Asking Tareq Salahi to talk about Virginia wines is like popping a human cork. Get him started on the topic, and he is off and running, bursting with energy as he extols the "beautiful wines" and unique vintages and what it all means for state tourism.
What most excites Salahi, the owner of Oasis Winery in Fauquier County, is what's next. Over the next 10 years or so, he said, the Virginia wine industry will more than double its market share in the commonwealth and make its mark nationally.
"It really is the future," Salahi said. "The future is written already."
Representatives of the Virginia wine industry hope Salahi is right, and they have put pen to paper to improve their prospects. This month, an advisory group working under the aegis of Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) released Vision 2015, a strategic blueprint for the industry's growth in the state, which is ranked as the fifth-largest producer of wine in the United States.
As its goal, the Virginia Wine Study Work Group has set out to double the market share of state wines in the commonwealth -- a target only slightly more cautious than Salahi's -- by 2015. To do that, wineries face a number of challenges. Many consumers, especially in Northern Virginia, are not familiar with local products. On some wine lists, it is impossible to spot a vintage produced in the state. And only 4 percent of wine sold in Virginia is produced in the commonwealth, according to the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. That figure has hovered at about that level the past few years.
But members of the state wine industry sound an optimistic note. Twenty-five years ago, Virginia had only six wineries, they say; today, it is home to 87.
The industry plan in Virginia sets the stage for a more united front among vintners to improve the quality of wines and to distinguish them from those made in, say, California or Oregon. The state still has too few high-quality wineries, and product quality is inconsistent across the industry, according to an analysis by the work group.
"Until we begin to focus on one or more grape varieties, we will not be able to make a big impact on the market," said Bill Dickinson, an assistant commissioner at the Virginia Agriculture Department who helped facilitate the study.
As a result, the work group has suggested consideration of an industry-wide quality assurance program and funding more research to determine which types of wine can be best produced in the region.
The industry has identified Cabernet Franc and Viognier as varieties that Virginia wineries seem particularly well-suited to produce because of land and climactic conditions, Dickinson said.
He added that the state is not trying to compete with California, the country's top wine producer. But Virginia needs some way to distinguish its products -- and to do that, it needs to find a niche. If growers fail to develop a unique taste, "the 800-pound gorilla will eat our lunch," said Dickinson, referring to the Golden State.
Bill Moses, a co-owner of the Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard in Charlottesville and a co-chairman of the work group, said the meat of Vision 2015 is in the strategies to get the word out on Virginia wines.
"There is so much we can do to increase the visibility of Virginia wines in the marketplace," he said.
Among other strategies, the work group recommended launching an aggressive marketing plan targeted at restaurants, distributors, retailers and consumers and possibly establishing a wine cooperative to handle advertising.
Vision 2015 also aims to have more shelf space at retail stores devoted to local wines. Achieving that, however, might not be feasible everywhere, retailers say.
Although wine stores in central and southern Virginia -- nearer to most of the wineries -- report brisk sales of homegrown wines, retailers in the north struggle to offload what they stock.
Mike Carroll, owner of Leesburg Vintner, said he carries a large selection of Virginia wines -- perhaps 20 percent of all his stock. "They don't just sit here and collect dust," he said, adding that tourists make up a large percentage of his customers.
Head east, however, and wine stores say the going isn't so easy. Geoff Romine, owner of Fern Street Gourmet in Alexandria, said he is lucky if he sells half a case of Virginia wines in a week. He has about 40 varieties of local wines in his store, but the customers who buy Virginia wines tend to do so when they make trips to the wineries. "For me to devote more shelf space [to Virginia wines] would be cutting my own throat," he said.
Regardless of which strategies work, the development of a wide-ranging plan "shows the industry has come of age," said Gordon Murchie, president of the Alexandria-based Vinifera Wine Growers Association.
"There has never been a comprehensive statewide strategy for development for this sector of this industry," he said. Murchie said the fact that vintners are proceeding under the umbrella of the state government indicates that the commonwealth recognizes the industry's contributions to agriculture.
Virginia's 87 wineries, when combined with other wine grape production enterprises, contribute between $69 million and $96 million each year to the commonwealth's economy, according to the Virginia Wine Marketing Office.
Virginia's winemakers say their counterparts in Maryland have not received the same support. They say that, in part, explains why the industry has stagnated in Maryland, which has only 12 wineries.
Lewis Parker, a member of the work group and owner of Virginia Wine Marketing Office southwest of Leesburg, said the gathering of industry leaders at a state level -- which began two years ago -- was just as important as the development of Vision 2015. Getting the ear of lawmakers and forming alliances help benefit the industry, he said.
But Parker noted the value of aiming high and putting the industry's goals on paper. Doubling the market share of Virginia wines in the commonwealth is "a goal that's got to be stated, and that's a goal we've got to figure out" how to reach, he said.
Salahi, the owner of Oasis Winery, has been appointed to a body that is taking over for the work study group. The Virginia Wine Board, which takes the reins July 1, plans to focus on ways to implement Vision 2015. Salahi said he's ready to "announce to the world that we're there."