Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Virginia to participate in a Social Media for Wineries workshop and to attend a conference. I came to the area knowing relatively little about Virginia as a wine region and having never tried a Virginian wine. I came away impressed.

Winemaking in Virginia dates back at least four hundred years to the early days of colonization. Famously, Thomas Jefferson devoted a great deal of time trying to grow wine grapes in the area. His attempts were ultimately unsuccessful. Later attempts to grow grapes and make wine from Native American varieties, as opposed to French, had greater success.

Virginia’s recent winemaking history dates back less than forty years. Some of the most produced grapes in Virginia include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, and Cabernet Franc. The commonwealth currently has six American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) and more than one hundred and fifty wineries. Many wineries were started in the last five to ten years. By comparison, Washington State has eleven AVAs and more than six hundred and fifty wineries.

Despite the recent increase in the number of wineries, Virginia toils in relative obscurity. If Washington wine lovers often dismay that people don’t know about the state’s wines, people really don’t know about Virginia wines.

However, I believe Virginia has a number of things going for it in its quest to become a recognized wine region – as well as a number of barriers to climb. Below are some thoughts on both based on my short visit.

Virginia is making some good wine.

I was impressed by some of the wines I had from Virginia. Cabernet Franc in particular appears to do quite well there. A number of these wines had beautiful aromatics that called out to Bordeaux. While some people might find the wines a bit lean, I found some of them to be wonderfully nuanced and well balanced. Viognier and Petit Verdot were other grapes people expressed a good deal of excitement about, and indeed, some of the wines I sampled backed this up.

On the downside, Virginia also makes some not-so-good wine. The wines poured at the conference were, I was told by many, the cream of the crop. Even in this group, some of the wines I tried were not particularly impressive. As in any new area, every bottle of bad wine hurts every winery until the state reaches a tipping point where the good bottles outnumber the not-so-good bottles. However, showing that good wine can be made is the right start.

There is a lot of focus on vinifera and non-vinifera varieties in Virginia that few have laid claim to elsewhere.

While Virginia has a fair share of Merlot, Cabernet, and Chardonnay, there is a good deal of focus on grapes that are not particularly well established elsewhere in the U.S. This includes a number of vitis vinifera varieties, such as Cabernet Franc, as well as non-vinifera varieties, such as Norton (a new book on Norton called “The Wild Vine” was released today for those interested in the grape).

Less common wines I sampled over the course of the weekend included varietal bottlings of Norton, Cabernet Franc, Viognier, Petit Verdot, Seyval Blanc, Petit Manseng, Nebbiolo, Vidal Blanc, Tannat, and Albariño. A number of other varieties are grown in Virginia as well.

The main reason for experimenting with so many different grapes, some of which are quite uncommon, is climate. Some people believe Cabernet Sauvignon does not grow particularly well in Virginia. Some dispute this, and indeed I had some good Cabernet. Additionally, some believe the French varieties are already ‘taken’ by other areas and that Virginia will not be able to successfully compete with these areas. As Chrysalis Vineyards winemaker Jenni McCloud said, “I would rather have the world’s best Norton than the four hundredth best Merlot.”

I see this as very smart. Finding and focusing on the varieties that thrive in Virginia as opposed to trying to force Cabernet to grow there is a recipe for long-term success. Additionally, focusing on varieties that are not particularly well known in the U.S. (and in some cases elsewhere) provides Virginia with a unique opportunity to brand itself with one or more of these wines – assuming they can do it well and get consumer attention.

While the breadth of grapes planted in Virginia is exciting, the area will need at some point to coalesce around a subset of these grapes to focus on and brand the area with if it is to be successful. This can take an extremely long time. It also requires a great deal of consumer education initially as well as many of these varieties are not on people’s radar screens.

Virginia has a large, nearby, wealthy customer base

Washington, D.C. is a short distance from the northern part of Virginia wine country, making for easy day trips. During the summer season especially, I am told the wineries are teeming with visitors. For this reason, many wineries sell mainly through their tasting rooms.

On the downside, it is possible this large amount of direct sales will put inadequate pressure on the wineries to continually improve and produce higher and higher quality wines. Additionally, many of the wineries in the state are small with limited to no distribution inside or outside of the state. This will present a significant challenge if the area is to receive wider recognition.

Virginia has active traditional media support

David McIntyre writes for the Washington Post (he also writes a blog called Dave McIntyre’s WineLine) and does an excellent job covering the area. Additionally, there are a number of local newspapers and magazines, such as C-VILLE (Charlottesville News and Arts) and Flavor Magazine who cover the area as well. If Virginia doesn’t establish itself as a wine region, it won’t be because the locals don’t know wine is made there.

Still, if Virginia is looking to make a wider impact, it will need support from national publications as well. Getting out of Wine Spectator’s ‘Other US’ category is a necessary start. A cursory search on Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast for reviews of Virginia wine in the last twelve months produced few results.

Virginia has an active group of wine bloggers

Virginia has a dedicated group of wine bloggers who write about the area. Most prominently among this group is Dezel Quillen at Other Virginia wine blogs include Swirl, Sip, Snark, Virginia Wine Time, Richard Leahy’s Wine Report, Cellar Blog, and Wine Compass Blog. Bloggers from surrounding states also devote space to Virginia’s wines. This group can play a significant role in raising awareness of Virginian wine. However, the impact will be somewhat limited if consumers can’t find Virginia wines even if they are interested in them.

Virginia has an enthusiastic group of evangelists

I was quite impressed by the passion of many of the people I spoke with about Virginian wine. These people are passionate and excited. Equally impressive is that these same people are also very honest and frank. While people effused about some of the wines being made, they were frank that there are wines being made in the state that are not very good. These lower quality wines obviously pose a threat to Virginia receiving recognition as a significant wine region. However, the first step to solving any problem is knowing you have one, and these people know it.

Virginia wines are generally fairly well priced

Many of the wines I sampled were in the magical $25 and under price category. I had some very good wines between $14-$17. For this reason, consumers in the area are not currently being priced out by boutique winery prices in the midst of an economic recession. Indeed, the wineries I talked to were doing extremely well despite the poor economy.

However, much of the wine being made does not receive much distribution as mentioned above. Part of this is because most of the wine is made in relatively small quantities. Part of it is because many of the wineries are selling almost all of their wine directly from their tasting room, so they don’t need to distribute. To have a larger impact, Virginia needs to get its wines into people’s hands.

Ultimately, I came away from the trip excited about the possibilities for Virginia wine and convinced that it will develop into a recognized wine region. I have no idea how long it’s going to take – perhaps a long time – or what direction it’s going to go, but I do believe it’s going to get there.

In a future post, I will give thoughts on other things that stood out from the trip. Until then, back to our regularly scheduled Washington wine program.