Friday, July 29, 2011

Civil War returns to the Commonwealth

As soon as the chaps at Zephyr Adventures unleashed the announcement that Charlottesville, VA would host the 2011 Wine Bloggers' Conference, I knew there'd be controversy. Allan Wright might as well have been Ed McMahon, announcing a perfect score for Sinbad over Dennis Miller's 3.5 stars on that ill-fated night in Star Search history. Out of left field, California heavyweight Paso Robles and- if the conference was to move East- shoe-in "big four" producer New York were kicked to the curb in favor of...


Immediately, I already heard the shit fly in corners of the room, on the bus back to Seattle, online:

"Clearly, the organizers took the highest bid. The vote was ignored."

"Do they even make wine back East? I don't want to drink a bunch of muscadine."

Ad nauseam. Or so it seemed to me. As a proud East-coaster with lots of left coast friends, I guess I hear this stuff once in a while, so it tends to put me on the defensive. Turns out Virginia is the 5th largest producer of wine in the States, right behind Oregon, but the folks in California can seem to dismiss anything outside of California. Again, that's how it sometimes seems to me. Maybe I just see East-West wine relations though piss-n-vinegar colored glasses.

So, given my preemptive position of defense- mobilized with a state within driving distance of my own, I went on the attack on Twitter, started preaching the importance of terroir, begged folks to come to beautiful Charlottesville (while thinking it was an underwhelming place, on paper). Admittedly, I was not as jazzed about the prospects of Charlottesville as I was about the other two proposed locations. Alas, that which is most familar (in this case, in terrain, flora, fauna, and climate) is often least exotic. Sort of like why I pass Chick-Fil-A every day, but will freak out if I don't get an In-N-Out burger when out West. Animal-style, my friends. I ain't no dummy.

Furthermore, we'd be dealing with Virginia wine. Most of those in-the-know have heard quite a bit about the state's burgeoning industry, but few have tasted. If it were good, wouldn't it be distributed better, so folks outside of VA could get a taste? Well, these wines are not distributed well (another issue altogether), so we outside the Commonwealth would be dealing with the unfamiliar. And unfamiliar is scary.

In short, I was pulling like hell for Charlottesville- and the wines of Virginia- to hit a home run. But I feared the Commonwealth had warning-track power, at best. At least I assumed this notion in the minds of Californians (sorry Oregon and Washington, you're getting lumped in. Squeakiest wheel...).

So, when I heard pals from the Bay and friends from L.A. claim how impressed- across the board- they were with the quality of Virginia wine, it really warmed my cold, East-coast heart. I'd assumed the worst, and soon realized that, for the most part, our friends from the West had come with open minds, and curious palates. In fact, a handful of bloggers had been teased with samples of Viognier, a white grape seeming to grow well in the Shenandoah hills. But, to me and several others, pockets of the reds were extraordinarily surprising. Nebbiolo and Cabernet Franc from Barboursville Vineyards showed restraint, complexity, and potential for aging. Petit Verdot from Jefferson Vineyards turned some heads... even those still on Pacific time. Not an epiphany, but a feather in the cap of an extraordinary underdog. And relief for this homer.

That said, there were also some pretty unimpressive wines. And with them came a hearty serving of snark, particularly from freak-nasty folks like natural wine purist and fellow (former, but always honorary) ATLien, Hardy Wallace.

In a way, I sort of get it. I heard a Virginia winemaker discuss "unique terroir" and go into how his wine is "made in the vineyard", then elaborate on deliberate acidification, manipulation, the dozens of fungicide sprayings that are required to eliminate vine-stifling powdery and downy mildew. Is there any real terroir if grapes can't naturally grow there?

Yet, I don't think this is a Virginia problem. There are plenty of awful, heavily-manipulated wines from every corner of the world, even King California (and for goodness sake, there's a popular fungicide called "Bordeaux Mixture"). I think the gripes from Hardy and folks like Richard Jennings were not pointed directly at the host State, but the popular industry in general. Indeed, many wines poured at the sponsored events, as well as "speed tastings" (a whole other animal not worth elaborating upon), left a lot to be desired. At least to the experienced (perhaps spoiled) palate, with which many of use are blessed/cursed.

However, in my relatively short experience with Wine Bloggers' Conferences, I don't really expect the sponsor wines to show well. Some do, but for the most part, they're widgets of the wine marketing machine, designed for the common denominator. It's a shame, because the conference clientele is a mess of wine geeks. Regardless, I write them off as educational; a means to picking out what I like and do not like in wine.

To me, where the real, true value of these conferences lies is in the camaraderie, and the contraband... wines, beers, and liquors smuggled in; each participant's personal "stash". We all communicate online for the entire year, and in the few days we get to carouse in person, the ones who "get it" put down their phones, leave their laptops in the room, and disconnect- in order to try connect. Side-events and after parties showcase the best that people- and their home states or favorite places- have to offer. We jockey to wow each other, shift some paradigms, and puff out our chests a bit. New friends are made, as cliques eventually break down, and people step away from their devices, put themselves out there, and say, "hey, nice to finally meet you in person." Then, they pop corks or bottle caps and say, with a gleeful smirk, "come 'ere. You just gotta try this."

At last, we drink instead of think, we toast instead of taste, and we celebrate the fact that wine- which has always brought people together- is bigger than blogs, tweets, tasting notes, breakout sessions, sponsors, Google analytics, readership, geographic bias, and regional differences. Wine courses through all our veins, and we realize that no matter where the grapes are grown or where the hotel is situated, everything is in the right place...


...and, of course, if you got nothing out of this post, as promised:

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