August 1, 2014

Look for the Virginia Label (just not quite yet)

by: Frank Morgan
photography by: Molly McDonald Peterson

 

That bottle of wine in your hands proudly proclaiming its local provenance may not be quite what it seems. It is, perhaps, the dirty little secret of winemaking.

Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control rules allow “Virginia wine” to contain up to 25 percent juice from grapes grown outside of Virginia. Virginia’s rules reflect federal regulations, which allow wine nationwide that is labeled with a specific appellation of origin to be made with just 75 percent of its fruit grown in the area indicated.  Regulations also require any wine labeled with a specific American Viticultural Area (AVA) be made from at least 85 percent of grapes grown within that specific AVA.

A loosely organized group of Virginia winemakers is hoping to change that.  “There’s no doubt non-Virginia grapes are used in Virginia wine, and when that is the case the labels should say it,” said Bill Tonkins, president of the Virginia Vineyards Association.

There are a number of reasons a winery may use out–of–state grapes or juice: to augment temporary production shortages associated with mildew or pest damage to a vineyard that significantly limited crop yields; the lower cost of bulk juice from regions with excess capacity; fruit shortages due to extreme weather, as in 2003 when Hurricane Isabel wreaked havoc across the state and devastated many vineyards; and finally the more sobering reason of a winery simply having poor quality fruit.

It is difficult to say how widespread the use of out-of-state grapes or juice is. The practice is frowned upon, and few, if any, will admit to it.   “It’s a thing hanging out there that no one seems able to dispel,” said Anne Heidig, the president of the Virginia Wineries Association, about the use of out-of-state grapes in Virginia wines. “We really don’t have any data.”  For winemakers opposed to the practice, it’s a matter of labeling honesty and fairness.

“We use 100 percent Virginia grown grapes, 100 percent of the time.  My personal opinion is that, while legal, using out of state fruit (particularly California) or juice (including concentrate)  is a form of cheating the consumer by producing/selling/serving a product that is something less than 100 percent authentic,” said Jim Dolphin, the owner and winemaker at Delaplane Cellars. “Maybe if labeling laws were stricter in terms of disclosing fruit sources I might feel differently, but under current regulation, we can label wine as ‘Virginia’ if at least 75 percent of the grapes are from the state.  That means that wines with 24.9 percent out-of-state fruit can be labeled as being from Virginia. That just doesn’t work for me.”

Virginia vintners face a challenging mix of geography, soil, and weather. Thomas Jefferson spent decades trying to establish flourishing vineyards at Monticello. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, guided the fledgling country’s first foreign policy, and became the third president of the United States. But Thomas Jefferson couldn’t grow European wine grapes to save his life.  Nevertheless, he remained optimistic, writing in 1808: “We could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.”

He was a better prophet than vintner: 237 years after Jefferson planted his first vines, Virginia is now home to nearly 200 wineries, six American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), and is the sixth largest wine producing state in the United States, according to the Virginia Wine Board. State wines win awards worldwide.  “We are proving year to year here in Virginia that the wineries that are dedicated to the vineyards and vigilant in the winemaking process can indeed make world–class wines without the influence from out–of–state producers,” said Stephanie Wright of Lovingston Winery.

The practice slows Virginia’s ability to establish its true terroir, the French winemaking term for the special qualities a particular place – the sun, soil, and topography — bestows upon its wine.  Jordan Harris, winemaker at Tarara Winery in Loudoun County, said “out–of–state fruit cheats the winery, the local wine industry, and the consumer.”

Winemakers have equally strong opinions about wines made with out–of–state fruit being included in Virginia wine contests.   “In order to compete in a Virginia wine competition a wine should certainly be 100 percent Virginia grown,” said Jake Bushing, winemaker at Grace Estates at Mount Juliet Farm in Crozet, Va.

Even Virginia’s Governor’s Cup wine competition doesn’t require 100 percent Virginia grapes. The current standard is 95 percent, though a committee is reviewing adopting the 100 percent standard next year, according to an official associated with the annual competition.  “It is ironic that there should be anything other than Virginia grapes,” said Tonkins.

California has established specific regulations requiring all wines bearing the name of certain regions – like the Central Coast – to be made entirely from grapes grown within that region.  “If Virginia wineries want to use out of state fruit then they should label accordingly,” said Kirsty Harmon, winemaker at Blenheim Vineyards.

Perhaps one day soon Virginia will follow.  Until then, The Commonwealth Quality Alliance and the Virginia Wineries Association are considering creating a special seal that will only be bestowed upon wines that meet a standard of excellence — including the sole use of Virginia-grown grapes and no concentrates.

 

Frank Morgan works in the aerospace industry by day, and writes about wine all other times. His musings on wine are featured on this blog ‘Drink What You Like.’  Frank lives with his growing family in Chesapeake, Va.

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Comments

  1. Rick Tagg says:

    I could not agree more with the sentiment of this article, particularly Jim and Jordans’ references to “cheating”. Growers in other parts of the world have been making wine under less than perfect conditions for far longer than we have without options such as concentrates and out of state fruit. It is time to rise up and accept the challenges of growing grapes and making wine in Virginia. Or at least have the decency to label it accurately. It goes completely to our being able to be taken seriously as a wine producing region.
    And I find it funny that people in Virginia leave out the rest of Mr Jefferson’s quote “Yet I have ever observed to my countrymen, who think its introduction important,that a laborer cultivating wheat,rice tobacco or cotton here, will be able with the proceeds, to purchase double the quantity of wine he could make.”

  2. Frank Morgan says:

    Rick: As the author of this article, I appreciate your thoughts on this subject and wish more in the industry would openly speak out against the use of out-of-state grapes, juice and concentrates. I personally do not feel I have the right to dictate how wine is made – especially since I have no capital invested in that winery and don’t know what it’s like to have an entire year of work hinging on Mother Nature – however, as an avid consumer, I feel there should be absolute ‘truth in labeling.’ Perhaps the labeling requirement is forthcoming… Cheers! Frank

  3. Diane Flynt says:

    Frank,
    Kudos to you for taking on a complex and sensitive subject and to Flavors magazine for supporting your research and writing. Encouraging more clear labeling and use of 100% fruit in state competitions also encourages wine grape growing in-state, a valuable contribution to our local agriculture picture. While it’s true that terroir knows no state boundaries (our apples perform more like western NC than the VA central valley, for example) it’s also true that there is a significant gap between the acres of grapes planted in VA and the number of cases of wine produced in VA. I’m happy to say that the growing number of hard cider makers in VA is encouraging at least two apple growers to plant hard-to-find cider apples. For me, your piece is as much about agriculture as it is about wine.

  4. Bob says:

    Frank, couldn’t agree more with the general sentiment expressed in the article. I’m sure you could make very good wine by blending some Virginia Cab Franc with California Merlot or Cab Sauv, but while it might be very good, it wouldn’t be Virginia wine. It’s fine with me if wineries source grapes or juice from anywhere in the world, just tell me where they’re from. Or don’t even tell me that: just tell me that the wine is not made solely from Virginia grapes. If it’s good, I might still buy it. But I wouldn’t tell my friends about this great little Virginia wine I’m serving.

    • Brian Roeder says:

      Bob- Many of us are making outstanding wines without blending with CA sourced concentrates, grapes, or wines. 100% of the wines made at Barrel Oak are 100% Virginian and we track all inputs to verify this.

  5. Brian Roeder says:

    Nice piece and timely. As the immediate past chair of the VWA Governor’s Cup committee, I aboslute agree that the 100% VA fruit requirement was critical to establishing our industry’s credibility. Now that it is a part of the new GC competition, it is my hope that we will see increasing respect for the efforts of our best wine makers. Some will continue to use out of state sources – as is their right. But such wines should not be promoted as Virginia. The 2011 harvest is the best reason for this. Many of us are making 100% Virginia sourced wines in spite of very difficult growing conditions. We know that the quality will in some instances be less that the past 4 outstanding harvest years. And right up the road there may be another winery using out of state fruit or concentrates. The consumer will not know the difference and will buy based upon pleasure with the product. It is easy to make pleasant wine – it is harder to make the best wine that one can regardless of the fruit growing conditions. I hope that the revised Governor’s Cup will help immensely to sort out this issue .

Trackbacks

  1. [...] at your local bookstore, boutique wine shop, grocery store or newsstand.  Or, the article can be read online (for a limited time, I [...]

  2. [...] Frank Morgan, who blogs at DrinkWhatYouLike.com, recently explored this issue in an article in Flavor magazine. Flavor is itself a treasure, devoted to the food and wine of the Chesapeake [...]

  3. [...] grown grapes is the single most significant improvement to the Governor’s Cup.  Having just wrote a piece in Flavor Magazine last month on this very subject, the use of ’100% Virginia fruit‘ in [...]

  4. [...] labeling law, a wine must contain a minimum of 75% Virginia fruit to be labeled a Virginia wine. You can read more detail on label law here. As we went through bottle after bottle, checking labels, we found only two labeled as Virginia [...]

  5. [...] its own identity as a wine region. This issue was recently spelled out nicely by Frank Morgan in Flavor [...]

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