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Is Virginia on Your Wine List?

By JOHN HAGARTY

Blue Rock Inn features Virginia wines.

The Blue Rock Inn features Virginia wines in both the elegant and casual diningrooms.

You’ve chosen the restaurant with care. After all, it’s an important occasion for your spouse or significant other, be it a birthday, anniversary or promotion celebration. You’ve also braced yourself for the cost of a bottle of fine wine to accompany your celebratory dinner. It will add a hefty amount to the final bill.

So here’s the question. You’re seated at your table, the subdued lighting frames the face of your companion, who is waiting eagerly for the announcement of your selection, and your server is poised with pen and pad. Would you order a bottle of Virginia wine?

It might just depend on where the restaurant is located.

The cost of enjoying wine with a restaurant meal is generally fraught with mixed emotions. Many restaurants charge up to three times their wholesale purchase price for a bottle. Wine is a lucrative source of income for dining establishments, but shelling out triple the amount for the same wine available at your local wine shop can feel like a shakedown.

Perhaps more importantly, the evening’s success or failure could depend on you picking a winner. Select an indifferent wine and your poor decision will be staring at you during the entire meal. How romantic.

But Virginia wine is increasingly being applauded for its quality and diversity. It can compete when positioned against wines from around the world. If given a chance.

Recently, this writer devoted a few days to chatting with sommeliers, wine buyers and restaurant managers at upscale establishments located in the Piedmont region of Virginia, the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland. And an interesting pattern emerged.

As Virginia wine moves further from its birthplace, the lonelier it tends to get. It seems no matter how humble, there’s no place like home.

And that’s a shame. Because a vast number of the region’s diners are not getting a chance to experience Virginia wine when dining out.

Virginia Professionals Supportive

Foti's features Virginia wine.

Foti's fine cuisine in Culpeper pairs well with Virginia wine.

It’s instructive to start our restaurant tour in the heart of Virginia wine country.

At Foti’s in Culpeper, owner Frank Maragos features 100 wines on his list, including 20 state bottlings. “Many of our guests are out-of-state visitors and they’re intrigued with the idea of Virginia wine and eager to try it. It can require what we call a ‘hand sell’- that is, describing the wine in some depth – because many people aren’t familiar with the state’s rising reputation. But it must be priced to sell. Anything above $50 a bottle and resistance sets in,” he says.

Liza Kaiser, dining room manager at the Hazel River Restaurant in Culpeper, echoes Maragos thoughts, saying, “Virginia has a rich history and visitors and tourists all want to experience local wines. We also feature farm to table cuisine and locally produced wines complement our fare. Fifty percent of our wine sales are Virginian.”

Blue Horse Pub features Virginia wine.

The Blue Horse Pub is the casual dining option at The Blue Rock Inn in Little Washington.

Rosalee Lysaght, restaurant manager at the Blue Rock Inn near Little Washington, has a list of 60 wines, ten of which are Virginia. “Many diners are curious about Virginia wines, but still reserved. I think it’s because the wines are relatively new, unfamiliar, and, in some cases, expensive.

“It can be perceived as a gamble purchase compared with selecting a California wine. However, people are very receptive to Virginia wines by the glass. It provides an opportunity to evaluate the wine without the commitment of a bottle purchase,” she emphasizes.

Christopher Roberts, manager at The Restaurant at Potowmack Farm in Lovettsville, has assembled 70 wines on his list, 12 of which are Virginia. “We have significant interest in local wines given our proximity to wine country. Virginia has a wide range of quality so I focus on the top tier wineries. The wines fit nicely into our locally produced meats and produce theme. And we price them competitively,” he says.

The Hazel River Inn outside Culpeper supports Virginia wine.

DC Diners Are Tougher Sell

As we cross the Beltway and head toward the nation’s capital, the Virginia story begins to weaken.

David Tomaselli, manager at the Carlyle restaurant in Arlington, states, “We have 50 selections on our list, but no Virginia wines. In my two years here I can’t recall any request for them. While I enjoy Virginia wines myself, our guests simply don’t think Virginia when ordering. I think the state’s industry needs to do a better job of self-promoting. They need to get the word out to a broader audience about the rising quality.”

Jim Ross, wine buyer for The Prime Rib on K Street in D.C., says, “We have 200 selections on our wine list, but none from Virginia. Past experience has shown us they simply don’t sell. For whatever the reason our distributors never show us any offerings. I think Virginia could compete with other wine regions, but I simply haven’t been exposed to them. There is simply not a lot of interest in Virginia.”

Brent Kroll, sommelier at The Oval Room on Connecticut Avenue, oversees 200 selections on his list, but only two are from Virginia. “Most wine regions have earned reputations for a single varietal such as Napa Cabernet, Oregon Pinot Noir or Washington State Rhones.

“Virginia is too diverse and needs to focus on its best grape, such as Viognier. Many diners simply don’t know what level of quality to expect if they order a Virginia wine. It’s taking a chance to buy it,” he cautions.

Min Kwon, wine director at Addies in Rockville, MD, manages a 127-bottle list with five selections from Virginia. “I find Virginia wines are of greater interest to people focused on locally grown fare. Otherwise, most diners ignore them. Hand selling is required and we simply don’t have the time for that type of sale. I think the state needs to generate more positive press coverage in magazines such as Wine Spectator to convince buyers to consider Virginia,” he says.

Steve Uhr, general manager, J&G Steakhouse just a block from the White House, shepherds a wine list with 250 choices, six of which are Old Dominion bottlings. “Most D.C. restaurants have just a small placement of Virginia on their lists. I think the state could parallel Chile’s experience.

“For years, Chile had a quality issue and then things improved dramatically. Today, their wines generate a lot of interest. Virginia’s quality is improving and our list reflects it. But the focus on quality must continue and awareness among wine drinkers must grow to produce greater sales,” he opines.

The Virginia Conundrum

In listening to wine professionals from upscale dining venues, it’s clear Virginia is advancing its cause, but at a slow pace. There are many challenges for the industry and its limited production is one of them. With most wineries selling a majority of their wine in tasting rooms, there’s little incentive to hire an expensive sales force to increase placement on high-end restaurant wine lists.

It’s also clear most distributors are not devoting significant time to showcasing the wines. Without a professional marketing organization touting your product, little other than personal experience or word of mouth will advance the cause of Virginia to a broader audience.

The good news in all of this? Virginia wine drinkers can be secure in the knowledge that the wines they know and love are readily available throughout the state.

Perhaps being a best-kept secret is its own reward.

John Hagarty works at Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly, VA. Visit him at Hagarty-on-Wine.com.  

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