The Richmond Marriott was abuzz on the morning of October 2. One of the world’s greatest wine personalities was on hand, along with Virginia’s governor and first lady, and a host of notable wine professionals from throughout the U.S. Attended by print and electronic media people, winemaking professionals, and restaurateurs and sommeliers from around the country, the conference was organized by the Virginia Wineries Association to throw a spotlight on Virginia’s wine trade today.
The conference opened with “Breakfast of Champions,” a 16-wine extravaganza pitting the wines of VA against the world. Steven Spurrier was the headliner, but the rest of the panel boasted superlative bona fides as well: Jay Youmans, CWE, MW, and director of the Capital Wine School ; Anthony Giglio, wine critic for such publications as Food & Wine magazine (and on-line sommelier), Departures Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Robb Report, et al; and Bartholomew Broadbent, one of the “fifty most influential [people] in the wine world” as described by Decanter Magazine. What stood out to me was that, among these world-class palates, there was an extraordinary amount of contradictory praise in each of the eight categories.
The judging of wine is scientifically-based: it can be said of a wine that it is either flawed, or technically correct. But beyond obvious defects (corkiness, excess sulfite, brett, incomplete fermentation, for example), the enjoyment of wine, and the elevating of one wine over another remains a matter of personal taste.
Some writers have published results of this tasting (VA is better, VA is a close contender, VA bested the best). The vast audience of close to 300 people voted by show of hands, and sitting among them, I did not detect a clear winner in any of the flights. And the panel certainly did not agree. It was funny to see that the two Brits (Broadbent and Spurrier) often preferred opposing wines, but so did the Americans (Giglio and Youmans). One tends to use the shorthand “European palate” to describe people who prefer more austere, less fruity wines — not the sippers, but the dinner table wines. So-called New World wines are, according to some, overly aggressive, fruit-forward, and too alcoholic. As the borders that separate us from other countries and cultures become more and more permeable, these descriptors become less and less valid.
In my opinion, in today’s world, there cannot be another “Judgment of Paris” (Spurrier’s 1976 tasting that put California on the map as a serious producer of fine wines). So, in the Breakfast of Champions, what I took away was Virginia is producing quality wines worthy of international attention and respect. The win-lose equation simply does not hold anymore. Here’s the list of what was tasted:
2a Bernard Baudry Les Grezeaux Chinon, France 2010 $23
2b Barboursville Reserve Cabernet Franc 2009, VA $23
3a Chateau du Tertre Margaux, France 2008, $39
3b Potomac Point Heritage Reserve 2009, VA $27
5a Barboursville Nebbiolo Reserve 2008, VA $32
5b Vietti Barolo Castiglione 2008, Italy $39
6a Delfosse Petit Verdot 2008, VA $18
6b Casale del Giglio Petit Verdot, Italy, 2009, $18
8a Cispin Cider, England $8/4 bottle pack
8b Foggy Ridge Sweet Stayman Cider, VA $15/750 ml
Richard Leahy has posted Steven Spurrier’s scores on his blog Richard Leahy’s Wine Report. 
Following the breakfast session, three workshops were offered. I attended “All About the Fruit. Virginia Viognier Tasting.” For those of you looking for winners and losers, skip the next couple of paragraphs, because my finding is that Virginia Viognier is currently all over the map.
Led by moderator Jennifer Knowles, sommelier at the celebrated Inn at Little Washington, we sampled Breaux, King Family, and Keswick Viogniers, with each winery representative sharing information and opinions on their own wine.
Jennifer Breaux, manager of the eponymous winery founded by her father, addressed the issue of vintage variation, a sometimes obscure idea as today’s wine consumer frequently has come of age drinking California wines where every vintage is practically perfect. Not so in Europe, or in Virginia. 2010 was a historically hot and dry growing season. Grapes reached uncommon peaks of ripeness. I found Breaux Viognier 2010 to have concentrated flavors of cinnamon and apple pie spice visibly illustrated by its deep straw/gold color.
Matthieu Finot, winemaker at King Family Vineyards and going into his tenth Virginia vintage, presented a 2011 Viognier. This example was clearly more floral with white flower flavors and aromas, and crisp apple and tropical kiwi nuances. Stephen Barnard’s Keswick Viognier 2010 was again a totally different iteration of the grape, and more closely aligned with what I’d define as a Condrieu style: honey, candy, floral and peach notes gave a complexity to the wine. Stephen spoke about the idea of defining a Virginia-style Viognier, and I agree with this completely: this is a new varietal and a new wine for the Commonwealth. It takes a 15-20 year history to even begin to define a regional style or characteristic.
Further, to my mind, it’s quite a generalization to compare a Loudoun Viognier to a Monticello AVA Viognier. One doesn’t expect a Chablis to resemble a Macon-Villages. (For comparison’s sake, Chablis to Macon is about 120 miles, with all the great white Burgundies in between — Leesburg to Charlottesville is 100 miles.)
We broke for lunch afterwards, and were treated to several quite interesting speeches. Steven Spurrier provided the keynote address. He began by admitting, “I probably know less about Virginia wine than most of you in this room,” but went on to assert that “Compared to other American states, Virginia is a national contender.” His advice to the trade was to not try to evolve into an international style, but rather to be “recognizably Virginian.” He also noted that top-tier British wine critics, such as Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, Andrew Jeffords and Oz Clarke, are frequently “amazed” at the quality of wines from Virginia, singling out Barboursville, Boxwood, Breaux, King Family, Veritas and Williamsburg as leading producers.
Jean Case, of AOL fame, and a recent vineyard investor in VA (Early Mountain Vineyards opened under Case ownership earlier this year), urged winemakers to dream and follow their passion, noting in a blog post  following the event, “I offer a nod to the wines from Virginia – and other regions – that were selected in the blind tasting this week. ..I do think it was an important moment for Virginia – and for the promise of Virginia wine.”
Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell, a tireless supporter of the commonwealth’s wine trade, shared an engaging story of how she persuaded Mr. Spurrier to attend: “I told him he could sleep at the Governor’s Mansion…” to much applause. Given Spurrier’s worldwide reputation and stature, we congratulate her on her candor and genuine southern hospitality!
My afternoon seminar was called “Foodie, Uncommon Wine & Food Pairings,” moderated by Anthony Giglio with panelists from Murray’s Cheese Shop – my favorite NYC place for cheese, followed by Artisanal Restau – Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, and Seersucker Restaurant, Brooklyn. We enjoyed pairing King Family Viognier with a raw cows milk cheese from New Hampshire. Cheeselady Liz Thorpe noted how the cheese’s milky, lactic quality and saltiness placed nicely against the wine. Ingleside Petit Verdot, dark ruby with vanilla, cherry, olum and caramel flavors paired well with an aged US gouda and its nutty, parmesan-like accents. Theory here is that opposites attract.
Glen Manor Sauvignon Blanc was teamed with a scallop, three ways: plain, with sesame seeds, and with sesame seeds, soy sauce and ginger. Anthony noted the “zamboni” quality of the wine: so brisk and clean it cleared your palate with each sip. The Virginia hard cider, Foggy Ridge First Fruit, was served with an exotic salad of golden beet, carrot, and arugula. The panel discussed the idea that there shouldn’t be two stars on stars: either the food or the wine should play the subsidiary role, acting as a counterpoint to the other. Some “must to avoid” foods mentioned were artichoke, radish, brocoli, asparagus and prune.
Thai beef with chili and lemongrass was paired with the Viognier from North Gate, yet another style of VA viognier. Panel noted “power with power” as another approach to take when pairing. Low alcohol and a slight sweetness were suggested as ways to offset the heat of the spices.
It was an interesting day in Richmond. Virginia wine continues to gain momentum and respect. Bringing in well-respected wine and food professionals will surely enhance our reputation with a broader audience.