Sunday, April 27, 2008

what we talk about when we talk about wine

I volunteered to help my father pour wine at the James River Wine Festival this year. He has poured for one of the better wineries for the past few years, and I joined him this year. It seemed appropriate since this festival is something that brought me to Richmond annually for a few years in the nineties. At that point, the festival was a funky little affair held on Browns Island, downtown where the James River bisects Richmond, and it seemed important to the burgeoning wine industry in the state.

The festival has since been moved out to the far 'burbs west of town, in an odd little pavilion in a corporate park. It has also gone the way of many events that someone here thought they could make better. There are lots of craft vendors selling the usual "art" fare, there are the various random vendors selling things like home window treatments, and there are the requisite cover bands playing "Twist and Shout" one more time. Food is provided by the usual funnel cake/sausage/hamburger/gyro/fries/nachos stand, a crab cake stand, and one lone local restaurant that decided to buy in--without really being able to compete with the funnel cakes or the crab cakes. Hell, I even opted for the traveling crab cake stand and their overly sweet lemonade.

But the festival is supposed to be all about wine, right? Right. Except that many of the people who flock to these festivals know very little about wine. Instead, they know "what they like." As I learned, this means sweet wines. Think Riesling with sugar dumped into it. Or the berry wines hawked by several of the wineries. Some people are so adamant that they will categorically refuse to taste any other wine.

The winery I was pouring for is proud of the fact that their wines are dry. In fact, even their dessert wines have residual sugars as low as three percent. Considering that many of the "sweet" wines poured by other makers push into the 12-15% range, even the dessert wine we were pouring wasn't sweet by some people's standards. It was clear early on that it wasn't even worth trying to get some of the people to try the wines if all they wanted was sweet. (And the winemaker had asked us not to pour the dessert wine frivolously.) There were a number of people who treated it as a slight that we didn't have anything they wanted. What they seemed to forget is that these festivals are supposed to be a two-way street: festival-goers get to try new wines for a small price, and since the wineries are there to sell wine, festival-goers are expected to buy some wine.

After pouring for a few hours, I had the chance to roam around and do a bit of tasting myself. What I found, however, was that there were only a few of the better wineries present: Barboursville, Veritas, Villa Appalaccia, Tarara, Corcoran, and a few others I've already forgotten. Most of the wineries, however, were places like Peaks of Otter which serves a habanero wine and various fruit creations that don't really deserve to be called wine. In addition, there was a whole tier of wineries that also sell treacly, sweet creations, and whose main draw seems to be their proximity to the highway and their pretty tasting rooms. There was one winery, in particular, that I was shocked to see in attendance--their wines were so bad when they opened three years ago, I figured they'd go under.

Ultimately, many of the people who attended the festival wouldn't even get to taste some of the best wines being produced in Virginia. Why? Because of sweet wines and suburban silliness. Or more to the point: when the festival was moved and "improved," attending became less profitable for many of the wineries who care more about interesting, challenging wines. Clearly, there are some that hang on, but even some of those producers have begun to push the showmanship a little bit and maybe even added a few sweet wines themselves.

The owner of the winery I poured for also made a good point. Because we don't have a food culture in the States, we are not culturally attuned to see wine as an accompaniment for food. Yesterday, that was made even more clear: food options were not only limited, they were not at all attuned to third word in the name of the festival. So what we have in the end is an event that is no longer held anywhere near the James River, and for which the wine (or what wine should be) ends up being secondary to the festival.


I could add more, but it's getting late.