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Wine was on our minds as we barreled into the 25th Annual Virginia Wine Festival, held at the Great Meadow Field in The Plains on Aug. 19 and 20. For a moment, we marveled at the transformation of the grassy equestrian grounds into a crazy quilt of billowing food and wine tents, and thanked the gods for the exquisitely warm Saturday. Then, ignoring the fact that it was barely noon, we enthusiastically grabbed our wine glasses etched with the festival logo and dove headfirst into the crush of people extending their empty glasses toward the pourers. Wrong move. The servers at the booths for many of the 45 wineries appeared to be recently hired help, capable of pouring tiny samples, but unable to answer basic questions about the wine. Yes, Lew Parker of Loudoun County’s Willowcroft Winery was there, as were at least a few other owners and winemakers, but even they had almost no time to tout the unique qualities of their products as the line of samplers grew longer and longer over the course of the afternoon. It’s a shame, because the festival could have been the perfect showcase for Virginia’s burgeoning wine industry. In international and national contests, the Old Dominion’s wines are lost in the shuffle, barely acknowledged. But here on this stage, on their own terms, Virginia wineries presented 180 wines to compete for gold medals and best of show honors. After the festival, where the blues bands and barbecue competed too fiercely with the Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay, we had to have more of it, and we were willing to drink several bottles over a few nights to see what we had missed. To gain the proper perspective about Virginia wines, we consulted with local expert, Bob Luskin, who along with his brother Fred runs Bell Wine and Spirits on M Street, N.W. The Luskins regularly hold tastings at their shop and lead a monthly tasting event at Borders Books and Music on 18th and L streets, N.W. Bob Luskin has been a judge at the wine festival, he says, “Almost since its inception.” He says that while the seasons dictate which Virginia vintages will be the best much more so than they do in California and other wine-growing regions, Virginia wines are generally getting better every year, as the vines grow older and the winemakers grow more sophisticated. “One advantage is that [the winemaking technology] they are dealing with is new,” he says. “The quality of the fruit is better.” He explains that winemakers are employing vineyard techniques such as canopy management and trellising, methods that improve the yield and quality of grapes and control vine diseases. He also credits Virginia grape growers for finally waking up to the fact that the familiar vine varieties, like Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Rieslings, and Cabernets, are more palatable to the average consumer than the French hybrids — like Chambourcin and Seyval Blanc — that the growers had been producing. “People just voted no with their checkbooks,” says Luskin. At the festival, he explains, he and the 15 or so other judges score the wine on a scale between zero and 20. They rate the entries for color (up to 2 points), aroma (5), taste (5), balance (3), aftertaste (3), and overall impression, what Luskin calls “the fudge factor” (2). Luskin can remember scoring Virginia wines under 10 points in past years, a rating that indicates the wine is “unmarketable.” But, he says, “With each passing year, fewer wines were scoring beneath that threshold, and this vintage certainly follows suit.” Well, what about this year’s winner? We tasted it at the festival — a 1999 Viognier produced by Breaux Vineyards of Purcellville — and didn’t quite know what to make of its fruity aroma. Likewise, another gold medal winner was the Viognier from Horton Vineyards in Gordonsville. Luskin explains: “At this point, most people have never tasted a Viognier. You’re dealing with a newcomer grape on the scene. Horton burst on the scene with it, and literally made their mark. Now it’s done coast to coast.” In fact, it appears Viognier has become one of the most fashionable grapes in France. “With a Viognier you’re looking for the flowery aroma, number one,” says Luskin. “You are looking for a fairly full-bodied white … not overpowering … with a certain lushness.” All right, then. We decided we were equipped for the new challenge — and we always have room in our lives for a little vino bianco — so we scoured wine shops in the District and came up with both the Virginia Wine Festival’s Best of Show, the 1999 Breaux Viognier, and one of the gold medal winners — the 1998 Horton Viognier. To mix it up we added a 1998 Rabbit Ridge “Heartbreak Hill” Viognier from the Russian River Valley in California. Each of the three bottles set us back roughly $20. We tasted the wine over several nights, first as an aperitif and then paired with food. The Breaux is deliciously fruit-forward with a honeysuckle aroma and nectarine flavor. It has a light, round, and pleasant texture, with more body than a Sauvignon Blanc but less than an overpowering Chardonnay. It tasted wonderful with chicken, although Luskin recommends trying Viognier with a delicate, fleshy fish. “Lobster would go well,” he says. We called up Breaux Vineyards and spoke with their winemaker Dave Collins about the vineyard, the harvest, and their award-winning bottle. He proudly described how he and the owners, Paul and Alexis Breaux, have set out to push the bar high when it comes to quality. While the grapes are still on the vine they are constantly tasting the fruit and don’t pick, he says, “until the flavor is there.” The flavor drives the harvest, not the other way around at Breaux. Their German-engineered processing equipment is top of the line. While he cautioned that most of what happens to the grapes following this stage is proprietary, he did reveal that one portion of the blend is cold-fermented in stainless steel tanks and the other part fermented in French oak barrels. Finally, a panel of tasters come together to decide on the final blend. On a whim they decided to enter this wine, only their second vintage, into the competition. They were amazed to win the award. We loved the Horton as well. While it was slightly more acidic than the Breaux, it was balanced, and the flavors were reminiscent of butterscotch and pineapple. It paired well with creamy sauces and still retained its personality. Winemaker Dennis Horton says, “When I planted Viognier in 1989, I think there were 300 acres in the world, Now there’s probably more like 3,000 to 4,000.” With his Viogniers, he’s shooting for a “nice aromatic, crispy fruity bottle of wine,” unlike what he characterizes as the “alcoholic goop” you might get from other regions. He has been very successful with the grape, and it has been a consistent winner, even earning a mention in “The Oxford Companion to Wine.” Horton also bottles fairly large quantities of Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and the native Virginia red varietal known as Norton. But he says the Viognier in particular is “a great hot-weather grape,” which is one reason he has had so much success with it. As for the California wine, for once we weren’t as impressed. After the first two, we found it to be too sweet, a bit too much like cold pineapple juice. A surprising rebuke from former California wine snobs like us. Horton predicts that more acres of Viognier will be planted in Virginia in the coming years, and that Virginia’s reputation in general will be on the rise. “The quality of Virginia wines is going up geometrically,” he says. “I think you’ll see some good stuff done here in the next 20 years. The French have been at it for 1,500 years. We’ve been at it for 20. Give us a break.” Elisabeth Frater, a D.C.-based lawyer and writer, is co-author of “Darkwoman,” a serial mystery at www.darkwoman.com.

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