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The Governor and The Donald Team Up for Wine

Plus, a vine robot that does it all, serious Burgundy wine fraud and Three Fat Guys, a new label from former Packers players

Posted: April 12, 2012

• Though even mighty California struggles to gain a foothold in the Chinese wine market (not if Yao Ming has anything to say about it), Virginia is already on the ground in Shanghai: "We did this little deal, 7,000 bottles of Barboursville wine going to this one province in China," Gov. Bob McDonnell told Unfiltered. "We see immense potential." It's one of the many wine initiatives the governor and his wife Maureen have pursued since taking office in 2010. The pair were in New York at Trump Tower this week with the "Virginia Is for Lovers" campaign to get the word out. After talking up Virginia's growing wine industry, the governor ceded the podium to a not-so-surprise guest: preeminent Virginia vintner Donald Trump himself. (Trump recently purchased the 350-acre former Kluge Estate Winery.) "From Thomas Jefferson to Donald Trump and Eric Trump, that's a pretty good lineage of Virginia winemakers," McDonnell declared. (Son Eric will be running the winery's operations.) Trump then enthused about the "spectacular" vineyard, and promised that his folks would do a good job with the winery, or he would have to tell them that they are fired.

McDonnell doesn't just talk the talk: Like the White House has on a national level, the governor has instituted a Virginia-only rule for wines served at functions at the executive mansion. A wine man himself ("primarily white"), McDonnell and his wife caught the bug while he served in Germany and fell hard for Mosel Rieslings. Now, he cites some Old Dominion favorites as the Barboursville Viognier, Kluge Estate New World Red, King Family Meritage and Williamsburg Winery's Governor's White (he acknowledged his bias there). And the McDonnells are now even winemakers themselves: The first lady discovered a certain Act 12 passed by the Virginia general assembly in 1619 requiring all men over the age of 18 to plant at least 10 vines and thought, " I'll plant 10 vines in the back [garden at the executive mansion], I'll say I complied with the law, and we'll have a little fun with it." Once the grapes are ready, they'll blend the Chambourcin with wines from elsewhere in the state for a bottling commemorating the mansion's 200th anniversary. The governor also spoke approvingly to Unfiltered of the corkage bill he signed into law last year, and he's trying to persuade restaurants to carry more local wines. "My wife, every time I take her to dinner, if there's not a Virginia wine on the menu, she'll always suggest to the manager that they add some," he laughed.

• What is 20 inches tall, 24 inches wide, has two arms, four wheels, prunes 600 vines a day and never goes on vacation? The new $24,000, solar-powered robot released by Mâcon-based inventor Christophe Millot, owner of Wall-Ye. The robot has been quietly showing off its repertoire of skills to winegrowers around France, while awaiting patent approval. (There are no reports yet of any "accidents" at the hands of jealous vineyard workers sending Wall-Ye tumbling down the hill of Hermitage.) Millot told Unfiltered that he got the idea in the summer of 2009 when visiting the Ardèche vineyards of Maison Louis Latour. The vineyard director was frustrated that he didn't have the manpower to deal with incipient vine rot due to that hallowed French institution, the August vacation. Millot reassured his friend in the way only inventors can: "I'll make you a robot." And the adventure began. Nearly three-years later, Wall-Ye (yes, it's a French pun on Wall-E) has gone through several prototypes following input from winegrowers in Alsace, Burgundy and Bordeaux. The most recent improvement added pruning to the robot's skill set. Wall-Ye can now prune, tie canes to wires, de-bud and de-sucker vines (the removal of unwanted buds and shoots). It works in temperatures between -40°F to 122°F and uses GPS to keep from shuffling over to the neighbor's vineyard. It calculates yield, vigor and leaf surface, uses four cameras to see that it doesn't damage vines and integrates geographical data with a GIS map. It doesn't pollute, make noise or foul up the soil. It also does not become disgruntled and hack your vines up or drink out of the barrels when no one's looking. Wall-Ye's best friend is the robot who answers the phone at many large Napa wineries.

C'est une scandale! Breaking in Burgundy: Following a long investigation, a 63-year-old Beaune négociant faces multiple charges of wine fraud, including falsely labeling several thousand bottles of wine with prestigious AOCs like Mercurey, Vougeot 1er Cru, and Givry, as well as spicing up his cru Burgundy with a splash of table wine, Beaujolais and wines from southern climes, which, in Burgundy, is a crime roughly on the order of manslaughter (not legally, of course). Although the accused has not been named in the French press, reliable sources confirmed that the man who was arrested March 29 and later released on probation during the formal inquiry is Bernard Gras. Unfiltered confirmed with an employee in Gras' Beaune store (he owns five stores in total and is also an enologist) that Gras had been charged, forbidden to contact employees and ordered not to buy or sell wine. The company continues to function without him, operating through its stores and via the Internet, with delivery in France. Gras last surfaced in the press in November 2010 when France's fraud squad made an unannounced visit to his Beaune offices at the request of state prosecutors. No trial date has been set, and the inquiry by the magistrate is expected to take several months. Perhaps he'd be best off packing up shop and heading south to make a new life for himself…

• Well, it's not the Tim Tebow holy wine we predicted for 2012, but three NFL offensive linemen have joined the wine game already populated by the likes of Charles Woodson and Drew Bledsoe. Calling themselves Three Fat Guys, Daryn Colledge, Tony Moll and Jason Spitz, who met and became fast, fat friends while playing for the Green Bay Packers, have been making Napa Cabernet Sauvignon since 2009, with the help of winemaker Rick Ruiz, a Robert Mondavi vet who also makes Woodson's wine. The majority of the grapes are sourced from a Calistoga vineyard owned by Heitz Bros., according to Moll, whose family has been in Sonoma for four generations. Moll, now with the San Diego Chargers, still lives there during the off season, but during harvesttime, "Our hands are 100 percent in football," he explained, adding, "Football is definitely our first job. Winemaking is really more of a hobby. We wanted a wine that we could hand out to our friends and family, but once we had the first vintage in bottle and started drinking it, we realized that it was good enough to try and get it into some restaurants and retail stores." For the label, the players deliberately avoided the broad visual jokes or puns one might expect, given a name like Three Fat Guys, but Moll assured Unfiltered, "Once you pull the cork, you understand that it's a party."

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