Local winemakers forge a groundbreaking research exchange

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Emily Pelton is one of the founding members of the Virginia Winemaker’s Research Exchange, a group making an impact on the future of wine. Photo: Eric Kelley Emily Pelton is one of the founding members of the Virginia Winemaker’s Research Exchange, a group making an impact on the future of wine. Photo: Eric Kelley

The idea for a research exchange sparked when a few local winemakers gathered to share their bottles and ideas. For the first couple of years, the group included Kirsty Harmon (Blenheim), Emily Pelton (Veritas), Matthieu Finot (King Family), Ben Jordan (Early Mountain), Scott Dwyer (Pollak), Jake Busching (Michael Shaps), Michael Heny (Horton) and Stephen Barnard (Keswick). They’d bring a unique wine experiment for the group to try, and these friendly exchanges helped hone each winemaker’s approach.

Without a control bottle, it was difficult to tell if the experiment created the difference in taste, or if it was something else giving the wine its flavor—like a different barrel or the growing conditions that year. “It’s important to have a formal process,” says Dwyer. “Before, when we were doing it informally, there wasn’t a control process.” So, each of them carried out a specific trial that harvest, and came back with a control bottle to taste side-by-side with the experiment bottle. Thus the Winemaker’s Research Exchange was born.

“Now, we each test a single variable,” says Dwyer. They bring a control bottle and an experiment bottle, with the only difference being their chosen variable.

What are they looking for? Each winery is interested in different research, and the beauty of this exchange is that the wineries can focus on a project important to them.

Some have chosen to test fermentation vessels. How will the same grapes taste when they are fermented in, say, concrete containers versus steel containers?

Some wineries are looking for ways to use less sulfur without sacrificing the wine’s stability. If grapes are not pressed immediately after being harvested, they’ll be prone to spoilage, and this is a key moment when most winemakers use sulfur to preserve their fruit.

Some of the trials test other natural antioxidants and preservation methods. If a different preservation method yields an equally delicious or better wine with lower sulfur levels and fewer inputs, then all winemakers in the state benefit from that research and can choose to use that method if they wish.

Other wineries have chosen to test ways to improve the color of wine. It’s long been a trick in the northern Rhône region of France to add a small percentage of white grapes to a red wine fermentation. This adds some aromatics and helps stabilize the color. Can Virginia wineries use grape co-fermentations to improve color?

Usually, a winery will have the resources to perform one or two experiments each harvest. With the research exchange, winemakers benefit from the results of dozens of experiments each harvest—far expanding the experimental scope of what one winery can accomplish each year.

You can find published academic studies on some of these topics, but the exchange takes it one step further and brings these trials to life with tastings. Sure, a winemaker can read a scientist’s description of how wine will be different if fermented in concrete versus steel, but tasting this difference can really drive home the concept and influence a winery to change its status quo.

“At the end of the day, the tasting is really emphasized,” says Pelton. “We want to make sure that you are actually tasting the variable that you are testing.”

Pelton has been delighted with the success of the project. “The coolest part was how many people showed up to our tastings,” she says. The wines are tasted and evaluated blind. “It’s hard to pour your wine blind in front of your peers,” say Pelton. “And yet, we kept having large turnouts.”

The blind tasting helps keep the topics in focus. “We didn’t want it to turn into a competition,” says Dwyer. “We wanted it to be an open exchange of research.”

Aside from the obvious benefit of personal palate development, the organized tastings give winemakers valuable feedback. “If 75 percent of the tasters preferred the trial over the control, that means something,” Dwyer says.

Setting up organized trials took time and organization, and in 2014 the group received a grant from the Monticello Wine Trail and founded the Winemaker’s Research Exchange. The power of this idea gained so much momentum that in 2015 the Virginia Wine Board funded the group. “It got more rigorous,” Dwyer says.

“In year two, we tightened up our consistency by ensuring that all analysis was done at the same laboratory,” says Pelton.

The wine industry around the state took note. “The Virginia Wine Board was excited to see the initial research and encouraged a statewide project,” Pelton says. “They are investing in quality wine and they pushed us to grow.” This year the group expanded to include all of Virginia, and formalized its name as the Virginia Winemaker’s Research Exchange. The VWRE split the state into five regions, each with its own regional director.

This all points to good things for Virginia wine-lovers. Rarely in the wine world do you find such a systematic focus on quality improvement. The VWRE is also committed to transparency: Its results are available on its website, winemakersresearch exchange.com.

Midway into the group’s third formal year, it’s attracting attention from several other states—mostly from winemakers curious about their specific trials and winemaking organizations interested in the overall model. This idea, hatched by a few innovative Monticello winemakers, is not only benefitting Virginia wine, but also has the potential to benefit the United States’ entire wine industry.

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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