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Virginia wines: A rich history ages well

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Posted: Sunday, October 6, 2013 12:00 am

This month, Virginia celebrates the 25th anniversary of Virginia Wine Month, a statewide recognition created in 1988 by Gov. Gerald Baliles to encourage citizens to visit Virginia’s wineries.

As we celebrate this silver anniversary, it’s important to reflect on just how well Virginia wine has aged.

The commonwealth’s rich wine history started at Jamestown and gained fame with Thomas Jefferson, who saw Virginia’s potential as a flourishing wine region.

At its modern-day inception, which most view as 1976, the industry was full of optimism.

The wines held promise — perhaps more promise than substance to be truthful.

Fast forward to 2013 — years of experimentation have shown which wine grape varieties grow well with our climate and soils and which wines are better left to other regions.

For example, in 1988, the second most widely grown grape was Riesling; today, very few acres are planted.

In 2013, Cabernet Franc and Viognier, widely considered Virginia’s signature red and white varietals, are two of the state’s most produced grapes.

In 1988, Cabernet Franc covered only 11 acres, and Viognier was virtually unknown, not only in Virginia but everywhere, even in its native France.

Virginia also is in the early stages of an evolving “Virginia style” wine, something that would be impossible without those years of trial and error.

Now, Virginia winemakers are using winemaking techniques that best accentuate the qualities of the fruit for acclaimed Virginia wines.

We are seeing characteristics emerge in our wines that set Virginia apart from other wine regions.

Tourism is a key aspect of the Virginia wine industry, with more than 1.6 million people visiting our wineries in 2011.

These visitors bring dollars to Virginia, especially in rural areas.

Wine travel in Virginia has received many recent accolades.

Virginia ranked as a top global wine travel destination in several national publications, most notably Wine Enthusiast, which designated Virginia as one of the 10 best wine travel destinations of 2012.

The caliber of the wines is the first step toward industry success, but in a crowded and competitive field, it helps to have champions.

Gov. Bob McDonnell and the General Assembly have provided unprecedented support to Virginia’s wine industry.

Examining major highlights since 2010, it is important to note that the governor made the promotion of Virginia wines and wine tourism a key platform of his overall economic development and jobs-creation agenda.

He stated that he wanted to help Virginia be the “East Coast capital for wine and wine tourism.”

This administration also worked with the General Assembly to establish a reimbursable tax credit program for the establishment or expansion of vineyards and wineries and tripled the dollars placed in the Virginia Wine Promotion Fund for research, education and marketing.

The governor also promoted Virginia wines and wine tourism on all of his domestic and international trade missions.

This attention has helped generate a number of positive results for our wineries.

For example, sales of Virginia wines are experiencing steady growth, reaching an all-time high of more than 511,000 cases in the 2013 fiscal year.

Virginia is now the fifth-largest wine producer in the U.S.

The number of Virginia wineries has grown from about 170 to 230.

Also, Virginia wines entered the important British and Chinese markets, creating more attention for our wines and causing export figures to grow.

Virginia hosted a number of national and international wine conferences, including Wineries Unlimited, which is staying in Virginia after more than 30 years in another state.

In addition, a beautiful documentary about the Virginia wine industry, “Vintage: The Winemaker’s Year,” was produced and shown across the country and in key international cities.

Last year, Gov. and Mrs. McDonnell hosted the inaugural Virginia Wine Summit, bringing global opinion leaders to Virginia for a daylong discussion on our wines.

We’ll continue this tradition later this month when numerous national and international wine experts return for another round of dialogue.

Each of these events provided unprecedented visibility to Virginia’s unique wine story, its winemakers, their wines and our rich history.

So, on the occasion of Virginia Wine Month, I offer a toast to Virginia’s wineries and vineyards, which have built a burgeoning segment of Virginia agriculture, the state’s largest industry.

I also toast the many restaurants, wine stores and chain retailers selling our wines.

And, while I’m at it, I toast the governor and the General Assembly for their vision to make Virginia the East Coast capital for wine and wine tourism.

There is no better time to support your local businesses by visiting any of Virginia’s 230 beautiful wineries, requesting Virginia wine while out to eat and purchasing Virginia wines at your local wine stores and retailers.

Cheers — may the next 25 years be just as “fruitful” as the past 25 have been!

Todd P. Haymore is Virginia’s secretary of agriculture and forestry.

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