America’s Next Great Grapes
California earned its place on the world wine stage at the Judgment of Paris in 1976 when, in a blind tasting, French judges selected both a Californian white and a red over wines from their country. Not only was this a major hit to the French psyche, it also signaled to the world that Americans could make great wine.
In the nearly four decades since, wines from other states have garnered medals at major competitions and praise from wine critics. Washington syrah, Oregon pinot noir and New York riesling are generally recognized as world-class varietals. The U.S. is now the fourth-leading wine-producing country in the world, behind France, Italy and Spain. California is still top dog—making 89 percent of the wine produced in the United States—but states from Texas to Ohio are increasing production. All 50 states now have commercial wineries. Like the craft brewing movement, local wine is now easier to find in the United States than at any time since Prohibition.
Like beer, not all wine is created equal. And certain regions get known for quality, raising the expectations for all producers. So where is America’s next great wine region? The answer just might be in the Mid-Atlantic, where 16th-century explorers discovered wild native grapes and the principal framer of the Declaration of Independence experimented with planting European vinifera grapes.
Unlike beer, where ingredients harvested in far-off lands can be brewed into something with a local sense of flavor and place, most wine is produced adjacent to the vineyards. Wine is an agrarian beverage. Many new winemakers were once farmers who grew grapes for other wineries. Some are on land that once produced tobacco or was grazing land for dairy cattle. Sure, some wineries buy grapes and juice from hundreds of miles away, but in most cases the local soil and climate determine which grapes grow best. There is a reason that Bordeaux makes big reds and Germany is known for crisp whites.
Viticulture, the science of growing grapes, can be traced back 7,000 years. Most vineyards will tell you that the best wines come from “old vines.” It takes most varieties about five years from planting to produce a reasonable crop. Winemakers can start to get the sense of how the grapes are reacting to the soil, rain levels and degree-days. Some will suggest the true test of wine quality comes when vines reach 20-25 years old. There are now about 250 wineries in Virginia and 125 in North Carolina. Originally known for sweet muscadine and scuppernong wines, these states started slowly transforming in the eyes of the wine world started about 30 years ago. The transformation has picked up pace in recent years.
“Virginia has been producing wine since Jamestown, and Thomas Jefferson had vines at Monticello,” said Jonathan Wehner, who owns Chatham Vineyards with his wife, Mills, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. “An advantage Virginia has is we have tremendous diversity when it comes to growing conditions. We have higher elevations for making wines like pinot noir, and we can make Bordeaux-style wines along the coast.”
Wehner is a second-generation Virginia grape producer. His parents started growing grapes in northern Virginia 40 years ago and sold them to winemakers. He started Chatham Vineyards, which sells wine under the Church Creek label, in 1999. The Wehners selected the Eastern Shore AVA (American Viticultural Area, a classification that identifies the geographic origin of grapes) because of the moderate maritime climate and the sandy loam soil.
“These are classic European conditions. We produce ‘food wines’ that are 12 to 13 percent alcohol,” Wehner said. He said that in the last 10 years Virginia winemakers have developed a better understanding of growing conditions and that the state, already fifth in the nation in wine production, is ripe for a steep growth curve.
John Kiers, managing partner at Ox-Eye Vineyards in Staunton, VA, agrees with Wehner’s assessment.
“In Virginia we’ve come a very long way, particularly in the last 10 years,” Kiers said, noting that support from Virginia Tech and local cooperative extensions has resulted in “better fruit out of the vineyards.”
North Carolina ranks as the ninth-leading state in producing wine. A number of the best vineyards in the state got their start or expanded thanks to grants in the late 1990s aimed at converting tobacco farms to other agricultural uses.
The land for Raffaldini Vineyards & Winery was purchased near Ronda, NC, in 2001, and a small hand-bottled vintage was turned out in 2003. The winery has experimented with planting 30 varietals and clones, focused primarily on Italian-style wines, although petit verdot and malbec grapes are grown on the land. Through the discovery process, Raffaldini has become focused on grapes that do well in hot growing conditions in central and southern Italy, with 80 percent of production now in red wines.
“We have 42 acres, but we’ve planted 90 acres of grapes because we have ripped out 50 acres and replanted because we weren’t getting the ripe dark fruit I was looking for,” Jay Raffaldini said. “It was a journey in deciding between what you can grow and what you should grow. We started out with grapes that do well from Tuscany north and have moved to Tuscany south. Our goal is to make robust wines.”
Raffaldini said that he encountered a process while visiting the Veneto region in northern Italy used to dry grapes made to produce Amarone that he believes will help his wines reach the desired level of intensity. When Montepulciano grapes are harvested at Raffaldini, some are taken to drying rooms, where in 10 days they lose about a third of their weight and flavors are concentrated. The first of this new wine made from these grapes is aging and will be released this fall.
Part of the maturation of the region is the recognition that not all wine in each state is the same. Just like California has wines designated for Napa, Sonoma and other growing regions, Virginia now has six American Viticultural Areas: Shenandoah Valley, Monticello, Eastern Shore, George Washington Birthplace, North Fork of Roanoke and Rocky Knob. North Carolina has three recognized AVA regions: Yadkin Valley, Swan Creek and the Haw River Valley.
“Virginia wine has got people’s attention. We have a chance to be known internationally,” Kiers said. Ox-Eye started making its own wine three years ago. “A lot of people have a romantic notion about owning a vineyard and get started buying fruit. There is a difference between being in the barrel room and out in the field. For consistency you have to control your own fruit—you have to have a vineyard.”
Kiers points out that much of Virginia’s wine industry is based off of an “agri-tourism model” where vineyards offer tours and sell nearly all of what they produce through their tasting room. Only a few restaurants sell Virginia wines, and just a small percentage of retail shelf space is given to the state. Like a number of producers, Kiers said he has “aspirations beyond that.”
The aspirations of winemakers in the Mid-Atlantic region will be realized when more consumers discover wines that meet their expectations. The next 10 years might just be the breakout decade for North Carolina and Virginia wines.
Rick Lyke grew up near the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York and now lives in Charlotte.