Young &Hungry: The second DrinkLocalWine.com conference takes place this Sunday at Lansdowne Resort in Loudoun County. Though open to the public, this event is not one of those massive wine festivals where some open Virginia prairie gets turned into an outdoor bacchanalia. What is the goal and mission of your wine conference?
Dave McIntyre: The conference is a spinoff of the DrinkLocalWine.com Web site, which I co-founded with Jeff Siegel, who blogs as The Wine Curmudgeon. We were talking about how the MSWM – that’s Mainstream Wine Media – acted as if American wine was only made in California, Oregon and Washington state, and how difficult it is for other wine regions to get coverage. So we created the Web site as a way of linking to blogs and other articles about wines from the other 47 states. As I like to say it, “Wine from around here, wherever ‘here’ happens to be.” We proclaimed the second week in October to be “Regional Wine Week” and recruited bloggers and newspaper columnists to write about their local wines that week, and linked to them all.
After the first Regional Wine Week, folks from the Texas Department of Agriculture approached Jeff and suggested we do a conference on Texas wines, with the idea that writers from around the country could go to Dallas for a weekend, meet some Texas winemakers and experience first-hand wines they may have heard about but never had the chance to try. We did it last August, and it was so much fun we decided to see if we could do it annually, in a different region each year. We chose Virginia because it’s an area I know well and it is very supportive of its wine industry. This year’s conference is sponsored by the Virginia Wine Board, the Maryland Wineries Association, and Loudoun County’s tourism office, among others.
So the conference will be a bit wonky — three panel discussions on various issues confronting local wineries as they try to grow and gain recognition. Last year the discussions were quite lively as winemakers in the audience chimed in and offered their thoughts. The fun part is the afternoon Twitter Taste-Off, where the writers and anyone else who attends can taste wines from about 25 to 30 wineries and then Tweet their tasting notes via a live WiFi connection we’ll have set up. So it is definitely not a prairie bacchanal, but it should be an informative and fun Sunday for anyone seriously interested in local wines. Seating is limited — capacity is only 150, but we have about 50 or 60 seats for the public. Registration is just $65 in advance, $75 at the door, though we were sold out a few days early last year. And the price also includes lunch. You can register at DrinkLocalWine.com.
Y&H: Terroir is a complicated subject but an important one with wine. Do you think either Maryland or Virginia wines have a distinctive terroir that tasters can immediately identify?
DM: I think a local terroir is developing. Remember, in France these famous terroirs have been producing wine for centuries. Locally, there was terroir from the beginning in that so many of the wines were awful you could easily pick them out. Then, everybody tried to imitate some ideal wine — remember when not too long ago, Virginia winemakers would brag that their cabernet franc tasted just like Cheval Blanc? Ha! Now, I think the better wineries are just trying to make the best wine possible and say proudly that this is Virginia, or this is Maryland. That’s how the local terroir will develop.
Recently I played a blind-tasting game with some wine collector friends. One of them brought a Tensley syrah from Santa Barbara County. It was big, rich, with pronounced alcohol, and it sang California. I followed it with the Black Ankle Leaf Stone syrah. It was darker in flavor and very different than the Tensley, but unmistakeably syrah. I was the only one in the room who knew what it was, so I’m perhaps too biased when I say I liked it better than the Tensley. Everyone agreed it was top-notch syrah, but they couldn’t agree on where it was from. There were votes for California and Washington. They were astonished when I showed them the label that said Maryland. Maybe that’s the beginning of terroir.
Y&H: Virginia wine-making seems to have come into its own in the last 10 years. What changes have the state’s winemakers implemented to bring about their increasingly improved bottles?
DM: I think it’s primarily experience. The vines are getting older, the winemakers are learning how to keep the vines balanced in tricky growing seasons, and they are learning what grape varieties and clones can ripen here and how to help them ripen. We’ve also seen some French consultants being hired, which is helping, and perhaps one of the greatest stories is the number of French winemakers living and working in Virginia. This year’s Governor’s Cup went to King Family Estate for its Meritage red blend, made by Mathieu Finot, a young Frenchman who has been in the US only since 2003. The sparkling wine served by President Obama at his state dinner last November was made near Charlottesville by another Frenchman, Claude Thibaut, who is a native of the Champagne region. Both these winemakers should be at the DLW.com conference, by the way. At least their wines will be.
Y&H: I’ve read that Virginia’s winemakers have found success with Bordeaux blends but more with the Right Bank-style merlot blends. How do Virginia Bordeaux blends differ from the classic French styles? How do they compare?
DM: Many people believe merlot does better here than cabernet sauvignon, which would favor a Right Bank style. I’m not so sure I agree. Recently a new clone of cabernet sauvignon, called 337, has become popular here because it ripens about 10 days earlier than other cab clones. That has improved Virginia’s cabs already. And there is some research I hope to be writing about soon that may show why Virginia has had trouble getting depth and color in its cabernet.
But if you want to decide for yourself about whether a Left Bank (cabernet-based) or Right Bank (merlot-based) blend does better, go to one of the three Tasting Room stores operated by Boxwood winery — in Middleburg, Reston and Chevy Chase. Boxwood produces both styles, and they are both excellent.
Y&H: Maryland wine-making doesn’t get the same respect as Virginia wine-making. Is there a reason for that?
DM: They haven’t performed well. Virginia has had several advantages: Richmond has supported the wine industry in a way Annapolis hasn’t, with marketing and research funding. Virginia Tech has a very active enology and viticulture program that many wineries have benefitted from. And Virginia wineries — at least to a certain extent — have been good at cooperating and sharing expertise.
The good news is that the picture is improving in Maryland. The number of wineries tripled in the past decade, and newcomers such as Black Ankle Vineyards and Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyards are setting the bar extremely high in their viticultural practices and especially in quality. I also hear good things about Serpent Ridge, and I’m looking forward to trying their wines at the conference.
Y&H: As part of your conference, you’re hosting a tasting of local wines in which the judges will immediately Tweet their opinions and scores. Is this an attempt to get the Millennials to put down their designer cocktails, made from liquors distilled in France or Kentucky, for something more local and old school?
DM: Yes! And it’s also to emphasize the importance of social media for the growth of local wine industries. Without the MSWM, wineries can get the word out through Facebook, Twitter, blogs and e-mail to reach a young and thirsty audience. Millennials don’t care about the wine magazines and their point scores, and they are receptive to local wines. And social media are inexpensive (though time consuming) and much more effective than sending samples to a magazine in New York where they will be lost in a sea of wines from all over the world.
Y&H: You have a seminar at your conference titled, “If local food, why not local wine?” It’s a good question, one that seems to point out a deep-seated bias among wine drinkers: only wines from France, Italy, or California (and maybe Oregon, Chile and Australia) are worth seeking out and purchasing. You could even say there is an ancillary bias: that local wines are inferior to bottles from these well-established regions. How much of these biases are true and how much are they old, outdated perceptions?
DM: The perception is more outdated every day. I like to joke that Virginia is still trying to conquer the District of Columbia, and that the wineries haven’t been able to succeed, just as Lee never did. But that is changing slowly. More and more sommeliers and retailers in this area are experiencing the wines and putting them on shelves and wine lists. Brian Cook at Blue Ridge has a number of wines from up and down the East Coast, and Andrew Stover at Oya is a powerhouse of the drink local movement, with wines from Arizona, Illinois, and Idaho among many other states.
Y&H: You are a champion of local wines, Dave. Why did you decide to take up this cause?
DM: I’m not sure I’d call myself a champion of local wines. I feel the story of local wines, and their impressive improvement over the past several years, has been neglected, and I want to report that story. When I signed on the be the Post‘s wine columnist nearly two years ago, I told Joe Yonan, the Food editor, that I wanted to combine a global perspective on wine with a sharp focus on the local wine scene. That local scene includes restaurants, retail shops and the local wineries. There are great people making great wines just a short drive from here. Joe and the folks at the Post have been very supportive of me, and my readers have told me they appreciate the local coverage, too.