The East Coast revival is a boon for Virginia wine

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Dr. Konstantin Frank learned his craft at ancient wineries in (then) Soviet Georgia before coming to the United States in 1951. Once here, he advocated for the plantings of the Vitis vinifera grape varietals that dominate our current wine business.
Courtesy of Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery. Dr. Konstantin Frank learned his craft at ancient wineries in (then) Soviet Georgia before coming to the United States in 1951. Once here, he advocated for the plantings of the Vitis vinifera grape varietals that dominate our current wine business. Courtesy of Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery.

The Virginia wine scene exists within a larger post-Prohibition wine revival sweeping across the United States. Before Prohibition, the East Coast had a thriving wine trade. But following the 1920 constitutional ban on alchohol, only a few wineries remained standing, such as New York’s Brotherhood Winery (in operation since 1839), which produced sacramental wine to avoid shutting down.

Once the law was repealed in 1933, it took several decades for the East Coast wine industry to bounce back. One New York wine producer, Dr. Konstantin Frank, who established his winery in 1962, helped to shape the new direction.

Frank vociferously extolled a particular grape species—Vitis vinifera—and believed that indigenous and hybrid species produced inferior wines. Vinifera grapes are a European species that originated in the Caucasus region several thousand years ago, and most familiar wines (chardonnay, viognier, cabernet, etc.) are vinifera.

By 1973, a Vinifera Wine Growers Association popped up (now known as the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association) and, along with the findings of Dr. Frank, began to influence East Coast winegrowers and the beginnings of today’s Virginia wine trade, where vintners such as Dennis Horton became intrigued by vinifera grapes.

Virginia’s focus on smaller-scale boutique wineries has helped our wine trails stand out as unique
attractions for agro-tourism. Most Virginia wineries are small family businesses, and you are likely to find one of the owners in the tasting room when you visit.

The U.S.’s post-Prohibition revival has made the grape business more profitable, partly because of the higher prices wine grapes can fetch. A near decade of statistics from 2005 through 2014 show that the country’s total grape production has not changed dramatically: Both at the beginning and end of the decade, the U.S. produced approximately 7.8 million tons of grapes. But the average price per ton increased about 67 percent during that time, and a $3.4 billion industry grew into a $5.8 billion industry.

Zooming in on the East Coast, the major players in order of grape ton production are New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. Virginia’s biggest market competitor is New York. In 2014, New York crushed 44,000 tons of wine grapes, while Virginia crushed 8,600 tons. In volume, New York outpaced Virginia by about 80 percent. But New York has only about 20 percent more wineries than Virginia. This data demonstrates that Virginia wineries are producing significantly fewer grape tons per winery, and this is one of the reasons why Virginia’s emerging wine scene is so special.

Virginia’s focus on smaller-scale boutique wineries has helped our wine trails stand out as unique attractions for agro-tourism. Most Virginia wineries are small family businesses, and you are likely to find one of the owners in the tasting room when you visit. Many wineries produce just enough wine to sell out of their tasting rooms, but not enough to enter the larger U.S. or international market.

And while U.S. data shows little growth in grape tons but intense growth in revenue, Virginia numbers demonstrate explosive growth in both grape tons and revenues. In 2005, Virginia produced about 5,600 tons of grapes; by 2014 this grew to about 8,000 tons.


Grape crush

Virginia’s largest wine market competitor on the East Coast is New York, with Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia also being key players. But Virginia’s lower number of wineries compared with New York means we are producing fewer grape tons per winery, thus making our boutique wineries stand out.

2014 grape harvest yield:

New York: 44,000 tons

Virginia: 8,600 tons


One thing Virginia and New York have in common is a local restaurant scene that supports local wine. In New York, most serious restaurant wine lists feature a New York selection, and the same holds true in Virginia. You’ll even find a few Virginia restaurants such as Field & Main (Marshall), Revolutionary Soup (Charlottesville), the former Brookville (Charlottesville) and The Roosevelt (Richmond) pouring almost exclusively Virginia wines. This synergy between local food and wine is helping to create and define new regional cuisines. Take, for instance, the magic combination of fresh soft-shell crabs paired with a local petit manseng. The pairings help create a lasting dining culture that can sustain long-term business and promote regionality.

Over the last four decades, the East Coast wine scene has shaken off the dust that settled over a diminished industry crippled by Prohibition. Today, these wineries are poised to take the next step in creating lasting impacts on local culture and cuisines.

Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog, thinking-drinking.com.

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