Virginia Wines: Are They Fairly Priced for the Quality?

Nov 30

This is a question that has long been debated by Virginia wine consumers and those in the retail and restaurant trade. First, we heard that Virginia wines were “unassuming little wines, but we might be amused by their pretentions.” Then they said that, allright, SOME Virginia wines were pretty good by golly, but most of them were forgettable. Then we heard that MOST of them were pretty good but were overpriced compared to the competition.

Well, what is the fair competition for super and ultra-premium ($15-$20 and over $20) Virginia wines? Naturally, it would be super and ultra-premium wines on the international market. After all, if Virginia wine producers want to claim they have something worthwhile, they can’t just be judged against each other or even other regional wines, but should have to stand on the world stage, competing blind against wines from other leading regions, in order to have any objective claim to quality. And they should also be judged against wines from these regions priced at the same level. That would settle the argument on whether Virginia wines are overpriced relative to those from other regions.

Andy Reagan, winemaker at Jefferson Vineyards near Monticello, is tired of hearing objections to Virginia wines based on the idea that they are overpriced. Yes, compared to “critter label” wines you’ll find in the grocery store, he’ll say, but that is not the tier that most Virginia wine producers are aiming for. If people are willing to pay $20 and over for wines from France, Napa, Italy and South Africa, why shouldn’t Virginia wines be judged (and valued) on the same plane as these wines?

Accordingly, Reagan organized a blind tasting featuring his and two other Virginia wineries’ wines, paired in varietal flights against wines from places like Italy, France (Haut Medoc), South Africa, Napa, and Argentina. If Virginia wines could compete in a blind tasting with those of more famous regions, in the same ultra-premium (over $20) price range, then the myth about Virginia wines being overpriced could be put to rest. After all, why is it that consumers or critics will accept market prices for $20 and up for wines from Napa and Bordeaux, but not from Virginia? Is it because of intrinsic quality, or perceived value based on marketing? The only way to find out is to remove the variable (and construct) of perceived value through the rigor of bind tasting wines of the same variety or class in the same price range, from Virginia and more famous regions.

On Saturday 11/20, 14 tasters gathered at Jefferson Vineyards, and tasted their way through six mixed flights which included Virginia wines and those of more famous regions. The flights included three white ones (chardonnay, viognier, pinot gris) and three red ones (cabernet franc, red Bordeaux blends and merlot). Prices varied widely (from $14 to $75) but averaged $28 or so per bottle, in the ultra-premium tier.

And now the results…Virginia wines placed first in 4 out of 6 flights (ALL of the white flights and one of the red flights). Top wines by varietal flight were as follows: for pinot gris, Jefferson Vyds. 2009 Monticello ($18.95); for viognier, Jefferson Vyds. 2009 Monticello ($24.00); for chardonnay, Jefferson Vyds. 2009 reserve Monticello ($21.95). In 2 of the 3 white flights, there was one other Virginia wine and total wines in the flight ranged between four and six.

For the red flights, Virginia won the Bordeaux Blend flight with Keswick Vineyards “Heritage” 2007 Monticello ($34.00). For the merlot flight, the winner was a 2006 Lenardo “Just Me” from Italy at $30; for the cabernet franc flight, the winner was a 2008 Raats Stellenbosch from South Africa ($32).

Reagan confided he “was definitely worried about the outcome, but both Stephen [Barnard from Keswick Vyrds] and I stood behind our wines and fortunately they showed very well. I think [the tasting] was a
total success, with the emphasis on proving that Virginia wines, (at least some Virginia wines), are indeed priced appropriately.”

Reagan continued, “everyone seemed impressed and I’d say a few tasters were surprised even by how well the Virginia wines did. I think this is
definitely the way to conduct comparitive tasting in the future. With more time to plan and accumulate data, next years tasting will be even more successful.”

Keswick Vineyards winemaker Stephen Barnard believes the tasting “shows that Virginia is on the right track, we can broaden
the scope and we can find higher quality examples with which to compare
them too, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Virginia wines showed well
again. For me they were a lot more balanced and supple than other wines,
better integration of fruit and tannins and a third of the price.” He concluded by declaring  “I’m glad I came here instead of Napa Valley.”

Wine blogger Frank Morgan (drinkwhatyoulike.com) was one of the judges. “My impression is that Virginia wine held it’s own, and even showed better compared to a couple of the higher priced wines. This is a direct testament to the quality of Va wine today and illustrates how many Virginia winemakers ‘understand’ their land and respective microclimates.”

Accordingly, Morgan “wasn’t completely” surprised by the strong showing of Virginia wines, as much as by how well the South African Cab Franc showed “(WOW!)”, and how poorly the French wines showed across the board.  “Conversely, I’ve noticed the consistency of Virginia wines trending upwards over the last few years.”

On the topic of Virginia wines being perceived as overpriced, Morgan explained “that refrain is typically something I hear from Yellow Tail cheerleaders (cheap folks), and from those who don’t consider Virginia comparable in quality to France and other more recognized regions.  I feel the ‘real potential’ of Virginia wine was most prominently displayed in the Viognier flight.  This wasn’t even close on my scoring sheet, and conversations afterwards with others mirrored my conclusion as well.”

While Morgan did believe the tasting was fair, he would have liked to see more vintage consistency – “having wines of the same vintage is important for comparative purposes in my book.” In conclusion, Morgan feels “dollar-for-dollar, Virginia wine can go shoulder-to-shoulder with any other wine region in the world.  Sometimes, it just takes a blind comparative tasting to prove it.”

Another impression he had from the tasting was that “price does not correlate to quality… the highest priced wine of the tasting, a $75 Condrieu was the 2nd worst score on my tasting sheet of all the wines tasted that day.  And, a region not known for producing ‘wow’ Cab Francs, South Africa, is producing some excellent examples of this grape.” Let’s hope that this tasting prompts more wine trade members and consumers to re-examine their pre-conceptions of Virginia wine quality and value relative to other regions.

Judges included: Katherine Younger (Blogger: Katheats.com); Andy Reagan (Winemaker: Jefferson Vineyards); Sephen Barnard Winemaker: Keswick Vineyards); Matt Monson    (Consumer); Richard Hewitt (Sommelier, Keswick Hall); Norm and Matt Jarock (Consumers);
Jim Raper    (Wine writer: The Virginian Pilot); Stephanie Williams (Flavor Magazine); Mark Golub (avid wine collector); “Swirl, sip, snark duo” (Bloggers, Swirlsipsnark.com); Marina Kharitanova    (consumer); and Frank Morgan (Blogger: drinkwhatYOUlike.com).


National Wine Experience Launches Sat. 11/20 in D.C.

Nov 18

This Saturday 11/20, The inaugural National Wine Experience (NWE) launches at the Newseum, one of the newest (and coolest) museums in Washington, D.C., with the National Grand Tasting. featuring wine from over 25 states across the country.  You’ll have a unique opportunity to taste, compare and contrast wine from familiar wineries and wine regions with wine from emerging regions that you’ve never tried before.

While you work your way through one wine region to another, you’ll enjoy cool jazz and American regional cuisine created and inspired by internationally acclaimed chef Wolfgang Puck.

The event takes place 7:30-11:00 p.m. Tickets are only available online ($115/single, $199/couple) at http://www.nationalwineexperience.com.

Kluge Estate Vineyard & Winery Heading Into Foreclosure

Nov 04

The Great Recession is claiming some victims in Virginia wine country. According to a report in the Daily Progress dated 11/2, bank loans of over $34 million owed by Kluge Estate Vineyard & Winery have been called in by Farm Credit Bank, the lender, who is preparing foreclosure proceedings and an auction of estate assets in just over a month. Kluge Estate is owned by Patricia Kluge and William Moses. The loans were taken out between 2007 and 2009, when both the national economy and the wine industry were in boom times, and when Kluge management was moving from being just a moderately sized Virginia winery to a major regional producer of 40-50,000 cases annually. Moses explains in the article that he is working to find ways of repaying the loan but can’t say if he will be successful.

The existing vineyards total some 164 acres, which is about six percent of total wine grape acreage for the state of Virginia, yet according to their winemaker, none of the grapes were sold to other wineries. That means that the entire production went into estate bottled production of between 40-50,000 cases annually, just at a time when the economic bubble burst (most Virginia wineries produce less than 10,000 cases). The Kluge product line was also heavy in sparkling wine, a specialty category for the American consumer at the best of times. The four sparkling wines were priced from $28 to $48.

Kluge wines are more modestly and reasonably priced now than they were before the Great Recession began (at one point the New World Red was selling for upwards of $50/bottle, evidently justified due to the famous Michel Rolland having been hired as winemaking consultant.) Even with much more reasonable pricing adjustments however, the super and ultra-premium category product line was struggling in a marketplace where wines below $10 are the fastest-selling and fastest-growing segment.

Combine relatively high pricing with the economic downturn, large debt load, large production figures meeting minimal demand for regional wine at high prices, and the result was not surprising, especially with over 160 acres of estate vineyards and their establishment and annual maintenance costs.

Annette Boyd, head of the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, points out that despite the problems at Kluge, Virginia wine sales as a whole were up 13% last year, a great success despite the poor economy.

According to the article, Moses explains that the bank called in the note in September, took over the operation last month, and will auction off the separate pieces of the operation from vineyards to employee houses to barrel storage caves to production facilities and a 34,000 square foot carriage house, on December 8th at the winery, at 3550 Blenheim Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902. A company public relations/spokesperson did not answer an inquiry for the last 24+ hours for confirmation. The full story can be read online at the Daily Progress website, http://www2.dailyprogress.com/news/2010/nov/01/foreclosure-looms-kluge-estate-ar-622831/

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