Virginia Wine Earns Its Passport

By 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