It happened near the end of last year’s frenetic harvest, as the exhausted vineyard crew at Black Ankle Vineyards near Mount Airy scrambled to get grapes off the vines and into the cellar. Incessant rain from mid-September into October squeezed the harvest from its normal six weeks into three, and the crew worked 16-hour shifts every day of the week in a race to get the grapes picked before they took on too much water — or worse, rotted.
Walking through the winery, co-owner Ed Boyce met with vineyard manager Evencio Martinez, who was “bleeding” the last lot of merlot: draining some of the just-pressed juice into another tank in order to concentrate what’s left. The separated juice would be used to make a rosé or to top off some of the final red wine blends.
Boyce noticed something was wrong. The hose from the merlot tank was not connected to the “bleed tank” but to the adjacent one, which held the winery’s fermenting proprietary white wine blend, coincidentally called Bedlam. By the time he managed to stop the flow, the white wine had been stained by about 120 gallons of pink merlot juice.
“Evencio is our star, the best guy we have,” Boyce said recently, recalling the incident with a laugh. “The first thing he did was call Sarah and apologize,” referring to his wife and co-owner, Sarah O’Herron, who’s in charge of the winemaking.
On Memorial Day weekend, Black Ankle released its 2011 Bedlam Rosé, a blend of gruner veltliner, albarino, viognier, chardonnay and muscat, as well as about 10 percent merlot. It’s a wine that wasn’t supposed to be, and, as you might expect with that blend, it doesn’t taste like a typical rosé. But it is good, and even at $28 a bottle, Boyce expects to sell out of the 208 cases they produced. (Fans of the Bedlam white blend needn’t fret; after the accident, Boyce and O’Herron blended more Bedlam from their separate white wines.)
Some popular wines are created by accident. Others are improvised by creative winemakers forced to deal with what nature offers instead of what the winemaker intended.
In 2005, Virginia experienced a large, excellent harvest, and many wineries, such as Cooper Vineyards in Louisa County, had more grapes than they could handle. Co-owners Geoffrey Cooper and Jacquelyn Hogge decided to make ice wines from 2 tons each of vidal blanc and Norton grapes they had left over. So they sent the grapes to a commercial freezer facility in Waynesboro. Gently pressing frozen grapes allows the winemaker to separate the ice (water) from the concentrated juice, yielding an unctuous sweet wine.
“We came out with a very nice white wine, which became our Vida dessert wine,” Cooper said. “The Norton grapes, however, produced a wine that was not as sweet as we wanted and had a lot of berry flavors. I believe they had thawed too much prior to pressing. I love berries with chocolate, so I suggested a chocolate-infused wine.”
Winemaker Graham Bell set to work with some chocolate extract samples and created Noche, which has won several medals in competitions and is now Cooper Vineyards’ most popular wine.
“Noche now makes up about 30 percent of our total production and outsells all of our other wines by more than double,” Hogge said.
Bernd Jung, owner and winemaker of Chester Gap Cellars near Front Royal, Va., faced a quandary in 2006, when he wanted to make a sweet wine from petit manseng but the grapes refused to ripen enough. So he pressed the wine, blended in some viognier for balance and called the final product Cuvee Manseng. It is a wine unlikely to be made anywhere in the world except Virginia, because that’s the only place those two grapes grow together.
A floral, off-dry white, the Cuvee Manseng was a hit, and Jung produced 350 cases at its height. But it won’t become his signature, as his petit manseng vines have been hit by disease and are dying. “The variety will probably go away within a few years,” he says. “I’ve already lost about 30 percent of the vines.”
At Black Ankle, Ed Boyce says he hopes the Bedlam Rosé won’t become a signature wine. “I don’t want to make it again,” he said before the wine was released. “But we’ve told customers the story and they’re raring to try it. This is a funny business.”