By Dave McIntyre
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 11:24 AM
"The JT?wine on your left is Chateau Montrose 2006," said Rutger de Vink. "The middle glass is RdV 2008, and the third is Dominus '07."
I tasted the wines in order, beginning with the classic Bordeaux acidity and elegance of the Montrose, a highly regarded second-growth chateau, and ending with the Dominus, a Napa Valley blend brimming with power and finishing with a slight alcoholic burn. Then I focused again on the RdV as de Vink, its creator, looked on patiently. It bridged the gap between Old World finesse and New World power, with a surprisingly lush core of red fruit and a luxurious texture that caressed my tongue with velvet.
Could this really be from Virginia? I wondered. There was no hole in the middle where the flavor disappears before coming back for the finish, no green vegetal tastes from unripe fruit. A few Virginia winemakers have solved those problems. But that velvet - I had never experienced it in a Virginia wine before. Then I did the math: The Montrose sells for $90 to $110 a bottle and received a 94-point rating from Robert Parker. Dominus sells for $150, and Parker gave the 2007 a near-perfect 98 points. Is Virginia ready to play in this league?
Jim Law of Linden Vineyards, one of the Old Dominion's most respected winegrowers, had described his close friend de Vink to me as "the next generation of Virginia wine." Tasting the 2008, I understood.
Putting my notebook down, I looked up at de Vink and said simply, "It's really good."
"I hate to use the word 'cult' wine, but we are trying to take the wine to the next level," de Vink replied.
Next month's launch of RdV Vineyards is Virginia's most-anticipated winery opening in years, as word has spread of de Vink's project near Delaplane, in Fauquier County. His ambition, expressed quietly but confidently, is to prove once and for all that Virginia can produce wine that ranks among the world's best. Others have made that claim: Barboursville Vineyards is the most credible contender with its Octagon, a Bordeaux-style blend based on merlot. Kluge Estate launched its New World Red at $65 but could sell it at only $30 before going spectacularly bankrupt late last year.
As Virginia's modern wine industry blossomed over the past 35 years, vintners experimented with site selection, vineyard techniques and grape varieties, steadily improving quality as they learned to cope with the region's humid climate. But lessons can be hard to implement when starting over is neither cheap nor easy. Wineries are invested in their initial decisions of where and what to plant. The question remained: What could be accomplished by starting from scratch, incorporating the lessons of the last three decades with the resources and the commitment to do everything necessary to enhance quality?
"I really believe you can make something special here in Virginia," de Vink said as he showed me around his 16-acre vineyard on a hilltop with 360-degree views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and their rolling foothills. "If you have a better site, with steep slopes and droughty soils that don't retain water, better plant material, and space the vines closer, you can make a great wine."
At 40, de Vink projects flamboyance without arrogance. A former Marine who saw combat duty in Somalia in the mid-1990s, he stands well over 6 feet tall, with flowing locks, the rugged complexion of an outdoorsman and a movie star's propensity to leave an extra shirt button unfastened. He has run marathons and enjoys climbing mountains in Alaska. He attributes his anything-is-possible attitude to his family: His grandfather, a physician in Amsterdam, was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis for sheltering downed Allied flyers during World War II. He escaped.
After leaving the Marines, de Vink earned an MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and spent a few years working in information technology, helping expand broadband access during the Internet boom of the late 1990s. But a desk job couldn't suit someone so restless for the outdoors, and with the new millennium he decided to make a new start.
He worked the 2001 harvest at Linden, learning winemaking from Law, and traveled to Bordeaux and California to meet with winemakers and viticulturists. In 2004, he bought a hilly sheep farm off Route 17 in Delaplane, using savings and funding from investors he describes as "mostly family." The vines were planted in 2006 with the help of some of California's leading viticulturists, soil scientists and winemakers, including Daniel Roberts, Alfred Cass and David Ramey. Flouting the conventional wisdom that cabernet sauvignon can't ripen reliably in Virginia, de Vink planted 40 percent of his vines to that variety, plus an equal amount of merlot. The rest are petit verdot and cabernet franc.
From the outside, the new winery resembles a typical Virginia farmhouse, a tribute to the region's agricultural tradition. Step inside the doors, however, and you enter a modernist concrete-and-glass temple to wine. A silo, illuminated from within at night, serves by day as a skylight and centerpiece over a stairway from the entrance to the working level, underground and built into the hillside under the vineyard. There is no tasting room full of winy tchotchkes to welcome the weekend visitor. Radiating outward like spokes in a wheel are a fermenting room with stainless-steel vats, another with a bottling line, a barrel-aging room and one for bottles stacked in bins. It all seems small and rather modest for a winery with grand ambitions.
On a warm, springlike afternoon in early March, I joined de Vink and his cellar master, Joshua Grainer (who also apprenticed at Linden), and their French consultants, viticulturist Jean-Philippe Roby and oenologist Eric Boissenot, in the winery's laboratory as they blended the 2010 wines. This was Boissenot's first visit to Virginia, having blended de Vink's 2008 and 2009 wines from samples sent to France. As a "flying winemaker," the shy Boissenot is not a media darling like Michel Rolland or Stephane Derenoncourt, both of whom already work in Virginia. But he is revered in Bordeaux because, along with his father, Jacques, he consults for four of the five first-growth chateaux, among a host of other illustrious clients.
The tap of pipette against beaker alternated with the splat of wine spit into the stainless-steel sink as Boissenot worked intently through 27 bottles coded by grape variety and vineyard block. Then he poured out four samples for his clients to taste. The blend chosen for the RdV 2010 was cabernet sauvignon and merlot; the cabernet franc and petit verdot were relegated to a second cuvee, called Rendezvous. Grainer said the wines will be blended and put into barrels for aging, to be released in two years.
Boissenot said that he was impressed with the quality of the 2008s and that the wines have improved each year. "It is important to know that you can make an exceptional wine in this part of the world, and he is doing it because of his passion and attention to detail," Boissenot said.
A decade after embarking on his adventure, de Vink is about to release his first wines. The 2008 harvest - only the third leaf of his very young vines - produced a mere 600 cases. He intends to sell less than two-thirds of that, including about 170 cases of the RdV at $88 a bottle and 200 cases of Rendezvous at $55. The rest, which de Vink decided was not at the level of quality he wanted, he has bottled to give to relatives and friends. Sales will be by mailing list, in high-end restaurants and via small groups of wine buyers by appointment.
Will the market accept a Virginia wine that costs nearly $90? De Vink plans to use comparative tastings to win over skeptics.
"Maybe it's the pioneer spirit," he said. "You tell me it's impossible to make a world-class red wine in Virginia, and I say, well, let me show you. I want people to say, 'Look what we have in our back yard: a winery that can compete with Napa and Bordeaux.' I want people to taste the wine against the best of California and France and say we're in the game."
To test de Vink's confidence that a comparative tasting of the RdV against leading wines from California and Bordeaux can build his market, I duplicated the tasting he'd organized for me, using purchased bottles of the 2006 Montrose and 2007 Dominus and a sample he provided of the 2008 RdV. I recruited a high-power lineup of palates: Kathryn Morgan, head sommelier at Michel Richard Citronelle and the area's only certified master sommelier; Jay Youmans, wine educator and the area's only master of wine; Mark Wessels, Bordeaux buyer at MacArthur Beverages; and Panos Kakaviatos, a freelance writer for Decanter magazine and other publications. I did not tell them what they were tasting.
All four tasters expressed a preference for the Montrose, but they agreed that the RdV belonged in its company, and they generally preferred it over the Dominus. Morgan even rated the RdV as probably the best of the bunch if cellared to drink 10 years from now and as most appealing to customers with "New World palates." But the four were also unanimous in their prediction that consumers will have a hard time swallowing a $90 Virginia wine that does not have a track record, especially when they can buy a classed-growth Bordeaux for about the same price.
"It's going to be a hard sell," Wessels predicted.
"The wine's worth it, but the question is, will he get it?" Youmans said. "Is this cult-wine quality? No doubt about it."
What do you think of Virginia wine? Share your thoughts with Dave McIntyre, who will join the Free Range live chat on March 16 at noon.