The state of Virginia wine

By Posted on Oct 18 2018 | By

Reflecting on the future of the Old Dominion’s vinous fortunes 

The year was 1607 and hopes were high as the intrepid band of colonists landed and founded a colony named after their king. They endured frightful weather crossing the Atlantic and encountered an initial hostile welcome from Native Americans until they eventually landed on a small, quiet peninsula. They called it Jamestown.

The colonists were sponsored by the Virginia Company chartered by King James whose objective was to established a new, revenue producing colony.

As the hearty band approached the shores of the New World the scent of delicate grapes drifted over the ocean breezes. Wine! Surely this new land would reward with copious amounts of wine so beloved by the English.

Thus began a, long, painful and ultimately disappointing saga of wine making in America. The wine made from native grapes tasted awful. And while the colonists repeatedly tried to make palatable wine from their European cuttings all efforts ended in failure.

It is analogous to frame the delicate Vitis vinifera grape species—it makes 99 percent of all wine worldwide—as vulnerable as the natives were to English diseases. Some 10 million Indians would perish as their defenseless bodies fell before the onslaught of smallpox, measles, influenza, malaria and other dreaded diseases.

The European grapes were similarity taken to slaughter by insects, humidity, heat and cold. Virginia went on to have an anemic wine culture until the mid-1970s.

Today, over 300 wineries dot the state’s landscape making it the fifth largest wine producing state in the Nation with approximately 3,500 acres of grapes producing over half a million cases of wine annually.

Science and skill have been brought to bear to make quality wine.

Virginians couldn’t happier.

Let’s gain the perspective of four Virginia wine professionals on what the next five years might hold for the Commonwealth.

Virginia Wine Marketing Board
Based in Richmond, the Board handles education and marketing efforts on behalf of all Virginia wineries. Annette Ringwood Boyd is the director.

“I think we’ll see some consolidation in the industry over the next few years,” said Boyd. She believes there are a number of smaller wineries whose owners are nearing retirement and their children do not want to pursue a career in wine. This may lead to the closing of unprofitable businesses.

“Sales of wine are currently outpacing supply so there will be a big push to grow more grapes. If weather impacts this year’s harvest, the shortage issue will continue, further squeezing the little guys,” Boyd said.

The consolidation trend may already have begun. Over the last three years the previously explosive growth of wineries has slowed to a trickle. From 2000 to 2015 some 210 wineries—an average of 14 a year—opened tasting rooms. The recent number has fallen to four to five annually.

“We’ll still see people entering the market but those people will be better financed,” said Boyd. She explains that it will be harder for smaller entrants to have access to fruit and expensive equipment.

In the past, bootstrapping paid dividends but into today’s market it’s going to require more capitalization. This may be a sign the industry is maturing. There will be fewer small wineries in lieu of larger, better financed ones.

It may also bode well for the quality issue. Historically, Virginia wines have not had a consistent quality profile. Many are producing excellent wines but marginal performers undermine the state’s reputation. Boyd takes some exception to the charge stating, “Every wine region has it under performers.

“I think the market tends to make its own corrections. If someone is not making good wine, people are not going to buy it. The market takes care of that problem,” Boyd said.

John Delmare
John Delmare is the owner of Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly. He earned his wine bona fides in California as owner and winemaker of a small winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He saw what was unfolding in Virginia and moved his family here in the late 1990s and opened his winery in 2000.

“In the last two to three years a lot of capital that might have flowed into the wine industry went into the craft beer and the craft distilling craze. I think that sucked a lot of energy of our sails. The industry kinda stopped growing,” Delmare said. In response to the trend he opened his own distillery last year.

Nonetheless, he thinks the market is in the middle of a change with the industry continuing to grow by not by new wineries coming on line but by the growth of existing companies. His initial output 18 years ago was 2,000 cases a year. Today he produces over 15,000 cases.

In some instances that growth has been significant. “We’ve found ourselves growing 12 to 16 percent annually over the last six years,” he said. “Not everyone has seen that rate. It’s the wineries who are doing something unique and doing it right.”

In Delmare’s case it’s his wine club. When he opened his business 18 years ago to his knowledge not one winery in Virginia had a wine club. He launched his and today it’s one of the largest in the state.

It’s not a quarterly shipment either but two bottles per month. Some 80 percent of his revenue is now generated directly from the club. “It’s been our life blood,” he stated.

He feels like some investment is now coming back into the wine industry with beer sales slowing down. On the negative side, his crop was hit during the spring bloom season with heavy rains and he lost some grapes, as did other wineries, so the existing grape shortage will likely continue.

“Overall I think we are entering a period we were are going to have a shakeout but I think it will be a healthy shakeout,” he said.

Stephen Barnard
Stephen Barnard originally hails from Capetown, South Africa but is now a U.S. citizen. He is emblematic of the young, talented winemakers from outside the state who are finding a fruitful home in Virginia. He is winemaker and vineyard manager at Keswick Vineyards in Keswick.

“Quality is on the upswing. People are planting better grapes on better sites and learning how to deal with the weather issues; rain, humidity and a short growing season.

“The best fruit makes the best wine so the emphasis on the right sites, root stock, and clones has helped,” he said. He also believes the sharing of knowledge among winemakers is critical to further success.

“The only way to challenge ourselves is to share information and collectively grow. The ensuing changes are subtle not massive.” Barnard said, He cites groups in his region such as the Winemakers Research Exchange, numerous winemaker roundtables and the Governors’ Cup tastings as examples of the collaborative efforts.

He agrees breweries and distilleries have taken some business away but the world of wine is not going anywhere. “This is a bump in the road. People are going to be coming back,” he states.

His vision for the future of Virginia wine is to move beyond our borders and ship wine nationwide. “We need to be making more wine, more quality wine. Making something authentically Virginia. I don’t know if we know what that is yet but I don’t think its Viognier,” he opines. The popular white wine is notoriously hard to grow and in chronic short supply.

Tom Kelly
Tom Kelly is past president of the Virginia Vineyards Association and director of operations at Brown Bear Vineyards in Woodstock.

“I see an attrition of older folks who are trying to find a way out. There will be a culling out of wineries. Many folks are starting to age and may not have a succession plan in place. That’s not all bad,” said Kelly. He compares the process to pruning a vine by cutting back the weak branches.

He also sees a growing influx of talent from beyond Virginia. “These young people are graduating from UC Davis and Fresno State with wine degrees and looking to make a name for themselves in Virginia; the big fish in a small pond scenario,” Kelly said.

“As we gain more experience and figure more things out” quality will advance even further. Technology also helps. We are definitely trending on the upside of quality,” He said.

Reflecting on the future of Virginia wine “past is prologue” will be an enduring theme. The success of the last four decades are portents for the future.

The critical issues to be addressed in the next five years is further improving quality, increasing quantity, attracting talent, solving the chronic grape shortage, and convincing wine lovers outside of Virginia it deserves its place among the best wine regions in the Nation.

In the words of the immortal Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”



Published in the Fall 2018 edition of Dine, Wine & Stein magazine.


Categories : WINE ARTICLES