Flavor invited some of the Capital foodshed’s most influential sommeliers over for a drink to see which Virginia wines would impress them.
By Bill Plante • Photographs by Molly McDonald Peterson
People have been making wine in Virginia since the 17th century. So why don’t diners see more Virginia wines on restaurant lists in and around the nation’s capital?
Flavor publisher Melissa Harris hears this very question from both consumers and winemakers. “We convened this tasting panel,” she explains, “because we wanted to expose some of the area’s top sommeliers to what we believe are wines that would pair well with high-end food.” (For more from Harris, see page 10.)
Harris asked more than 20 Virginia winegrowers to send samples of their work—the best red and white wines for pairing with food—and then invited a panel of sommeliers to taste and evaluate the 63 wines that were submitted.
Five of the Capital foodshed’s most popular sommeliers made up the tasting panel: Derek Brown of The Passenger (D.C.), Scott Calvert of The Inn at Little Washington (Washington, Virginia), Gina Chersevani of PS 7’s (D.C.), Andy Myers of CityZen at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (D.C.), and Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve (Alexandria, Virginia).
The tasting took place on a Monday morning in the spacious country kitchen in the Georgetown home of Beverly and John Fox Sullivan. Dozens of red wine bottles, sheathed in brown paper bags to completely obscure their labels, stood at attention on the sideboard. Dozens of whites waited in cartons out in the chilly garden.
Ten volunteer servers ringed the large round table in the Sullivans’ kitchen, pouring wines, changing stemware, and refilling glasses of water and plates of crackers to help clear the panel’s taste buds.
Blinded by the Flight
Sound like fun? Sure! But remember, this was a tasting. Swirl, smell, sip, savor, and spit 63 times while keeping it all straight in your notes. From start to finish, the tasting took four hours.
Each wine was given a number that identified its flight and glass. For example, “WB3” was a white wine in the third glass of the second flight. Several hundred white and red wine glasses were brought in from a catering company and tagged with these same codes. Then the panel was given forms with these same codes for recording their tasting notes. The results were not revealed to anyone—until now.
Sauvignon Blanc & Pinot Grigio
The tasting began with five wines made from Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio grapes. It was an auspicious beginning.
The clear winner was the Veritas 2008 Sauvignon Blanc. “Excellent fruit,” noted Calvert, adding “great acid in the middle and follows into the finish.” Thrasher noted “honey on the nose” and “mouth-filling.” There was a tie for second: The Glen Manor 2008 Sauvignon Blanc garnered “grapefruit, medium-dry” in Chersevani’s notes and “light regal characteristics” in Brown’s. Thrasher’s notes on the 2008 Barboursville Pinot Grigio included “orange blossom, dry, good acidity,” and Brown described it as “clean, tart, grassy.”
Chardonnay, the next flight, spurred a debate around the table. (Should it be grown in Virginia’s hot, humid climate?) No consensus was reached on a clear winner, but four were highly praised. Brown liked the “lemon curd, cut apples” and oaky finish of the panel’s favorite, the Gadino 2007. According to Thrasher, the King Family 2008 was “rich in the nose,” which Calvert also said was “very lush and soft in back.”
Brown liked the Tarara 2008, too, describing it as “spicy and woody.” Calvert praised the Linden 2007, which tasted of apple, “a bit of cinnamon, a bit of mineral, too.”
Viognier, the perfumed white grape of the Rhône Valley, was almost extinct a half-century ago. But it has since made a comeback, and it seems to do very well in Virginia. The panel sampled 13 different Viogniers and found some too high in alcohol, overripe, or funky on the nose. But Viognier’s unmistakable tropical-fruit, peach, and apricot lushness brightened many of the other samples.
With no wine clearly in the top spot, Chersevani noted the “stone fruit” of the Rappahannock 2008 Noblesse, Brown noted the “floral characteristics” of the DelFosse 2007, Calvert noted the “peach” and “wood spice” of the Chester Gap 2008 Boisseau, and Thrasher noted the “sweet finish” of the Sugarleaf 2008.
Two hours in, the tasters and their tired palates took a much-needed break for a buffet lunch. Then they went back to work on three flights of red wines.
First up was Cabernet Franc, generally regarded as Virginia’s most successful red grape. In Bordeaux, it’s generally blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. But in the Loire, Cab Franc shows off as a lighter-weight wine with delicious dark fruit, the same result it can produce in Virginia.
The crowd pleasers: the Rappahannock Cellars 2007, “light spice . . . medium bodied, quite tasty” (Brown); the Sunset Hills 2007 Reserve, “sweet blackberries, sage—a mouthful” (Chersevani); and the Veritas 2008, “ruby red, spicy, and sweet on the palate” (Thrasher).
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Petit Verdot
In the next group, we tasted three classic red grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, another Bordeaux blending grape particularly suited to the Virginia climate.
The Sugarleaf 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon edged out the other wines in this flight. Brown found it full of “black cherry juice” and “juicy on the palate.” Three more wines were close behind: Calvert remarked that the Gadino 2007 Petit Verdot was full of “spice, cardamom, clove” and that its palate “is sweet cassis.” The finish of the Chester Gap 2007 Merlot was “long-lasting [with] a bit of violet” in Thrasher’s notes. Brown tasted “cinnamon, vanilla, cherry, plum,” and a “peppery finish” in the Rausse 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon.
By this flight, the winter sun had begun to abandon the garden beyond the kitchen, but the tasters’ perseverance was rewarded by the final flight of 15 Meritage wines. The term Meritage was coined by the California wine industry for wines blended in the Bordeaux style, using traditional Bordeaux grape varieties.
The Boxwood Winery 2007 Boxwood bottling won praise from Chersevani, who wrote simply, “Green peppercorns, wood. I like it.” (This was a leap beyond the usual wine descriptors.) Brown called it “full-bodied, luscious.” Chersevani also praised the Linden 2006 Hardscrabble Red, writing, “Cherry, tobacco. I like it.” Myers and Thrasher preferred this one as well. Thrasher described it as “woody and cedar notes, sweet in the mouth.” Thrasher also lauded the Delaplane 2007 Left Bank: “Comes together nicely.”
The Road Ahead
It’s important to note that over these four hours of intense focus and concentration, the tasting panel frequently disagreed. Take their comments as a guide, but trust your own palate. The more you taste, the more tuned in you’ll be to the nuances in the glass.
Our professionals all agreed that Virginia isn’t the easiest place to grow grapes and make wine. As Myers put it, “Jefferson gave up [on growing vines] a long time ago, and he was a very smart dude!”
But they also agreed that the Virginia wine industry, while still in its infancy, has made tremendous strides in recent years as growers figure out which varietals do best on which parcels of land. And these sommeliers expect Virginia wine to continue improving.
Harris, Flavor’s publisher, points out that some restaurants are fond of Virginia wines but find them too expensive. “Most wineries in this region are small, so they find it difficult to match the price of other wines on the restaurants’ lists.”
As diners committed to local food begin to request local wine, the industry will see increased sales in the district, says Harris. “People will pay more for a meal made with sustainably raised local ingredients. Our hope is that they do the same for locally made wine.”
Journalist Bill Plante is CBS’s senior White House correspondent. A 30-year resident of D.C., he is also a well-known wine aficionado.
The Tasting Panel
Derek Brown is a wine and spirits professional who has become a leading voice in the new cocktail renaissance. His latest project is a cocktail club and laboratory called the Columbia Room, inside his D.C. bar, The Passenger.
Having gained national recognition for her cocktail creations at D.C.’s Rasika and Arlington’s EatBar, Gina Chersevani is now the master mixologist behind the bar at D.C.’s PS 7’s.
Scott Calvert, former president of Tastevin, Inc., a consulting and wine wholesale firm in New York City, currently serves as the wine director for the world-famous Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia.
After a four-year stint as the assistant sommelier, caviste, and captain at the Inn at Little Washington, Andy Myers became the head sommelier for CityZen, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in D.C., in 2006.
Mix master Todd Thrasher currently serves as the general manager, sommelier, and liquid savant for Restaurant Eve. He is also a partner in PX in Alexandria, Virginia.
Sauvignon Blanc & Pinot Grigio
Veritas 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, $18.00
Glen Manor 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, $22.00
Barboursville 2008 Pinot Grigio, $14.99
Gadino 2007 Chardonnay, $20.00
King Family 2008 Chardonnay, $19.95
Tarara 2008 Chardonnay, $30.00
Linden 2007 Chardonnay, $28.00
Rappahannock 2008 Noblesse Viognier, $17.50
DelFosse 2007 Viognier, $25.00
Chester Gap 2008 Boisseau Viognier, $19.00
Sugarleaf 2008 Viognier, $27.00
Rappahannock Cellars 2007 Cabernet Franc, $24.00
Sunset Hills 2007 Cabernet Franc Reserve, $40.00
Veritas 2008 Cabernet Franc, $18.00
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Petit Verdot
Sugarleaf 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, $30.00
Gadino 2007 Petit Verdot, $27.00
Chester Gap 2007 Merlot, $19.00
Rausse 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, not yet released
Meritage (Bordeaux Blends)
Boxwood Winery 2007 Boxwood, $25.00
Linden 2006 Hardscrabble Red, $39.00
Delaplane 2007 Left Bank, $28.00