Purple Hearts

Virginia is for grape lovers—and if you don’t believe it, the Founding Fathers would like a word with you.

Virginia is for grape lovers—and if you don’t believe it, the Founding Fathers would like a word with you.

By Susan Anspach • Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

For all its faults—jigsaw-locked traffic, sprawl that reproduces faster than most breeds of mold, and a sometimes-Southern designation with which we’ll never really feel at home, will we?—Northern Virginia can hold up its head in the winemaking game.

It’s one subject surrounding which, geographic identity crisis aside, you won’t hear a peep from Fairfax, Arlington or Alexandria in dispute of whose borderlines encircle the “real” Northern Virginia. Our grape-laden anchors—not the least of which include the more southerly planted Fauquier and Rappahannock—do us consistently proud.

Sure, we’re no Napa, and we can’t hold a candle to Oregon. Or any West Coast state, for that matter. But rarely does this region give a hoot about how it stacks up to the West Coast. In the pertinent scheme of things (read: greater D.C.-Metro region), our production of grape-based booze products squelches the competition (read: D.C. and Maryland; but mostly Maryland).

And you’re darn right we’ll take the selling points where we can get ‘em.

Besides, there’s no time like the cusp of autumn—or, “harvest season,” for those in the know—for Northern Virginia to brag a little on its “oenophiles.”
Technical terms in your face, Maryland. Technical terms in your face.

That being said, I won’t bore you, Virginians, with the logistics, the ones that go to show us as closing in on 200 state wineries, as having six regions in the state designated as boasting “ideal” grape-growing conditions, or as having introduced to the wine-drinking populace more than a few varietals of award-winning Viogniers.

And all that’s according to our official wine marketing office, so you know it’s not only true but objective.

When it comes to matters of our wine, the beauty’s very much in the marketing, that function of communication, outreach, functionality, delivery and a handful more functions sprinkled in there somewhere. It’s all very important and shiny, and precisely how we get away with designating ourselves as bearers of the “true” wine experience, not only to more like us but tourists the nation over.

Who’s to say otherwise? Californians? Please, we can hardly hear them over the sound of our own, err, maceration.

Yes, with wine, it’s all about the angle from which you consider the condition of things. It’s how come the vino maker can instruct you to look for “a trace of leather” in your glass of merlot, and you’ll swear you’re swilling from the heel of an old shoe. In a good way, of course.

The same goes for our terroir: Perception is everything. Outside of Virginia, for instance, who ever heard of a wine trail? Ours is one of the few states where you can tipple and feel downright hearty about it. Last weekend, we hiked a trail! How many people can slip that into their water-cooler bragging rights? Granted, it was paved in cheese cubes, various chutneys and pre-sliced baguette—but the verbiage suggests a fait accompli.

In the sales department, however, it would be silly to just stop there. Around these parts, you can hardly recognize a selling point until it’s topped off with a dollop of state history—and don’t think for one second our local grape tenders haven’t caught on. As so-called luck would have it, our vineyards are inextricably (depending on who you ask) wrapped up in the bona fide essence of the Ghost of Commonwealth Past.

That’s right. Our wine industry lays claim to roots that extend all the way back to America’s “first distinguished viticulturist,” a Mr. T. Jefferson—and you can’t so much as pop a grape without hearing it. Never mind the fact that, back in the day, the guy couldn’t milk so much as a bottle from his estate. Or that a substantial amount of his “expert taste” in wine seems suspiciously tied up with, well, a healthy appetite for the stuff. With a name like that slapped on our Wikipedia page, you may as well be drinking the elixir of life.

No doubt about it: In some Richmond conference room, some marketing brainiacs are really cooking. Consider the not-so-likely coincidence that wine’s the perfect pairing for our state slogan—and the fact that, frankly, we could use it. In a whole lot of ways, Virginia is decidedly not for lovers.
Where is the love, say, in rush-hour traffic on Interstate 95? In the Fair Oaks Mall parking garage, any day the month of December? When scouting for happy hour seating at that too-dang-popular [insert name of any Northern Virginia dining establishment here; if we’re being honest, not a one of us is all that picky] resaurant/lounge?

Here’s a tip. If you need to recharge on tender sentiment, you go out and buy yourself a pretty little bottle of pinot, any color you like. Ruby’s nice. Give it half an hour. You’ll be feeling good and Virginian in no time.

As it happens, all those swirlin’, lovin’ feelings are exactly how come artists, groups and corporations are always pouring over themselves to host their next soiree, fundraising campaign or auction in a winery tasting room. Nothing greases the wheels like a little tannin residue and, these days, it’s not enough to simply offer wine at your function. To go that extra mile, you’ve got to steep your attendees in grape-stained ambiance.

The same goes for weddings, birthday parties and business retreats. Heck, before long, we’ll be looking to wineries to outfit our baptisms and monster-truck rally after-parties—since, if you want to ensure a crowd, you just pick up the tab for a barrel of Viognier. (You show me a monster-truck driver who turns down a glass of Blue Ridge-bred vintage, and I’ll show you a beer-swilling vulgarian who I’ll bet doesn’t love his mother.)

Not that you’ll hear the winemakers complain. These days, folks can’t get by on turning earth—they’ve got to turn a profit. It’s why, for the downtime, the vineyard owners have drummed up a plethora more ways—“French night,” “Italian night,” “Greek night,” or, sometimes, just “night”—to lure us to the ol’ tasting bar. Ostensibly, it’s a fine line these vineyard owners have to walk.

On the one hand, the thinking goes, winemaking is a business, because man cannot survive on wine alone (which is certainly not to suggest man cannot dream).
On the other, who wants their thimble-size sample of cabernet to smack of corporate America? (It’s a tricky business, wine. While leather is good and fine, cardstock is a serious offense.) That’s only what we’re willing to suck down the other 364 days a year from the mega-wine warehouses. On trailblazer day, there’s an illusory guise that we demand our wine come bottled with culture, history, leather and all the rest. That we demand nothing short of an aftertaste that evokes the registers of the Executive Branch.

Who do we, collectively, think we’re kidding? Let’s be very honest here. Virginia winemakers, we’ll come to you—sales pitch or no sales pitch.
For those of us looking to simply skip town and get loose in the name of juice, it’s tough to beat the convenience and viticulture of the fruit-bearers in our very own backyard.

So maybe our fine state’s wine marketing gurus aren’t to thank, after all. Maybe it all boils down to a healthy baseline, one that mixes extraordinarily well with a nice bottle of red. Star-studded Virginia skies. A low line of blue hills, plus plenty of acoustic guitar and laughter, both lovelies punctuated by the always-festive pop of a cork.

Tastes to me, Maryland, like it’s your move, dear friend.

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(September 2011)

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