The year in local wine

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Summing up a theme in the Virginia wine industry this year, small is beautiful. Even though a couple of big guys ran into outsized trouble, several boutique producers in the Monticello area nimbly redeemed the industry’s reputation with new products. The year started with a fizz and ended with a flop, and along the way there was sadness and glory as the country’s admittedly diminutive fifth-largest wine producer was celebrated on the big screen. Here’s a glance at the year in local wine.

Corked: Reality TV stars-turned chronic debtors, Tareq and Michaele Salahi provided one of only a few low moments in Virginia wine this year.

In February, Albemarle County planning staff advised leaders on how best to comply with a change in the state’s legal definition of “farm winery,” and Supervisors approved what one wine lobbyist lauded as “model ordinance across the state.” In line with that, planners also adjusted the sound ordinance affecting wineries, which now looks prime for some additional fine-tuning. It will be among the first issue on Albemarle planners’ agenda in 2011.

Also in February, King Family Vineyards’ Matthieu Finot took home the Governor’s Cup, Virginia’s top prize, for his 2007 Meritage. Competing outside the state, Pollak Vineyards’ Jake Busching followed with a gold medal from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition for his 2007 Cabernet Franc. And Emily Pelton of Veritas Vineyards poured her 2009 Viognier at a State Department event hosted by Hillary Clinton and featuring Michele Obama. Later in the year, this fetching trio of winemakers announced a joint project—3, a new red wine signifying the camaraderie found in much Monticello area wine production. 

Other winemakers took on side projects, too, including Lovingston’s Riaan Roussow, whose labor of love, two elegant reds under the micro-boutique label r, at last made their debut. Michael Shaps and Philip Stafford freshened their wildly successful Virginia Wineworks—both the wine and the custom crush business bearing the same name. Their custom crush operation doubled in size this year. Seems small-scale winemaking has not crested yet. And Shaps and Stafford became the state’s first winemakers to embrace the 3L recyclable box—now sporting a new, more feminine Virginia Wineworks label.

In April, Claude Delfosse escaped foreclosure on his Nelson County operation by filing bankruptcy, while another Claude—Thibaut—released Virginia Fizz, an affordable Cremant-style sparkling wine. And a couple hours north in Loudoun, wine bloggers descended for the drinklocalwine. com annual conference. Many were Left Coasters and New York Staters who experienced Virginia wine for the first time—and declared much of it to be good. In the fall, another group of scribes, the Circle of Wine Writers, hailing mostly from Britain, visited Virginia and were similarly impressed with some of the state’s most elegant wines, including Stephen Barnard’s Verdejo for Keswick Vineyards.

Monticello restored the wine cellar of the state’s original enophile, but the number of visitors who saw it was likely dwarfed by the millions of viewers who watched Virginia wine phonies Tareq and Michaele Salahi on “Real Housewives of D.C.” serve beer from stemware. 

But that dark moment passed. The best of Virginia wine took the spotlight instead when, at the end of October, Silverthorn Films, a Charlottesville-grown production company, debuted Vintage, a loving look at the state industry and the folks who make wine here against all climatic odds. Among the dignitaries attending the debut: Governor Bob McDonnell, whose administration upped the state’s wine promotion budget by 66 percent this year. By the time Vintage was shown at the Virginia Film Festival, it was tinged with sadness, however, as Daniel Neumeister, Sugarleaf’s young winemaker, who was interviewed in the movie, had been tragically killed by a drunk driver.

McDonnell’s financial shot in the arm was not enough to help Patricia Kluge, the onetime would-be queen of Virginia wine. The 906-acre Kluge Estate Winery & Vineyard went into foreclosure in October to the tune of $34.8 million in unpaid bank debt. (Sweely Estate, another disproportionate newish winery, also faced foreclosure that month, but managed to work out a deal with its lender.) The Kluge auction in November was a grim affair, with no one topping the bank’s own $19 million opening bid. Though that was a sad chapter for Virginia wine—and it remains unclear what will happen to Kluge’s massive property—more modest businesses kept giving it a go, with at least three new wineries celebrating their grand openings and another three siting their vineyards and planting vines.

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