When the landscape is at its bleakest a little skepticism is forgiveable. Will there ever again be soft grass on the snow-covered, rock-hard ground? Will there be leaves on the skeleton trees? Could there be grapes on the brown, straggling sticks of vines? Winter in the eastern U.S. is unforgiving.
There's been a similar question of belief about the harvest from those vines. Can good quality wine be produced in our climate? Yes, say the growers and winemakers. In the '70s there was widespread acceptance and continuation of the pioneering work on French-American hybrids and vinifera. Wineries were started from Michigan to Rhode Island to Mississippi to Texas.
No, the major hurdle is not climate, nor soil, nor grape. It is we, the wine-drinkers. We have not yet overcome our skepticism.
Granted, quality eastern wines are a comparatively new subject and, with the proliferation of labels from the West, there has not been much time to develop local loyalties. However, images of foxy labrusca and clumsy, sweetened wines are rapidly becoming outdated, although it would be premature to imply that all production problems have been overcome. Much research and experiment is still needed to raise the red hybrids and vinfera to the quality of whites, which modern cellar equipment and techniques make consistently good.
Lucie Morton, a viticultural consultant currently writing a book, Winemaking in Eastern America, feels that hybrid reds suffer on two counts: not enough attention is paid to their vinification; and consumers expect them to be bordeaux-or burgundy-styled. Comparisons should be made with everyday, non-AOC, French wines or lesser Italian varieties. Perhaps eastern winemakers will develop fruity, light-bodied reds or dry roses.
Some leading wineries have already decided to concentrate on whites: Michigan's Tabor Hill -- '79 Seyval Late Harvest, '79 and '80 Vidal Blanc and Ravat; Ohio's Markko Vineyards -- '79 Johannisberg Riesling Reserve. New York's Glenora intends to limit its production to five whites.
Although in the mid-Atlantic region our winters may not be as long or as cold as those of Ohio or upper New York, they can be pretty nippy. The local problem is not the winters, however, since the vine can survive at 0 degree F, but the humidity of the summers; 1980 was a very good vintage in Maryland and Virginia, because summer rainfall was low. Archie Smith III of Meredyth and Alter Luchsinger of Piedmont, both near Middleburg, and Bret Byrd, whose winery is at Myersville, Md., all report great satisfaction with the progress in the cellar of the '80 crop.
Of the three, Meredyth has the largest variety of grape types, many being in the experimental stage. In hybrids, the seyval and villard blancs are consistently good, with recent vintages of the seyval having some wood-aging. In vinifera, some of the '80 sauvignon blanc will be blended with a semillon. Piedmont, the first commercial vinifera producer in Virginia, has a '79 chardonnay which has some herbaceousness but is not overly woody and will be a pleasant match with food. Byrd, a comparative newcomer on the Washington retail shelves, has well-balanced medium-dry seyval and vidal blancs and a '79 chardonnay, released in June 1980. The sauvignon blanc, Byrd's own favorite, is harder to find in Washington.
With immature vines and no long record of the vagaries of their microclimates, these wineries have a potential to be realized in the '80s. There aren't so many jokes about California wines now. As one of many to have confused a blind-tasted eastern wine with one of more prestigious origin, I don't think there will be many more jokes about our wine either!