Hitting 10k: Some Rambling Thoughts on the Journey Through Virginia Wine

I cannot believe enough people read my writing that in 4 ½ years I’ve had more than 10,000 hits on this blog.  No doubt some of them are me going to the darn thing and finding a link to something I wrote and sending it to someone. Some of them are probably people googling and somehow landing by mistake here and likely closing the tab very quickly. But still, some come back. If you haven’t already closed this tab, thanks for reading.

Back in the 90s I went on a really boring date with someone to go see The Fifth Element. People rave about this movie like it’s the greatest ever.  While I haven’t seen it since that one time 25ish years ago and my memory is weak on a good day, the movie did give us some amazing moments (multipass?). I do think you had to be high from a variety of controlled and illegal substances to enjoy it. And I wasn’t. The date was also pretty mediocre overall.

Anyway, the movie posits that “life force” is the fifth element in the universe (after earth, wind, fire and water). I took away from the movie at the time that love was the fifth element, and I can get with either vibe. But why stop at five?

As I was pondering the past and future of this wine blog, I was thinking about what it is that I enjoy in wine.  I’ve had some pretty expensive wine (well ok, bottles in the $150+ range, but not anything over like $250 or so), and it tasted great, but it didn’t hit me as being radically different from good wines in the $30-$75 per bottle range.  I sincerely doubt I’ll see much noticeable difference going up into the $1000s per bottle.  Partly because my palette is poorly educated, but mostly because the differences become so subtle, so based on impression and prior knowledge of the wine, and it all gets skewed by what you ate and drank before it.  Maybe those who taste thousands of wines and study wine intently can discern differences, but us lay folk who lack that level of experience will likely never notice. So what I love about wine isn’t as much that flavor profile or exciting phrases like “long finish,” “juicy mouthfeel” or “licking leather.” What I love is understanding what the winegrowers and makers are trying to bring out in their wine.  Wine gets really interesting not when it’s made by people who are seeking to make the next $150/bottle of Virginia Wine, but rather when it’s made by those who are seeking to make something exciting from these grapes, in this soil, during this season that tells a story of time and place. That passion for capturing some moment in time we will never have again.

I’m here today to write about the sixth element. I’ve found it. And it’s the thing that winemakers in Virginia are putting into their wine that makes me love it. The sixth element is passion for the art and science of making.

I am finding that the similarity between the wines I love isn’t a flavor element or the use of a single beloved varietal (well, ok, Petit Verdot maybe), but rather it’s that the winemaker is passionate about their practice and puts that passion to work with the grapes from when the vines are planted right up to the wine going into barrel and tank and eventually into bottle and glass. They’re not trying to replicate or mass produce a thing that is exactly like everything else, they are pursuing a philosophy and an approach that lets the wine tell a story, and that itself imparts something to the wine that makes it stand out.

Stick with me on this for a bit.  When I reflect on my love for the wines Arterra’s Jason Murray is producing it comes down to his philosophy – he is really contemplating how the grapes respond to the environment and what grows well on his sites, without use of chemicals in the vineyard or cellar.  He is experimenting with different varietals to see how they handle our swingy climate and humid summers. Out of an interest in ancient techniques, he went and bought an amphora to see how the grapes would respond to fermentation and aging in that, and is trying out an orange wine approach with his chardonnay.  In every vintage you see evidence of finding peace with the imperfections of nature – that what nature is creating in this place is of this place and when we sip on it, we experience a sense of that place in that time.  Intervention makes your wine taste like everything else on the grocery store shelf. Low- and non-intervention lets you experience how that growing season, on that soil, produced a thing with its own beauty and joy.  His passion for this artistic part of winemaking comes through and makes it beautiful and unique.

I think about the work Nate Walsh is doing at Walsh Family Wine where he is also focused on what different vineyards bring forth in the same varietals and what that can mean for wines and blends.  He also does less intervention with his wines and keeps his focus on the growing process and how that will lead to a style and taste in the wine. They’re at a point where they have the ability to compare wines across different micro-climates and soil types from their various sites and this creates an opportunity that is simply fun. They’re preparing to make blends out of grapes grown in the same vineyard blocks to show what that soil produces.  Finding those subtle differences between the same grapes grown in different vineyards helps us understand the farmer’s way of viewing this process – it’s a quest to bring forth the authentic best from the land based on its unique qualities.  Their wine is full of joy and expression, and the WFW team’s clearly having fun doing what they do.

So many wine bloggers and writers pay homage to Jim Law at Linden, and they should.  With more than 40 years working the soil in Virginia to grow grapes and make wine, he can tell stories about ripping vines out and replanting at a different angle on the same slope, in the name of making a better wine.  While deeply attached to French styles of winemaking, he recognizes that some of those grapes can no longer reliably produce quality wine in Virginia’s climate, and he is running a bunch of experimental plots to track what can be grown well and produce incredible wine.  Ultimately he sees himself as a grape farmer because that is what leads to amazing wine. While many out there are saying about their wines, “oh, this is an incredible expression of Virginia Terroir!” Jim is frequently heard saying, “We haven’t had nearly enough time to come to understand Virginia Terroir, and we are all still learning.”  His passion to explore, learn, refine, correct mistakes and shift his course, and share all that he learns with others across the state so that everyone can produce the best of what can be produced in Virginia, leads to a truly amazing portfolio. At Linden I had the only instance in which I have sipped a Virginia Chardonnay bottled in 2002 (from Linden’s library) and thought it actually tasted better than the one currently on the tasting menu that was a current release and some 14 years younger (yes this was in 2019).  A deep seated passion makes this kind of longevity in Virginia Wine possible.

And as I have trekked away from NoVa and settled in the area where I hope to fully retire, I’m finding more passionate winemakers doing great things.  Mount Alto may be the most interesting example of this.  Spending an afternoon learning about their project and vision and what they have built in Esmont was incredible.  I’m fortunate to have been able to maintain a little bit of on-and-off DM conversation with them, and they’re truly good people who are working hard to make an incredible wine.  Passion has showed clearly in the depth of their research into site selection and the winemakers with whom they’ve worked to learn what works best.  They’re in this to learn and build and develop something amazing, with the understanding that every year will be different and fascinating and must be met where it is and have its best brought out.  I’ve no doubt that their work and learning will continue to build the body of knowledge and inform the next generation of winemakers. Plus, they’re going to make incredible wine along the way! Speaking of which, it’s a great day to open that 2020 Manteo-Nason….

When I open a bottle of Virginia Wine, I don’t just want a deep, dark smell that evokes images of cherry, raspberry and earth.  I want a sense of the place from which the wine comes and the season that the vines struggled through to produce this incredible glass of wine that I can savor. And that is happening in so many of our wineries all over the state. Wine growers and wine makers in Virginia work in difficult conditions to bring to life an incredible product, well worth savoring.

I’ve actually finally, after 15 or so years of buying ridiculous amounts of Virginia Wine, stopped hoarding bottles in hopes of holding some amazing comparison tasting in my home.  That’s part of accepting what is so amazing about Virginia Wine – it’s not really about a special occasion or something – it is a place and time captured carefully and bottled, and should be savored and let go of as we move to what is next in our lives (if you love something let it go?).  Now don’t get me wrong, I have special occasion bottles like What Will the Women Drink, Crooked Run, a Manteo-Nason vertical 19-21, and F8.  Those are saved for beloved visitors or really special occasions.  But as much as I will be sad when I drink my last bottle of Linden Avenius Sauvignon Blanc, I know that I got to cherish that time and place, and while it will never be exactly the same, there will be more to savor for what they bring forth. Just like life.

That’s what’s so amazing about Virginia Wine.  That’s the Sixth Element. Passion, expression, and the intersection of science and art that is winemaking.  It’s hard to grow and ripen wine grapes in Virginia and so it is a labor of love for these folks to bring this product to us.  As you raise your next glass, see what it evokes in you about that time and that place, knowing the wine you sip lets you ever so briefly travel through time to revisit it. Savor the passion that produced that glass.

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