"Five years ago, you couldn't even pay a restaurant to serve Virginia wine," said Marguerite Thomas. Now, she said, every year the state's wine industry "booms more, it booms bigger."
Thomas was at the 24th Annual Virginia Wine Festival on Saturday to give a seminar on the wines of Virginia and the East Coast--and to distribute awards for the annual Virginia Wine Competition. As travel editor for New York's Wine News and author of Wineries of the Eastern States, Thomas has written extensively on the improvement in quality of Virginia wines over the last few years, with an eye on the industry's future.
"I don't even live here," she said. "It's not even my state, and I'm very excited."
The Virginia Wine Festival, held last weekend at Fauquier County's rolling green Great Meadow, is not only the oldest and largest wine festival in the state. It also has become a celebration of the recent successes of Virginia wine and the growing camaraderie among Virginia's winemakers.
"One of the reasons why things are going so well," Thomas said, "is camaraderie."
Paul Breaux, a relative newcomer to the wine game, said he came to the festival in part because he and his wife "get to see our friends."
Breaux says he moved to Hillsboro only four years ago from Nag's Head, N.C., because he "always wanted to own a farm." A real estate man and bourbon drinker, it never even occurred to Breaux to make wine, but there on his new farm was a three-acre vineyard planted 10 years before.
With local winemaker Dave Collins, he started what he now calls "a hobby out of control" and began making wine for his friends. In April 1998, he and his wife, Alexis, launched Breaux Vineyards. They produced 3,500 cases of wine last year.
One of their new friends is Lee Reeder, who owns Burnley Vineyards and helped the Breauxes get on their feet in the business. Why would Reeder, the owner of a successful winery, volunteer to help an upstart competitor and rival?
"We knew nothing," Reeder said of the time he and his family were starting Burnley in Barboursville north of Charlottesville. They learned the craft in part from the winemaker from nearby Meredith Vineyards. "That's the way the industry's always been," he said, shrugging.
Dick Bomboske was manning a booth Saturday for the Wine of the Month Club, which sends out a different Virginia wine each month to its members along with information about the winery that produced it.
Sure "they're competitors," Bomboske said of many vintners he knows, but "they work together, they swap stories. They share their products . . . . sometimes too often."
"We do help a lot of upstart vineyards," said Tareq Salahi, owner of Oasis Winery near Hume, one of the oldest in the state and the first American winery to be ranked internationally for its champagne. (A quick tip: The real Y2K problem is that "there will be a drought" of bubbly come New Year's, said Salahi, who predicted that the really good stuff will be sold out by the end of September.)
Oasis is bottling for the young Blue Lock winery, and Salahi said he is not worried about making things harder on himself by helping out the new kids on the block. The demand for wine in Northern Virginia and Washington is impossible to meet, he explained jovially. "Nobody makes enough wine."
This is the third year that Margaret Hill, an environmental lawyer in Washington, has been to the Virginia Wine Festival. She had friends in town from Pennsylvania and Florida just for the event, because as far as wine festivals go, "this is the best one."
Hill and her companion, Mike Dougherty, also make wines and ultimately plan to open their own vineyard. She and her party at the festival were imbibing from a bottle purchased at the Horton Cellars Winery booth--a vineyard that walked away with seven wine grower's awards.
Hill's friend, Joe Phillips, said he was not surprised at the friendly atmosphere among the vintners. "You always can trust wine drinkers," he said, half-empty glass in hand.
Barbara Payton, who has the sweet job of being the wine promotion specialist for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said there is little rivalry among East Coast and West Coast wine regions because they are not making the same wines or fighting for the same markets.
"It's not California at all," she said, adding that the real rivalry is between Napa and Sonoma growers.
She attributes the rising quality of Virginia wines and the industry's sense of community to a state-sponsored push to support the industry as a whole. During the 1980s, the state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture initiated programs at Virginia Tech to improve the growing of wine grapes and the palatability of regional wines. She said the effects of their efforts are being felt today, as she rates Virginia wines consistently on par with California's.
"The festival," she said "is a testament to how far we've come."
CAPTION: Martin Legge, of England, inspects some of the 300 wines at Saturday's Virginia Wine Festival.
CAPTION: Another bottle is uncorked and poured for the connoisseurs at Saturday's festival, which featured wines from nearly all of Virginia's 53 wineries.
CAPTION: Darrell and Tamela Tyler, of Richmond, discuss the merits of their wine.
CAPTION: Getting into the spirit of the day, Chrinta McCrane, left, Joanne Satterfield and Corrine Babalas enjoy the wine and the music at the festival at Great Meadow.