Answer: It’s Mostly Not—But It Could Be
By Thomas Madrecki, special to Edible DC. Photography by Hannah Hudson. Published in our Summer 2016 Issue.
The Virginia wine industry is thriving like never before. But amid all the winery openings and government initiatives to drive investment, one detail is left out: Almost none of it is truly “sustainable.”
Put differently, with rare exception, the local wine industry is heavily dependent on intensive chemical treatments and other mechanized or commercial winemaking practices.
That isn’t to say that vineyard managers aren’t trying. Most Virginia winemakers will tell you that they spray as infrequently as possible and that they try to minimize their role in the cellar. But that overlooks what is otherwise an unfortunate truth: The use of pesticides, fungicides, other chemicals, purchased yeasts, approved additives and industrial fining or filtration is still the order of the day.
As a chef who intentionally tries to feature wines from the world’s most sustainable grape growers—but who also tries to source the best ingredients locally—the current state of Virginia wine can be frustrating. At my pop-up dinners and events, I’ve tried for years to source local wines that not only meet the standards of taste and terroir, but also are made in an environmentally friendly, non-interventionist way.
The results, needless to say, have been disappointing. For every farmer in the state who is sincerely trying to minimize his or her environmental impact, there seem to be a dozen more “estates” primarily focused on weddings, tasting room tours and farming out their wine production to consultants. As far as I’m concerned, that’s antithetical to the best tenets of local agriculture. If Virginia is really going to be for wine lovers, it’s time for some tough love.
Even considering that local grape growers face extreme pest, fungal and weather challenges, absolute statements like “we have to spray” beg for greater scrutiny. Indeed, Virginia faces dozens of hurdles to growing grapes successfully, and it’s a young region lacking generations of land-use knowledge. But if someone says you can’t grow vinifera grapes without chemicals, or that you can’t make wine without commercial processes, they’re lying. And, by my standards, they’re not moving the ball in the right direction. Investments have to be protected, but so does our planet.
With that mindset, I recently surveyed the state for winemakers and growers who are trying to change the status quo. Is it possible to put Virginia wine on a trajectory toward greater sustainability? And what can be done to make Virginia wines that reflect our native terroir—that taste and smell like Virginia?
The good news is that at least two wineries are making headway.
My search for a better Virginia wine first led me to Ankida Ridge Vineyards in Amherst. There, I quickly picked up on what a difference mountainous terrain and stony soils can make. These unique growing conditions, which are allowing Ankida to produce high-quality wines with fewer chemical treatments, demonstrate how badly Virginia needs to invest more time, money and energy in identifying the best places to plant vines. Other regions like Burgundy and the Loire Valley are years ahead of us, but that’s all the more reason to try. If we care about sustainability and making better wine, we can’t continue planting vineyards at the bottom of hills and putting scenic tasting rooms on top (as a general rule).
Another bright spot on Virginia’s grape-growing landscape is Loving Cup, the only certified organic vineyard and winery in the state. Owner Karl Hambsch achieved this by growing hybrid grapes, which are bred for increased cold and disease resistance. Some may scoff at the idea of not growing true vinifera, but it’s a potential solution worth considering. As with the question of where we’re planting grapes, we also need to reconsider what grapes we’re growing and why. Consider that only a few years ago, Viognier was christened as the state grape—but that many winemakers now wonder if it should have been Petit Manseng. Do we really know yet what’s best for Virginia?
Truly, the commonwealth may need to take a bold and proactive approach if it wants to adjust course. Because of hybrid and indigenous grape varietals’ cold and disease resistance, Virginia needs to amplify the research of scientists like Cliff Ambers and those at Cornell University, where many of Karl’s plants were born. Vinifera grapes are themselves the product of breeding and selection, and we tend to forget that there’s a whole world of grapes apart from Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Why should Virginia be confined to what works somewhere else?
Beyond better land and better grapes, it’s also time for a few mavericks to seize the moment. We can do this—but it will take big ideas, radical nonconformity and a risk-taking spirit. Where is the Virginia version of La Garagista, a farm winery in Vermont—VERMONT!—that is making exceptional, natural wine from hybrid grapes?
The fact is, it’s possible to make wine naturally—with little to no intervention in the vineyard and cellar. Virginia just hasn’t done it yet. Thankfully, the likes of Ankida and Loving Cup are beginning to give it their best shot, and perhaps others will follow.
The best wines speak to a time and place, while contributing to a holistic, healthy and sustainable Earth environment. Making wine with fewer interventions, from more appropriate vineyard sites and with an eye toward capturing Virginia terroir—even its idiosyncrasies—is something we should all try to bottle.
Tom Madrecki is a writer, cook and wine enthusiast. He ran popular pop-up dining experience, Chez les Commis, and was named one of Wine Enthusiast's "40 Under 40" in 2014.