New momentum has Virginia winemakers racing to meet demand

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Robert Harllee of Market Street Wineshops has watched an increase in Virginia wine sales at his various locations. Photo by Martyn Kyle Robert Harllee of Market Street Wineshops has watched an increase in Virginia wine sales at his various locations. Photo by Martyn Kyle

As Virginia’s tobacco industry wanes, the food and wine sector builds momentum. With more than 80 cheesemakers in the state, an intense focus on sustainability at farms such as Polyface, Free Union Grass, Radical Roots and Wolf Creek, and a large, passionate beverage industry, the state is poised to contribute a unique chapter to America’s evolving culinary story. Virginia’s wine industry, in particular, brings much to the table and shows no signs of slowing down.

Restaurants around the state have noticed increased demand for Virginia wine in the last decade. Some early champions of local wine recall the first Virginia wines on their lists: Ivy Inn wine director Farrell Vangelopoulos carried early bottlings from Barboursville and Whitehall vineyards in the mid-to-late 1990s. And C&O’s former sommelier, Elaine Futhey, remembers making the drive to Linden Vineyards to pick up dessert wine.

Today, most restaurants carry between five and 12 different Virginia wine labels on their list. Justin Ross at Parallel 38 pours 12 state wines by the glass, including some on tap. Neal Wavra’s highly anticipated new restaurant, Field & Main, in Marshall, pours mostly Virginia wines by the glass—18, to be exact, plus four Virginia ciders. Booth Hardy, of Richmond’s Barrel Thief, has a penchant for rosé and has enjoyed watching that category grow over the last five years.

Wineries are feeling the momentum of the industry. “We’ve more than doubled our production in less than 10 years, and it is still a challenge to meet demand,” says King Family Vineyards winemaker Matthieu Finot. “But it’s nice to be able to focus on making a high-quality product as we grow, knowing that the demand is behind us.”

Rachel Stinson Vrooman, winemaker at Stinson Vineyards, is also under pressure to meet high-volume demands. “We opened our tasting room in 2011 and have seen a crazy growth curve in the industry since then,” says Vrooman. “It’s almost impossible to predict when and where it will level out. Our total sales in 2015 were up 27 percent from 2014, which can be challenging to maintain in terms of production and inventory. We’ve tried to slow things down in 2016 by cutting back on advertising. Agritourism is strong, and more and more people are seeking out specific wines and even specific vintages.”

State statistics mirror the feeling of growth among wineries and restaurants. Governor Terry McAuliffe recently announced record sales for fiscal year 2016, “with more than 556,500 cases, or over 6.6 million bottles, sold,” representing a 6 percent increase from 2015 sales and a 34 percent increase since 2010.

Local vintage variation likely plays a part in the numbers. Some of last year’s growth might reflect the outstanding 2015 vintage that brought in a large, high-quality crop. And it’s possible we may see a dip next year, because early-season frost damage decreased the 2016 harvest in many areas across the state.

But aside from supply statistics, Robert Harllee of Market Street Wineshops points to consumer trends driving a new kind of demand. At his stores, he’s noticed that “people are making more regular purchases of Virginia wine, and many seem to be younger people. Ten years ago you’d see people getting a bottle of Virginia wine for a special-occasion dinner or a special gift, but now I’m seeing more people get Virginia wine for everyday drinking.”

And the variety of Virginia wine has expanded, which attracts a broader audience. “In the last couple years,” Harllee says, “we’re seeing a lot of unique grape varieties outside of the classic international varieties, like Jump Mountain’s grüner veltliner, lemberger at Ox-Eye, vermentino and fiano at Barboursville, and petit manseng and nebbiolo are doing quote well with several producers. I’m drinking a little more Virginia wine now, myself.”

At Wine Warehouse, “we try to have a selection of Virginia wines from around the state,” says manager Geoff Macilwaine. “One of our better sellers is Lovingston Winery, and the winemaker, Riaan [Rossouw], we think, is a terrific winemaker.” Macilwaine points to Lovingston’s 2010 Meritage as a benchmark local example.

The momentum of Virginia’s local wine trade is a confluence of increased interest in wine, high-quality production from dedicated wineries and support from the state level. “Virginia is making intelligent, inspired wines,” Vrooman says, “and the word is starting to get out.”

One of the most exciting aspects of the wine boom is how it fits in with the other emerging industries in the state—it pairs perfectly with all of the carefully farmed vegetables, cheeses and meats produced by thoughtful local farmers. Virginia food and wine forces are joining together in restaurants, and with all of the creative new pairings out there, we just might be watching the genesis of a new food and wine center of the United States.

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