A quality revolution in the Mid-Atlantic

This story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

After spending a few days tasting wine in Central Virginia, I was already impressed by the quality of wines being produced by winemakers in both the Monticello and Shenandoah Valley AVAs.

Aromatic yet acidic viognier, velvety cabernet francs, as well as albariño, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, petit manseng, petit verdot are all being made with success. And, while anyone who had tasted Virginia wine in the past might remember thinking, “I’ll drink the white wines, but the red wines…nope,” that is changing.

There is a quality revolution happening in the mid-Atlantic and that was the theme this year at USBevX, a conference and trade show dedicated to helping drive the quality reputation for eastern and midwest wine and beverage producers, when they hosted the second annual conference in Washington, D.C. in February.

Winemaker Gabriele Rausse, who has been called “The Father of the Modern Virginia Wine Industry,” was one of the first to plant vinifera in Virginia. He came to Virginia from Italy and was quoted in the feature documentary “Vintage: The Winemaker’s Year” as saying that when he arrived in 1976, it was a dark landscape, a somewhat primitive situation and he did not have much hope. But, “Everybody was against it so what can be better than the challenge of what they say you cannot do.”

Today, there are 250 wineries in Virginia; there are 50 producers on Long Island; there are 75 wines in Maryland. There is wine in Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and beyond.

It is a challenge to make wine in these places as compared to the West Coast. Weather plays a large part in the production of wine. The weather can be extremely hot; there can be hurricanes, snow storms, deer and insects. As David Pollak of Pollak Vineyard said in a tone of serious humor, “It is no more challenging to make wine here than anywhere else, except for the frost, humidity and hurricanes.”

But, as many of the winemakers I listened to at the conference said, you can be one of many in California or Europe but in these regions, you can be one in an area that has an open future.

Four winemakers from different states shared their insight into the evolution of quality wine at the conference:

— David Collins, winemaker and co-owner, Big Cork Vineyards, Maryland

After studying horticulture at Virginia Tech, David Collins began his career at Loudoun County Virginia’s first winery, Willowcroft Vineyards, in 1987, followed by being winemaker at Breaux Vineyards in 1997. In 2011, Collins partnered with Randy and Jennifer Thompson to open Big Cork Vineyards in Washington County, Maryland. Today they have 30 acres planted primarily to vinifera, with plans to plant more.

In the beginning, everyone made wine on the East Coast modeled after California but there was very little to guide them. Collins notes some pivotal points that shifted winemaking in the mid-Atlantic.

One was the Virginia Farm Winery Bill in 2006 that enabled more wineries to open. Another significant moment was the publication of the book “Sunlight into Wine” by Dr. Richard Smart.

It revolutionized winemaking by advocating for canopy management. At this time, wineries shifted to a cordon system with catch wire and with the vines vertical, the fruit started to get sun. No longer were they picking unripe fruit at 19 brix.

“We understood clones and rootstock and the vineyards got better,” Collins said. Then came agritourism, which drove the market and interest in wine. And finally, the “anything-but-chardonnay” movement opened door to new white wines, such as viognier, sauvignon blanc and reisling.

Joyce Rigby, vineyard and winery consultant at Rigby Viticulture, North Carolina and instructor of enology and viticulture at Harrisburg Area Community College, Pennsylvania

Involved in eastern viticulture for more than 35 years, Rigby has worked with vineyards and wineries in North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Maryland.

Rigby, an industrial engineer, married a winemaker in 1982 and moved to Virginia.

There were 12 wineries at the time, and now there are 200. After two decades, Rigby and her husband moved to North Carolina. In 2002, there were only 12 wineries in North Carolina and they were going through the same growing pains as Virginia had the previous decades. But, the knowledge and insight she gained in Virginia was applied to North Carolina. Rigby moved to Pennsylvania in 2011 but is back in North Carolina consulting on-site evaluation, viticulture, winery design and business planning, as well as teaching viticulture.

When Rigby started, she said, “pruning, time and harvesting were our plan. We did the best we could but we did not know anything.” Over three decades, the regions have evolved and now they do much more than “tying vines up for canopy management.” And because of the better management in the vineyard, they have been able to eliminate pyrazines (green pepper, herbaceous notes) from the wines.

— Richard Olsen-Harbich, winemaker, Bedell Cellars, Long Island, N.Y.

A pioneer in Long Island winemaking, Olsen-Harbich started in 1981. After graduating from Cornell with a degree in plant science, Olsen-Harbich went to work in the Finger Lakes at Hermann J. Wiemer before moving to the east end of Long Island and helping to establish that region. He wrote the petition for the North Fork of Long Island appellation in 1986. Long Island currently has 2,400 acres of vinifera planted.

In the beginning, many thought Long Island was not a suitable region for vinifera. There was a flurry of planting vines in the late 1970s and 1980s, but they did not have a great understanding of plant material and root stock.

There was information from California and Europe but no guide book on what to do. Olsen-Harbich said, “The only thing we have in common with California is that we both speak English.”

The evolution in the production of wine on Long Island “has been one of understanding our region, soils, types of vines that grow in our terroir and embracing it,” Olsen-Harbich explained. “It has been a learning process. Europe went through it; California went through it; we are going through it.”

Long Island looks more to France, Germany and Northern Italy for insight. “We are not reinventing the wheel,” Olsen-Harbich said. “We are taking information and varieties from the old world and putting them here and learning how they work. We are not the only people with climatic issues. It is a learning curve.”

Known for the lower alcohol, crisper, highly aromatic wines, Long Island has taken a while to reach the point that they are at. But, they are doing it and getting better every year.

“Maybe we are hardened to it but we don’t freak out when we have rain in spring,” Olsen-Harbich said. “My take on the weather in the East is that we have cold winters and sometimes warm ones, sometimes frost and sometimes spring rains. We generally have a dry harvest season and then it starts raining around Thanksgiving, followed by snow and then the cycle repeats. Disease comes with rain but we understand what is coming and how to take care of it. We have it figured out.”

— Jim Law, owner, Linden Vineyards, Virginia

Jim Law owns Linden Vineyards, located on the Virginia Blue Ridge. He purchased the farm in 1983. He did not buy the land based on the soil types because little was known then. He observed the microclimates, the high altitude and the cool air.

“The soil part is harder to figure out,” Law said. Originally, he had cabernet sauvignon planted on silky clay and merlot on granite. But, on the second generation of planting, they planted the cabernet on granite soils and merlot in the silky clay, finding the right conditions for each grape.

Law is focused on making the best wine possible in his region. “I love what I do and will do it until I can’t anymore,” he said. Law has mentored many people, and today is one of the most influential winemakers in Virginia.

The Mid-Atlantic region is a challenging place to make wine. But, with hard work and today’s know-how, there is a quality revolution happening in the Mid-Atlantic wine regions.

Read the originally story in the Napa Valley Register.