Damned with faint praise: Will it always be the fate of local wines? You know: "They're awfully nice people and the countryside's beautiful and, really, the wine's not bad at all." Not bad compared with what? The growth of the wine industry in Virginia and Maryland, while not exactly meteoric, is noteworthy. And to do justice to the hard work, the professionalism, of several producers, the time is coming when criticism should be as objective as possible.
One of the newcomers that can stand up to comparisons with small wineries elsewhere in the world is Rapidan River Vineyards, in the rolling hills near Culpeper, Va.
In California, the winemaker might be a 28-year-old from the University of California at Davis. Here the winemaker-manager is a luxuriantly bearded, mustachioed 28-year-old, with a degree in enology and viticulture from his nation's most respected institute. Joachim Hollerith is a graduate of Geisenheim in Germany. Rapidan's owner, Dr. Gerhard Guth, is a surgeon in Hamburg. Out west, it might be a surgeon from Boston or Houston. Guth used the advice of Geisenheim's Prof. Helmut Becker when establishing his vineyards in 1977 in much the same way that the services of Andre Tchelistcheff have been used in California.
The vines were planted in 1978. Today there are 22 acres. By 1984 there will be 50 or 60 acres under vine, and, if all goes well, eventually 250 acres. That sounds rather ambitious, but it's the kind of viticultural faith in the Old Dominion that is being shown by foreigners and natives alike.
As one would expect from its German pedigree, Rapidan is planted predominantly with riesling. There's a little chardonnay, gewurztraminer and pinot noir, but no hybrids. "Never. It is forbidden to grow hybrids in Germany," was the concise reason given by Hollerith. "I didn't grow up with them."
Nor did he have much experience with reds. The half-acre of pinot noir is an experiment. Hollerith made 200 bottles last year, which will not be released. A light cherry red with a fragrant nose, the style is closer to the pinot noirs of Germany or Alsace than those of Burgundy or our West Coast. He intends to make a fuller wine with the '82 crop. He'll also be experimenting with a sparkling wine made with riesling grapes.
The cellar equipment is simple, but modern: German crusher-destemmer and rotary press; American water-cooled, jacketed stainless steel tanks; and a few French oak barrels. With room for growth, this was all that was needed to make 2,000 cases in '81.
Of the three wines released this year, I preferred the two rieslings, $7 retail.The '81 Chardonnay was pleasant enough, but did not show much varietal character and isn't worth the $9.
The '81 White Riesling Natural Dry is lightly fruity and fresh. The grapes were picked early to give good acidity, resulting in proportionately lower alcohol, which is no bad thing in a riesling. The White Riesling Natural Semi-Dry was made from grapes picked at 21 degrees Brix, which is in fact normal ripeness, not a late harvest. Nor is the wine sweet. It's no more fruity than a kabinett and would make a good picnic wine. Or drink it without food, in the German manner.
The rieslings are well-made, pleasant wines, by any standards. My main reservation, which applies to most local wines, is one of price. For $7, there are good German and Alsace rieslings. Why should we buy Rapidan's? Perhaps to show the same interest in our locals as the Californians showed in theirs in the 1960s. It's an investment. They need the cash to plow back into the vineyards and pump back into the cellars. They need our support. I'm not suggesting that we be parochial cheerleaders, or that Virginia and Maryland have the same potential as California. But let's be fair. If a local wine is good, let's raise our praise above a whisper.