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Under development

The inaugural Virginia Wine Expo seemed to be a success, if the thousands in attendance on the first of the two-day event were any measure. Held in the giant, multichambered, corporate heart of the Greater Richmond Convention Center, Expo doors opened to the public at 1pm, and by 2:30 it was so packed you couldn’t get down the aisles, let alone make it up to one of the winery booths to get a taste of wine. Mass tastings like that can make it easy to start to hate wine—the crowds, the novelty wine t-shirts, the overflowing spit buckets (or worse, no one spitting and the Mad Max-like highway conditions on the way home). But my Saturday at the Virginia Wine Expo earlier this month had the opposite effect: It reinforced exactly what it is I love about Virginia Wine.

Before the official kickoff, members of the trade were allowed in early to taste wine and listen to guest speakers, including the keynoter, Bruce Schoenfeld, the wine and spirits editor for Travel + Leisure magazine. Schoenfeld delivered his talk, subtitled “The Allure of Emerging Wine Regions,” to about a dozen of us through a sound system that had two settings, “faint” and “feedback.” Two years ago, he said, when he first came to Virginia to taste wine, a winery employee asked him, “How close are we?” How close, in other words, are we to being the next Napa Valley? Schoenfeld’s answer to this question and his message to the Virginia wine industry was, “Slow down. Don’t rush. Because believe it or not, this is the fun part.”

Schoenfeld has spent plenty of time in some of the world’s greatest wine regions, but it’s the developing areas that have given Schoenfeld his most interesting experiences, and the reason he cites describes my own love of Virginia wine: It is still a work in progress. Virginia is still figuring out what grapes to grow, what techniques to use in the winery, and how to make the rest of the world care. This process of learning, Schoenfeld argues, and the experimentation and variety that accompanies it, makes Virginia such a wonderful place to be a wine lover right now.

And that variety was on full display at the Wine Expo, all right. I tasted, in addition to the ever-present Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, such obscure varietals as Tannat, Touriga Nacional, Norton, Chambourcin, Rkatsiteli and one I had never heard of called Symphony. Not that obscurity for obscurity’s sake is a virtue, but Virginia wineries are having real successes with uncommon grapes like Cabernet Franc, Viognier, Petit Verdot and Petit Manseng.

I disliked a lot of the wine I tasted on the 16th in Richmond, but that, Schoenfeld pointed out, is O.K. “Every great wine region,” he said, “makes more bad wines than good ones.” The successes matter, not the failures, and Virginia’s successes have had a lot of press lately, thanks in part to good PR, and in part to the undeniable fact that the wines are rapidly improving.

But something can be said for a certain kind of failure. “Sometimes,” Schoenfeld said, “an inspired failure is more interesting than a guaranteed success.” It is relatively easy for places like California and Australia to churn out wines that are good in a homogeneous and facile way, but are these wines that engage your mind or teach you something new? If Virginia ever stops the kind of experimenting that produces unique wines like Horton Vineyards’ sparkling Viognier and Cooper Vineyards’ chocolate-infused Norton, or great wines like Barboursville’s Nebbiolo and Linden’s single-vineyard Chardonnay, and starts making the vinious version of soda pop, then I, for one, will stop drinking.

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