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The Promise of Virginia Wine

The Promise of Virginia Wine

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Posted on October 05, 2012

"In blind tasting you get to see what your palate says, not what your head is telling you."
While the nation's attention was focused on Denver this week and the much anticipated debates between the two Presidential candidates, another toe-to-toe drama played out in Virginia, in a battle of the upstart versus the established leader. Only this time, the competitors were wines from across Virginia versus those from well-respected, established wine regions around the world, including France, Italy and Portugal. The inaugural Virginia Wine Summit, hosted by Governor Bob McDonnell and Virginia's First Lady Maureen McDonnell, took place earlier this week . The Summit's featured guest was world-renowned wine expert Steven Spurrier, who is best known for his role in the 1976 "Judgment of Paris" in which - for the first time ever - California shocked the world by when its wines beat out prestigious wines from France in what turned out to be perhaps the most significant blind tasting competition ever held. It was a turning point for California wines, and ushered in an era of "New World" wines.
A similar blind tasting was staged at the Virginia Wine Summit. Four celebrated wine writers and critics (including Spurrier) served as the expert panel, including Bartholomew Broadbent, Anthony Giglio and Jay Youmans, along with Steven Spurrier. A total of 16 wines were tasted in 8 categories, as Virginia wines went head to head with a comparable varietal/blend from a well-established wine region. Significantly, Virginia wines won in 6 of the 8 categories in the blind tasting. Time and time again, the judges remarked at how similar the wines were in each category - a real nod to Virginia, and a confirmation that some of the best wines from our region can stand toe to toe with other celebrated wines from better known regions. For many of us who believe in the promise of Virginia wine, it was a remarkable moment - indeed, may end up being a turning point for Virginia's fast-emerging wine sector.
The Governor and First Lady deserve tremendous credit for their fearless championing of Virginia's wines. (And for their feisty evangelism - the Governor is known to declare "Napa is for auto parts...Virginia is for wine!") Who would have predicted that renowned experts would say yes when asked to come to this emerging wine region's first official Summit, and lend such credibility and spotlight? How fearless it was to pit Virginia wines against some truly beautiful, celebrated wines from some of the world's most beloved wine regions. It was especially heartening to hear and to see some of the real pioneers from the region who've been at it for decades - toiling each day in the vineyards and cellars to bring forth spectacular wines for the world to enjoy.
As part of his visit, Steven Spurrier spent days touring wineries and vineyards, tasting wines, and observing first hand all that is Virginia. In his keynote address, he shared many pearls of wisdom and observations, and reminded us that as a New World region, we can embrace the fact that we don't have to be shackled or derailed by habits of the past. We can take forward all that has been learned from old world traditions, but also innovate and try new things in the passionate pursuit of great wines.
Spurrier also spoke to the value of blind tasting competitions, noting that "In blind tasting you get to see what your palate says, not what your head is telling you." We have found this be so true when it comes to introducing people to Virginia wines. When people taste a comparable Virginia wine and a wine from a leading region, it is not uncommon to have the Virginia wine selected. We obviously saw this play out in Richmond among the experts this week. But when wine enthusiasts know which is the Virginia wine, they often let their heads speak - not their palates -, and they sometimes bring a negative bias because they consider the region so young or unproven.
As I've said many times before, I believe Virginia has the potential to be among the leading wine regions of the world. There are some beautiful wines coming out of our state. But also some questions yet to be answered.... What's our varietal? What's our style? It is still early (and so you can find many offerings), but many believe that Viognier, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc are likely to be the most distinctive varietals. It was a subject that was much-discussed at the Virginia Wine Summit this week. As it relates to our region's style of wine, I think Spurrier had it just right when he reminded us that yes, Bordeaux blends will likely do well in Virginia, but we should boldly proclaim our style to ... "be Virginia." I like that. A style all our own with all the beautiful elements that this beautiful and rich land can provide.
I offer a nod to the wines from Virginia - and other regions - that were selected in the blind tasting this week. While it's not likely to become famously known as the "Judgment of Richmond," I do think it was an important moment for Virginia - and for the promise of Virginia wine.
Have you tried Virginia wines?