Virginia makes great wine. But is that enough to sell its brand?

A search for the shapeshifting identity of Virginia wine country.

annete-boyd
Director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office, Annette Boyd (Photo courtesy of Boyd)

“You can learn a lot about Virginia wines by looking at a map,” says Annette Boyd. As the director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office, she’s paid to be a champion of the industry, and is as quick with stats and sales numbers as she is with grape varietals, the chemistry of sugars and alcohol and messaging mottos.

Last October, the 30th anniversary of Virginia Wine Month, the group worked on a new branding campaign. Sure, Virginia is for Lovers and the state benefits from a decades-strong tourism infrastructure, but getting Virginia on the wine map is still a concerted effort between Boyd’s office, winemakers, winery owners, wine shop owners, sommeliers and the wine-drinking public.

Over the last four decades, what was once a very much under-the-radar wine region has become a destination for many traveling oenophiles, with award-winning vintages and exceptional winemakers putting Virginia’s wine country on the map. But, say local industry experts and professional wine watchers, there’s still work to be done to turn Virginia into a world-class wine region.

Virginia is equidistant between California and Europe, between the Old World and the New World. Where California wines punch with big fruits and high alcohol, Europe shows off terroir, with a leaner, more elegant wine to pair with food. Virginia uses little-known grapes from the Old World, especially these days, petit verdot and petit manseng, and turns them into the stars they could have never been across the ocean. Virginia winemakers don’t follow the rules. We are New World. Virginia, Boyd says, shows off a “certain pioneering spirit.”

Besides boasting cute little towns teeming with cute little shops, Northern Virginia’s wine country is quintessentially idyllic. “To me, this countryside, Virginia wine country, is far more beautiful than Napa Valley,” José Andrés told Ray Isle in a feature for Food & Wine. Isle, the magazine’s executive wine editor, agrees: “Virginia is actually the prettier of the two. Rolling green hills, black-fenced equestrian estates, small farms and vineyards, the gentle Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop—it’s quite gorgeous.” He follows up that sentiment with what is at the heart of Virginia’s winemaking challenge. “All that natural beauty doesn’t mean growing grapes here isn’t a total pain in the neck.”

That’s what makes Virginia so much different than the sunny, drier climes of California. Though Virginia has been dubbed Napa of the East, and while it’s meant as a compliment, it’s not exactly right.

Chris Pearmund of Bull Run’s Pearmund Cellars (Photo by Robert Merhaut)

“I really dislike the term Napa of the East,” says Chris Pearmund, of Bull Run’s Pearmund Cellars. “I think it’s disrespectful in 100 different ways to Virginia and Napa Valley.

It’s not because Virginia wines aren’t as good, because there are apex wines, it’s because that’s not what Virginia is trying to be. Virginia will never be a behemoth like California.

California makes 81% of all wine in the U.S., and it’s the country’s largest wine producer and the fourth largest producer in the world, according to The Wine Institute.

Because of Virginia’s riskier climate, the hot, humid summers, the punishing rain and the general unpredictability, production is much smaller. At the better wineries, grapes are tended to by hand, the field work is day-to-day. Virginia keeps most of their wines within the state. Napa wines can be found on restaurant menus all over the world. Virginia is a boutique wine state, one where all-star producers turn grapes into beautiful liquid, and for the most part, it’s saved for those willing to drive to the wineries.

Virginia wineries sell most of their wine—69% of total sales—directly to the public from their tasting rooms. Out of every state in the country—and every state makes wine—Virginia clocks in as the highest in percentage of revenue coming from visitors to the winery. It’s a business decision, and one that works particularly well for Northern Virginia and Charlottesville, regions with built-in tourist attractions.

But, the wine’s got to be good to get anyone here. And before the wine is good, before winemakers can make up for any sins in the cellar, it’s a hunt to find the right land.

Virgin Land

“My whole reason to come to Virginia,” says Jim Law, owner of Linden Vineyards, was because it presented a “rare opportunity for somebody in our profession.”

There are hills and slopes everywhere, some hiding clay-like soil that captures water and therefore cannot stress the vines enough for grapes to thrive. Ignore that land. Some mounds will face the right sun, for just the right length of the day, and let the roots hit rock, a base that won’t hold on to a drip. Plant there.

“For the last 2,000 or 3,000 years,” says Law, looking onto the green leaves topping rows and rows of vines at his winery, no one has touched these valleys of Fauquier County. “To go to a virgin area where we have no idea what’s going to happen here and to be one of the first to explore that … Think about it: Where else can you do that? There are very few places.”

Law is considered the grandfather of Virginia wine. When he planted his first vines in 1981, that is just around the genesis of the modern winemaking era inside the commonwealth. Law looks like George Carlin, but speaks with the measured, thoughtfulness of Bob Ross. His Hardscrabble Chardonnay is widely considered the best in the state, and among the best across all states. He is a serious winemaker who eschews wine festivals and the term “natural wine.” (“I could call my wines natural, but I don’t want that stigma.”) The weekends at his tasting room are only open for club members. He doesn’t need the casual drinker. He’s built enough of his following, and he still sells a majority of his wines from the winery. There is no flash or circumstance. It’s cerebral, traditionally made wine, elevated from decades-worth of growing a reputation. He sees the rest of Northern Virginia heading in that same direction.

“Things are shifting. The age of the event winery … isn’t snowballing anymore,” he says. Instead, Virginia is “entering more of an age of maturity.” His mark on building Virginia’s brand is his work ethic in the field. He walks between the vines and knows at what angle a hailstorm hit a particular cluster. He gets his wines into restaurants, which is more about marketing than sales. Virginia has “a relatively small production and most of it is eaten up at tasting rooms,” says Law.

The Tasting Room is Everything

Selling at wholesale to the distributor isn’t a winning business proposition, at least not for those small businesses with even smaller production. It’s at best a break-even for wineries, but it’s one way to increase the visibility of Virginia wines. Pearmund breaks it down: He could sell a bottle for $30 at the winery. Or, he could sell it to a wine shop for $15, and the shop would sell it for $30. Or, he could sell it to a distributor for $10, who would sell it to a restaurant and the restaurant would sell it for $30.

Pearmund, who’s held the roles of president of the Virginia Vineyards Association, chairman of the Virginia Wine and Food Society and a board member of the Virginia Wineries Association, thinks Virginia needs to move away from that model to gain real traction. “As the Virginia wine industry improves,” says Pearmund, wineries should be “building their brand in a way that people will buy that product and know [the brand] without ever having been to the winery.” That’s how he wants Pearmund Cellars to find new customers.

Pearmund says he’d rather leave the high-margin by-the-glass tasting room sales and instead focus on getting customers to walk out with bottles, and eventually, to buy his bottles at the grocery store. He doesn’t expect customers to come to the winery every time they want Pearmund Cellars wines. How he’ll grow is getting his drinkers to buy his wine where it’s convenient for them. That’s a big shift for Virginia.

“It’s tough because it’s a cellar door state,” says Carrie Dykes, a New York-based wine writer and the former Virginia wine reviewer for Wine Enthusiast, on getting Virginia wines sold at restaurants or retail shops, rather than the tasting room. “And that makes sense. The difficult climate equals less product and wineries will lose money by selling in the three-tiered system—but to grow as a region or even just as a business, more wineries need to look outside and distribute.”

Dykes’ favorite wineries in Northern Virginia include Stone Tower, Narmada, Gray Ghost and Casanel. “I cheerlead very hard for the region,” she says. From an outside perspective, she recognizes the breadth of the scene.

“NoVA has a wonderful dichotomy going on,” says Dykes, “where wineries are honing in on their expertise making age-worthy fine wines, as well as starting to experiment with pet nats and other more fun styles, which always says to me that viticulturally they are strong and have the expertise and faith to do things of that nature.”

Jarad Slipp, RdV Vineyards’ estate director (Photo by Rey Lopez)
The Backlash

RdV Vineyards epitomizes the height of hubris in Northern Virginia winemaking. The Delaplane winery’s personification spills from the mouth of the estate director, Jarad Slipp, a verbose, salty, charming and brutally honest professional of wine.

“Virginia’s not going to get put on the map because there’s 300 people making meh, tourism-level wines, which is kind of what’s happening now, which is much better than what was happening 20 years ago,” says Slipp. “We’re moving in the right direction. The best vineyards haven’t even been discovered yet.”

Slipp, a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, who also graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, is on a quest to prove the wines blended from the minds of the RdV Vineyards braintrust are amongst the best in the world. And the fact that RdV sits on granite in Fauquier County is both good and bad. Good because planting on rocks doesn’t let the vines dig deep into the ground. The lack of water makes the vines push all of their energy into the grape, not other parts of the plant.

Granite is good, granite is what led owner Rutger de Vink to this spot, this spot that took four years and millions of dollars paid to consultants and scientists to find. Bad is more subjective.

“We’re super proud to be in Virginia, but it’s the one thing that’s holding us back. And it drives me f***ing nuts when critics and journalists come here and say, ‘This is the best wine I’ve ever had in Virginia.’ I know you mean that as a compliment but that’s like being the skinniest kid at fat camp,” says Slipp.

“I’m not looking to be the best wine in Virginia. I want to be a world-class wine that happens to be in Virginia.”

Forget the Grape

A rising tide lifts all boats, and one breakout wine could, maybe, bring Virginia the recognition it deserves. Or, one grape could bring it fame, like pinot noir in Willamette Valley, Oregon and cabernet sauvignon in Napa, California and malbec in Mendoza, Argentina.

Virginia’s wine industry set its sights on viognier, a little known, hard-to-pronounce French grape. But the detractors are growing strong against viognier, and many in the industry have abandoned it for petit manseng.

An even more obscure French grape, petit manseng, says Jon Bonné, is “one of the nascent specialties in Virginia. It’s a really extraordinary grape, thick-skinned and makes big, dramatic white wines. You can’t convince people to drink it, but somebody did their homework.” It works in Virginia. Bonné, the former wine editor and critic at San Francisco Chronicle, understands drinking culture and what is attractive to consumers right now.

Local products have major pull, and the vast craft beverage boom is already impacting winemaking. “If you look at the success of craft beer—once people get past that IPA thing—there are new and different and unusual flavors.” He cites sour beers and the rise of kombucha and how its vinegary, high-acid flavor is the gateway to showing “people are willing to accept a much broader spectrum of taste today.”

Blame millennials for avocado toast and unicorn lattes, but they are tastemakers. What Virginia needs to understand, says Bonné, is no one under 50 “wants big fancy wine with pretentious labels. They want something fun.”

Just like it’s the norm to never buy the same six-pack of beer twice, the wine-buying public isn’t picking up the same bottle every weekend. “There is this template in the wine industry where everyone wants to play it safe,” says Bonné. “It’s never the things that are safe.” It’s what is uncommon, what is boundary-pushing, that’s what will make someone stop and reconsider the very idea of what Virginia wine can be.

On the Virginia Wine Board website, it explicitly states Virginia doesn’t have a style. It doesn’t have a grape. Virginia is too big and too vast with too many climates and soil types and personalities. Boyd says Virginia is going to be known for its experimental vision. She uses messages like, “Old World grace with Southern grit.” And says, “There’s a sense of adventure in what we’re creating here.”

It’s also the decades of doggedness coming to fruition.

“The optimism for Virginia is we have figured out quality wine and we have figured out our regional identity and what we grow, how we grow it and how we make it,” says Pearmund, as he ticks off the current favored grapes of petit verdot, cabernet franc, petit manseg and viognier. “Virginia’s regional identity does have a thumbprint.” It also goes beyond the grape.

This past June in DC, Boyd attended SommCon, a conference for wine professionals. She sat next to her counterpart, an industry marketing professional from Provence, France. Boyd invited her to a Virginia-sponsored tasting event.

In France, the government dictates the wine industry, from what grapes grow in certain regions to exactly what information is relayed on the label. The French woman sipped a Virginia blend of petit manseng and riesling, an illegal concoction in France. Boyd asked her what she thought about Virginia wine, what she tasted, what she liked. She said, “The freedom.”

This post originally appeared in our October 2019 cover story. To get more food & drink news straight to your inbox, subscribe to our weekly e-newsletter. 

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