The Wines Of Virginia, Revisited

by Don Clemens

In a previous article, I began to comment on some of the wineries and the wines being made today in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The deeper that I dug into the subject, the more that I realized how little I knew, or had read about, the amazing number of wineries, cideries and distilleries that had popped up in this region of the United States. All told, these generally small producers were making a huge range of beverages. Most of the wineries are of the smaller “Mom and Pop” scale, producing wines as almost a sideline to their apparent primary business: hosting and catering special occasions such as weddings, anniversaries, and other significant events. The concept of “economies of scale” enters the picture here. Because so many of the vineyard holdings are quite small, by West Coast standards, they cannot produce enough wine to enter national distribution. In fact, many are so small that they can barely enter Virginia distribution. But – there are enough wineries who produce at a scale large enough to allow significant “Direct to Consumer” sales, a sort of “Wine Cellar Door to Your Door” operation.

The 3-Tier Distribution System

So, what does the little guy do?

In the United States, we have a long history of taxing alcoholic beverages. We can look all the way back to the George Washington Administration and “The Whiskey Rebellion”. The Whiskey Rebellion, (which occurred in 1794), was an uprising that afforded the new U.S. government its first opportunity to establish federal authority by military means within state boundaries, as officials moved into western Pennsylvania to quell an uprising of settlers rebelling against a federal liquor tax. In case you were wondering, the government prevailed...
It didn’t take long for the states to recognize that this taxation idea could be something useful to their fiscal needs, as well. Today, we have a hodgepodge of federal, state and local alcoholic beverage taxation schemes, some of which are relatively painless and some of which might be viewed as onerous. For a small winery producing a limited amount of wine, the decision to “go national” is loaded with caution signs. Virtually every state requires that any producer of alcoholic beverages desiring to sell their wares within that state must register with that state, requiring a registration fee. Some states, for example Nebraska and Oklahoma, have hefty registration fees ($1000 and $3250, respectively). And the winery has to sell its product to a registered distributor within the state where they want to reach their potential customers. Also, for a very long time, wineries were not allowed to ship directly to consumers, a vestige of the states asserting their rights under a peculiar reading of the powers given to them under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution after the Repeal of Prohibition of Alcoholic Beverages under the 21sth Amendment. In fact, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Alabama still do not allow “Direct to Consumer” sales. Four other states, Arkansas, Delaware, Mississippi and Rhode Island only allow wineries to ship to a consumer if that consumer was physically at the winery and purchased the wine on that winery’s premises. This design, (1.) the winery or importer sells to (2.) the wholesale distributor, who sells to (3.) the retailer or restaurant, is the basic model of the 3-tier distribution system.

In Virginia, there are more than 300 registered wineries, and most of them have less than 50 acres of vineyards under their ownership or management. It was clear that many of these wineries needed to find a solution to generating sales beyond their tasting rooms. While most of them have created a wonderful environment for visitors, often including such wine sales drivers as on-site restaurant amenities and even bed and breakfast hospitality, these sales opportunities would not be sufficient to offload all the wines that might be produced by the winery.
Not all of you, dear readers, know that the world of wholesale wine distribution has become a battleground for small wineries. Once upon a time, there were multiples of businesses who sold wines from many small, medium and large wineries. Over the last few decades, there has been a major consolidation of these businesses. Most of the brands that you might be familiar with are being sold by two or three huge wholesale distributors. It was inevitable that the focus of these distributors would be on the brands that have sufficient national presence to drive volume sales and the economic wherewithal to incentivize salespeople to push a particular wine or chain retail customers to promote a particular wine. This “reality”, coupled with the absolute explosive emergence of small wineries all over the United States, makes for some very difficult barriers to finding sales opportunities for those wineries that are outside the interest of the wholesale giants.

So, back to Virginia

Among the many highlights of the world of Virginia wines is the realization that
“terroir matters”. Grapes that do extremely well in, say, the Pacific Northwest can
really struggle in other parts of the country. Cabernet Franc, Tannat, Petite
Verdot and Petit Manseng have all emerged as very interesting, if not wonderful,
grape varieties being grown in Virginia. Of course, there is Cabernet Sauvignon,
Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay being grown there as well; consumers rather
expect them to be available. But – when you get the opportunity to taste what is
being produced in Virginia, I suggest that you need to have an open mind.       
One winery that has gained my interest lately is Early Mountain Vineyards, at the
foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Madison, Virginia. Established by Joan
and Steve Case, the founders of AOL.com, this winery’s business model is a
prime example of a small winery with a big vision.

Currently, Early Mountain Vineyards wines are only available in 17 states, which
is significantly more than most Virginia wineries. The winery is a perennial winner
of Gold Medals in the annual Governor’s Cup competition. I have had the good
fortune to taste several of Early Mountain’s winning wines and can understand
why they have fared so well. Two of the Gold Medalist wines that I had the joy of
tasting were the Tannat and the Petit Manseng.  I’ve had Tannat from several
places in the world, particularly France and Uruguay; my only exposure to Petit
Manseng previously had been from the Jurançon region of France. I can honestly
say that Early Mountain’s versions give them all a serious run for the money.

As I mentioned earlier, this is one of those wineries that is the complete travel
destination: wine, food and overnight accommodations are all available.  I was
surprised to see just how complete the package is. Wine tastings are obviously
available. Lodgings are not all that surprising these days. European wineries
have been offering similar concepts for many years (for example, “Agriturismo” in
Italy’s wine regions is well established). But to also offer a full-service restaurant?
That was a bit of a surprise.

Well worth planning future adventures.

There are so many winery destinations in the gorgeous countryside outside of Richmond and Charlottesville, where hospitality, wine and food are waiting for your visit. I’m certainly looking forward to expanding my travels outside of the urban centers and out into the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley, where so many hidden vinous treasures abound.

Early Mountain Quaker Run Vineyard_edited.jpg
Early Mountain Quaker Run Vineyard_edited.jpg

In my past, I have had the pleasure of dining at The Inn at Little Washington (in
Washington, VA) on a couple of occasions. A Michelin “3-Star recipient, it’s
understandable that the food, wine and service there were outstanding. To find
that Tim Moore, the Executive Chef at Early Mountain Vineyards’ restaurant (part
of the tasting room) studied under their chef for a couple of years was a happy
surprise. As the website notes: “We believe the best of Virginia wine is
complemented by the best food the region has to offer. Our tasting room serves
a full restaurant menu crafted from seasonal produce from local farms where you
can enjoy a leisurely meal with stunning views of the Blue Ridge foothills.” If the
wine doesn’t tempt you, the food certainly should!
But, back to the wines!
The Petit Manseng is just such a wonderful experience to taste. It was
surprisingly intense and firmly structured. Rich, with deeply fruity notes of mango
and ripe peach, it’s a real mouth-filler. I’m still impressed with its power and
length. I can hardly wait to taste it again. The Tannat was a full- on BIG red wine.
The tasting notes have it: “The aromas are wild, heady and full of ripe, dark fruit.
On the palate,  the flavors are driven by ripe blackberry, strawberry confit, and
toasted sage. The wine is rich and powerful but with supple, broad tannins
building out the mid-palate and elongating the finish.”