Virginia Wine Brings Its “B” Game (Roasting And Toasting With The Best Of Virginian Wine At Monticello)

Thomas Jefferson had a strong love of wine (and beer), an historical tidbit that seems to have glued itself with more stickiness than an Rutherglen Muscat to our collective national legacy of our third President, right up their with tales of his intelligence, his elegant correspondences, and the fact that he finally checked-out on July 4th – U.S. Independence Day – in his eighties (and up to his eyeballs in debt).

Less well-known is that Jefferson touted Scuppernong as the next big thing in American winemaking, telling Washington Judge William Johnson in 1817 that it “would be distinguished on the best tables of Europe for its fine aroma, and chrystalline [sic] transparence.”

It seems ol’ T.J., in focusing on potential, lacked first president George Washington’s uncanny ability to see things for how they really were (at least when it comes to vino). Because Scuppernong wine is like… well, let’s just say we can poke fun at most Scuppernong because it’s Scuppernong.

Given the beauty of Jefferson’s Monticello estate, which was on full display (along with, less romantically, the oppressive Northern VA heat & humidity combo) at a mass-tasting of Virginian wines held there during the recent 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference, one might forgive T.J. for erring on the side of vinous over-optimism.

Given what I tasted that evening (even despite the mile-wide-inch-deep approach that is the bane of any grand tasting), the Virginia wine industry might be forgiven the odd bout of over-optimism as well, because the winemaking situation there is clearly on the right track, if not quite yet delivering fully on its promise as the next big thing in American wine.

Ahh, T.J…. you were only off by about 194 years! But you were a total Mac Daddy with the WBC11 ladies (see inset pic for photographic proof), so maybe we shouldn’t hold it against you.

Anyway… let’s talk about what went well in Virginia, vinously-speaking, of course!…

Interestingly, Cabernet Franc, once the darling of the VA wine scene, seemed to be relegated to well-below-the-radar status during the conference.  Which is a shame, because the CFs I tasted showed promise in a New-World-Meets-Old-World melding of European spiciness and Left Coast fruitiness (VA Wine Works even makes a bag-in-the-box version, which I thought would make for great yank-it-out-of-the-cooler, outdoor-Summer-concert-fare; also, I just wanted to write outdoor-Summer-concert-fare in an attempt to set some sort of record for hyphenated phrases in this paragraph).

In its place, Viognier has taken the spotlight, and with good reason: VA is clearly capable of churning out fantastic Viogniers, which run the stylistic gamut from lively, lime-filled, refreshingly-untouched-by-oak quaffers to honeyed, floral, elegant beauties with real heft and complexity.  The VA wine folks enjoy playing up the “halfway between Europe and California” geographical angle on these wines, but I’d love to taste more CA Viogniers with half the lively acidic lift of their Virginian counterparts.

For sure I tasted some terrible wines in Virginia, some of which might have dampened even T.J.’s enthusiasm; and none of the wines I got around to tasting reached the “excellent/A-range” mark in my mind.  I hope you’ll forgive me for speaking in ratings systems, but I think it gets the point across here – VA wines haven’t quite yet arrived when it comes to considering them among the best in the world.  But I wouldn’t bet against the VA wine industry in the long term – they have drive, passion, know-how and enough determination to fill every harbor on their border.

Our mass-tasting was marred by the cruelly hot weather, and so it was only possible to comment critically on the wines I could focus on early in the event, and of those only the wines that had been chilled properly. After about 45 minutes, the weather killed most of the true taste of the wines, along with much of our tasting enthusiasm, though we still managed to have fun (as a manner of proof, see inset of a pic of Jancis Robinson hamming it up with T.J. below… though I suspect it might cost me her friendship… just kidding… I hope…).

As always, there were a handful of standouts worth recommending – and one of them (the star of the excellent book The Wild Vine) might even come as a surprise…

2010 Chrysalis Vineyards Viognier (Virginia)
Price: $29
Rating: B+

A classic Viognier that, unlike Scuppernong, probably could sit proudly on a table full of European counterparts.  Tropical fruits abound, as does honeysuckle flower and a mouthfeel that moves from fleshy to intensely-focused.  It needs time – time to soften the considerable acidity, time to let the honeyed characters come out more.  But it’s seriously yummy now, and is a serious wine at a price that the only-slightly-serious can still afford.

2008 Chrysalis Vineyards Norton Locksley Reserve

Price: $35
Rating: B+

Yes, the love-it-or-hate-it American original made a showing, and Chrysalis’s offering was quite a showing.  Black licorice, cola, earth, vanilla, and a rough tannic backbone… it’s jammy, angular & altogether strange, but with a ragged beauty, like coming to terms with an abstract painting that speaks to something profoundly animal inside of you.  In the wrong hands, Norton can be truly lowly and abysmal – but clearly in this case, it’s firmly in the right hands.

2010 Jefferson Vineyards Viognier (Virginia)
Price: $24
Rating: B

If, like me, you spent hours searching for the ripest honeysuckle flowers to poach the nectar from when you were a kid, then you need to try this tasting offering, which is rich and ripe enough to have made its namesake justifiably proud.  There’s actually a minor panoply of other varieties blended in here, including Chardonnay, Riesling and Petit Manseng, but the result is surprisingly harmonious and it’s the the Viognier florals and tropical fruits that are allowed to shine above the acidic backbone provided by that supporting cast. You friends certainly won’t mind the fact that it just barely makes the 75% labeling requirement to be called Viognier.






  • Thomas Pellechia

    TJ made a similar proclamation concerning Catawba, and for about 75 years afterward, he was proved right about the success of that grape; its nineteenth-century sparkling wines produced in the Midwest and on the East Coast won awards all over Europe. Plus, it was among the first commercial wine successes in Anaheim, California–however briefly that episode lasted.

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow agreed:

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Thom! Not sure he'd approve of the Catawba still wines I've had recently, though…

  • Amy @ VineSleuth

    It was a fun, albeit very hot, night at Monticello! And, as one of the WBC ladies in your photo, I can attest that TJ was a bit of a MacDaddy. :)
    It was great meeting, you, Joe. And I will forever be grateful to you for your perfect advice during the speed-tasting earlier that day. Thanks!

    • 1WineDude

      Amy – indeed! :)

      Was great meeting you!

    • She Sips

      Nice Photo, Amy! I laughed out loud!

  • Thomas Pellechia


    Niagara is even worse…

    • 1WineDude

      Thom – Yeah… a serious case could certainly be made for that…

  • rtaylor0129

    Not my favorite picture, but great write-up :) You pretty much summed up my feelings about the wine and the weekend. Hyphens aside, I agree that VA Wine Works bag-in-the-box "would make for great yank-it-out-of-the-cooler, outdoor-Summer-concert-fare"! Have a great weekend, cheers!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, rt! You too! And for the record, I think most would agree that you are definitely helping to pretty up TJ in that photo!

    • She Sips

      That picture is awesome!

  • She Sips

    Those photos are too funny! Love them!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Sips. :)

  • Carl Helrich

    Thanks for the honesty about " the mile-wide-inch-deep approach that is the bane of any grand tasting". It's tough to get a sense of any region in manner, especially in the brutal heat of this past week. That said, there are some wineries putting out world-class wines in Virginia, good enough to make Bordeaux look over it's collective shoulder and worry about what's gaining on them. They just may not have been at your tasting. But I am glad to see some East coast vinos hit your radar screen again!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Carl. As I'm sure you're aware, these tastings, even when concentrating on a relatively small region, are never in-depth. You don't get to spend much time with any one wine, and you can't go deep on multiple vintages, etc. So it only ever gives a bird's-eye view (with the option, I suppose, of asking questions and getting a little deeper if you get the chance to speak with the winemaker and/or someone knowledgeable about the vino – as was the lucky case for me with Chrysalis that weekend, for example). Cheers!

  • mark

    A fair assessment of Virginia's accomplishments so far, and potential, based on an admitted limited sampling. Ask someone about "Best of Virginia" event in 2006, and why don't they do another.

    • 1WineDude

      Hi Mark – I know that there will be a Governor's Cup event coming up very soon for VA wine wines, but not sure about the Best of VA events.

  • Evan Dawson

    Joe – I agree that the general setup of the grand tastings is sub-optimal. Being a story geek who desires to spend time with the producer of the wine, delve into process and place and approach, the grand tastings don't go very far. But of course, we organize several during TastseCamps because we're hoping to offer some level of accessibility. I take your comment more as a "sigh, can't live with them, can't live without them…"

    But do you think there's a better way? I'd love to think there is.

    • 1WineDude

      Hey Evan – I'm not sure there's a better way. The big tasting let's you get the cut across, and producer visits let you get a deeper but very narrow view. I don't think the two can be melded successfully, unless you sit at one of the tables with a winemaker at a big tasting and monopolize their time, which isn't fair to them or anybody else! :)

      I'm looking forward to getting back to TC next year – whether in-depth visits, big tastings, or both!

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