The Judgment of Staunton: Making Thomas Jefferson proud


Gabriele Rausse spoke to the group gathered at Staunton's RR Smith Center for the Thomas Jefferson Wine Event. Photo: Ashley Twiggs. Gabriele Rausse spoke to the group gathered at Staunton’s RR Smith Center for the Thomas Jefferson Wine Event. Photo: Ashley Twiggs.

Every cork dork loves a wine battle, especially when it involves rubbing France’s les nez in how good our wine’s gotten in the past five years. At the third annual Thomas Jefferson Wine Event in Staunton on October 13, Virginia wine won over French in four out of seven blind pairings. But save one man who was wearing a beret, there were no French at the competition to which to gloat. So what are these tastings out to prove, and to whom?

Recreating the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris in which then fledgling California took top scores in both whites and reds against the industry’s grand fromage (France), this Virginia vs. France tasting was as much a tribute to our own burgeoning industry as it was to Thomas Jefferson. Even though his 30 years of grape growing never amounted to a single bottle, he prophesied our success.

Gabriele Rausse, the viticulturist who came to Virginia from Italy the same year as the Judgment of Paris, spoke to the group gathered at Staunton’s RR Smith Center on Saturday, recalling the day he sat for six hours listening to all the reasons why he would fail. Three years later, he successfully grafted 110,000 European grape vines onto American rootstock and Virginia wine was born. Event organizer Scott Ballin recognized Rausse’s efforts with a 1787 map of Italy made by the King of France’s cartographer, but it’s the growing quality of Virginia wine that serves as Rausse’s greatest acknowledgement.

Three of Virginia’s four victories in the competition were with red wines. Kyle Boatright, a wine distributor for The Country Vintner and a fellow judge, was surprised by how well Virginia’s reds showed. “Going into the event, I thought it would be easy to pick out the Virginia reds and that the whites would have more of an equal footing, but I found the opposite to be the case,” he said.

Ox-Eye Vineyards’ John Kiers attributes the shift in the quality of our red wines to longer hang times and other vineyard practices, like leaf-pulling, that lead to riper fruit. Barboursville Octagon 2008 and Barren Ridge Meritage 2008 won out over a right bank Bordeaux from 2009 and a left bank Bordeaux from 2006, respectively. Perhaps most surprising was a Pinot Noir from micro-winery Ankida Ridge beating a Premier Cru Burgundy. Not only is Virginia not known for success with Pinot Noir, a notoriously fickle grape, but 2011 was a lousy vintage (and only Ankida’s second year in production).

We started by tasting the reds (a first for me in a wine competition) in front of an audience (another first, which made me especially conscious of my spitting technique), followed by a pair of sparklers and then a trio of whites. With a better mousse (see Winespeak 101), Virginia’s Thibault-Jannison Cuvée D’Etat trumped a Blanc de Blancs Champagne, and while none of the competing Virginia whites (Keswick Viognier 2011, Jefferson Vineyards Chardonnay Reserve 2010, and Pollak Pinot Gris 2011) scored higher than their French counterparts, the spreads weren’t terribly wide. The French whites possessed a more seamless integration of oak and more complex aromatics, but as judge Richard Leahy pointed out, maybe 2011 wasn’t the fairest vintage to feature.

This victory in Staunton came just a week and a half after a similar triumph at the first annual Virginia Wine Summit in Richmond. The one-day trade seminar began with a blind tasting that pitted eight Virginia wines against wines from other regions. One of the four judges was Steven Spurrier, the very man who organized the Paris competition in 1976, and after voting six to two in favor of Virginia, he said, “It seems I really liked the Virginians!”

Another judge, Dave McIntyre from the Washington Post, felt that Virginia proved to be in the same class with France, Italy, and California. “I look forward to the day when ‘Virginia Beats France in Blind Tasting!’ is no longer news or a surprise, and the idea of a ‘winner’ comes down to individual preferences of the judges rather than a judgment about relative quality between entire wine regions,” he said.

At the time of the Judgment of Paris, California had about 350 vineyards. Thirty-six years later, they have more than 3,500. I don’t suspect that the number of Virginia wineries will ever again increase tenfold, but I do predict that soon, Virginia wines will help set the benchmark, rather than just be compared to it.

Mousse (n.): The strength and texture of the bubbles in a sparkling wine.

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