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Rising Tides, Backhands, Damning With Faint Praise, and that Elusive $100 Bottle of Virginia Wine – A Commentary on recent RdV Media Coverage (with a dash of Snobbery?)

By most accounts, John F. Kennedy is credited as the originator of the aphorism; ‘a rising tide lifts a boats‘ — used by the President to communicate an idea of economic improvement wherein participants in an economy benefit when the general economy improves.  If this cute little adage applies to the Virginia wine industry, the Commonwealth’s wineries may be in for a tidal surge equivalent to a category 5 hurricane moving up the east coast.  That is, if one believes all of the recent press bestowed upon Rutger de Vink, the eponymous owner of RdV Vineyards, one of Virginia’s newest winery operations.

The Washington Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre was the first national wine journalist to report on RdV with a prominent feature on the cover the Post’s Lifestyle section.  The flattering coverage of RdV continued with my favorite wine critic, Jancis Robinson after her visit to Virginia during the 2011 North American Wine Bloggers Conference in July.  More recently, James Conaway extolled the virtues of RdV with an article in a new-to-me publication called Garden & Gun magazine (from the title, am I to presume there are a lot of gardeners who also like guns?).  As an adjunct to this print coverage, RdV has been the subject of much online chatter including a robust discussion on the Wine Berserkers forum and a piece at Wine Review Online by W. Blake Gray.  I too added to the opinion pool with a short piece here on my blog — ‘RdV – The Virginia Wine Story of 2011?‘ — after my visit to RdV in May.

On the surface, this level of coverage for any Virginia winery is a big win for the entire Virginia wine industry, especially from an esteemed group of writers and publications with such a wide readership.  I can appreciate wildly enthusiastic wine press as much as the next guy, especially about a Virginia vintner with the drive, knowledge, and global aspirations of Rutger de Vink (not to be confused with the same global aspirations of Patricia Kluge 10 years ago), but I take exception when such coverage is laced with a dismissive tone directed towards the rest of the Virginia wine industry.

Based on a couple recent conversations with winemakers who have been working Virginia’s land and producing excellent wines for years, the dismissive tone in recent articles has not gone unnoticed.

One of the more subtle, and innocent examples is found in Jancis Robinson’s article — ‘Virginia’s Climbers‘ — in the September 16, 2011 issue of the Financial Times.  A glowing, yet balanced piece Mrs. Robinson writes, ‘I sincerely believe his [referring to Rutger de Vink] considerable efforts stand a good chance of putting the state on the world wine map.‘  One person is going to put an entire state on the world wine map? Really?  I am definitely not qualified to question any wine related prediction made by Jancis Robinson, but I think we should slow down and consider evaluating a few more vintages of RdV (especially the 2011 vintage, marked by 30+ days of rain🙂 ) before anointing Rutger The Virginia Wine Global Founding Father.  I should note that Mrs. Robinson did include several other Virginia wineries in the ‘Jancis’s Top Virginia Picks‘ sidebar of this article.

For the record — beyond the trite rugged outdoorsy patagoniaesque shtick — I have huge respect for Rutger de Vink, the team he’s assembled, his drive, intention, knowledge, and of course RdV wine.  I’ve tasted RdV wines on three occasions and my conclusion each time has been the same — unfair to taste them so young, but really, really good!  It is, however, important to maintain perspective since there are a number of other really, really good wines being made here in Virginia (and have been well before RdV).

The dismissive tone I’m referring to can also be found in James Conaway’s piece in Garden & Gun magazine. Take the subtitle of the article for instance, ‘A few Virginia vintners are hell-bent on making the South’s first truly great wines.’  Just a few Virginia vintners are hell-bent on making the South’s first truly great wines?  Of the nearly 200 farm wineries here in Virginia, only a few have winemakers that are working to make great wines in the South? Really?  I guess this depends on Mr. Conaway’s definition of the South’s first truly great wines, which he never clearly defines.

I’m curious if early Virginia wine pioneers like Gabriele Rausse, who has invested a great deal of sweat equity farming the land here in Virginia since the 1970’s, would agree that only a few vintners are hell-bent on making great wines.  I doubt other early groundbreakers like Dennis Horton, Lucie Morton, Luca Paschina, Doug Flemer, Shep Rouse, or even Jim Law would agree that just a few vintners are striving to make great wines.  I could be wrong.  I wonder if other Virginia winemakers — like Jeff White of Glen Manor Vineyards, Andy Reagan of Jefferson Vineyards, Jenni McCloud from Chrysalis Vineyards, Jon Wehmer at Chatham, Rachel Martin at Boxwood, Jason Burrus at Rappahannock Cellars, Jim Dolphin at Delaplane Cellars, Matthieu Finot of King Family Vineyards, Jordan Harris of Tarara, Stephen Barnard at Keswick Vineyards, Kirsty Harmon from Blenheim, Mike Heny at Horton Vineyards, or Michael Shaps — would be included in this ‘few‘ trying to make great wines?

Lest readers believe I am being defensive or shilling for the Virginia wine industry, I agree with Mr. Conaway that Virginia does have its share of vintners who have decided to cash in on tourism rather than quality.  Like every wine region, Virginia has its share of vintners who possess a less than strong commitment to making quality wine and have no desire to make great wines.  However, there are certainly more (many more) than a few Virginia vintners striving to make this great wine Mr. Conaway writes about.

Consistent throughout much of the coverage of RdV is a fetish-like fixation on the $88 price tag for a Virginia wine (gasp!).  I find the obsession (or disbelief) with a Virginia wine priced at $88 humorous, and would like to see other Virginia wineries clean up their labels, use heavier bottles and affix a $100 price tag (just for fun and a little media attention of course😉 ).

W. Blake Gray begins his piece at Wine Review Online with, ‘Virigina (sic) wine has yet to cross the $100 a bottle barrier…‘ This is not 100% correct (but, about 99%).  One Patricia Kluge, namesake of the winery formerly known as Kluge Estates Winery, priced a limited number of bottles of her 2000 vintage well over $100 per bottle.   Since these bottles were accompanied by a smart storage box, this likely does not meet the criteria as the first Virginia wine to cross the $100 barrier.

Gray continues with what I perceive as a snobby ‘dis to the rest of the industry with, ‘The prices [RdV’s] are breathtaking in a state where, until recently, mere adequacy was a worthwhile goal.’  I may be completely misinterpreting the meaning of mere adequacy, but I interpret mere adequacy as written here to be synonymous with mediocre or tolerable — implying that making adequate wine was good enough for the common winemaker here in Virginia before the state was blessed with the arrival of RdV.   Mr. Gray is welcome to his opinion, but I’m not sure too many other winemakers or those familiar with the Virginia wine industry would agree that mere adequacy was or is a worthwhile goal.

Virginia is home to about 200 farm wineries, and like any wine region, our state has its share of winemakers producing wines at all levels of the quality scale — from adequate to tolerable to really good to great.   Although RdV is the focus of most of the attention, many Virginia winemakers share Rutger’s global aspirations, intention, drive, work ethic, and goal of making great wine!

These are exciting times for RdV to be sure.  These are also exciting times for the entire Virginia wine industry and I hope to see more balanced global coverage of more Virginia wineries.

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