More observations on the Virginia wine industry

Last week I wrote some thoughts about a recent trip to Virginia wine country, focusing on various factors affecting Virginia’s quest to become a recognized wine region. Today I discuss some other observations from the trip.

The Virginia wine industry is doing well

One of the things that surprised me the most on my trip to Virginia is that, despite the poor economy, Virginia wineries are doing extremely well. All of the wineries I spoke with reported a significant increase in sales over the previous year. None of the people I spoke to were feeling any ill effects of the economic downturn.

This contrasts quite sharply with Washington State where, although the industry as a whole is doing quite well, many wineries are struggling, especially those with limited offerings at value price points.

I believe there are a number of reasons why Virginia wineries are thriving at present. Partly, it is due to having a large, wealthy, nearby customer base. Additionally, a number of the wineries do a brisk direct sales business, which is considerably more profitable. There is also a great deal less internal competition compared to Washington (150 wineries versus 650+). Finally, many of the wines I tried were in the magical $25 and under category consumers currently favor.

Virginia wines show a lot of vintage variation

Part of the difficulty of growing grapes in Virginia is climatic variation. Summers are extremely warm and humid. Winters can be quite cold. Additionally, there are a variety of environmental threats to worry about, such as hurricanes, late season rains, etc. What this leads to is a lot of variation from year to year in the wines. This was most apparent during a vertical tasting of Breaux Vineyards Nebbiolo. These wines showed tremendous differences in color, fruit, tannins, and aroma and flavor profile from year to year.

By contrast, Washington’s vintage variation is in a considerably tighter range. This is due to the majority of the state’s vineyards being located in a desert. Despite some variation from year to year, Washington has been able to produce consistently high quality wines with each vintage. Virginia, on the other hand, has some years that are hits and some that are misses. 2007, for example, was an exceptional year in Virginia as it was pretty much everywhere.

The vintage variation in Virginia poses a potential problem for consumers looking for a consistent, reliable product. However, many other wine regions around the world also see a great deal of vintage variation, so it remains to be seen how big of an issue this will be.

Virginia wineries have developed interesting approaches to deal with large tasting room crowds

Several of the wineries I visited had unique approaches for dealing with the large number of visitors they receive. Chrysalis Vineyards, for instance, takes visitors in small groups to tables set up outside the winery. Each group goes to one table where a winery staff member walks the group through the tasting. This allows the winery to take a large number of people and spread them out so that everyone receives individual attention and the experience never seems congested. Breaux Vineyards on the other hand often has a greeter outside of the winery who gives arriving visitors a glass of wine and tells people what to expect in terms of crowds and wait times at the tasting bar.

I thought these were both interesting methods of dealing with large crowd sizes that I haven’t seen any Washington wineries employ. Obviously both require additional staffing and space.

Virginia wines are relatively low in alcohol

Many of the Virginia red wines I sampled had alcohol levels somewhere between 13 and 14.5%. This is in contrast to Washington where many of the red wines are in the high fourteens to mid-fifteens or higher. This is not a stylistic decision but rather is based on Virginia not having the heat units that Washington does to ripen the grapes. Still, it made for interesting stylistic differences in the wines.

Virginia does Cabernet Franc particularly well

While there were a number or varieties I sampled in Virginia that I found intriguing, none were as consistently interesting as Cabernet Franc. Many of these wines had beautiful aromatics that harkened to Bordeaux. This is a wine that I believe Virginia could successfully hang its hat on in the future.

Once again, thanks for joining me on this detour to Virginia. Back to our regularly scheduled Washington wine program.

Sean P. Sullivan


  1. Great blog. Being a native Virginian, I have tasted many Virginia wines. Like you said, with the growing seasons being so radically different, 1 year you may end up with wines that have low alcohol + lovely brisk acidity, and the next (like 2007) you may get drastically more fruit and alcohol, producing a wine that tastes like it came from a different region all together.

    It's for this reason I feel Virginia winemakers are having a tough time establishing what varietals do well here. One year the Sauvignon Blancs have me swearing I never need to pay for a Sancerre again, and the next it isn't even palatable from the same producer (and then I smack myself and go buy that Sancerre anyway). Where as that same vintage, maybe the Cabernet Francs end up delicious. It seems to be a blessing and a curse. There are a lot of wineries making quality (albeit random) '1-hit wonders' and others trying to stick to a specific set of safe grapes. Who is the winner there? I think only time will tell, maybe the growers with large properties and a wide selection of varietals grown. They will be prepped with knowledge of how to grow each and ready to adapt to what works and what is in demand in the long run *shrug*.

    I know WA has a wide variety of growing conditions depending on where you are in the state. Does WA have a solid set of grapes per region that are established now? Or do wineries still experiment like they do in VA? It seems as though VA can look to WA as what the future could look like.

  2. I'm wondering about comparable risk of late Spring frosts - Washington vs Virginia.

    Today's Washington (DC) Business Journal says:

    "A Monday morning frost nipped away at the grape crops of Fabbioli Cellars and Tarara Winery in Leesburg. Doug Fabbioli, owner of Fabbioli Cellars, estimates that 90 percent of his crop was damaged. Tarara Winery estimates that 25 percent of its crop was damaged."

    That particular frost was May 10th. Budbreak here in VA was two weeks early, so the vines should have had a fighting chance. I guess they fought, but some didn't win.

    Leanne Wiberg
    Tasting Room, Doukenie Winery


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