Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Virginia Wine Industry and the Upcoming Wine Bloggers Conference

In light of the announcement that the next Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC) will be held in Charlottesville, VA, I sought out an insiders perspective on (i) the Virginia wine industry and (ii) the potential impact of the WBC being held in the state.  The person I turned to for his insights was Dr. Bruce Zoecklein, Professor of Enology at Virginia Tech, State Enologist, and head of the Wine/Enology - Grape Chemistry Group (WEGCG), also at Virginia Tech. Before delving into Dr. Zoecklein's expertise, responsibilities, and perspectives, an overview of the VA wine industry is in order.

According to Virginia Tech the VA wine industry:

  • Utilizes 2500 acres across the state for grape growing
  • Generates $35 million annually in tax revenues
  • Ranks 8th in the country in wine production
  • Supports 165 wineries
  • Hosts over 1 million tourists annually
  • Primarily plants Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The industry has the resources of the University and the state at its disposal for grape quality research and improvement initiatives.

The primary resource available to the industry from the University is the Dr.-Zoecklein-led WEGCG which: (i) conducts/oversees wine-related research and provides lab services; (ii) provides an Extension Service; and (iii) conducts onsite visits to wineries for consultation and data collection.  An example of the research conducted by the group is the development of the electronic nose, a tool that allows the grower to assess grape maturity and select optimal pick-time.  The Extension Service provides workshops, short courses, symposia, and printed/online material, all aimed at increasing the knowledge base of industry participants.

In addition to his teaching responsibilities and leading the WEGCG, Dr. Zoecklein also oversees the Enology Service Lab which provides fee-based analysis of wine or juice for in- and out-of-state customers.  The lab is staffed by two full-time chemists and provides chemical, physical, microbiological and sensory analyses upon request.  The lab was initially established to serve the VA industry but expanded its services to customers beyond state lines in order to have enough samples to run through the system to keep overhead down.  Revenues from the lab activities go back to the lab or into the program.

The WEGCG does not have a charter per se but works actively with VA winemakers to (i) lower their cost of production and (ii) increase the quality of their wine grapes.  One of the primary inputs to WECGC activities is the information gleaned from regular roundtables held with the winemakers.  At these meetings, wines are tasted blind and determinations made as to what the sensory problems are.  The WECGC will then design research programs to address the identified issues. Within the larger group of winemakers there is a smaller group of 15 or so who can, and have, worked on the worldwide stage. Dr. Zoecklein listens carefully to the input from this group.  Organizational success is measured by the number of wineries that adopt his recommendations.  As an example he cited the case of fermentable nitrogen in wine where today, based on his recommendation, the majority of winemakers are sending samples to be tested so that they can make adjustments prior to fermentation.

Dr. Zoecklein sees the VA wine industry as still embryonic, still learning what varietals to plant and where to plant them.  At a broader level, however, the industry operates in a favorable political climate peopled with progressive politicians.  The current governor, for example, is very supportive of the wine industry because he sees its potential impact on tourism, state tax revenues, and agricultural economic development.

When queried about VA terroir, Dr. Zoecklein said that VA was all about soil and climate variation: from the sand of the eastern shore, to the red clay of the Piedmont, and with some limestone thrown in for good measure.  What is more relevant in VA, he says, is hydrology -- soil moisture and soil moisture-holding capacity -- and the industry needs to get to a place where they understand the regional differences and its impact on varietals.

Dr. Zoecklein identified a number of challenges confronting VA winemakers:

  • The need to understand the nuances of climate and how those nuances affect winemaking styles
  • The need to understand what technologies are available and the to adopt the ones that are most germane
  • The need to better understand the marketplace and how best to market their wines.  Tourism is the main sales vehicle today but does not provide the economies of scale needed to get production costs down
  • The need to understand the economics of winemaking.  It is easy to spend a lot of money and not get a return on the investment.
The VA winemaking industry will be positively impacted by the WBC being held there next year, according to Dr. Zoecklein.  In his view it will increase industry visibility.  On a broader level, he sees blogs and bloggers as an increasingly important mechanism for getting the word out.

As regards the future, Dr. Zoecklein sees Virginia as part of a strong regional wine industry with, in its case, demonstrated excellence in Petite Manseng and Sauvignon Blanc.   He expects to have access to grant money to expand winemaker sensory training and to create specialized online programs for people looking to get into winemaking.  He sees the presence of technically trained individuals as key to the growth and development of the industry within the state.


  1. Wow! Excellent interview summary. As an organizer of the WBC, I'll make sure to get in touch with Dr. Zoecklin.

  2. Allan, thank you very much for your kind words. I am sure that Dr. Zoecklin will be very receptive to your approach.