Wednesday, May 9, 2012

An Enologist's perspective on the Virginia wine industry

Forty bloggers from across the US and Canada descended on Northern Virginia last weekend for Taste Camp, "a gathering of journalists and wine bloggers ... in an emerging wine region for an immersive wine weekend."  This truly was immersive and kudos to the organizers and the Loudon County Tourism organization for arranging the event in the first place and for ensuring that the experiences at every stop along the way was of the highest quality.  I would also like to thank all of the winemakers  for the patience and hospitality that was shown us.  You contributed in a positive manner towards, what was for most of us, a significant learning experience.

In that there were 40 accomplished writers in the group, I was positive that every element of our trip would receive comprehensive scrutiny.  In seeking to develop an overarching context of what we saw over the weekend, I turned to Dr. Bruce Zoecklein, Professor of Enology at Virginia Tech, who has worked with most of these wineries for a number of years and so has a unique inside-outside perspective on the issues that they face, the solutions they have implemented and their overall capabilities. In addition to his work as Professor of Enology, Dr. Zoecklein had previously been the State Enologist as well as the head of the Wine/Enology - Grape Chemistry Group (WEGCG).  A fuller description of the roles and responsibilities of Dr. Zoecklein and his organizations can be found here.

I engaged Dr Zoecklein on three broad themes: (i) the working relationship between the University and the winemakers; (ii) the state of the Virginia wine industry; and (iii) his perspective on Linden Vineyards.  I pursued the latter question because I had been signally impressed by the owner as well as by the wines that we tasted while there.

According to Dr. Zoecklein, his objective is to provide a range of technical services  -- on-demand or as a resource -- to the Virginia wine industry.  Within that context he: (i) brings in technical experts from the west coast and around the world; (ii) ensures that the industry is aware of technological and methodological advances around the world -- and assists wineries in implementing those advances if they so choose; (iii) provides a range of written technical material; and (iv) provides analytical lab services. 

As an example of the types of services that he provides to the wine industry, Dr. Zoecklein points to the mid-1990s when a couple of the red varieties with which they were working produced wines with hard seed tannins; a situation resulting from grape and seed maturity issues as well as processing issues. By applying délestage (a fermentation technique that utilizes oxygenation of the juice to produce a softer, fruitier wine) and micro-oxygenation (application of oxygen doses during maturation to soften tannins in a shorter period than in the case of wood and bottle aging) techniques, the WEGCG was able to resolve the problem.  That is only half the battle, however.  The winemakers have to accept this as a solution that is suitable for them.

Dr. Zoecklein refers to the Virginia wine industry as an "industry of Chiefs and Indians."  The approach in the previous example would have been for the Enology Group to make wines using the two techniques and then to gain the buy-in of the Chiefs (the industry leaders).  Once the rest of the industry sees the practice implemented at the leading wineries, it is likely that they will follow on and implement.

Dr. Zoecklein sees the Virginia wine industry as falling into three separate camps.  In the first camp you find wineries that are making wines that are as well crafted as wines anywhere in the world.  The second camp is comprised of wineries that are making good wine but they lack consistency either across vintages or across labels.  The final camp is comprised of the wineries that are "not nearly as noble as the previous two."  The progressive producers recognize that the market is not static and that they must continue to make progress from one season to the next.  That being said, the industry as a whole is beginning to reap the benefits of technology, estate fruit from older vines, and a better understanding of the impact of seasonal variation on grape and wine quality.  This is still a tourism-based industry but the finer producers understand that they have to get into a position where their wines can compete against the finest wines in the world.  Tourism sales will not provide the economies of scale, or drive the economies of quality, required to compete on the big stage.

The industry does have to confront challenges in the areas of (i) the environment and (ii) attitudes of the buying public.  First, in terms of the environment, winemakers have to deal with late frosts, drought, high humidity, and tropical storms in the fall.  They need to continue working to understand these phenomena and then to incorporate their learnings into their viticultural processes.  In terms of the buying public, Virginia is a new wine region and is being regarded with some skepticism.  The challenge for the VA wine community is to get the potential buyer to "taste the wine and not the label."

Dr. Zoecklein sees the industry moving to a consensus on what varieties will do best in Virginia both in the ground and in the market.  He sees Viognier as gaining a reputation and as a variety that can help to provide regional distinctiveness.  He sees Petit Manseng as being a good second choice because it is soil-suitable, it is not planted extensively in the US, and it can be vinified for both a sweet and a dry wine.  Every winemaker is producing Cabernet Franc and they have learned to tone down the herbaceousness which had plagued their efforts to date.  He thinks Cabernet Franc will do best in Virginia as part of a blend.  Dr. Zoecklein sees both Tannat and Petit Verdot as gaining traction in the marketplace.

As regards my question about Linden Vineyards, Dr. Zoecklein sees Jim Law, the owner, as having a quite unique situation vis a vis the other wineries in Virginia.  Jim has dealt with estate fruit for over 25 years and has gained an empirical understanding of what works and what does not.  Jim, according to Dr. Zoecklein, is great at making observations and banking them.  Finally, wine quality factors are in the vineyard and Jim is a great student of viticulture.

In closing, Dr. Zoecklein expressed a strong sense of optimism in that he sees a number of things lining up to increase the pace of the industry's progress.  First, there is a lot of excitement both within and outside the industry because some wineries are crafting fine wines -- and people are noticing it.   Second, there is strong support of the wine industry by the Governor.  According to (2/26/12), "Promoting the bouquet of Virginia's wine industry has been an important part of (Governor) McDonnell's economic development initiatives ... Virginia wine has been at the center of events at the Virginia Executive Mansion, at business meetings and on international trade and marketing missions to India, Israel, and countries in Europe and Asia."  The Governor, according to Dr. Zoecklein, "... understands the inter-relationships between agriculture, production, marketing, tourism, and tax revenues that the Virginia wine industry brings to the Commonwealth.  It is the understanding of the value-added potential that is the genesis of his support."  Finally, Dr. Zoecklein sees Virginia Tech increasing its already extensive support of the industry.

According to Dr. Zoecklein, "The future is bright as this regional industry grows."  More vines are needed in the ground to help fuel this growth but that will be a challenge given the costs associated with agriculture in the state.

© Wine -- Mise en abyme

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