Virginia wines carve out their own identities

By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 12:32 PM

Michael Shaps thought he had more time. His modest winery, Virginia Wineworks, tucked nearly invisibly into the wooded, rolling landscape south of Charlottesville, had just been expanded. Its roof now extended over an open crush-pad area, and the driveway wound into a loop for easier truck maneuvers.

Shaps had budgeted three weeks to have new electrical wiring installed and to finish bottling previous vintages, but nature wasn't cooperating. Record heat and extended drought sent grape sugar levels skyward, and Virginia's winemakers were facing their earliest harvest ever.

So on a sweltering Friday afternoon in early August, the winery floor was strewn with cables as electricians hurried about. In between vineyard visits, Shaps had the frenzied demeanor of someone racing the clock as he juggled phone calls from growers in need of a winery. Grapes would start arriving on Monday.

Harvest time is always exciting in wine country. While winemakers focus on the short-term thrill of bringing the 2010 vintage to a successful close, consumers can take note of several trends that show Virginia wine will be exciting to watch, and taste, for some time to come.

Shaps and his business partner, Philip Stafford, opened Virginia Wineworks three years ago as the state's first custom-crush facility: a winery that leases space and equipment to winemakers who don't have their own. Shaps, 46, is a consulting winemaker who helped build the initial reputations of several Charlottesville area wineries. By the end of September he had 23 clients, who will produce more than 10,000 cases of wine this year at Virginia Wineworks. There are no wedding receptions, no weekend jazz festivals and no tasting room - just a plank propped on two barrels where visitors can taste Shaps's own wines. The focus is on the wine, not the spectacle.

"Our motto is, 'If you can find us, you can taste us,' " Shaps quipped.

The dizzying growth of Virginia Wineworks is emblematic of the state as a whole, which has seen the number of its wineries triple in the past decade, to more than 180, according to the Virginia Wine Board. Tourism has earned fans for Virginia wine far and wide and prompted a push into export markets. Quality is increasingly emphasized, as improved vineyard practices help vintners produce riper, cleaner fruit than ever before.

Perhaps most tellingly, Virginia's leading winemakers are crafting distinctive wines that reflect their place of origin. These winemakers are discovering and developing Virginia's terroir rather than blindly chasing a European or Californian model.

A growing wine region needs new markets, and Virginia is finding success in two areas. Members of the millennial generation, most of whom discovered local wine as the quality was improving, are often receptive to the message that local is good, in food as well as wine. Those drinkers are forming their own opinions rather than slavishly following point scores from magazines that ignore emerging wine regions. They would rather get their leads on new wines to explore from social media such as Twitter, Facebook or blogs.

"Younger drinkers don't seem to pay much attention to scores or whether a wine is from a famous chateau, or playing the vintage game," said Dezel Quillen, an Alexandria systems engineer who blogs about wine at Myvinespot.com. "They are writing their own rules to taste by." Quillen, 38, said he is excited by local wine because, "a number of independent, small farm wineries are producing good quality and expressive wines reflective of the vintage, vineyard and varietal."

Virginia's other success story is overseas. Ironically, it might be easier to buy a Virginia wine in London than in Washington. Decanter, the leading British wine publication, included 20 Virginia wines in its world wine awards this year. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell promoted his state's wine during a recent trade mission to the United Kingdom. But the groundwork had been laid by Christopher Parker, a British expat who is betting that his countrymen will prefer the European styling of Virginia wines over fuller-bodied, high-octane California juice.

Parker's New Horizon Wines, launched in 2008, now represents 11 Virginia wineries in Britain, with sales in eight stores, including Whole Foods Market's flagship store in Kensington. This is merely a wee dram considering Britain is the world's greatest importer of wine. But it's a start.


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