Thoughts on Virginia Wine in 2016 — Opportunities and Headwinds

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Happy New Year!

I intended to write and post this article on January 1 but, you know, life and all that.

Every January 1st I spend some quiet time reflecting on the past twelve months and thinking about improvements and intentions for the year ahead. I record my most brilliant thoughts in my journal to review the following January (to validate how insightful I am).

Since my journal is generally reserved for my thoughts on books, travel, family (mostly how I can be a better dad), my work life (mostly lamenting why I turned down yet another new job), and documenting petty grievances, I use this space here at the blog to record some of my opinions and thoughts on wine.  This includes the ubiquitous ‘predictions for this year’ article (at least I’m not posting those ‘what to drink for summer’ or ‘12 must try wines for Thanksgiving’ like everyone else).

Anyway, last January I offered a few opinions on the year ahead for the Virginia wine industry.  Since there is no easy way to quantify or test my ‘predictions,’ the only reasonable conclusion is — I was right about each of them.  

I’m back at the keyboard for the 2016 version.  First, I extend my 2015 thoughts on the rising popularity of craft beer (in Virginia, not necessarily elsewhere in the U.S.), Virginia cider, and the slow and steady decline Viognier to my 2016 industry outlook.

I offer the following additional thoughts on Virginia wine in 2016:  

Selling the Dream — Wineries For Sale
We’ve all heard the saying, “the two happiest days in a boat owner’s life is the day they buy their boat and the day they sell their it.”  Is the same true for winery owners?   For ForSalesome, yes.

I can’t remember a time since I started following the Virginia wine industry eight years ago when so many wineries throughout the state were on the market for sale.  Small wineries, tourist-centric wineries, and surprisingly, one large, well-known family winery that makes fantastic wine is now for sale.  This particular winery, and another large event-centric winery, are discretely listed in national real estate websites as ‘property with vineyards’ so I will not mention them by name.  

I suspect a couple of these wineries may be on the market in the hopes of capitalizing on the rising profile of the Virginia wine industry and cashing out at a high point.  Good for them.

So, 2016 may be the year when several wineries are sold including a notable winery that will no doubt surprise many.   

The Grape Shortage — In Search of Quality Grapes
The economics of the Virginia wine industry seem pretty simple on the surface.  The Virginia wine industry has received lots of praise and recognition from national and international wine media in the last few years.  This media attention has helped raise the profile of the Virginia wine industry considerably.  As awareness and quality (of some) local wines grow, so too does consumer demand.   

The solution to meet growing demand seems simple enough — open more wineries and plant more vines.  The reality of course is much more complex.  While dozens of new winery and tasting room operations have opened in Virginia in the past few years, new plantings are not keeping up with demand resulting in a shortage of quality wine grapes.

There are a number of reasons for, and consequences of, the shortage of quality wine grapes in Virginia:  Not enough of the newer winery/tasting room operations are planting grapevines, cost of planting new vines is prohibitive, and there are too many vines planted on sites not well-suited for the varieties planted.

The shortage of quality wine grapes is, in my opinion, exacerbating the quality divide in Virginia wine.  Another consequence of supply (quality wine grapes) not keeping pace with demand is the growing reliance on out-of-state fruit/juice.  There is no accurate way to track (that I’m aware of) imported grapes/wine grape juice but more wineries are bottling/labeling ‘American Wine’ and more winemakers that I talk to openly admit to bottling wine made with out of state fruit or juice.  

This is a problem for the Virginia Wine brand.  And, this will be more pronounced in 2016!

Another possible consequence (or solution?) of the quality grape shortage is establishing wine operations in other regions.  Paradise Springs Winery recently announced a second winery operation in the Happy Canyon area of Santa Barbara County, CA.  “Having grown from 1,300 cases to over 12,000 cases a year in 2013, the demand for Paradise Springs wine was outpacing the quality fruit available in Virginia,” noted Kirk Wiles, CEO and Founder of Paradise Springs, in a recent press release.  To continue growing and meeting customer demand, Paradise Springs was forced to look beyond Virginia.  Will others follow?  I doubt we’ll see too many (if any) winery operations follow the Paradise Springs model given the costs associated with expanding to another region but, an interesting and innovative response to the grape shortage that says a lot about the depths of the quality grape shortage.

I am collaborating with another wine writer on a multi-part article on this subject so I’ll save the detailed discussion of the reasons for and consequences of the shortage of quality wine grapes in Virginia.  

I believe 2016 will be a year the competition for quality wine grapes intensifies, prices rise, and more wineries will import out of state fruit and juice.

What will all of this mean for the Virginia Wine brand?

Nebbiolo and Petit Manseng Rising (and Cabernet Sauvignon, too)
While red Bordeaux-style blends and Chardonnay (the subject of my next article) will continue to be the foundation of the Virginia wine industry, a number of lesser-known varieties are thriving here and are increasingly popular with consumers.  

Varieties like Petit Manseng and Nebbiolo continue to prove their suitability to the Virginia climate and impress Sommeliers and notable wine media that visit the state.  Andrew Jefford, the long-time writer for UK-based Decanter magazine, sang the praises of Nebbiolo following his visit to Virginia in October and writer Bruce Schoenfeld raved about Petit Manseng in a recent Saveur article.

The growing number of excellent varietal Cabernet Sauvignons is impressive and seems to be improving more than any other category of wine in Virginia in my opinion (based on several recent comparative tastings).

2016 will be a big year for Petit Manseng, Nebbiolo, and Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of recognition, more plantings, and consumer demand.

The (Continuing) Growing Divide in Wine Quality
In August 2014 I wrote about the growing divide in Virginian wine quality; 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.

vawinegrowingdivideBased on tasting several hundred Virginia wines each year — as part of comparative tastings that I organize, as a judge for various wine competitions, the occasional wine festival (ugh, I know), and winery visits — I believe the middle-class of Virginia wine quality continues to shrink.

In 2016, I believe this divide will be more pronounced and evident and we’ll see a few of the established wineries fall from the shrinking middle to the bottom (and maybe a winery closure or two).  I hope I’m wrong.

Viognier, Signature Grapes, and Letting Consumers Decide
Regular readers know I am a big fan of Virginia Viognier.  I was (‘am’ – equivocating font) a big supporter of the Virginia Wine Board’s decision in 2011 to designate Viognier as Virginia’s Signature grape for marketing/branding purposes.  Even supporters like me have to admit the overall quality of Virginia Viognier is not improving and is not likely the best suited grape for such a designation.

Based on tasting many Virginia Viogniers throughout the year I believe the growing divide in Virginia wine quality is most evident in the state’s signature grape, and it’ss on the wrong side of the quality divide.  

While 2015 was a good year for some Viognier crops, I believe 2016 will be the year many more in the industry will abandon their commitment to a signature grape for the state.  

Let consumers decide what Virginia’s signature grape is (if there is one at all).

Vine Disease
I am not a viticulturist and do not play one on the internet.  Even with my limited (emphasis on limited) knowledge of viticulture, it’s clear vine disease is a growing

RedBlotch

Red blotch on a Merlot leaf. Pic credit: Washington State University

problem and believe red blotch and other vine maladies become more prevalent (or at least talked about more) in 2016.

While red blotch has been around for some time and replanting vineyards (for a number of reasons) is not news, talk about the effects of this particular vine disease has been part of every discussion I’ve had with Virginia growers the last few months.   Several have pointed to the lack of adequate testing of cuttings from nurseries in California as the root cause (pun intended).  

Many of the winegrowers I’ve talked about about this growing concern have told me they are now including a requirement for the nursery to test and certify that their vines are free from disease.

As a dilettante observer of viticulture, I do wonder if the increased instances of red blotch are a result of: ‘my’ personal heightened awareness as I look for potential farmland sites, an unfortunate and unavoidable reality of winegrowing, or, are the number of vines with red blotch actually increasing because inferior cuttings are being sent to Virginia while the higher quality cuttings are reserved for more respected regions?   I can’t imagine the latter being the case but a good conspiracy theory does linger in one’s thoughts.  Would love to hear from a few winegrowers on this subject.

The 2016 look ahead for DrinkWhatYouLike.com
With just over a dozen articles posted last year, 2015 was the slowest year here at the blog since starting DrinkWhatYouLike in 2009.  Work, work travel, life, and more family travel this year took time away from writing new blog posts.  And, I spent more time focusing on print writing, which I will do more of in 2016 as well.

Although 2015 was a slow year for blog content, last year was a very busy wine year for me.  The year started with the 6th annual Virginia sparkling wine blind tasting, I hosted seven Virginia Wine Chats, spent five days touring the Loire Valley of France, visited California’s Lodi wine region as part of a media trip, attended the Virginia Varieties Camp (known as V2) hosted by the Marketing Office of the Virginia Wine Board, moderated a panel discussion at the 8th annual Wine Bloggers Conference in the Finger Lakes region of New York, spoke on a panel at the annual American Wine Society Conference, attended the Wine Tourism Conference in Loudoun County (one day only), participated in the Virginia Oyster Trail media weekend on the Northern Neck, attended Luca Paschina’s induction in the Italian Order of Merit ceremony and the 200th anniversary of architecture at Barboursville celebration (as part of a kid-free weekend in Charlottesville).  Best of all, I was able to reconnect with many old friends and make new ones throughout the year at these events.   

As with past year ‘thoughts on the year ahead’ articles, the aforementioned are my opinions.  I do not mistake my strongly held opinions for absolute fact.  If you disagree with any of my positions (seems crazy to even think such a thing), please leave a comment.  Would love to hear opposing views.

Wishing everyone a healthy and prosperous 2016!

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