But then again, maybe not.

When wine lovers stroll into their favorite wine shop, it’s tempting to search the racks and bins for bottles touted by major wine magazines as vinous versions of great works of art. Today, “mega validator” publications have immense influence over wine worldwide because the public has come to believe they are the final arbiters of what’s tasty and what’s not.

But as wine consumption soars in this country, a rising number of enophiles are questioning the pros’ opinions. And with cause.

A Subjective Skill
A fascinating article in the November 20, 2009 issue of The New York Times lays bare the subjectivity of wine tasting. The article goes into considerable detail about a series of controlled scientific studies on tasting conducted by Robert Hodgson, a retired professor of statistics at Humboldt State University in northern California. And the professor’s conclusions? Don’t always trust the experts.

Over the course of four years of evaluating wine judges’ decisions, Hodgson found their ratings varied by as much as 4 points—plus or minus—on the same wines tasted three different times from the same bottle. Yep. A wine tasted blind the first time and justifying a 90-point rating might well be given an 86 or 94 rating on the second or third evaluation. Same wine. Same judge. Same imprecision.


Heavy Load

An even more revealing study by the good professor disclosed the high probability of a wine winning a gold medal in one competition and garnering zip in the next contest it was entered in. The medals appeared to be awarded by random with each wine having about a 9% chance of winning a gold medal in any given competition.

Are we surprised? Numerous studies over the years have revealed the subjectivity of wine tasting. One of the more startlingly evaluations was conducted by wine researcher Frederic Brochet using two identical white wines. Cunningly, however, he colored one a deep garnet hue resembling a cabernet sauvignon using flavorless food dye. Tasting the “red” wine, the panel noted attributes of red currant, cherry, raspberry and spice on the very same white wine they had just declared as exhibiting lemon, apricot and honey notes. Perhaps we should simply taste wine with our eyes, hey?

Another example from one of Brochet’s unique tastings involved 57 French wine gurus asked to evaluate two red wines. The crafty evaluator, however, poured the same average rated Bordeaux into two different bottles. The first was an expensive Grand Cru bottle and the second one had previously been the lair of a cheap table wine. The one mostly highly rated by the experts? Of course, the pedestrian red poured from the more expensive bottle. And remember, these were experts. The palate is a terrible thing to trick.

A common secret is that some bars substitute mid-range liquors for the leading brands when they pour mixed drinks. Almost nobody is the wiser because most cocktail sipping patrons simply cannot tell the difference. As long at the brand name is called out upon ordering, the satisfaction is achieved, even if the drink delivered to the table is not what was requested. It’s a bit embarrassing, but we all are susceptible to such chicanery.

The Wine Trials is a fascinating book summarizing the findings of 17 blind tastings held over the course of a year involving more than 500 tasters. One interesting evaluation compared a bottle of Dom Perignon, a $150 Champagne from France, with a Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvee Brut, a $12 sparkler from Washington State. Both wines are dry with firm acidity. But, sixty-six percent of the tasters preferred the $12 bottle of bubbly when tasting both bottles blind. This finding was consistent with the authors’ yearlong study of a wide range of wines. Often the taste of money is what influences how a wine is perceived. If it costs more, it must taste better, right? The placebo effect is not limited to just medicines.

Today, the chance of bringing home a terrible tasting wine is small. Yes, there are unexciting producers out there but too much science and proven winemaking skills are employed to produce much wine that is undrinkable. Given the overall rising quality worldwide, few wineries could survive by peddling swill in a marketplace full of decent little quaffers.

So What’s a Body to Do
How do we separate the indifferent from the great and not bust our wine budget in the process? First, trust your palate. Yes, it’s great fun to identify the raspberry, smoke and spice components of a wine and declare it a 95-point winner. But if you can’t perform such palate gymnastics, and you simply like what you’re drinking because it’s “yummy”, go with it. Over time, you will become more skilled in classifying winners and losers and sharpen your buying skills. Taste. Taste. Taste.

Secondly, try evaluating wines blind. This is easily accomplished in a group setting where several similar varietals can be wrapped in paper bags and compared and evaluated. Such an approach is both fun and educational. In the event you’re not up to hosting tastings, consider buying two or three bottles of recommended wines and taste all of them at the same sitting. Using an inexpensive rubber stopper and hand pump, save all three bottles for the next night’s meal. Over a two or three-day period, you will be able to pronounce your top choice of the three. Then add the winner to your growing list of favorites.

Third, consider the impact of price. The Wine Trials demonstrated time again the effect cost has on our perception of quality. One of the book’s more important conclusions was that after pouring 6,000 glasses of wine to over 500 tasters who did not know the producers or cost, drinkers favored moderately priced wines over their more expensive brethren by a statistically significant margin. Expensive wine likely does provide greater pleasure for an experienced taster, but it can often be more tannic and robust than an average drinker cares for. Why spend the money simply to impress if it’s the enjoyment of the wine that you are pursuing, not the image.

Finally, rely on a trusted wine shop owner more than the major wine magazines. A frequently visited shop owner will soon discern your favorite styles and budget. He will also begin to guide you to some selections you might otherwise overlook. Some under appreciated reasonably priced beauties are coming out of Spain, Chile, Virginia, New Zealand, South Africa, Oregon and other emerging wine power regions. One of the great joys of wine is the anticipation of opening a bottle of something you’ve never tasted before.

So remember, your next favorite wine might well be sitting on the shelf of your local shop patiently awaiting your arrival. Don’t let it get too lonely. Both the chase and the taste are wine pleasures to be enjoyed frequently. Become your own expert.

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

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

John’s December Pick of the Month

Posted on Dec 13 2010 | By


Virginia Red Wine



Anghel is one of the newest wine offerings in the state.  It’s the creation of Jason Burrus, a professional winemaker with a well-known Virginia winery. His first bottling is a blend of 50% Cabernet Franc and 50% Petit Verdot.  The wine displays a deep garnet hue in the glass with a nose of black cherry, plum, anise and a touch of mint. The palate reflects an Old World style that is focused elegance and subtly of black fruit, mineral notes and spice framed by firm, balanced acidity.  This a quintessential food wine and will continue to blossom as the years roll by.  With winter here, pair with rustic beef ragu and a fresh loaf of Ciabatta.  Drink now through 2018.

Anghel wine is available on line at  Or, call Jason Burrus at 540.305.6305.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

A Chat with Jim Law

Posted on Dec 10 2010 | By

Owner of Linden Vineyards Muses on the State of Virginia Wine

Linden Vineyards

If you are familiar with Virginia wine, Jim Law needs no introduction.  He is arguably—but who would—the preeminent winemaker in the mid-Atlantic region.  One is tempted to call him the East Coast elder statesman of wine but he might protest, saying, “I’m not that old.”  Which is true.

Statesman or not, he is widely respected and increasingly at philosophical odds with what is unfolding in the Old Dominion’s wine industry.  Passionate to the point of creating an almost cult-like following, he has tacked hard into the winds of convention to take Virginia wine to a place many others in the state have neither the inclination nor dedication to go.

On a cold December weekday, we sat in his quiet winery and spent an hour talking of vines and wines and his comfort level with the somewhat lonely path he has chosen to take while Virginia’s wine boom unfolds around him.

So how did it all begin?
I was an agricultural volunteer for the Peace Corps in the late ‘70s working in Zaire, now the Congo. I grew coffee, cocoa, rubber trees and assorted tropical fruits. Even as a very young man I loved farming.  When I returned to the states, I was looking for opportunities to make a living working the land.  I also enjoyed wine. A career in wine made sense. I moved to Virginia from my home in Ohio and fell in love with the mountains.  In ’81, I helped start a small, no longer operating, winery. I felt the best vineyard sites in the state were at higher elevations and steeply sloped, which led me to purchase this hardscrabble farm in 1983 and start Linden.  At the time there were eight wineries in the state.  Today there are some 180.

That’s dramatic growth.  Is the pace sustainable?
It depends.  For smaller wineries where lifestyle and entertainment drives the business, the future is limitless. For serious winemaking the challenge is greater and the commensurate work more difficult.  The enjoyment of running a small business drives the former but a commitment to quality and price motivates the latter.  More pointedly, if you choose to compete with quality wines from around the world, you must be driven to make the best wine possible.  Our proximity to the Washington, DC metro market and Virginia’s tourism industry assures a steady stream of customers.  But if wine tourism is feeding your business, the pressure to continually increase quality can be diminished.

How many wineries in Virginia are focused exclusively on serious wine?
I’d say about five percent.  Don’t get me wrong.  Everyone wants to make good wine.  But increasingly, I see tourism and entertainment trumping fine wine. If you are hosting large groups, weddings, bachelorette parties and other commercial activities, it does produce quick and steady revenue.  But it takes a lot of discipline to keep your focus on both the vineyard and the cellar while managing an entertainment business.  I believe one or the other will suffer from inattention.  Usually it’s the wine.

Jim Law Winter Pruning

Your winery limits customer access to your deck and grounds unless they are members of your case club.  Why so?
Well first of all, it’s not as onerous as it sounds.  If you buy just one case as a single purchase once a year, you become a member of the club.  The reason for creating the club was to give my winery back to my loyal customers. I also stopped limos and buses from coming and limited the size of groups. I saw what was happening in the tasting room and on the grounds and I didn’t like it. The crowds, the noise and on occasion the over drinking, was simply not Linden.  Trust me, it hurt my business for awhile and it offended some people when I implemented the policy.  On a more personal level, it stung all of us here to field disgruntled customer complaints and to read negative reviews on Yelp! and other web sites.

But it worked. Today, a visit to Linden is a relaxing experience with wine as the central focus.  I enjoy talking with people who are curious about wine even if they know little about it. I have a beautiful property with rolling views of mountains and vineyards.  I want my guests to enjoy the full experience of wine in this quiet, pastoral setting.  There are plenty of wineries where people can go to experience a party atmosphere.  But it’s not Linden.  From a purely short term business perspective my decision had a negative impact on the bottom line.  But in the long run I now have loyal customers who are happier and so are my staff and myself.

Viognier is emerging as Virginia’s white grape.  Yet, you don’t grow it or make it? Why?
Because I am not a fan of Viognier.  And I don’t grow grapes unless I enjoy the wine produced from them.  Virginia is doing very well with Viognier and it’s good for the state and our reputation.  But I love higher acidity, elegant and lower alcohol white wines and Viognier typically has the opposite profile. I prefer Old World wine styles and East Coast Viognier has a New World emphasis. If you are in the vineyard daily, growing the best fruit you are capable of, you have to look forward to enjoying the wine produced from that labor.

Virginia is the fifth largest wine producing state in the nation.  What can we learn from California, Washington, Oregon and New York?
We need to address the issue of variability. There are some excellent wines coming out of Virginia but there is also a substantial amount that could not earn national recognition.  We need to increase the number of top tier wineries if we want to put Virginia on the Nation’s wine map.  To accomplish that we need to plant on steep slopes and in hardscrabble soils instead of fertile flatlands. Once a critical mass of quality wine is being produced, acclaim will follow. It’s the only way to gain national attention.

Has the state government been supportive of the industry?
Yes, they’ve been great.  It can be a tough job at times for them trying to respond to the various pressure points from within the industry.  But their overall efforts over the last thirty years have propelled us forward.

Pet Peeve?
None really.  I’ve reached the stage in my life where I’ve made peace with most of the things that annoyed me years ago.  One phenomenon I have a hard time understanding is the almost addiction-like focus on handheld gizmos.  Cells phones and Blackberries are not only everywhere but are in constant use.  A few months back I was gazing out my office window and noticed a group of guests at a picnic table with wine and lunch spread before them.  Their heads were all bowed as if in quiet contemplation.  I was touched to see them apparently praying before their meal. But looking closer, I realized everyone was thumbing away on their little devices, oblivious to their friends, the beautiful views and the wine and food. I think our culture is losing something when we can’t let go of these crutches on occasion and enjoy the people and world around us.

Closing Thoughts?
I love Virginia and how our wine culture has grown.  It’s been rewarding to be part of an industry that has met with such success.  One thing I would like to see is more young winegrowers take the industry to the next level. I got into this business primarily because I love farming. It’s driven everything I’ve tried to accomplish at Linden. It really is an intellectual endeavor.  To plant a vineyard, watch it mature, craft wine from its fruit and then share it with guests has created a satisfying life for me. I do not want to expand.  Making more money is not going to make be a happier man.  My business supports my passion.

What would make me happier is for other winegrowers to pursue the quest for quality.  It’s one of the reasons I have an apprentice program. We have tremendous potential in the state.  There are so many sites with good slope, but poor and well-drained soils, that are ideal for vine growing.  Site selection is critically important to the production of fine wine.  To select land because it’s near major roads or has beautiful views might be a great business decision but it’s not necessarily a great wine decision.

Linden Vineyards

Published in the December 10, 2010 edition of the Fauquier Times-Democrat.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

A Cabin in the Woods

Posted on Dec 07 2010 | By

Five Year Project Provides 19th Century Respite for 21st Century Souls

Last year, I wrote a short piece on a volunteer project sponsored by the Potomac Application Trail Club, or PATC, to restore a cabin built over a hundred and fifty years ago and long abandoned.  The cabin is located on the evening side of the Blue Ridge Mountains six miles souteast of Elkton, VA.  On October 23 of this year, the dwelling was officially dedicated and placed into the club’s rental system.

Argow Cabin 1999

With nature grinding away at it, the structure did not have many years left before exposure to the elements would have seen it collapse and slowly return to the mountain soil from which it had risen.  But today, its future is secured for decades to come, hopefully much longer.  We can thank, in part, the almost indestructible Chestnut tree logs and a tin roof for its past and future longevity.

But we also need to thank the driving force behind the restoration effort, Jeff Testerman.  Testerman is a superintendent with a large commercial construction firm in Charlottesville, VA.  He used his considerable skills—assisted by a loyal group of some fifteen volunteers—to plan, manage and restore the structure to its original condition and more.  The new side deck with a fireplace and sweeping views of the Shenandoah Valley would have been much appreciated by the cabin’s original owner, Samuel Eaton.

Eaton was born around 1828 and married in 1861, after he had built the cabin.  The couple had two sons.  He died in 1896 and is buried in Elkton.  Mountain living in the mid-1800s was challenging.  Even the most basic of supplies required long trips into the valley to buy flour, sugar, coffee and other staples.  The last full time residents of the cabin left in the 1960s and the building began its long, slow decline. It did receive some comfort on occasion when hunters took refuge in its decaying shell during deer season.

The official name of the log home today is Argow Cabin. Keith Argow, with a résumé in forestry and conservation, sold the cabin and 200 acres to PATC in the 1990s and contributed initial funds to launch the restoration effort.  Argow had the vision to see how history could be brought back to life and the club named the cabin in his honor.

There are thousands of historical properties scattered across the country but few that allow visitors to do more than briefly visit and leave.  Yes, you can still sleep in Lincoln’s bedroom in the White House, but knowing the President and making a sizable campaign contribution would greatly boost your chances of bringing your toothbrush and pajamas and staying the night.  Imagine sleeping over at Monticello, Lee’s Mansion, or Mount Vernon.  Not a chance.

Argow Cabin Today

But that’s not the case with Argow cabin.  PATC members can rent the cabin for a weekend rate of $45 a night and weekdays for just $35. Not a budget breaker given the cost of lodging today.  But a cautionary note.  This is a rustic property with the emphasis on rustic; there is no electricity, no indoor bathrooms, a seasonal spring and your fridge is that insulated lunch bag you carried in with you.  Oh, and if I failed to mention it, you need to hike in just under a mile a mile to reach the front door.

Yes, history comes with a bit of physical inconvenience.  But the rewards of getting reacquainted with yourself, loved ones or friends are multitudinous.  One additional benefit?  You don’t have to worry about your cell phone and Blackberry battery life.  There is minimal coverage up in the mountains.

Not yet a member of PATC?  Completing a quick online application and payment of an annual $35 membership fee will solve the problem.

Once you are an official member, you immediately earn extra bonus points.  There are thirty-eight other club cabins available for rent in the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.  If you pay, you play.  If you don’t, you won’t.

So let’s sum it up.  Annual membership: $35.  Cabin rental: $45 per night.  Food and gas for the weekend: $100, maybe.  The experience?  Priceless.

Keith Argow & Jeff Testerman

Categories : HAGARTY TALES