Monday, December 30, 2013

Something Special Is Going On Here - Keuka Lake Vineyards

So I was out near Lake Keuka just days before the Finger Lakes Wine Festival. Along with friends Bryan Van Dusen and Rich Srsich, I decided to make a run to Keuka Lake Vineyards. Keuka Lake had had a run of odd circumstances, some absolutely juxtaposed. From tragic stories to supreme accomplishments. Owner Mel Kaufman had experienced a run on wine makers, had lost a vineyard worker to a terrible vineyard accident, and won one of the most coveted awards in the state – their Leon Millott had been named Best Red Wine in New York state, over the Merlots and Cab Francs of Long Island and the Pinots and Cab Franc of the Hudson Valley and the Finger Lakes. To say it was an upset was an understatement.  Several wine writers in the state didn’t even know what Leon Millot was, let alone know that Mel’s vineyard produced one. But in fact, Keuka Lake’s Leon Millot had been one of those collector’s wines at the winery for the previous half dozen years.


Keuka Lake Vineyards is nestled on the slopes above the southern end of Keuka Lake and are an eclectic mix of young vinifera and old hybrid plantings. They range in age from three year old plantings of Cabernet Franc and Vignoles to more than 50 year old Leon Millot and Delaware vines. They work hard to control the quality of their fruit.
Like many makers of fine wines in the region, Keuka Vineyards attributes their fruit’s superiority to the depth and size of the Finger Lakes themselves. The summer heat retained by the lakes lengthens the growing season and acts to moderate the extreme cold temperatures of the vineyards in the winter. Come spring, the now frigid waters moderate the warming air temperatures, delaying bud break and lowering the risk of damage by frost.


“It is the interaction of our temperate climate with the soil and topography of the land surrounding Keuka Lake that gives our vineyard sites their unique terroir. The special glacial till (mixture of glacially laid rocks, sand, silt, and clay) deposited on the lower slopes above Keuka Lake provide for the water drainage that is essential for vine balance and health. The slopes themselves allow crucial cold air drainage during the winter and maximize sun exposure over the growing season. All these factors work together to provide the unique mineral and spicy characteristics of our Keuka Lake Rieslings of which KLV is duly proud,” their website proclaims.


According to their website, “New York State wine pioneer Charles Fournier recognized the quality of our vineyard land over 50 years ago when he chose what he thought were the best sites on Keuka Lake for his experimental trial on a series of unknown varieties. Our Leon Millot vineyard on the east side of the lake survives today from these early plantings.”
The one constant at Keuka Lake Vineyards is owner Melvin Goldman. Mel has a profound respect for farming and a passion for wine. Unlike many vineyardists in the Finger Lakes, Mel does not have a family history of grape growing. Only decades ago, he was firmly established in his career of agricultural and industrial innovation for developing countries. While on a visit to Cornell University with their son, then a high school senior, that Mel and his wife, Dorothee, fell in love with the region. Mel decided to act on his longtime desire to run a farm. He and Dorothee eventually purchased their vineyard, part of the old Taylor wine family estate.

Like many others, Mel felt that the region’s Riesling varietal wines were of superior quality. To confirm his suspicions, Mel hosted a blind tasting for his wine-savvy friends in Washington DC, “When the group raved about the Rieslings, even preferring them over the Alsatian wines, I knew Riesling was the right grape for this area.”

In 1997, he took early retirement and was finally able to move to the Finger Lakes and officially start Keuka Lake Vineyards. Mel’s first plantings were Riesling and Pinot Noir vines, “I planted my favorite red, Pinot Noir, based on information from Cornell on the similarities between the temperature profiles over the growing season in Burgundy and the Finger Lakes - I didn’t realize then how fickle Pinot Noir is to grow.”
By the fall of 2005, the first vintage was made for the winery under the skilled guidance of Morten Hallgren, winemaker and owner of Ravines Wine Cellars. This began a string of excellent winemakers who have careened through Mel’s doors. Four created excellent wines in nine years. Staci Nugent, who continues on as Keuka Lakes consulting winemaker, was the longest serving of the winemakers. Other winemakers include Ian Barry (late of Swedish Hill, and now with Villa Bellangelo Vineyards and his own soon to open winery) and now Barry Family Cellars.

Staci Nugent is both a degreed winemaker and an area native. After attending Cornell, she then moved to California to attend graduate school for genetics. It was around that time she decided on a complete career change.

“While on a winery tour in the Edna Valley, I met a winemaker that had a science background very similar to my own. I was already working weekends at a winery in Gilroy but hadn't realized how strongly I wanted to do more.” Staci entered the wine program at the University of California at Davis and received her Master’s degree in Viticulture and Enology. She followed with hands-on winemaking experience by working consecutive harvests at a series of highly regarded wineries across the globe: Ornellaia in Italy, Hardy’s Tintara Winery in South Australia, and Williams Selyem in Sonoma, California.
Prior to joining Keuka Lake Vineyards in 2008, Staci was winemaker at Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars. “I enjoy getting my hands dirty and being part of the entire process. We have good quality grapes and a wonderful group of people… KLV is pretty special.”
Today, the winemaker is Moss Bittner.
But the one constant is always been the driving force of Mel.

Mel and the winery suffered a serious setback in April of 2012. “Daniel Martin, a member of the vineyard crew at Keuka Lake Vineyards, died in an accident on Monday. The 51-year old was pinned underneath a tractor, which he had been operating on the hill of the property,” wrote noted New York wine writer Lenn Thompson.
“He will be greatly missed,” KLV owner Mel Goldman told Thompson in an email. “It is deeply shocking. I knew him quite well.”

According to Thompson, “Martin had worked for KLV for the past ten years, and was familiar with the vagaries of the property. Keuka Lake Vineyards is perched on some of the steepest vineyard sites in the region; it’s the kind of terrain that is helpful in growing high-quality fruit, but can be dangerous for workers. It’s unclear what the exact circumstances were when Martin’s tractor overturned. Goldman said that Martin had been working alone and had just finished spraying. He was returning down a hill and apparently lost control of the vehicle at that point; police say he was found on the edge of a driveway. Emergency responders arrived within minutes of the accident but could not revive Martin.”

Now, onto the main reason we are here…KLV’s excellent wines. Mel was exceedingly gracious in his tour of the vineyards, and eager to pour his wines. It was an exciting endeavor. In their wonderfully appointed tastingroom Mel led us through their wines. He was incredibly animated when talking about his wines, like a kid in a candy store, first pouring one wine, then another.
Let me say this first, without equivocation – the first four Rieslings were among the best quality Rieslings I have tasted anywhere in the Finger Lakes. They were superb! I had always known KLV for their Leon Millot, which among the best red wines produced in the state. But I was unaware of their ability to mold such incredible Rieslings! Indeed, KLV produces incredible whites all the way around.

2011 Estate Dry Riesling – This delicate white wine is blended from three estate vineyards. Huge peach and honey on the nose!!! Nice strong spiciness as promised comes through. An elegant, light white wine with great flavor and great acidity. Green apples come though too. Nice minerality. Complex and well balanced. Wine Spectator 89 pts. Extremely well deserved. Fantastic wine!!!
2011 Dry Riesling, Goldman Vineyard – Big notes of pear and green tea come across as promised. A beautiful light floral nose is balanced by an austere minerality and a crisp, dry finish. Spectator 91 points. Fantastic!
2011 Falling Man Vineyard – Again, like the estate, the Falling Man has huge notes of peach and honey and apricot and other floral notes. Great spiciness. Wine Spectator 90 points. A tremendous zippy finish makes this lip-smacking good!!!  Wonderful!!!!
2012 Falling Man Vineyard – This had just been bottled when we came through. Licorice and honeyblossom come through in a big way!!! Huge tropical fruits too! Nice green apple across the palate. And a lovely, strong grapefruit-y ending. Very nicely balanced, and a refreshing ending. Wonderful as well!

2010 Semi-Dry Riesling – Great notes of nectarine, orange blossom, peach, and toher tropical notes. Lots of lovely green apple and leachy. Zippy acidity balances nicely with the hint of sweetness in this wine. Incredibly well balanced!! Lovely!

2012 Gently Dry Vignoles - Bright Meyers lemons, tropical fruits, with hints of anise and baked apple make this an elegant, delicious white wine. A nice, grapefruity finish. Perfect for oysters and shellfish. A very nice surprise. Lovely!
Turkey Run Vignoles 2011 – Turkey Run vineyard is so named for the turkeys who ate all the grapes. The wine was made by a Hungarian intern. Classic vignoles nose, with a great zippy ending. 16% alcohol, but you don’t smell it or taste it. A big white wine. Fantastic!

2012 Delaware, Vineyard 1950 – The Delaware grape is a cultivar derived from the grape species Vitis Labrusca or 'Fox Grape' which is used for the table and wine production. The skin of the Delaware grape when ripened is pale red almost pinkish in color. It has small fruit clusters with small berries that do not have the pronounced 'foxiness' of other Labrusca grapes. It is a commercially viable grape vine which is grown in the North East and Mid-West of America and is vigorous when grafted onto a phylloxera resistant root stock. The Delaware grape was probably discovered in Frenchtown, New Jersey, but was first brought to public notice by George Campbell, of Delaware, Ohio in the 1850s. Although it is said to be an American variety its parentage is unknown and is thought to have a significant Vitis Vinifera component in its background, possibly explaining the susceptibility to fungal diseases and the requirement for grafting onto phylloxera resistant rootstock for best growth. T.V. Munson believed it to be a hybrid of labrusca, vinifera, and "bourquiniana", a class of vines now believed to be hybrids of Vitis aestivalis. The wine exploded with honeysuckle, melon, apple and pear all of which came through beautifully. This was a lovely wine that Mel was very proud to pour and with good reason. I have heard that some people in the past had made good Delawares, but had not experienced a commercial one to date. This was a lovely, white wine you could easily serve to the biggest snob with absolute assurance you’d get nothing but great response from. A wonderful wine, and a huge surprise. HUGE, floral, fruity nose.  Beautiful, dry finish. A wine definitely worth seeking out!!!!


2011 Cabernet Franc - Very much a Burgundy-styled light Cab Franc. Bright cherry. This vintage opens with a hint of vanilla and plum. The complex palate is a mix of wild berries and stone fruit. Nice acidity. White pepper finish. Lovely!!!
Then we got what we came for!!! Leon Millot. Leon Millot is among my favorite reds, but it must contain some of the deeper, bigger, more purple-y version of the grape, to make a truly great version of the varietal. And Keuka Lake Vineyards makes one of the best versions of it I have ever tasted.

2011 Leon Millot – A big nose and gulp of tart wild black raspberries, plum, and cassis. As big and elegant as a Cabernet Sauvignon, but with much more subtlety. Lots of vanilla and spice. A big, deep red wine, with lot of fruit, nice but not overly big tannins. Leon Millot is one of my favorites. This is a blend of the bigger, deeper Leon Millot strains (from the Boordy line), with a smaller amount of the more Marechal Foche-y Millot, from one of the most famous vineyards in the Finger Lakes – the Fournier Vineyard. This is a fantastic wine. Good big and young. But will absolutely age incredibly well. This is absolutely a staff and Melvin favorite. Mine too!

Leon Millot 2012 – This is a big, blueberry cobbler of a wine, dark berries, with hints of bread, tomato, leather, and fallen leaves. A big,  huge red wine with soft tannins. Another big, red winner of a wine!!!
Leon Millot 2009 – This was a big whiff of cassis and blueberry. A big, jammy red. A hint of tomato. Still very tight. Will absolutely age for years to come. 5-7 years minimum.

Our tasting was a complete success. And a surprise. I’d only had a few KLV wines up to this tasting. But with this tasting, I must say, I now consider KLV to absolutely be one of the better wineries in the Finger Lakes! Absolutely fantastic. A must find kind of wine. I had always been a big fan of the Leon Millott, but the Rieslings and other wines were a complete revelation!!!
Congrats to Moss! And of course...Go there NOW! And tell Mel I said “Hi!”

Special thanks to Brian and Rich for taking photos after my phone died!

Also, here's a link to my previous KLV stories, and to Lenn Thompson's story....




Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Visit Vortex: Punches, Wassails, and Flips Made Local For the Holidays!!!

Visit Vortex has an entire article on Punches, Wassails, and Flips made with local wines, beers, spirits, and ciders available in the Hudson Valley. Make a few recipes this holiday season using your favorite local products and enjoy!

Read the whole thing at:

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Associated Press: Pennsylvania Wineries Thrive as Global Supply Struggles

Published: November 12, 2013 12:01 AM EST
Updated: November 12, 2013 5:41 AM EST
Pennsylvania wineries boom as global supply struggles

PINE GROVE -- A global wine shortage may be looming, but local wineries will have more than enough to go around.

According to a report released Monday by Morgan Stanley Research, the global supply of wine in 2012 fell to about 300 million cases. A decade ago, the industry produced an excess of 600 million cases.

Global production has been in a decline since it peaked in 2004, while demand in the U.S. and China has been booming.

The U.S. consumes about 12 percent of the world's wine but only produces about 8 percent of it. Consumption continues to grow, rising 2 percent in 2012. China's consumption has quadrupled over the last five years and will soon overtake France as the world's top buyer.

Local wineries will probably remain unaffected by the shortage while larger producers may see it as an opportunity to start exporting.

"It could be a positive thing because if there is a global shortage then it is going to be price increases," Sarah Troxell, winemaker at Galen Glen Vineyard and Winery, in Andreas, said Wednesday. "A lot of the local wineries have great quality wine and reasonable prices."
Troxell said demand has been growing locally, but supply has been able to keep up.

"Each year we need more, but our vineyard is filling that," she said.

Galen Glen has a 20-acre vineyard and adds new sections each year, she said. Local producers also control their own prices because they grow just about everything they sell, she said.

Ralph Heffner and his apprentice, Steven Agosti, had more than enough grapes to press Wednesday afternoon at Jersey Acres Farms in Pine Grove.

"It's all about quality," Heffner said about the price of wine.

Heffner is the owner of Stone Mountain Wine Cellars, which he operates on his farm. He only started selling wine about nine years ago and the business remains focused on the local market.

"I think the state stores would have to raise all their prices before small stores have to increase theirs," Agosti said.

Production in Europe, which still makes up 60 percent of the global market, fell 10 percent in 2012. Poor weather this year means production is likely to decrease even further. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania wineries have had a great harvest.
"We had an excellent crop this year," Troxell said. "All of the tanks in the wine cellar are full of new wine."

The wine will age, clear and settle before being ready to bottle next year, she said.

While local wineries see a lot of out-of-state visitors, most are not ready to start exporting.

"As a small winery, we don't export out of state but I imagine there are some opportunities there," Troxell said. "At one point we may look into that."

Read it at:

Trenton Times: Terhune Orchards Winery Contunues to Grow! (NJ)

Tannwen Mount pour a glass of Terhune Orchards wine. The wine-making aspect of Terhune Orchards is project over eight years in the making and the Mount Family is now seeing the rewards of hard work and persistence in the success of their line of Terhune Orchards wine three years after its official unveiling. Terhune's "Just Peachy" - a peach wine derived from their Apple Wine, won the prestigious Governor's Cup (at right) for Best Fruit Wine. Michael Mancuso/The Times

Terhune Orchards has found success in its growing winery in Lawrence
The Times of Trenton  
November 18, 2013 at 6:30 AM, updated November 18, 2013 at 2:11 PM
By Leah DePalo
With names like Rooster Red, Cold Soil White and Harvest Blues, the colorful wine list at Terhune Orchards’ tasting room reflects the agrarian roots of the family-run farm in Lawrence.

And it also represents a growing segment of business operations at the 200-acre farm, best known for its sprawling orchards and family-themed events.

“Since we have opened our tasting room in 2010, our sales have grown with every season,” said Tannwen Mount, the daughter of Terhune owners Pam and Gary Mount.

“Our wine venture now allows us to offer corporate retreats in the spring and fall,” she said.

“Companies can come here to discuss business plans and then enjoy time to socialize in the tasting room. Our line of wines has also allowed us to expand our line of gift boxes and gift baskets, which help fuel sales during the holiday season.”

Terhune’s focus on the fruit wine niche has already earned them high praise. Just Peachy is a blend of peaches and the vineyard’s apple wine, and it was awarded the gold medal for fruit wine and the Governor’s Cup for fruit wine in the 2013 New Jersey Wine Competition.

“We are very honored and pleased, especially as a young winery, to win such an award,” Tannwen Mount said.

She inspired the Terhune winery endeavor after she returned from six years living in California in 2003.

“We were already thinking of expansion at this time, and I thought that a line of fine wines would be a great addition to our farm store,” Mount said. “In 2005, our family purchased three acres of land to start our vineyard. Now eight years later, we occupy 10 acres in vines.”

The added space was needed to handle the farm’s 10 wines currently in production and offered at the store. Terhune offers grape wines in chardonnay, Vidal blanc, chambourcin, blended red and blended blush varieties. Its signature fruit wines and fan favorites — Apple Wine, Harvest Blues, and Just Peachy — “are all made from our own apple cider,” said Mount. “Our apple cider is fermented in a similar fashion to that of grapes.”

Terhune’s tasting room, which is a converted barn, is open Fridays through Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Terhune has a Holiday Wine Trail weekend event planned for Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“We sell all of our wine directly from our farm store or in the tasting room at the farm on Cold Soil Road or at our farmer’s market locations at the Trenton Farmers Market, West Windsor Farmers Market, and the Princeton Farmers Market,” said Mount. “Our wine is available for shipping within New Jersey or to Florida.”

Mount said the greatest challenge the farm faced was navigating the requirements for wine growers in New Jersey. A law that went into effect in May expanded vintners’ opportunities to sell, both within New Jersey and outside its borders.

“With this venture came a new legal system, permits, and paperwork to keep track of,” said Mount.

“It is a learning process, but we are becoming more and more familiarized. We have been growers for 40 years and we will continue our philosophy to learn and grow as we go.”

Read the whole thing at:

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Edible Hudson Valley Raves About Hillrock Estate Distillery

Hillrock Estate Distillery, in Columbia County, in the Hudson Valley, continues to draw coverage and praise. No question that both are well in order. A great piece in the Winter 2013/2014 issue of Edible Hudson Valley about Hillrock, owner Jeffrey Baker and the rest of the crew! And kudos to Eric Steinman and Nancy and Ray Painter of Edible Hudson Valley.

Steven Kolpan Raves About Long Island Wine and Howard G. Goldberg

In the December 2013-February 2014 issue of Valley Table, world renowned wine expert and writer Steven Kolpan waxes rhapsodic about summer sojourns to Long Island, and his vineyard visits there. He says that Long Island produces "extraordinary wine"...and "I believe that Long Island wine is sacred ground for fine wines."

Kolpan also writes, "Kudos to Howard G. Goldberg of the New York Times for championing these wine in print so early on." He then continues to compliment Goldberg's current continued support of the region.

Kolpan is always one of my favorite wine writers, and this article is a big win for the region. Kudos to you, Long Island!

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Dana Milbank, Washington Post Laud Richard Leahy, Virginia Wine

Here is a GREAT article highlighting the book BEYOND JEFFERSON'S VINES by Richard Leahy as well extolling the multitudinous virtues of fine wine in Virginia. Dana Milbank has written an insightful and excellent piece. Special kudos to Dave McIntyre who has been leading this charge for years as well, and whose efforts are mentioned in the article. -C. DeVito, Editor

Dana Milbank

Vineyards that are putting Virginia on the fine-wine map
Putting Virginia on the fine-wine map
Written by Dana Milbank
Posted 11/21/2013
Washington Post

Thomas Jefferson was a failure.
Yes, the man did some good work, writing the Declaration of Independence and running the country as our third president. Monticello is fairly impressive, too. But there is no way around it: As a winemaker, Jefferson was a disaster.

He began planting grapes in Virginia in 1771. In 1773, he had an Italian, Filippo Mazzei, plant a variety of European vines on his land. Yet in the years that followed, Jefferson had not a single harvest of grapes and produced not a single bottle of wine. His precious European vines were killed by insects, fungus and harsh winters. Some were trampled by horses. As recounted in a recent history by Richard Leahy, “Beyond Jefferson’s Vines,” the great man eventually packed it in, claiming that he “would in a year or two more have established the practicability of that branch of culture in America.”
Sure he would have.

Instead of bringing viticulture to the New World, Jefferson may have helped set in motion the devastation of the wine industry in the Old World. The phylloxera vine louse, believed to have helped to kill off Jefferson’s vines, was eventually exported to Europe, where it wiped out most of the continent’s grapevines. It took the better part of a century for Europe to recover.
And for the next 200 years, wines in Virginia — based on native grapes not susceptible to the dreaded louse — were mostly undrinkable. When oenological pioneers revived winemaking in Virginia 40 years ago, the result was, as often as not, something that tasted like detergent. Gradually, the wines became tolerable, if usually unremarkable.

The past several years, however, have brought Jefferson vindication. A new generation of Virginia winemakers has begun to produce wines that can compete with the best of those from California and Europe. Here in the Mid-Atlantic, a petite Bordeaux is taking root. Technological advances in vineyard site selection, viticulture and winemaking have combined to create a critical mass for Virginia, establishing this area as what Decanter magazine in July called “the next big thing in American wine.”
“The current renaissance of serious vintners in the Virginia wine community has made Virginia a major contender,” says Jennifer Knowles, wine director at the Inn at Little Washington, which has 52 Virginia wines in its cellar and this year won a Wine Spectator Grand Award. She calls the wines “beautiful in their balance” and, ranging from $30 to $240 at the Rappahannock County restaurant, competitive with similarly priced wines from California and Europe.

This is not to say Virginia is the new Napa Valley. The Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office reports that the state has at least 230 wineries, and offers impressive statistics: an all-time high in wine sales in fiscal 2013, more than 511,000 cases sold, tied with Texas (yes, Texas) as the fifth-largest wine-grape-growing state. But independent experts I spoke to generally agree that many Virginia wineries are still making wine that ranges from unremarkable to unpleasant. That helps to explain why all but about 3 percent of Virginia wine is consumed in Virginia — much of that by tourists at wine festivals and winery tastings.
The making of high-quality wine is a rather different story. It is the work of about 20 producers. Some, such as Jim Law of Linden Vineyards and Gianni Zonin and Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards, have been at it for many years. Others are Johnny-come-latelies with deep pockets. Donald Trump bet on Virginia wines two years ago, buying Kluge Estate winery and naming it — what else? — Trump Winery, under the direction of Donald’s son, Eric. AOL founder Steve Case and wife Jean bought a producer and reopened it last year as Early Mountain Vineyards; they have said they’ll donate any profits to furthering Virginia wine.

In between are small, little-known estates with names such as Rappahannock Cellars, Pollak Vineyards and King Family Vineyards, scattered from Loudoun County to the Charlottesville area. Within a 90-minute drive from Washington, you can find three of the best:
● RdV Vineyards, in Delaplane, is the work of Rutger de Vink, a Dutch American who poured a family fortune into building a great vineyard and now sells out his $100-a-bottle wines.

● Delaplane Cellars, just a few minutes from RdV, was built by Jim Dolphin, who was in real estate and used proceeds from the sale of his home to turn his winemaking hobby into a business.
● Glen Manor, in Front Royal, was the brainchild of Jeff White, a fifth-generation farmer along Skyline Drive who discovered that his land was perfect for wine grapes.

The three have little in common, except that they all learned the trade from Jim Law at Linden Vineyards. In just a few years, they have employed technological advances to make world-class wines, at times exceeding the quality of their mentor’s.
As I write this, I am sipping 2010 Hodder Hill, a Bordeaux blend from Glen Manor, which sits on the west side of the Blue Ridge. The vines are grown on impossibly steep slopes at altitudes above 1,000 feet, using viticultural advances unknown just a few years ago and hand-pruned with the care of bonsai artists. It’s mostly cabernet sauvignon — a finicky grape hard to ripen in Virginia — softened by merlot and given rich color by petit verdot, a favorite grape here because it resists fungus and rot. The result is a flawless, silky wine with flavors of black cherry and currants that won a gold medal in the 2013 Virginia Governor’s Cup; the 2009 Hodder Hill won the 2012 Governor’s Cup overall.

At $48 a bottle, it’s a steal — if you can find it. White produced only 350 cases of the stuff.
“There was a tendency in the past in Virginia to think, ‘I just have to get my fruit through the growing season clean, disease-free, so I can harvest it,’ ” White told me. “Now we’re kind of pushing the envelope.”

Demaris Goffigan of Virginia Beach, left, dances with Marquita White of Norfolk at the AT&T Town Point Virginia Wine Festival held in Norfolk in October. Demaris Goffigan of Virginia Beach, left, dances with Marquita White of Norfolk at the AT&T Town Point Virginia Wine Festival held in Norfolk in October. (Logan Mock-Bunting/For The Washington Post) 

At first glance, there is no reason anybody would try to make wine in Virginia.
Its clay soil has poor drainage. It gets far more rain than is good for grapevines, and in the form of torrential thunderstorms. The high humidity encourages fungus and rot. A short growing season means grapes don’t have time to ripen. Then, just as harvest season arrives, there is the annual threat of bad weather related to tropical storms that can wipe out harvests.

“You look at our climate, and you don’t jump up and down and say, ‘Oh, my God, this is a perfect place to grow grapes,’ ” said de Vink, the RdV proprietor.
Essentially, what’s good for most crops — fertile soil and ample moisture — is precisely what you don’t want if you’re trying to make good wine. When a vine is in nutrient-rich soil and gets plenty of water, the plant puts its energy into leaves and shoots. But when a vine is stressed — not getting enough nutrition and water — it devotes its energy to perpetuating the species and protecting its seed by producing the most succulent fruit.

These new Virginia winemakers are mimicking the conditions of great wine regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy. Consulting with soil scientists, they are finding rocky soils on steep, wind-swept hillsides that promote drainage and air circulation around the grape clusters. They graft European varietals onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock and use new techniques in “canopy management.”

There have been advances in the wineries, too, including micro-oxygenation, enzymes and concrete tanks, and more widespread use of stainless-steel equipment. But while such techniques can make an otherwise bad wine tolerable, the real difference has been outdoors. The fickle climate, says Knowles, of the Inn at Little Washington, “means an incredible amount of time spent physically tending the vines. This is where Virginia viticulture differs from most wine-growing regions in the world and why winemakers here have to have an almost fanatical attention to detail.”
The vagaries of nature, and the resulting need for labor-intensive farming, means the top Virginia wines have more in common with the understated wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy than the bold wines of California. California wines are all about ripe fruit and heavy oak, but Virginia wines are more delicate and require gentler extraction of juice from the grapes.

Virginia’s Old World style has won some critical acclaim. Four years ago, The Washington Post’s wine writer, Dave McIntyre, hosted a blind tasting in which Virginia wines only narrowly trailed competitors from France and California. Then, last year, Steven Spurrier, the British wine merchant who arranged the “Judgment of Paris” wine tasting in 1976 that put California wines on the map when they beat their French rivals, arranged a blind tasting of Virginia wines alongside top candidates from France, Italy, Portugal and California. Spurrier preferred the Virginia contender in six of eight comparisons, and the other two were ties.

Also on that blind panel was Jay Youmans, educational director of the Capital Wine School, who runs the annual Virginia Governor’s Cup competition. In the past two years, his well-credentialed judges have given 88 of 100 points to more than 40 wines from a handful of Virginia producers. The influential British wine writer Jancis Robinson, too, has called the Virginia wines she tasted “thrillingly good,” and McIntyre has been a key figure in spreading the word about Virginia’s advances.

In theory, the same sort of technical advances that have helped Virginia wineries should make it possible to produce decent wine almost anywhere. But Virginia has had a jump because of favorable tax and distribution laws. Maryland, for example, is 15 to 20 years behind its neighbor, Youmans estimates, though wineries such as Black Ankle, Boordy, Sugarloaf and Old Westminster “are making great inroads.”

Still, Virginia’s critical acclaim is of limited use for now, because the wines are produced in such small quantities they are rarely available beyond the tasting rooms. But even if Virginia wine never becomes The Next Big Thing, there is a triumph in making Jefferson’s 18th-century prediction come true.

A worker clips a bunch of grapes during the harvest at Glen Manor Vineyards.A worker clips a bunch of grapes during the harvest at Glen Manor Vineyards. (Logan Mock-Bunting/For The Washington Post) 

A century ago, Jeff White’s great-grandfather was looking for a spot for the family farm. Out in Shenandoah, the best parcels were always down in the valley, where the soil is rich and the water abundant. But the good farming land was taken, so White’s ancestor decided to try his luck on the western slope of the Blue Ridge. The land was scenic — it sits just below modern-day Skyline Drive in Front Royal — but not much of a spot for agriculture. The best White’s ancestors could do was to grow fruit trees. “It was not one of the sought-after farms,” White says with some understatement.

But it turns out White’s ancestor was quite accidentally prescient. The mountains were steep and rocky — rain simply runs off.

White planted his first vineyard in 1995 at 1,100 feet, on a patch of granite and greenstone, with a slope of 15 degrees. He sold his grapes to Law at Linden, where White worked as a winemaker, and it turned out the fruit was good. So White planted his second vineyard at 1,300 feet, with a 35-degree slope, on soil so rocky White’s ancestors let the forest keep it. White’s farmhands probably wish he had continued the practice, because everything in the new vineyard takes them twice as long as it took in the old.

Viewed from his Glen Manor winery, White’s newer vineyard looks almost as if it is growing on a cliff face. And because of the west-facing orientation, the vineyard is in the scorching sun until 8:30 on summer nights.

If he leaves too many leaves on his vines, the grapes will become moldy and diseased. If he leaves too few, they’ll sunburn. And so he trims each vine by hand, leaving extra shading over the grape clusters on the west and south side, but pulling leaves from the east and north side to let sun and air in. “I make multiple passes through the vines, plucking leaves as the summer goes by,” he explains.

Dana Milbank is a political columnist for The Washington Post. Staff writer Autumn Brewington contributed to this report. To comment on this story, e-mail