News & Politics

A Vine Grows in the East

Wines from the East Coast are no longer expensive novelties—the best are beginning to take their place among the world’s elite. So why are they so hard to find in better restaurants and wine shops?

Andrew Stover, sommelier at Oya, champions oft-neglected wines of the East Coast. Photograph by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.

When Andrew Stover leans over the table and says, “I’ve got a wine for you,” expect the unexpected. It may be a Viognier from North Carolina, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Georgia, or a Cabernet Franc dessert wine from Ohio. Stover, the sommelier at Oya in DC’s Penn Quarter, picks among the best producers in the eastern United States to showcase delicious wines from unexpected places.

He’s not alone in his enthusiasm for these oft-neglected wines. At 2941 restaurant in Falls Church, sommelier Kathy Morgan offers adventurous diners an Rkatsiteli—pronounced “ar-katsiteli”—from Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars in New York’s Finger Lakes region. The “Rkats”—a white variety from ex-Soviet Georgia—is a refreshing wine whose abundant ripe fruit can make jaded Chardonnay drinkers thump the table in delight.

At Capitol Hill’s Charlie Palmer Steak, wine director Nadine Brown maintains a list that includes a wine from nearly every state. Diners who insist on drinking only the best that California, Oregon, and Washington state have to offer risk missing out on a Bordeaux doppelgänger from Raphael winery in Long Island or a vibrant Chardonnay from Virginia’s Linden.

Stover says he realized East Coast wines were beginning to catch on when, in one week, he sold six bottles of a rich and complex Bordeaux-style red from Frogtown Cellars in Georgia.

“I like to offer wines that are unusual—things consumers would not get unless they went to the winery,” he says. “Most of them don’t want to drink the same wines they have at home. Listing these regional wines, I can offer something they can’t find anywhere else.”

Brown, who also offers the Dr. Frank Rkatsiteli, says people buy it “because they like to say it and because more consumers are willing to try something new.”

Brown says one of her favorite tactics is to pour a little wine without telling the customer what it is. “Quite often, they will taste it and say, ‘Wow—can I get more of this?’ ”

It’s taken 400 years of trial and error, beginning with the failure of the Jamestown settlers to grow European grapes here, but the best wines from the East Coast are beginning to take their place among the world’s elite. Viognier, Cabernet Franc, and even the occasional Cabernet Sauvignon from Virginia are establishing a style and flavor—what wine lovers call terroir—of their own.

Winemakers in New York’s Finger Lakes are producing some Riesling that’s bone dry, electric with citrus and mineral flavors, and able to stand among the best Rieslings in the world.

Wine regions are sprouting in places such as western North Carolina and northern Georgia where vintners are finding the right mix of altitude, soil, and temperature suitable for growing high-quality grapes.

Yet many wine drinkers regard these wines as expensive novelties. Adventurous sommeliers including Morgan, Brown, and Stover are working to overcome such attitudes by selecting the best of these wines for their lists. But many of their colleagues have been slow to follow suit. And on the retail level, it’s not always easy to find East Coast wines—even on the East Coast.

Distributors have to be cajoled to register a wine and make it available. That often isn’t easy.

“Availability of these wines is not just a factor of small production but of the hangover from Prohibition and the vestiges of the 21st Amendment” that repealed Prohibition and left distribution regulation to the states, says Gordon Murchie, president of the Vinifera Wine Growers Association, an Alexandria-based trade group that sponsors an annual Virginia wine festival.

In July, the VWGA held its third Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition, which promotes advances in the wine industry up and down the East Coast. Twenty judges awarded Best in Show to a Cabernet Franc from Fox Meadows winery near Front Royal. An awards presentation is scheduled for mid-October on Capitol Hill.

2941’s Morgan, who is active in the international Court of Master Sommeliers, has served as a judge all three years of the competition, as have I. Stover was a judge this past year. Morgan added the Dr. Frank Rkatsiteli and the Afton Mountain Cabernet Franc from Virginia to her list after tasting them at last year’s judging. This year’s tasting persuaded her to add a Petit Manseng dessert wine from Veritas Vineyards in Afton, Virginia.

“The level of quality in these wines has improved dramatically,” Morgan says, with special praise for Merlot from Long Island. Her “eye-openers” from this year’s competition included two off-dry whites, a Gewürztraminer and a Traminette from Presque Isle Winery in Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie district.

Supporters hope that as these wines continue to improve, more and more will appear on restaurant lists and retail shelves—and that consumers will give them a try.

As good as California, Oregon, and Washington are, there’s another coast full of exciting wine to enjoy.

Andrew Stover’s favorite East Coast wineries: Blenheim, Breaux, Chrysalis, Horton, and Kluge (Virginia); Paradocx (Pennsylvania); Sakonnet (Rhode Island); Frogtown (Georgia); Wyncroft (Michigan); St. Joseph (Ohio). Favorite wines: Barboursville Barbera Reserve (“stunning”) and Chrysalis Albarino (“so much like a Galician Albarino, I don’t think I could tell them apart in a blind tasting”). Both are from Virginia.

Kathy Morgan’s favorite East Coast wineries: Afton Mountain, Barboursville, Kluge, Naked Mountain, Pearmund, the Winery at La Grange (Virginia); Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, Raphael, Standing Stone (New York). Favorite wines: Barboursville Octagon (“Guests who order it the first time can’t believe it’s from Virginia”) and Veritas Petit Manseng, also from Virginia, another find from the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition.

Nadine Brown’s favorite East Coast wineries: Biltmore Estate (North Carolina); Dr. Frank, Raphael, Salmon Run, Standing Stone (New York); Chester Gap, Michael Shaps, and Linden (Virginia). Favorite wines: Chrysalis Norton Locksley Reserve, Linden Avenius Chardonnay, and Michael Shaps Viognier from Virginia; Dr. Frank Riesling and Rkatsiteli from New York.

Dave McIntyre’s favorite East Coast wineries: Barboursville, Chester Gap, Delfosse, Linden, Michael Shaps, White Hall (Virginia); Childress, Shelton (North Carolina); Frogtown (Georgia); Dr. Frank, Fox Run, Jamesport, Lamoreaux Landing, Martha Clara (New York); Chaddsford, Pres­que Isle (Pennsylvania). Favorite wines: Delfosse Reserve Viognier, Linden Hardscrabble Chardonnay and Boisseau Red (Virginia); Dr. Frank Rkatsiteli, Fox Run Riesling, Jamesport Merlot (New York); Frogtown Cabernet Sauvignon (Georgia).