Over the weekend, President Obama weighed in on one of the pressing issues in the campaign for the Republican nomination to succeed him in the White House.
No, not how to stop Donald Trump — but whether the wine that bears his name is any good. “Has anybody bought that wine? I want to know what that wine tastes like,” Obama said at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Dallas on Saturday. “I mean, come on. You know that’s like some $5 wine. They slap a label on it. They charge you $50 and say it’s the greatest wine ever.”
As those of us who live near the winery know, though, the real shame about Trump Winery is not that its wines are not good. It’s that some of them actually are — but these days, their association with the GOP frontrunner is likely to keep them off wine lists they otherwise belong on.
I work in the restaurant business in Charlottesville, Va., and though I’m a short distance from the winery and the restaurants where I work feature Virginia wines, I make a conscious decision not to carry the Trump brand. While the election might take over your dinner conversation, a welcome table is not one that pours liquid politics down your throat. (For the same reason, if other candidates got into the beverage industry, I wouldn’t be serving Clinton Chardonnay, Bernie Beer, or Cruztraminer, either.)
Those Trump wines Obama was joking about, however, have a longer history in this area.
In 1999, the first vineyards went in the ground as Kluge Estate and set the tone for what would later become Trump Winery. For a greatly discounted price, in 2011, the Trumps bought the winery and its property from local socialite and entrepreneur Patricia Kluge after her business collapsed. Under the Kluge name, the vineyard’s wines have been served at the White House and even at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding rehearsal dinner.
The basic infrastructure remained intact, including the core management staff, and business continued. Trump’s son Eric Trump supervises the winery now. Labels evolved from “Kluge” to “Trump” to today’s all-capital-letters “TRUMP,” in a font that evokes U.S. currency. Wines that had been earnest explorations into Virginia viticulture are now the red power ties of East Coast wine.
Trump Winery is one of the few “estate” wineries in the area focusing on growing their own fruit as opposed to buying it from neighbors. It’s an operation headed up by a serious winemaker, Jonathan Wheeler. Wheeler makes a full spectrum of wines: sparkling, white, rosé, red and dessert wines. He has a vast tract of 200 vineyard acres to play with, and he stands in a key position to influence the direction of the entire region.
Wheeler’s focus on sparkling wines is particularly interesting. In Virginia, winemakers can usually count on fruit that comes in early, because it will get to the winery before mid-harvest rains and hurricanes have a chance to wreak havoc. To keep acidity in most sparkling wines of the world, grapes destined for bubbly are harvested earlier than others. This makes sparkling wine a practical choice in Virginia’s climate. Sparkling wine, though, can be difficult to make, and it usually needs more aging than a still white wine. Wheeler diverts some cool-microclimate vineyard blocks to the bubbly, and this part of his production is one of his most promising contributions to Virginia wine. The sparkling Blanc de Noir made from a cooler pinot noir site is one of the best wines to come out of the Trump operation.
It’s not the only wine that might catch your interest in a blind tasting, though. The recently bottled 2015 Chardonnay and Viognier currently available for sale come from one of the greatest Virginia white wine vintages in recent memory. Winemakers throughout the Monticello American Viticultural Area are excited about 2015 white grapes, which enjoyed a near-perfect growing season. We did get rains in 2015, but they came just after the start of the red harvest. Wheeler made his Chardonnay in steel and oak, and it’s a balanced example of the vintage. The Viognier is a classic example of that varietal, too.
The reds are Bordeaux-style blends, usually based on a majority of Merlot, which does well in Virginia as an early ripener. They are lush, bold reds that have a little bit of aging potential, but you would mostly want to drink them on release.
Wheeler also makes a unique dessert wine from fortified Chardonnay, aged in old Bourbon barrels.
I’ve been watching and tasting from a distance for quite some time. On taste alone, there are a few bottlings that I’d like to support, but I’m sure Obama would agree: the intense branding makes the stuff hard to swallow.
Some of that hesitation predates Trump’s involvement in politics. As a general rule, I disdain wine brands. When the strength of a wine’s brand eclipses the actual product, the focus goes away from the wine itself, onto the brand and what that brand represents. Branding is easy, if you know how to do it. Winemaking is hard work, especially in Virginia, and it changes year by year. When a branded winery experiences mass popularity, the wine and the hard work of the winery team become disembodied from the brand, in this case reduced to a side note as the wine’s meaning becomes less about Virginia terroir and more about Trump.
Does it matter why someone drinks a wine? Is it a shame that much of this carefully grown and made wine will be consumed in symbolic solidarity by fervent supporters of a candidate who, ironically, does not drink alcohol? Will Virginia’s special 2015 white wine vintage be appreciated at all in the frenzy of 2016?
Trump Winery is certainly doing fine without my business (several wines are sold out), and I am doing fine without them in my wine program. But as these wines switch gears from beverage to propaganda, I worry that what could be an important part of Virginia’s emerging wine legacy will be lost.
A century from now, how will Trump’s politics have impacted Virginia’s wine trade? Objectively, I want to appreciate some of these wines. Unfortunately, now that the label talks so loudly, what’s in the bottle has lost its voice.