A modern wine industry that started with a handful of estates in the late 1970s has exploded to nearly 200 wineries covering every corner of the state, including six AVAs. According to the Virginia Wine Board, the state ranks fifth in the country in wine grape production, and produces more than 500,000 cases of wine per year. Clearly Virginia is already a player in the East Coast wine community, but can it go further?
Gianni Zonin, who likes to bill himself as “the biggest winegrower in Italy,” has 11 estates—10 in Italy and one in the U.S., in Barboursville, VA, not far from where that great oenophile Thomas Jefferson cultivated vines. Barboursville’s Octagon is blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc created that the winery produced only in the selected vintages. Dark red color in the glass, a nose of chocolate and blonde tobacco with nuances of eucalyptus. In mouth is silky: licorice and dark plum slip on a soft carpet of tannins. Finale is somewhat bitter; a shame that it is a little bit short. Pleasant with grilled meat.
Author Todd Kliman’s history of the American grape, Norton’s Virginia Seedling, starts off in an almost sultry manner as he teases the reader by veiling his intent. What begins to look like an unhealthy promotion of a single vineyard, Chrysalis, breaks the bonds of being a wine book and launches into the story of an American epic, a battle against nature and God: the stuff of Manifest Destiny as fought by American outsiders.
The heritage of the grapes that make our favorite wines has always been European, but will it remain so? Are there currently legitimate rivals to the vinifera monopoly that has ruled our palates? “Drink American” could be the slogan for the United States’ fairly recent class of vanguard winemakers and vintners declaring that there are.
Can American Vitis species produce wines that compare with those made from vinifera on a global stage? If so, will the wine traditionalists ever accept them? While continued research and experimentation with these varieties will hopefully answer these questions, perhaps an educational introduction will get the ball rolling.
The organizers call it “Cochon 555”—a lovely name, to be sure. But the event could have far more evocative labels, like “Porkstock” or “Pigapalooza” or “Swine Lake.” Okay, that last one I stole from a hilariously famous episode of “The Muppet Show” with ballet star Rudolf Nureyev and a chorus line of dancing…well, you know.