Owners of some of the biggest names in California’s Napa Valley think regional wines are up-and-comers. They came together to discuss the future of U.S. wineries at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.

If you’ve watched the movie, “Bottle Shock,” you know the story of how California wine came to beat French wine in blind taste tests. The movie focused on Chateau Montelena’s white wine, but a California red — Stag’s Leap — also beat the French.

The founder and owner of Stag’s Leap, Warren Winiarski, sees something similar happening with regional wines pushing into California’s territory.

St. John’s College brought in several alumni who happen to own some of the top wineries in the U.S. — Stag’s Leap, Frog’s Leap, Duckhorn, Calder Wines, Goldeneye out of Alexander Valley, and Turley also from Alexander Valley.

Stag’s Leap made California wine country what it is today. Six years after the winery began, the label’s Cabernet beat French reds in a blind taste test in the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. Warren says until then California vintners were brushed off as hobbyists who made good wines, but great wines came “only in the sacred soil of France.”

Thirty years later, wine fans maintained the only good U.S. wine comes from Napa Valley. But then Oregon busted out with highly rated Pino Gris. Other states are also starting to figure out the key — finding the grape that grows best in their area.

Wines that used to get a 90 score on Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate are going up against new wines and “getting their asses kicked” according to Chris Stagnitta, a wine consultant at Prestige Beverage Group in Church Hill, Maryland.

“The future is open,” says Winiarski.

Why now? It has to do with several factors coming together:

  • determining which grapes grow well in the various Chesapeake Bay appellation (regions),
  • changes in state laws helpful to the industry’s growth
  • a shortage of land for new growers in California.

Due to California laws limiting vineyard anchorage growth and pushing land prices, the average price for an acre of grape-growing land is about $250,000 in California overall and up to $1,000,000 an acre in Napa Valley, according to winemakers. If you want to become a vintner in California you need some hefty investors.

Calluna Vineyards, Sonoma County California
Calluna Vineyards in Sonoma County, California, was started by New York City financier, David Jeffrey, who started a second career working at vineyards in California & France before raising funds and finding investors for his vineyard.

Professionally trained winemakers are looking elsewhere. California has several different wine-growing regions based on soil type and climate. Using this knowledge, they’re finding similar soil types in the Chesapeake Bay’s sandy basin and using grape varieties that are likely to be successful. That’s not as easy as it sounds.

Virginia, and especially Maryland, have a sad history of failing vineyards, starting in the Colonial era. French vines simply didn’t last the harsh seasonal changes and native grapes were too bitter. So you either spent a lot of money buying French wines or added a lot of expensive sugar.

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It wasn’t until the 1960s that serious efforts were tried again, but with limited success. State laws were barely beyond the prohibition era and knocked down any major investments.

While the Chesapeake region was hampered by state-level protectionism, the winemakers in California explored and experimented until they discovered how it could be done. They were also open and willing to share their knowledge. They believed that if one thrived, they could all thrive, and everybody doing well hedged against any individual going through bad times.

That unique philosophy means California wineries created an unofficial apprenticeship system for winemakers and then encouraged them to go forth and make wine. Some have come to the Chesapeake Bay region for the cheaper land and sunny, sandy soil.

Great Frogs Winery in Annapolis, Maryland
Great Frogs Winery in Annapolis, Maryland. Its first plantings began in 1999

Then in 2000, the Maryland legislature passed laws allowing wineries to sell by the glass and to take their wines to licensed festivals. A few more wineries popped up. But it was the change in 2010 that made the difference. The legislature passed the Maryland Winery Modernization Act. Wineries could open tasting rooms and start shipping their wines out of state. That allowed Maryland wine to step out of the local tourist business and into the national wine marketplace. Investors started planning and planting.

Most wine drinkers have dismissed these efforts as a tourism ploy, but the vintners are very serious about their efforts. Many started planting their vines between 2008 and 2010. Wineries can start making wine three or four years after planting the grapes, but it takes seven to eight years for the vines to mature. That means Maryland is just now starting to come into its prime. Virginia is a little further ahead.

These wineries are blending wines that are making established connoisseurs take a sip and go “hmm.”

California Winemakers Encourage Regional Efforts

Rory Williams, founder of Calder Wine Company in Napa Valley, California
Rory Williams, founder of Calder Wine Company in Napa Valley, California (Photo courtesy St. John’s College)

Calder Wine Company founder Rory Williams grew up in the winery industry. His dad owns Frog’s Leap. His mom started her vineyard, Tres Sabores winery. Williams went out on his own and started growing Charbono grapes in an effort, he says, to move wine beyond Pinot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot.

“Greatness can come from anywhere,” Rory says. He recently came across a mom and son team producing what he called an “excellent” wine in Virginia.

John Williams, founder of Frog’s Leap Winery points out that Cabernet grapes can be planted anywhere, so you’ll find “Cabs” produced in the Chesapeake region, but other varies may grow better here. “The world has to open up to things other than Cab, Chard, etc,” he says.

The great wines of Maryland and Virginia are likely to be blends or types of grapes with unfamiliar names. The mother and son team behind Paradise Springs Winery in Fairfax, Virginia have a 2012 Tannat that got a 91 rating from the influential Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. Tannat is a grape that originated in southwest France.

An example of a Maryland wine to keep an eye on is Great Frog’s Winery located on Harness Creek Vineyards near Annapolis. They were invited to the St. John’s wine tasting next to Frog’s Leap, Stag’s Leap, and the others. Great Frogs has been planting French Bordeaux varietals since 1999. National reviews are already comparing their Meritage (50%  Merlot, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon) to similarly-priced California wines.

What Makes a Wine Great, Instead of Good?

A “good” wine depends on your taste, not someone else’s. You know you’ve found one when someone tastes it and says, “That’s not bad.”

Zach Rasmuson, COO of Duckhorn Wine Company near St. Helena in Napa Valley, says good wines are becoming sweeter “because the consumer has told us those wines are delightful.”

John Williams, head of Frog's Leap Winery in Napa Valley in California, tastes wine at St. John's College wine tasting weekend, In Vino Veritas 2015
John Williams, head of Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley in California, tastes wine at St. John’s College wine tasting weekend Vino Veritas. Stag’s Leap founder Warren Winiarski (right) (Photo courtesy St. John’s College)

Great wines are more complex and those who’ve been drinking wine for a long time use all sorts of different ways to describe the subtleties — for example, a high-end wine by Franciscan winery out of Napa is described as having the nose of crushed seashells. The average wine drinker laughs at that, but a trained wine drinker does smell something in the wine that makes them picture seashells.

Case in point — Great Frog’s grapes are grown where watermen tossed their shells, and they still find shucked oyster shells in the soil.

Vintners tend to wax poetic about wine. But then, they have millions of dollars at stake every growing season. There’s a lot of stress, and a lot of time between each stage of the process to think about it.

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How Do You Find a Great Wine?

Many wines are pleasing and interesting, but great wines go beyond that says Stag’s Leap head, Warren Winiarski. Great wines “have truth,” he says.

“A good wine should glow. It should be clear (so) that it invites you to taste it.” That means looking for a clear color in the appearance of your wine.

Wines have something called nose. It’s different than appearance.

“One is for the eye, the other is for the nose,” Winiarski points out. He says to smell the wine for hints of scents that appeal to you, like citrus, pepper, chocolate, or even crushed seashell.

Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag's Leap Winery in Napa Valley, California.
Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley, California. (Photo courtesy St. John’s College)

“I’m interested in inducing a state of mind, or a state of the soul, of your whole perception,” Winiarski says.

Sure, the alcohol has a bit to do with that, but Winiarski pushes on. “It comes from the sense of completeness, of unity, of diverse things — the smell, the perfume, the sensing of flavor. All of these elements are unified, and if they’re not, you’re not satisfied. You’re left hanging. Or you’re left with something that’s incomplete.”

Winiarski then takes a sip of his 2006 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon (originally around $50 a bottle, now that they’ve been snatched up, approx. $100 a bottle) and his face takes on a look of completeness and satisfaction. So it does exist when it comes to wine; at least in Warren Winiarski.

But don’t relate completeness and great wine with expensive. Not all $100 bottles of wine offer this. Some wines are expensive just because it’s a small run (number of cases produced). Other wines are priced high because many people don’t know the difference and simply buy expensive ones. It is possible to find great wines at a lower price point.

“The structure (of a wine) is something the mind perceives,” adds Winiarski. “What I’m interested in as a winemaker is: what is the state of the soul that is in you when you perceive my wine?”

Despite All the Poetic Words, Wine is Risky Agriculture

Grapevines come of age after three years and can produce well for about 30 years. Like a fruit tree or even a farm animal, how they’re treated during the span of their lives determines how well the crop will grow each year and into the next.

Do they use sulfur, herbicides, or let nature take its course? Sulfur reduces mildew, but can damage the leaves; herbicide may work better but it’s not organic; letting vines die naturally from disease can cost another seven years before that field is growing grapes again.

How many leaves should you trim off? Too many and the plant doesn’t get sun; too few and the grapes won’t grow.

Grapes awaiting harvest at Calluna Winery in Sonoma County, California
Grapes awaiting harvest at Calluna Winery in Sonoma County, California

When do you pick? That depends on how sweet you want your grapes. In dry wine, sweetness increases alcohol levels, which changes the taste.

And these are the elements they can control. They can’t control weather or climate change.

Once grapes are picked, wineries have to decide how picky they should be on which grapes make the cut. The rejected grapes are often pressed (juiced) also but sold to other winemakers or composed for use later around the vines.

Do winemakers need to decide how much to manipulate the flavor? For example, the issue of grape skins: Do you ferment the grapes with the skins? Should you introduce “intrusions” (additional grape skins)? If so, how long?

They have many scientific measures to control exactly how much does what, but the winemaker has to decide if they want to go in that direction. Each of these decisions will change that year’s wine flavor, its quality, and the winery’s profits.

Under this stress, you can understand why winemakers start talking like this:

“Why am I imposing my will on this as opposed to opening myself up to the suggestion of the wine, the grapes themselves.” – Zach Rasmuson, COO of Buckhorn Wine Company in Napa Valley.

In California, the mist of the San Francisco Bay chills certain areas making certain valleys, like the Russian Valley, a bit chillier and good for growing pinot noir. While Napa is warmer and known for Cabernet grapes. The same is happening around the Chesapeake. Wineries are trying to figure out what grows best in each region based on soil and climate, and it varies from the Upper Bay to Lower Bay.

Chesapeake region winemakers are just getting started in this yearly grape tango. What they bottled this year is likely to taste better next year or the year after, but they can’t really know yet because those first wines are just getting to the high-quality point. Keep in mind that the California wine industry has been around only 50 years.

Rasmuson says “making wines is about the long view. It’s about thinking 20 years, 30 years, 40 years down the line.”

Many Maryland and Virginia wineries are only about 10 years in.

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