Winemakers Roundtable

By 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