Virginia Wine — The Growing Divide?

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“Pinot Noir from Virginia? Wow. Love the aromatics, depth of flavor and acidity, a fantastic wine,” remarked a friend after tasting the 2010 Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir during a recent dinner in San Francisco.

The Barboursville 2007 Octagon and Breaux Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc Reserve that I also opened at dinner that evening were equally well received. “These are really well-made, delicious, some of the best Virginia wines I’ve tasted,” continued my friend, a wine professional working in California who has an interest in wines from emerging regions like Virginia.

“It’s great to see an emerging region like Virginia getting so much positive press these days.  It’s amazing how far some of the wineries have come in the last few years but Virginia may suffer from a problem common to emerging regions, the perception that there are a few really good wines and then everything else, with not much in between.”

My friend was right, Virginia wineries have received much positive media coverage recently and his comment about not much in between is a subject that I think about often — the growing divide in Virginia wine.

From the perspective of this avid consumer of Virginian wines and supporter of the VAWineGrowingDivideindustry as a whole, the growing divide in recognition, notable media coverage, and more importantly, wine quality, is becoming clear.

The last few years have been pretty big years for the Virginia wine industry in terms of national and international press coverage with glowing profiles in publications like Decanter Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wine Enthusiast Magazine, The New York Times, and Food & Wine Magazine.

While this type of positive press does benefit the entire Virginia wine industry, it’s hard not to notice that most of these articles feature the same handful of wineries and winegrowers.

Why?

Are these select few ‘the’ premier wineries, wines, and winemakers of Virginia?

Maybe, maybe not.  The premier wineries, wines, and winemakers is dependent on one’s personal tastes and preferences. Regardless, being consistently included in these article does bolster the perception of those few wineries, wines, and winemakers.

This positive media coverage and recognition is only a small component of the growing divide in the Virginia wine industry.

Much like the U.S. economy — with the middle class shrinking as the ranks of the poor grow and the rich accumulate more (this being an economic fact) — there is a growing divide of quality in the Virginia wine industry.

Just five years ago I could easily group the Virginian wines I tasted into three distinct categories:  exceptional (some even world-class), ok or good, and really not good.  At the time, there were a handful of exceptional wines while the number of good/ok and not good wines seemed about equal.

Today, I taste many more Virginian wines that I would classify as ‘exceptional,’ far fewer good or ok ones (reasonably-priced, enjoyable, not overly complex), and more wines that are bad or flawed (unbalanced, flabby, excessive volatile acidity, stanky sulphur smell, over-oaked, dirty etc.).

Exceptional, ok, and bad wines are not exclusive to any one region or vintage — each category is represented throughout each region of the state and across all vintages (2003 and 2011 standout as tough vintages of course).

My opinion (or, theory) that the middle of Virginia wine  is shrinking (in terms of quality) is based on tasting about 300 Virginian wines each year by way of participating as a judge in a large Virginia wine competition (for the last five years), winery visits throughout the year, tasting local wines to provide recommendations for a local wine shop, organizing numerous comparative Virginia wine tastings, and even the occasional large Virginia wine festival (I know, I know, not the best place for wine ‘tasting’).

I concede that tasting ~300 Virginian wines each year may not be the basis for ‘the’ perfect theory (if there is such a thing as a perfect theory) but, this number of wines does provide a reasonable sample size to form an educated opinion.

Since wine appreciation is subjective, there is no way to prove — nor disprove for that matter — my theory of the shrinking middle, but it is clear that a handful of wineries are pulling away from the pack.   

While the growing divide is clear (or becoming clearer), the reasons for the divide are not as clear.

Perhaps the growing divide between the exceptional and not-so-good wines is typical as a wine industry evolves from an ‘emerging’ to a mature region.  Maybe this is common in more notable and established wine regions.

Maybe my palate has changed (evolved?) to the point where I only appreciate the Virginian wines that I drink the most.

It’s tempting to try to connect tourism-focused/event-centric wineries with not-so-good wines but a couple of these wineries consistently produce exceptional wines (along with their share of bad wine).  And, conversely, a number of wineries that eschew touristy events and large parties are bottling some pretty rough wines.

A more likely reason is a combination of factors including; financial constraints, winemaker turnover, inexperience, poor site selection, and a sundry of other reasons.

Understand that exploring this growing divide is not intended as a swipe at hardworking winemakers or any particular winery, just the (educated) opinion of someone that supports (a lot) this industry and is curious about why this divide is occurring.

In the end, every consumer has different tastes and definitions of what is an exceptional or ok or bad wine.  Drink what you like.

What say you?


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