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The Judges and Their Reactions

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Elli Benchimol, wine director for Stir Food Group: Zola and Potenza restaurants, Zola Wine & Kitchen and Potenza Wine Shop.

Benchimol had little exposure to Virginia and Maryland wines before our tasting but said she was "shocked" (in a good way) by the Linden Hardscrabble chardonnay. She called the Black Ankle 2007 Crumbling Rock from Maryland "a yummy, jammy fruit bomb." The price for that and the Octagon will require extra work to convince consumers they are worth $40 or so, , she noted, adding, "I love to turn people on to new things." Since the tasting in mid-July, she has started work on a local wine section for Zola Wine & Kitchen.

Christian Bonny, manager and wine buyer at Circle Wine & Liquor in Northwest Washington.

Bonny learned wine during summer vacations at his uncle's winery in Bordeaux; he worked in several Bordeaux and California wineries before beginning his retail and wholesale career in the Washington area. He said he was "more pleased than surprised" by the strong showing of local wines and is inclined to create a small section in the store for wines from the mid-Atlantic this fall.

Brian Cook, sommelier for Sonoma and Blue Ridge restaurants in the District and Redwood in Bethesda.

Cook has more than two dozen eastern U.S. wines on the list at Blue Ridge. This tasting "shows there are producers in Virginia who really shine," he said. "Some people have a visceral reaction against these wines." He said he will continue to support local and regional wineries:"This tasting only bolstered my faith in the producers of this area."

Dominique Landragin, former winemaker, co-owner with his wife, Anna, of Cork & Fork retail stores in Gainesville, Bethesda and forthcoming in the Logan Circle area of the District.

Landragin was the one judge who openly suspected our ulterior motives and alerted the others that local wines might be in the lineup. And he was the only judge who identified the Barboursville as a Virginia wine, noting its acidity. He called the Linden Hardscrabble chardonnay, which impressed him with its Burgundian characteristics, "an achievement."

Vanessa Moore, owner of Unwined retail stores in Alexandria's Landmark and Belleview neighborhoods.

"I totally didn't see it coming," Moore said of the local wines in the lineup. "I would not have expected them to compete in quality or price, but they did." Moore said she reordered some Virginia wine for her store -- mentioning the verdelho from Keswick Vineyards and some sparkling wines from Kluge Estate -- and she held an in-store Virginia wine day.

John Wabeck, sommelier at Inox restaurant in Tysons Corner; former chef at New Heights and Firefly in D.C. and Brix in Napa Valley.

"You made your point," Wabeck said after the wines were unveiled. Since the tasting, he has added the Linden Hardscrabble chardonnay and the Barboursville Octagon 2006 to his list. But he stressed that he won't buy a wine simply because it's local: The quality must be there as well. Local wines still lack the cachet of those from California or France, he said. "I'm not sure local wines can replace California and France in my or my guests' eyes, but they can coexist."

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