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.