Contact from the Commonwealth

What’s happening in Virginia, and what its wine community wants to tell the world.
by Alexya Brown

This fall I was secretly looking forward to escaping D.C. and driving down to Shenandoah alone in the faithful 2010 Camry to get lost in all the happenings in October and November.

Yes, Virginia’s been in the spotlight a fair bit this year (ICYMI: Wine Enthusiast named Charlottesville as the American Region of the Year). Many are saying that 2023 will be “a banner year” for Virginia, which saw favorable growing conditions across the board according to makers across the state. The enthusiasm is undoubtedly swelling for a region that has yet to see a total endorsement across the global wine community (to put it gently). But what, exactly, Virginia wants to sell to the world, uniquely and singularly, is still emerging.

These kind of things can only be defined by the doing: Yes, the winemaking itself, but also the synthesizing, the debating, the creating that people do when we come together in common experiences like events. Through showing up at these three events across Richmond, Waynesboro, and Charlottesville this season, I expected to understand Virginia’s Thesis from a clerical, taxonomic perspective (”Virginia wine is defined by this, this, and that”). What I left with was a little bit of that sense, but even more precious, more curiosities and finally an answer to one of the most alarming questions in my own life as of late. And lots of new friends.

HELLAWINE | October 28 in Waynesboro, Va.

Slated to be a party “for the freaks,” Hellawine is Lightwell Survey’s moment to catalyze the punkish spirit that started the project into a full-blown celebration with locals who seek that anarchist thrill in their wines as well. And that it did. I’ve never seen a winery event like this.

Winery partner and D.C. restaurateur Sebastian Zutant, leading the circus as ever, welcomed guests into the industrial, Walking Dead-esque tasting room in his (horrifying) Pennywise costume with pours of the whites and not-quite-reds, including the new 2021 Hintermen. Following the boom of music into the main room led you to winemaker Ben Jordan and tasting room manager Vu Nguyen offering the reds, highlighting this year’s The Weird Ones Are Wolves and Dos Idiots (the latter probably most exemplary of Jordan’s drive for crafting flavor experiences unseen anywhere else in Virginia).

We ended the night, glasses in hand, dancing away to 80s pop in a warehouse-room-turned-haunted dance floor sectioned off by caution tape that was part decoration, but mostly because there were probably actual industrial hazards in the bowels of the room. Waynesboro darlings Rachel and Tyler were pumping out Frito pies and Autumn Olive Farms hot dogs dressed up with pickle-y toppings and sauces.

After the party I headed east to Charlottesville with two new friends and we found ourselves upstairs at Miller’s downtown drinking light beer and shooting pool amongst the university kids and townies in the heat of Halloweekend.

TWO UP WINE DOWN | October 29 in Charlottesville, Va.

It’s like 80 degrees outside, first off. Blenheim Vineyards’ wine club Oenoverse has gathered almost two dozen BIPOC wine professionals to pour wines for festival attendees chosen by the 2023 curators — wines that express their unique perspectives on what matters in the industry today (and, not surprisingly, all domestic. It’s a for us, by us kinda day).

To zoom out: Oenoverse was founded by a group of BIPOC wine lovers, including my friend Reggie Leonard II, who aim to “build diversity, inclusion, and ownership within the Virginia wine community.” Two Up Wine Down is the club’s biggest event, inviting people to get curious about building more space in the local wine economy for all.

Today I’ve agreed to help curator Kendall Gordon pour his pick for the event, Common Wealth Crush Co.’s Family Meal. I was itching to try Whitney Pope’s pick: Blenheim’s no-skin contact Rkatsiteli grown at Horton Vineyards, and I didn’t know I was even looking for the skin-contact Sauvignon Blanc by local vigneron Matthieu Finot.

The whole event was comfortable, joyous, and serendipitous. Amongst 400 attendees, I met so many people who reminded me of my own loved ones, eager to feel joy in a space that was made by us and for us. We line danced and swag surfed. I was in Charlottesville, but it felt like the annual Father’s Day cookout at my grandma’s house (but with way less Corona fresh out the cooler). I (finally!) met Em Abshire & Megan Holland of RVA’s InWine and got to dance and play with my Shenandoah Valley friends, new and old.

ENCOUNTER | November 12 in Richmond, Va.

After a slight change in plans for my Sunday (read: rescheduling my trip to Iceland amid seismic activity concerns), I was beamed into downtown Richmond at the Institute for Contemporary Art for what was dubbed Virginia’s “very first natural wine fair.” Put on by a local team including friend-of-the-pod Ashley Patino, Encounter featured over three dozen producers. After tasting in the local corner with Patrick Collins and Danielle LeCompte of Patois, Will Hodges of Troddenvale, Tim Jordan of all those CWC projects, and Matthieu Finot himself, I popped into the seminar.

Titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Natural Wine,” I was admittedly apprehensive of exactly where the seminar was headed without a sharply focused thesis. Panelists included sommelier Mads Kleppe of Noma, sommelier-winemaker-domestic wine marketing expert Lee Campbell, Patrick Collins, and Tim Jordan, so the panel naturally skewed Virginia-centric.

My background in public health gave me an obsession with understanding how we work together to build a sense of community resilience (more about that here). That question is my life force and has been the rhythm that’s pushed me in my professional career, and in several different fields. But since pivoting into natural wine, I’ve struggled to find whether wine even matters in that sense, and if this field is meaningful for me.

I was surprised to walk away from the seminar being able to so clearly see the thread, finally. From their own vantage points, the panelists, joined by wine writer Alice Feiring as co-moderator, arrived at this joint definition of natural wine: where we celebrate what’s truthful to the people and their land, as articulated by Lee Campbell. Where we think critically about why particular regions (European), varietals (vinifera), and makers (European) are more highly valued, and shift that value into the means we have control over. Where that control affords us resources to build capacity for generations to come right in our backyard. Patrick shared that Patois’ founders had always wanted to go from foraging their fruit to buying their own orchard plots once they raised enough capital. “Foraging was a necessity,” Patrick says, “but now it’s liberatory” to celebrate the fruit that Virginia offers as its best-of-the-land, with no intervention.

And that was really the spirit of the rest of the festival. I chatted with Giorgia of Cortona’s Signoraginni, where her labels represent her family’s experience as garment workers. Lee dove deep into her love for local hybrids, “a word that resonates with America itself.” I had my first Encounter ™ with Clos Lentiscus where Nuria poured up the their amfora-aged Sumoll-in-liter that made me want to do a backflip. It’s gotta be noted that Encounter sold out its tickets, to me hinting at just how much potential we have right here in our backyard to mold and challenge the natural wine world.

We ended the night grabbing the last of Pizza Bones’ slices before they sold out of dough entirely and glugging bottles from the best, Jean-Pierre Robinot.

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    Alexya Brown