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2016.  What a year!

Prince. David Bowie. Leonard Cohen. Maurice White. George Michael.

Muhammad Ali, Pat Summitt, Gordie Howe and Arnold Palmer are among the sports legends that left us in 2016. So did important voices of sports, Craig Sager, Bud Collins and John Saunders.

Mrs. Brady and Professor Severus Snape left us, too.

Sadly, a number of wine and food icons died in 2016: Margrit Mondavi, Peter Mondavi, Stanko Radikon, Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux, Blackberry Farm proprietor Sam Beall, and Etienne Hugel.

The Cubs finally won the World Series. Leicester City (who?) defied all sports odds to win the Premier League. Crazy.

And that toxic election.  Even crazier.

Still… An amazing year to be alive!

Each January I post a recap of my wine experiences and a few prognostications on the year ahead (more as a reference point for my own future reference).

The following is a recap of some of my most memorable wine experiences of 2016 and a few opinions on the year ahead for the Virginia wine industry.

Between family, work, significant work travel outside the U.S., a health challenge early in the year that served as a reminder the reaper is never far from any of us, and wine events, 2016 was a blur for me (as it seems to be for most us today).

The hectic year included catching up with old friends, making new ones, and many wine experiences I am grateful for.

I hosted nine Virginia Wine Chats at wineries across the state in 2016.  Thank you to each winemaker who took time out of their crazy schedule to spend time with me and our online audience.

In early April, I attended the Virginia Wine Summit and moderated a panel discussion on terroir differences with Jim Law, Luca Paschina, Matthieu Finot, Benoit Pineau, Doug Fabbioli and Gonzalo Ortiz. The next weekend I had the honor of serving as MC for the annual Monticello Cup Awards event at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville.

In late April I attended the REAL Wine Fair in London (read Dispatches from the Fair), was a guest at the annual Circle of Wine Writers BYOB dinner in London, followed by a visit to the Champagne region of France in early May.

In June I made my first trip to the James Beard House in New York City for the Virginia Lambs & Clams dinner featuring Border Springs Farm, Rappahannock Oysters, cider from Foggy Ridge, and wines from The Williamsburg Winery and Boxwood.

In August I served as a panelist at the 8th annual Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, CA.

In September, I spent a few days in the Santa Cruz Mountains (which included a visit to RIDGE Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains) and Sonoma, which included attending Grenache Day at Two Shepherds Winery, visiting Martin Ray Winery and Cam Low Cellars.  

In October, my wife and I had the honor of attending the Adagio Release Party at The Williamsburg Winery and the Barboursville Vineyards’ 40th anniversary gala at Barboursville.  Both were much-needed get dressed-up, kid-free evenings.  Woot!

In November I finished my year at the Virginia Oyster Academy at The Tides Inn in Irvington.

I also participated as a judge in five wine competitions in 2016:

These events and experiences made for a crazy busy year of many (emphasis on many) early morning drives to locations followed by late night returns. Thankfully many of these events were on weekends.  There will be fewer events in 2017. 🙂

Though wine competitions get a bad rap by some, they are beneficial from a marketing perspective, especially for lesser-known small wineries.  Muse Vineyards, winner of the 2015 Virginia Governor’s Cup (for 2009 Clio red blend) may be the best recent example.

Many winemakers and marketing folks tell me competition wins and gold medals do make a difference with consumers.  Local competitions do benefit local wineries but, I do not understand the reason for entering far away/big wine competitions (like the SF Chronicle competition).

In 2017 and the coming years, I believe more wineries will enter the Virginia Governor’s Cup and regional competitions like the Loudoun Wine Competition the Monticello Cup.  (Note, the chronic sideline complainers and behind-the-scenes instigators will always bad mouth competitions and other events they are not part of. Wineries, ignore these barkers and support local competitions.)

From the perspective of someone that covers the Virginia wine industry, these competitions (along with other trade tastings and samples) provide me the opportunity to taste and evaluate several hundred local wines each year, which serves as the basis to better understand wine quality and trends across the state.

In my opinion — based on tasting a few hundred Virginian wines each year — it’s clear the quality gap that I’ve previously written about continues to grow. This is especially true of red Bordeaux-style blends, Chardonnay, and Viognier.  

vawinegrowingdivide

Is this growing quality divide a function of finances, inexperienced winemaking, or lack of quality grapes? Or, are winemakers/winery owners content with current wine quality with no incentive to improve because their annual production easily sells out via the tasting room?  Or, more concerning, do some winemakers not realize their wines are bad?

On the upside, Virginia’s best wines can and do stand up to world class wines from more recognized regions.  In my opinion, quality of Cabernet Franc is rising across the state.

I would love to hear reasoned thoughts on this subject (please save profanity-laced hysterics for the political blogs).

Petit Manseng Is the Answer (and so is Cab Franc)
If the question is how to get the attention of major wine media and notable Sommeliers, Petit Manseng may be the answer. I’ve written about the growing importance this small, thick-skinned grape most commonly associated with the Jurançon region of southwestern France and will continue sing its praises. Petit Manseng is thriving here in Virginia and may be the state’s differentiator. Nearly every recent article (all) in major publications featuring Virginia wine has included emphasis on Petit Manseng and Sommeliers seem smitten with Virginia’s dry versions as well. 2017 will be a big(ger) year for Virginia Petit Manseng.  Winemakers seeking entry with Sommeliers would be wise to consider leading with their Petit Manseng (those that make it, of course).

2017 will be a big year for Cab Franc, too!

More Wineries for Sale — Is 2017 the Year of Consolidation?
From large to small boutique to family operations, the number of Virginia wineries currently on the market for sale (most of which are quietly for sale) is alarming. I visited this subject in my 2016 prognostications and believe 2017 may be the year for winery sales, maybe to a large wine conglomerate.  

On the west coast, large wine conglomerates are purchasing smaller, boutique operations with some frequency. Notable industry purchases in 2016 included Jackson Family Wines’ purchase of Copain Wines and Penner-Ash Cellars, the majority interest purchase of Napa-based Far Niente Wine Estates by a private equity firm, and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates purchase of Sonoma-based Patz & Hall Winery.  

Given the growing awareness of and interest in Virginia wine, it seems reasonable that a wine conglomerate will enter this market by purchasing one of the many wineries for sale.

Another possibility is consolidation of several wineries for financial viability through shared costs (sharing overhead costs, facilities, staff). With so many wineries for sale, something has to change for these operations.

Closing the Recognition Gap — Social Media and Grassroots Outreach
The last few years have been big for the Virginia wine industry in terms of national and international media coverage. Most recently, noted wine writer Lettie Teague authored a fantastic piece — Why Virginia Is for Wine Lovers — published in The Wall Street Journal last week. Nearly all major publications have included features on Virginia wine the last few years and many of these stories have focused on the same few wineries (generally). Sadly, a number of deserving wineries producing exceptional wines are left out of these major press articles.

For those wineries producing world-class wines that find themselves left out of major publications, redoubling social media efforts (like Instagram) and leveraging grassroots advocates like local bloggers (across many topic areas like food, fashion, travel, other drinks, etc.), may be the most practical way to close the recognition and awareness gap.  

Consequences of the Grape Shortage — Less Wine for Restaurants and Retail?
In 2017, I believe we’ll see fewer quality Virginia wines in restaurants and retail shops. I hope I’m wrong about this.

The fact that there is a shortage of quality grapes available in Virginia is not news. The supply of quality grapes not keeping pace with demand has led some winemakers (that I’ve spoke to recently) to reduce the amount of wine in restaurant and retail distribution. This is great for profitability since many wineries can sell their entire production via their tasting room. However, less wine in the retail marketplace can be a Catch 22. Restaurant and retail placements help expand brand awareness and fuel future demand. Will be interesting to see how wineries dealing with supply and placement challenges.

Is Washington, DC is the answer?
About 95% of all Virginia wine is sold ‘in’ Virginia. The local wine industry will never be a serious global wine contender if consumers have to travel ‘to’ wineries to find the best wines.  See above about restaurant and retail placements. 🙂

Thanks to a growing number of thoughtful, talented chefs and culinary entrepreneurs, Washington, DC is home to a one of the coolest food and wine scenes in the U.S.  District sommeliers and restaurateurs are eager for new and interesting wines (and sophisticated wine consumers are demanding these wines). While some of Virginia’s larger and more notable wineries have placement in some DC restaurants, the District is largely untapped by the Virginia wine industry. The entire Virginia wine industry would be well served to redouble (or triple or quadruple) their efforts to expand into the DC market. Tapping into this market of sophisticated wine consumers is an important key to growth.  

I think the best approach to gaining a larger presence in the District’s food and wine scene is a focused, industry-wide effort. Perhaps a ‘Virginia Wine in DC’ statewide marketing campaign is the answer. I’d recommend partnering with Chris Parker of New Horizon Wines, who opened the UK market for Virginia wine. With all this being said, the aforementioned quality grape shortage does present an obvious challenge.

Rose (and growlers)
For many serious wine lovers, rose has always been in style but the light pink juice continues to grow in popularity with the consuming masses. A number of winemakers I’ve talked to recently plan to take a page from their brewing brethren and expand their rose offering to include growlers. Several wineries like Michael Shaps Wineworks (‘Mon Bidon’) already use growlers and we’ll see more wineries expand their brand and sales via growlers (and kegs), namely with rose. Here’s to more growlers in 2017!

These are just a few of my opinions and random observations on the industry and year ahead.  I do not mistake my opinion with absolute fact.  I’m open to disagreement and opposing views.  And, if you have thoughts on the year ahead, please leave a comment.
Wishing everyone a healthy and prosperous 2017!

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