It recently occurred to me while tasting wine at a local vineyard that Virginia wineries have a very different business philosophy than their European cousins. I’ll call it the “31 flavors” theory: If a customer walks in who doesn’t like Vanilla or Chocolate, you damn well better have Rocky Road. Many Old World wineries make only one or two wines. A Bordeaux chateau might have a second red that is a lower quality version of their top wine, and they might offer a white. Or they might not. If you visit Burgundy and don’t like Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, you’re just shit out of luck.
Horton Vineyards’ website currently offers 29 wines made from no less than 22 different grape varietals. Sheer madness!
Not so in Virginia. Here, there is practically an ironclad guarantee of Something For Everyone. When was the last time you visited a Virginia winery that offered fewer than five wines or, more to the point, five different varietals for you to taste? Almost everyone offers at least four reds, three whites, and a dessert wine or two. More and more are starting to also produce rosés, sparkling wines and port-style wines. Orange County’s Horton Vineyards is by far the worst offender. Its website currently offers 29 wines (not counting the 11 non-grape, fruit wines) made from no less than 22 different grape varietals. Sheer madness!
I understand why Virginia wineries largely have embraced the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink school of winemaking. The wine trade here is mostly tourist driven; they’re selling an experience as much as they are a product. I am sure that few, if any, local wineries could survive offering the public only one or two wines on their Sunday visit to the tasting room or at summer festivals. (Boxwood Winery in Middleburg only makes two reds and a rosé. But then, the owner, John Kent Cooke, has deep pockets. He used to own the Redskins and his dad once owned the Chrysler Building.) No, financially it seems they have to give the people what they want: the vinous equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
I get it, but I don’t like it. At their best, winemakers are artists, and the imperative that those artists produce a panoply of wines to suit every taste is shameful. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald adapting screenplays in Hollywood to make a living, our best winemakers are forced to work with grapes they may not like and to make sweet “hot tub wines” in the name of satisfying all palates. It’s enough to drive anyone to drink.
But what good is making wine if you’re the only one who drinks it? “We do have to make it for the consumers,” Veritas’ winemaker Emily Pelton told me last July, “because otherwise it’s not going to sell, and if doesn’t sell then we’re not successful, and if we’re not successful, who cares what we make?
“I always sort of had this fantasy of just making white wine,” Pelton said, “but I realized that not everybody likes white wine. And so if I’m gonna have people come to my winery, come all the way out to my winery, I need to have a range.”
Maybe so, but when I taste through 10 or 15 different offerings at a good winery, I always wonder what the result would be if all the resources and talent on display were focused on making only two or three wines. At a bad winery, I shiver with the same sense of foreboding I get when I sit down at a restaurant with a six-page dinner menu. “Really,” I think, “meatloaf and pad Thai? Is that necessary?”