Journey Through Hallowed Ground, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving and celebrating historical land and sites from Pennsylvania through Virginia, including a lot of Albemarle County, had a nice little present for the Albemarle Board of Supervisors at the September 3 meeting. The group presented the supes with a special JTHG commemorative bottle of Chardonnay made by Prince Michel Winery, right here in good old Virginia. Dennis Rooker joked that he hoped the bottle made it into that night’s closed session.
But the joke is on them. The irony—a sweet, buttery irony—is that the bottle of Chardonnay that Prince Michel is selling to raise money for the hallowed ground of Virginia is made with grapes from the less hallowed, more tubular ground of California. “How is this possible, bro?” you ask. Let me tell you, dude.
Tasty little secret: The bottle of Chardonnay from Prince Michel Winery that a nonprofit group gave to the Albemarle supes was made with California grapes.
Legally, it’s all about labeling. If you want to label something “Virginia wine,” at least 75 percent of the grapes must come from within the state of Virginia. If that bottle says Albemarle or Monticello, 85 percent of the grapes must have been grown within the county or the Monticello AVA (American Viticultural Area). If a local winemaker decides to use more than 15 percent of grapes grown outside of the state, then he must label it “American wine,” or something generic like “Red Table Wine.” There are other arcane rules involving things like whether or not two states are touching, but all you need to know is what it says on the label. If it says “American Wine” or “American Chardonnay” or doesn’t clearly say Virginia somewhere other than just in the winery’s address, then it probably contains grapes from somewhere other than the state in which it was made. But if the words “Virginia” or “Monticello” are staring proudly out at you from the bottle, then presumably those grapes are home grown.
Why use non-Virginia grapes at all? Often it’s because of the weather, catastrophes like the 2006 frost which killed much of the state’s Chardonnay, or the rainy 2003 vintage, which led the Kluge Estate, for instance, to use purchased fruit in many of its wines that year. There’s also the issue of numbers. In 2006, Virginia produced 6,200 tons of grapes compared to California’s 5.77 million. For large producers like Williamsburg Winery and Chateau Morrisette, both of which produce over 60,000 cases a year, it might very well be necessary to augment the grapes available locally. And of course there’s money. Producing large quantities of low-priced wine is a lot easier if you buy someone else’s excess.
But the Supes aren’t dupes. They read the label and clocked the Chardonnay as California juice. “Hallowed Ground has done a marvelous job in bringing attention to this historic corridor,” Dennis Rooker said over the phone. “California,” he added with a chuckle, “isn’t in this corridor.” Using fruit from another state is not bad per se, but with every passing year it becomes more unnecessary. The quality and quantity of the grapes grown in the Commonwealth is only increasing, and the Virginia label is no longer something to inspire shame. Although there are many practical reasons why Prince Michel might have used California fruit in the Journey Through Hallowed Ground commemorative Chardonnay, the absurdity of celebrating our state’s heritage with another state’s grapes should make them feel a little lame.