Local wines aren't necessarily good, but it's a mistake to ignore them

By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 3:47 PM

My series of columns in October on local wines met with some positive reaction, but it also upset some readers. One e-mailer plaintively asked:

"Why should I buy an inferior wine at a higher price because it is made in Maryland or Virginia? Of course I should not, and I don't. Please stop pandering to wine growers, and tell them to make better wine or people will continue to buy French wines that are of higher quality and 30 percent lower in price."

Nowhere did I suggest anyone should buy an inferior wine simply because it is local. Rather, I suggested simply because a wine is local we should no longer assume it is inferior.

I hear lots of excuses for ignoring local wines: The vines were planted on lousy soil. (Vintners realized that long ago and are planting in better sites.) The climate is too poor to ripen grapes consistently. (Growers are figuring out how to do it, through canopy management, dense planting and lower yields.) France has centuries of winemaking tradition, so there is no way local wines can compare. (Those same naysayers will swoon over a cult Napa Valley cabernet, even though California's modern wine renaissance is only about five decades old.)

My sharp-tongued correspondent touched on another common complaint about local wines: their price. That issue was raised more calmly in a question submitted to the Food section's Free Range live online chat.

"Virginia wines, while oftentimes quite good, don't compare well to California, French or Italian wines at the same price point," the chatter wrote. "I think Barboursville makes tasty wine. But their . . . flagship Octagon is $39.99. Would you recommend [it] to a friend who asked, 'I want to spend $40 for a bottle of wine; what is a good value?' I wouldn't."

Well, yes, I would, because I think Octagon shows very well against French and California wines in its price range, as do several other top wines from Virginia and Maryland. I would also point my friend to the Boxwood Topiary, a tremendous value at $25, or Glen Manor's elegant Hodder Hill red blend, which retails for about $30.

Local wines are not as expensive as you might think. Horton's cabernet franc 2007, a consistent value wine from a terrific vintage, is on sale for $9 at Calvert Woodley. Virginia Wineworks will soon market its Wineworks White and Wineworks Red wines in three-liter boxes for $40. That's the equivalent of $10 a bottle for a wine that usually sells for $14. Look for them soon in restaurant by-the-glass programs. And if price is your main criterion, those wines give you a local option.

That said, many wineries are pushing $40 or more for their top wines. That's because vineyard land and labor are expensive, and production is small. Virginia and Maryland can't compete against the economies of scale that California, France, Italy, Australia and South America enjoy. The size of the average Virginia vineyard is 25 acres; in contrast, California's exclusive Bien Nacido Vineyards clocks in at 600 acres.

And, quite frankly, egos are involved. For each of those wines I recommended above, I've tasted several at the same price level that are obviously flawed and shouldn't even be sold, much less sold for $30 or $40. But if you taste a bad one and rule out the rest, you're cheating yourself.

Why am I jazzed about local wines? Because the best of them are thrilling. Be it a petit verdot from Virginia, a blanc de bois from Texas, a Colorado Gewurztraminer, a Missouri Norton or a pinot blanc from Michigan's Old Mission Peninsula, the best wine is expressive of the place and year it is grown and the ever-improving craft of the winemaker. That's true of no other beverage.

If you're not willing to splurge - and miss - once in a while, you can sit out this revolution. You'll do just fine drinking French wine, and I will be right there with you most of the time. But I will still be trying to persuade you to try something new.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company