Archive for January, 2011


John’s January Pick of the Month

Posted on Jan 28 2011 | By

Chester Gap Cellars Cabernet Franc Goes Deep

“We’re having rack of lamb tonight,” my wife, Jean, advises.  It’s my cue to select a wine from our cellar and get the fireplace going, both enjoyable tasks that will culminate in a cozy evening at home.

With the fire roaring, I turn my attention to the wine that will accompany our Australian rack of lamb, roasted red bliss potatoes with rosemary and hericot vert green beans sautéed in olive oil with sliced almonds and a dash of crushed garlic.  My selection for the full-bodied repast verily jumps out of my wine rack: Chester Gap Cellars 2008 Cabernet Franc.

I’ve enjoyed Chester Gap Cellars wines from the day the winery opened. Owner and winemaker Bernd Jung produces clean, artisanal wines with depth and spot-on varietal character.  His ’08 Cabernet Franc is one of my favorites.  It pours an almost inky garnet in the glass and releases aromatic notes of mint, cherry, smoke and spice.  I force myself to swirl and sniff rather than just start drinking; easy boy, easy.

On the palate, the nose has faithfully interpreted the rich, mouth filling black fruit, mint and subtle coffee notes, all framed by smooth tannins.  We enjoy a glass before dinner and relish the rest of the bottle with the lamb.  With our food, the wine jumps into overdrive and we both exchange smiles of pleasure.  Is this Napa Valley in a Virginia bottle?  Not a chance.  This is Old Dominion wine at its best.

Published in the Spring edition of Virginia Wine Lovers magazine.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Virginia Wine Earns Its Passport

Posted on Jan 27 2011 | By

Growing Number of Old Dominion Wineries Selling Overseas

The British wine lover moves slowly down the aisle of a London wine shop examining various selections of Viognier.  As he reads the back label of a bottle of Condrieu, France’s finest rendition of the grape, his eye catches a bottling of another wine he recently read about, a Virginia Viognier.  He places the French beauty back on the shelf and lays the Virginia bottle carefully in his basket.

Another bottle sold.  Another convert made.  Virginia wine goes international.

Rappahannock Cellars Viognier

In some respects, Virginia’s emergence as a growing wine power house should not come as a surprise; especially if you work in the industry or have tasted the top tier wines to confirm its winemaker-driven achievements. But caution must be taken not to believe too quickly in owner-written press releases.  The more salient question is what are folks outside of Virginia saying about the product?

In the mid-1970s, when commercial wineries began to blossom in the Commonwealth, the quality of the wine was…hmmmm, variable?  Creating a wine industry with commensurate quality is an evolutionary process.  In Europe, they have been working at it professionally for several hundred years.  Even California was on the brink of commercial and critical success in the early 1900s when prohibition stepped in and halted its progress for decades.  Wine takes time.  And great wine takes lots of it.

Viewed in this context, Virginia’s growth in just forty years has been remarkable. Today, some 180 wineries are producing 450,000 cases a year.  It is the fifth largest wine producing state in the nation.  But as impressive as it sounds, consider that during the last twelve months Gallo vinified over 66 million cases.  And worldwide there is 7 billion gallons of wine produced annually.  Virginia contributes less than a drop to the world’s wine bottle.  And yet, its reputation grows.

Reputations are hard-earned and easily lost as evidenced by a glance at any daily newspaper.  CEOs, politicians, educators, and athletes, just to name a few, can see hard-earned achievements swept away in a tsunami of bad newsprint.  So how has Virginia wine gained its growing recognition and how will it retain it?

Entrepreneur Provides Opportunity

Christopher Parker

One important benchmark for success is the attention generated by quality. Such acclaim builds slowly over time till a tipping point of wide-spread recognition kicks in.  When our British wine buyer selected a Virginia Viognier over a better known French version the question arises as to why?  The answer in this instance is that the wine earned its purchase because of its quality, but was provided the opportunity by a gentleman named Christopher Parker and the spotlight he has shone on the state’s wines.

Parker is a Londoner who has been living in Virginia for over twenty years.  His previous career brought him to the states, and after successfully building his technology company he sold it and turned his business attention to Virginia’s wines and its lifestyle.  “Shortly after arriving here in the late 80s, my wife and I began to explore the countryside west of Washington, DC.  We were struck by its beauty and its wineries.  We had no idea Virginians made wine,” recalls Parker.

As a lifelong wine drinker, Parker knew his wines.  He and a business partner previously had operated a small wine importing business in the UK during their spare time, specializing in little known producers from around the world.  After moving to Virginia, it was apparent to Parker a new venture could be devoted exclusively to the sale of Virginia wines in the United Kingdom.  In 2008, New Horizon Wines was born.

In May of 2009, after laying the groundwork within the state’s industry, Parker coordinated a tasting of wines from nine Virginia wineries at the London International Wine Fair, the largest annual show for wholesalers in Britain.  Nine winemakers from the state’s wineries traveled to London and personally poured their wines at the three-day event attended by 15,000 trade representatives.  It was the first opportunity for most of the English wine professionals to taste Virginia’s product.  The pros’ reaction was a combination of surprise and admiration.  To date, New Horizon Wines has introduced a variety of bottlings from eleven Virginia wineries in Great Britain.

Notwithstanding this early success, Parker has no illusions about quickly exporting enormous quantities of Virginia wine overseas.  There is an ocean of wine in today’s world market and gaining customer attention entails work, and a lot of it.

“I view my company as both a business and a labor of love. We are telling the story behind the wine label, and I can speak from experience of having lived here for over twenty years.  We are creating an international market for Virginia wines. Each year our export business has grown.  I’m also combining wine exporting with lifestyle travel experiences for my fellow citizens in the UK.  A vacation at Keswick Hall combined with tours of the Charlottesville wineries is just one example of what my firm will be offering in 2011,” explains Parker.

Top Tier Wineries Sign On
So what wines are being sold overseas because of New Horizon’s efforts?  Viognier and Cabernet Franc lead the pack but several other varietals are in the firm’s portfolio.  The current list of local producers includes Boxwood Winery, Breaux Vineyards, Pearmund Cellars, Philip Carter Winery and Rappahannock Cellars.  Other notable exporters are Barboursville Vineyards, Keswick Vineyards, Veramar Vineyards, Veritas Winery, White Hall Vineyards and Williamsburg Winery.  The list will continue to grow.

Rachael Martin, Boxwood Winery

Rachael Martin, Executive Vice President, Boxwood Winery says, “I recently returned from England where I hosted two wine dinners featuring our wines.  The response was gratifying and resulted in new orders being placed on the spot. The wines are being embraced because of their exceptional quality, not simply because of their place of origin.  Our exports have doubled over the last year to some hundred and twenty cases.  Next year we’ll see even further growth.”

Chris Blosser, with Breaux Vineyards, echoes Martin’s assessment, “I attended this year’s London International Wine Festival and experienced a defining moment in my wine life.  Steven Spurrier, an icon of British wine, stopped by the Virginia tasting area and sampled all the wines.  He returned a short time later with a major figure from France’s Viognier producing region of Condrieu, urging him to taste the quality of Virginia’s Viognier.     The gentleman was impressed.  It was no small reaction coming from a Frenchman producing the same wine in the home of the Viognier grape.”

Philip Carter Strother, owner of Philip Carter Winery, says, “In 1762, the Carter family of Virginia produced wine at the plantation Cleve and it was recognized in Britain for its quality.  It’s gratifying that nearly 250 years later we are again providing citizens of England our wine.”  Chris Pearmund, proprietor of Pearmund Cellars, recognizes the link with Britain and his family.  “I hail from the UK and still have family living there.  It’s great to be selling our wine in my native country. It’s a small volume, but in this industry you need to take one small step at a time,” he emphasizes.

John Delmare

John Delmare, owner of Rappahannock Cellars, thinks overseas sales of his wine builds creditability.  “If you can export wine overseas, it sends a strong message to domestic customers that our quality is being recognized beyond the state’s borders,” he says.  And Justin Bogaty, winemaker at Veramar Vineyards, similarly views Britain as an opportunity, stating, “Building our reputation domestically is a challenge given there are over 6,000 wineries in the United States. If we can deliver value-based quality wine to the British market, I think it will resonate here and help propel our industry forward.”

Parker places the state’s industry in perspective, explaining, “Virginia wine is a bit analogous to New Zealand’s experience.  In the late 70s, they began exporting wine, generating some $40,000.  Today, New Zealand has a mature market valued at over $800 million dollars. Virginia doesn’t produce enough wine to realize these kinds of numbers.  But over the next few decades the state has a huge potential for direct and indirect economic growth from wine sales and associated business.”

British Scribes Impressed
A more recent achievement of Parker was his successful initiative to invite a group of nine wine media professionals from Great Britain and one from Canada to tour Virginia wine country during the second week of September 2010.  The tour was organized in partnership with the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, several Virginia wineries, and regional hotels and resorts.

The attendees, members of an influential group called The Circle of Wine Writers, traveled over 600 miles through the Virginia countryside, visiting 11 wineries and tasting over 150 wines, while attending several dinners where regional fare was paired with local wines.   For most of the writers it was their first visit to Virginia.  Let’s listen in on some random comments as they described their impressions:

“Who expected Nebbiolo in Virginia, and of such high quality? I found them attractive young and very beautiful aged.”

“The Cabernet Franc Reserve from the perfect 2007 vintage was superb…this stunner will be aged for another 12 to 14 months before release.”

“The 2007 Seyval Blanc was lean and delicately structured, with vibrant acidity and citrus flavored freshness.”

“The Cabernet Franc had a big, rich raspberry nose, fresh fruit, and silky texture.”

“The quality of Virginia wines compares well with that in most other wine producing regions in the world.  The Virginia wine industry is still in its infancy and on a learning curve—it didn’t take long to suss out the special qualities the Virginian soil can give to Viognier and Cabernet Franc.”

In summarizing the overall experience one writer wrote, “This has been an extremely enlightening tour for all of us—superbly put together and organized to show us just what Virginian wineries are capable of producing and their rapid improvement over the last 20 years. I am sure that if we are invited again, in just a few years time we will experience an even greater geometrical progression.”

It is important to reflect that each of these writers have returned home and is writing independently about their experience.  Virginia’s reputation in the international wine market will be further enhanced by the opinions of these enophiles.

The challenge today for Virginia wine is to intensify its laser-like focus on quality. One marker foredaining this advancement is seen in the increasing number of national and international wine professionals laboring in our wine cellars and vineyards.  The days of hobby winemaking morphing into a small business are fading fast.  Laudatory assessments from around the world will continue only as long as winemakers and vineyard managers do not rest on their laurels.

Indeed, it’s taken an enormous commitment to achieve the current success in Virginia wine.  But the work has just begun.  The state’s national and international reputation depends on it.

Published in the 2011 edition of the Piedmont Business Journal.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Virginia Wine Trumps Recession

Posted on Jan 06 2011 | By

Chairman of Fauquier County Chamber Explains How

The recession is long over.  Skeptical?  It’s understandable.

But according to the Bureau of Economic Research, the downturn that began in December 2007 ended its nosedive in June 2009.  Of course, try explaining that to folks still in danger of losing their homes or unable to land a job.

Nonetheless, it appears the economy is slowly beginning to right itself.  And while the economic landscape is littered with disrupted lives and portfolios, the United States, as well as Fauquier County, is looking forward to ringing in more than just good wishes in 2011.  Cash registers would be a nice start.

With twenty-four wineries in the county, it’s timely to take a beginning of the year assessment of the industry.  Perhaps no one is better positioned to opine on the subject than the newly elected Chairman of the Fauquier County Chamber of Commerce and managing partner at three county wineries, Chris Pearmund.

We caught up with Pearmund at his eponymous winery, hovering over his keyboard. He seemed eager to take a break and provide some perspective on an industry he knows well.

How has Virginia wine fared over the last two years?

Chris Pearmund

Exceptionally well.  I can’t speak for individual wineries but the industry at large has exhibited robust growth during a difficult period. Total wine sales in the state increased almost 13% in 2009 over the previous year.  And growth this year will be even greater.  The number of wineries continues to increase, with 189 statewide.  Back in 2007 there were some 140.  This dramatic growth occurred during the worst recession in decades.

Today, the industry employs over 3,000 people and contributes almost $350 million to the state’s economy, selling close to 450,000 twelve-bottle cases a year.  It’s also the fastest growing agricultural segment in the state, generating $1.6 million in taxes for the state’s coffers; Fauquier County receives 20 percent of that revenue.

We are now the fifth largest wine producing state in the Nation, behind California, Washington, Oregon and New York. Speaking just for my three wineries, the recession has had zero impact.

Having said all that, running a winery is difficult, time consuming work.  Most of us are operating small businesses. So while the industry is doing very well, I’m not implying fortunes are being made.  An owner must be proficient in a number of disciplines to make a success of it and struggle to keep liabilities in balance with assets.  It’s not a business for the faint-hearted.

What makes the industry so resilient?
I think it’s our customer demographics.  Research has shown that people who enjoy wine are middle-aged, prosperous, well-educated and responsible drinkers.  Added to that is an emerging wine loving group called Millennials, roughly aged 20 to 30, who are among the fastest growing segment of wine drinkers in the country.  I think wine fits today’s lifestyle, including the growing interest in locally produced fare and support for a green environment.  Taken as a whole these are customers any business would court.  Their success as an economic force has propelled our industry forward.

Any growth areas?
Absolutely.  If you’re not evolving, you’re likely fading.  Stagnation is not a healthy business condition.  One of my challenges is to increase weekday sales.  Weekends are a busy time at most wineries but if you elect to keep your doors open seven days a week generating customers Monday through Friday can be difficult.  I’m working on that opportunity now.

Like what?
Well, I think we are discussing the industry at large not proprietary business plans. I’m sure many full time wineries are focusing on ways to build weekday guest traffic.  You can be certain whatever actions I take it will respect my neighbors and the community at large.

Virginia Wine is perceived by some as too expensive.  How do wineries sell pricey wine in a tough economy?
Well first off, I take exception to the idea that our wines are overpriced.  Virginia wine is a hand-crafted, artisanal product produced from locally grown fruit.  We do not operate wine factories selling millions of cases a year.  The cost of producing our wine is higher and it’s reflected in our pricing.  But the end product is superior.  The state’s anticipated double-digit sales figures this year prove that customers are willing to pay for quality.

If you look at any wine region in the world, you will find similar situations; small wineries creating excellent wines at fair, but not giveaway prices. The reality is Virginia is equal to, and in many cases better than, most of these niche producers.

It’s also interesting to note that nationally, wine in the $20-plus category enjoyed a 22% gain in dollar sales this November over the previous month.  That surge is expected to continue through December.  Even more intriguing, wine club sales from California averaging over $50 per bottle are one the hottest selling wine categories today.  Wine lovers everywhere are willing to pay for quality and that’s why Virginia is doing so well.

Is the growth in the number of wineries sustainable?
Yes. I don’t think we have reached a saturation point.  Less that five per percent of all wine sold in the state is Virginia wine.  We can double that volume over the next decade. I do think some marginal producers are hurting the cause of national recognition.  We’ve achieved much in the past decade but everyone in the business must strive to further increase quality.  We are coming ever closer to a tipping point of national appreciation for producing fine wine.  New entrants in the industry need to be committed to advancing our cause.  And they need to sell beyond just their tasting rooms.

The bottom line is new wineries don’t hurt existing ones; a rising tide does float all boats.  Visitors from both the DC metro area and out of state continue to swell tasting rooms around the state.  I think the continued growth of quality-focused wineries will help all of us.

Would you consider ever selling any of your wineries?
I would and I am.  The Winery at La Grange is currently on the market. But you might ask, if I’m so pumped about Virginia wine why would I consider selling?  First, I think most owners of a business would be willing to sell at the right price.  But for me other considerations also come into play.  I’m not getting any younger.  I have been in the wine business for over twenty years and it’s physically and emotionally demanding work.  I’m beginning to think about my retirement, even though it’s years away. Everyone should carefully plan for their golden years but, truthfully, I haven’t.  Now’s the time to start.

If I did sell my businesses, I would prefer staying on in some capacity.  I love the world of Virginia wine and have considerable knowledge I can pass on to the next generation of owners.  Consulting would be considerably less demanding than being a full time proprietor.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES