On a beautiful Saturday afternoon at the end of May in the town of Paris, Virginia—an hour’s easy drive from DC—a telling event took place. It had been inspired by a 1976 winetasting in Paris, France, that did the unthinkable: It compared some of the top names in French wine with new and little-known wines from California. The results shook the wine world.
In 1976, California wines were getting little respect. The tasting’s French judges were told that the wines were from both France and California. The tasting was blind, with the wines decanted into unlabeled bottles. As the tasting began, it quickly became clear to George M. Taber of Time magazine—the sole reporter present—that the judges were having trouble telling the French from the California wines. With great conviction, experts identified California wines as French and vice versa.
That tasting turned out to be big news and an interesting story, which Taber told in his 2005 book, Judgment of Paris, and which was also recounted in the 2008 movie Bottle Shock. More than three decades later, that famous tasting inspired another one.
My wife, Marti, and I have spent many pleasant afternoons visiting Virginia vineyards, of which there are now more than 200. Virginia ranks seventh in the nation in wine-grape production. Yet many Washingtonians we talk with still are skeptical about the quality of Virginia wines.
Wines aren’t new to Virginia soil. The state’s viticultural heritage dates back to 1619, when Jamestown settlers were required by law to grow ten grapevines each, making Virginia the birthplace of the American wine industry. One of the reasons Britain colonized America was to gain agricultural independence from the European continent. Both tobacco and wine were expected to be shipped directly to England more economically than they could be bought from Europe. England was then, as it is today, the world’s largest importer of wine. While the plan worked for tobacco, the Virginia wine was too poor in quality to be shipped.
Two hundred years later, a wine-loving Thomas Jefferson imported Italian vines as well as an Italian vintner to begin his own winemaking venture. Other Virginians dabbled in the business, which peaked just as the Civil War broke out; the war eventually destroyed nearly all of Virginia’s vineyards.
Fast-forward to Prohibition, whose effects were felt longer in Virginia than in other parts of the country because of a strong religious influence on state law. In the mid-1980s, Virginia finally got serious about producing good wines. Unlike California’s high-volume producers, most Virginia wineries are boutiques with limited production. In July 2008, Travel & Leisure magazine called Virginia “one of the five top new wine destinations in the world”—and it was the only one listed in the United States.
Yet for many people, even in Maryland and DC, Virginia wines have an image problem. Some wine drinkers remember the early versions, when the vines were young and the wines lacked the concentration of flavor that comes from older vines. Another reason is simply that many people just don’t expect to find good wines made in Virginia.
But Virginia does have a growing wine industry—and it has a Paris, too. So my wife and I decided it might be fun to taste Virginia wines against French and other competitors in Paris, Virginia.
When we ran into Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador to the United States, at a wine gathering and mentioned the idea, he smiled politely and quickly moved away. The French are no doubt tired of tastings in which France’s competitors have little to lose.
Undaunted, we asked Vincent Feraud, wine director at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, for help. One of the country’s top sommeliers, Feraud worked for legendary Washington restaurateur Jean-Louis Palladin for six years, beginning at age 22. He was sommelier at Lespinasse for its four-year existence, then at Maestro for its eight years. Out of friendship, Vincent agreed to oversee the tasting, albeit with a warning: “Virginia wines aren’t very good.”
In preparation for the tasting, we asked some Virginia winemakers and wine merchants for their best wine suggestions. We tasted the wines with Vincent and decided which would be used in the tasting.
Vincent paired the Virginia wines with wines of similar grape, vintage, and price from France and elsewhere. There were to be six comparison flights—for four of them, French wines would be tasted against the Virginians; the other two flights would pit wines from Chile and Austria against Virginia competitors.
When Vincent agreed to manage the tasting, he thought we were inviting a few friends for a low-key wine party. When he saw the list of attendees, his brow furrowed. “This is serious,” he said. “You are challenging me.”
Among the guests were Scott Calvert, former sommelier at the Inn at Little Washington; L’Auberge Chez François sommelier Richard Dunham; Virginia winemaker Michael Shaps; former Washingtonian food and wine editor Robert Shoffner; Basson Al-Kahouaji, owner of Bacchus Wine Cellar in Georgetown; Deborah Martin, the first and only female grand sénéchal of a chapter of La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, the international Burgundy society; and David Vaughan, maître of the Washington chapter of the Commanderie de Bordeaux.
The rest of us were recreational tasters with varying degrees of knowledge. So that we could assess the differences of opinion between the experts and the recreational tasters, the experts’ score sheets were secretly marked for identification later.
Tasters were asked two questions about each flight: Which wine do you prefer, and which is from Virginia?