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American Way of Wine

Regional vintners now labor for more than love

Matthew DeBord
Posted: December 10, 2002

 
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    In central Virginia, about 1,500 miles from Becker and Johnson's stomping grounds, one encounters a different breed of take-charge personality. At Barboursville Vineyards, Luca Paschina, 40, a native of Alba, Italy, who has been a resident of the Old Dominion since 1990, proves that Ed Auler's concept of a regional "unified effort" can yield exciting results.

    Paschina, as general manager and winemaker, presides over America's most dynamic large regional winery -- and its most urbane. Owned by the large Italian concern Zonin, the 120-acre property, set among rolling farms and curving roadways lined by woodlands, is one of the few regional operations that has combined consistent quality with volume output and widespread marketing. If you spot a Virginia wine in a New York wine shop, chances are Paschina made it.

    The man himself is pragmatic and precise. "Virginia is both a political and a viticultural entity," he says during a drive around Barboursville's historic acreage. "Not all varieties are going to succeed in all parts of the state."

    Take Sauvignon Blanc, for example. "Some years Sauvignon Blanc is good, some years it's bad," he says. "There's no need for that." So he's replacing those vines with Viognier, another three to four acres added to the current two. To him, Viognier offers hope as the state's breakout variety.

    Of course, not everyone in Virginia wants to jump on the breakout bandwagon. Some winemakers are happy to perfect and produce widely admired wines quietly. Jim Law of Linden Vineyards exemplifies this other path that Virginia winemaking has taken. Linden is just an hour west of Washington, D.C., but spiritually, it's about as far from the nation's capital as you can get.

    Thomas Jefferson would be delighted by the 47-year-old Law. He's a one-man repudiation of market-driven winemaking, a soft-spoken gentleman farmer who fastidiously tends 30 acres of hillside sites, the assortment of vines trellised according to three different systems. Heirloom apple orchards complete the picture. With the exception of a new crush facility being added to the winery, the bucolic scene looks practically vacuumed. This small corner of the commonwealth is its own mini-agrarian republic. And its values are borrowed from an earlier time.

    "My passion is out in the vineyards," Law maintains. "I'm not good at schmoozing. I tried that, but I didn't like it."

    He walks among his vines like a man encased in a bubble of bliss, despite 90-plus-degree August heat and humidity. Even though no cooling breeze comes to ruffle his reddish hair, pulled back in a well-groomed ponytail, he perspires only lightly. Law radiates confidence -- as well as quiet defiance.

    "I have no marketing staff," he says. "None of the people working for me want to go into the city. And I don't want to go out there until I know what my grape is, what my volume is. We're about five years away."

    He pauses to survey the condition of his 2002 crop, which is coming along nicely. "I want to make wines that I like to drink," he insists. "The customers will follow."

    A couple hundred miles to the southwest, Jim and Debra Vascik have embraced a more ambitious philosophy at Valhalla Vineyards, their 7-year-old, 20-acre property in the hills above the Roanoke Valley. The geography provides a metaphor for the heights they hope to achieve. Their property is perched less than 10 miles from a busy highway, but climbing the narrow road to the winery is like taking on a mountain leg of Le Tour de France (in fact, Lance Armstrong has trained here).

    Debra, 47, tanned and freckled, makes the wines. Jim, 51, a husky neurosurgeon ("brains and spines," he explains, matter-of-factly), manages the vineyard. "This is Opus -- just not as pretty," he quips, overlooking a bunkerlike combination of concrete winery and 200-foot-long barrel-aging cave that was blasted out of a hillside beneath the vineyard. "All gravity flow," adds Debra, with obvious pride. And, in a state in which the wine trade is driven largely by tourists, Valhalla does not yet have a tasting room.

    The Vasciks' priorities are evidence of their commitment to achieving quality juice before they invite the public up to visit the place that produced it. Combined with the steep terrain, the no-nonsense winery evokes a blend of European and West Coast winemaking. It could be standing in the hills above Napa. Or on the slopes of Cöte-Rötie.

    Without hesitation, the Vasciks have adopted Law's gospel of mountain fruit. Tasted from bottle, their best reds exhibit Rhöne-style power to match the thunder of their proprietary names (such as "Gotterdammerung" and "Valkyrie"; they are big fans of Wagner's operas). Law's subtlety and finesse have yet to be achieved, but in some respects, those qualities seem out of character for wines made by the Vasciks, who openly admire wines with power. And besides, they see winemaking in Virginia in more competitive terms.

    "There are 10 or 12 producers in Virginia leaving everybody else behind," Vascik says. "People who can't keep up should sell out," he adds, without sentiment.

    Virginia is maturing, and Texas is grappling with its crisis of confidence, but both states have assumed leadership roles in their region. Contrast this with America's best regional winemaking prospect, New York's Finger Lakes, a five-hour drive north of Manhattan. Here, the wines are of enviable quality. Even Napa Valley may soon be paying attention, if it isn't already.

    But will the wine-drinking public take notice? Casting envious glances toward the more media-savvy vintners of Long Island, Finger Lakes winemakers suffer from an inferiority complex, exacerbated by their reliance on the country's most esoteric major vinifera grape, Riesling.

    American Riesling, hampered by consumer's memories of the sugary versions of the Blue Nun era, can garner critical accolades, but it's a tough sell these days. In the Finger Lakes, though, it produces terrific wines. Better yet, because the region's winemakers have been working with Riesling for decades, good vineyard sites for it have been identified. Few other U.S. winemaking regions outside of the Pacific Northwest can make this claim. The Finger Lakes can; however, it rarely does. And when it does, it remains bafflingly subdued about it.

    David and Debra Whiting have shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that they can produce high quality Riesling. At Red Newt Cellars, which overlooks Seneca Lake just above Route 414, they have built a winery that doubles as a restaurant, with Debra, 39, running the kitchen while David, 43, monitors the fermentation tanks and the barrels. They present themselves as untrammeled lovers of the local scene.

    But up close they're reluctant to prematurely predict great things for the Finger Lakes.

    "People who have formal educations in winemaking don't want to come here," says David, a microbiologist by training. "This is the farthest from where they want to be." His realist streak comes from 14 years of personal experience.

    This sense of limit is shared by Mark Wagner, owner of nearby Lamoreaux Landing, easily the Finger Lakes' most visually stunning winery. But for all the dazzle of the edifice, a Greek RevivalÐstyle temple merged with a classic upstate New York barn, Wagner's plan for a 16,000-case-per-year business lacks focus. He agrees that "Riesling is absolutely at the top of the list for us," but he's also determined to make waves with red varietals: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

    Wagner's quandary is a common one in the Finger Lakes: What do we do next? But there are several Finger Lakes vintners who think they know what they want to do -- and aren't afraid to talk about it.

    At Standing Stone Vineyards, Tom and Marti Macinski act as a de facto regional welcoming committee for connoisseurs of the region's signature varietal.

    Not that you'd expect it. Unlike some of their neighbors, who have established architecturally entrancing wineries to draw in the wine pilgrims, the Macinskis work in a veritable weed patch. Their faded green and yellow winery practically sinks into the scenery. But unassuming outward appearances can mask inward verve. The pair has raised the stakes a notch past their local competition; they have, for example, no qualms about trying to crack the market in the so-far resistant Shangri-La to the south, Manhattan.

    Tom, 48, has adopted the laid-back uniform of his Finger Lakes peers -- shapeless chinos, baggy shirt, substantial moustache -- while Marti, 44, favors lively hats and vibrates with enthusiasm. He supplies the calm, she generates the color. As she flutters among her 2001 barrel samples, Tom looks on with bemused approval. "We were drunk on a plane," Marti says, giggling, when asked how the two met.

    In some respects, the two are still drunk on a plane -- they're winging it with their winemaking -- but they have the good sense to go with what works. In the Finger Lakes, that's Riesling and, to a lesser degree, GewŸrztraminer. As all around them vintners have become preoccupied with Pinot Noir -- "the holy grail of Finger Lakes reds," according to Tom -- the Macinskis make only a small amount. They have grasped that selling their whites to a skeptical consumer is difficult, but feel it's better to bank on what they do well.

    It's a strategy that would please Scott Osborn, the president of nearby Fox Run Vineyards. Osborn, 53, is one of the few Finger Lakers who has his head wrapped around both the region's potential and its problems.

    "We're in the throes of growing pains," he says during a tour of his 55-acre property. "We still trying to figure out what we want to do."

    Osborn -- who trained in California and spent time on Long Island in the 1980s before returning to his home region in 1991 -- is the closest thing the Finger Lakes has to a master planner. There's a dash of CEO about him, an impression solidified by his role as president of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, a group founded in May of this year to advance the region's fortunes.

    "The FLWA is going to focus on Riesling and try to establish more consumer demand," he declares, before launching into an explanation of why $10 bottles of the region's best wine just aren't going to cut it in terms of financing an American Rheingau. He insists that the region needs to produce high quality reds if it's going to "stay in business," mainly because, although potentially outstanding Riesling abounds, the market won't pay enough for it to generate decent profits, and even if it did, there isn't enough fruit available to ramp up production.

    As for Finger Lakes wineries that can succeed outside the Finger Lakes, Osborn notes that "there are four or five of us who can get out of the area, but we're going to have to apply for marketing grants to fund the effort."

    Osborn's comments are like a cold snap. Small-winery Econ 101 is often a far bigger challenge for regional vintners than getting high quality wine in the bottle. Having solved one problem, they find themselves immediately confronted with a new one.

    And they have taken it on in different ways. Larry Mawby, for example, has established himself as a sparkling-wine specialist on Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula, producing a commendable range of bubblies in a state whose winemaking is generally woeful. But he's the first to admit that his state's potential for anything else is limited.

    Idaho has shown promise at the small-winery level, but some vintners have suggested that the state might do better if it dispenses with its own winemaking aspirations and becomes an eastern vineyard satellite of Washington.

    In Utah, the wine business, which was expanding 10 years ago, has now almost completely collapsed under the weight of state tax policies. Although good wines are being made, the wineries still in business are fighting a ridiculously uphill battle.

    Still, these winemakers are Americans. Every one of them knows that California was once considered bumpkinville by connoisseurs trained to admire first-growth Bordeaux, and that Oregon and Washington barely rated as rural backwaters a generation ago. In New York, which remains the country's second-largest wine producing state, memories of the industry's pre-Prohibition glory linger and motivate.

    Plenty of regional winemakers may find that the tasting-room model works perfectly well for them, and no one will argue with their decision to develop profitable businesses according to that model. But for some, ambition demands more than that. If the challenge is met, quality usually increases. Then fame. Then fortune.

    And sometimes, you can become famous and still manage to preserve your soul. "People get into wine for the wrong reasons," says Jim Vascik. "But those who have done it for the right reasons from the beginning, they're going to be the movers and shakers. They're the ones who will lead the industry forward."


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