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Punch Drunk

This Week: Spit and Polish.

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Generally I don't like to enjoy my red wine in a gigantic, sterile convention room with gymnasium lights illuminating everyone's deepest pores and creating an environment more suited for jai-alai, but wine is wine, regardless of whether you're sipping it in front of a fire or chugging it naked on a bear-skin rug whilst entertaining a 6-foot-2 Finnish timber heiress. And where else can I go to drink the finest vino my state has to offer on someone else's dime? Not the Greater Helsinki area, that's for damn sure.

The second annual Virginia Wine Expo, held in late February, featured about 60 wineries, which made my no-spitting policy seem a bit impractical. This event was focused on red wines, and it was amazing to see the vast number of varietals that the Commonwealth can offer up. Apparently our humid summers and dry winters compare favorably with certain French regions known for producing exceptional red wines. With the wines I tasted and a state known for its natural beauty, it's easy to see why Travel + Leisure magazine named Virginia one of the top five new wine destinations in the world.

King Family Vineyards' 2007 Meritage won the Governor's Cup, handed out by Gov. Bob McDonnell himself (dreamboat alert!), as the best wine in show. I tasted the Crozet-based wine maker's Meritage and was immediately hit by how full of shit “expert wine judges” are. I don't have the palate of a sommelier at Le Bernardin, but I'm honest. It's a solid wine worth picking up — not best in show.

Another Meritage that had some buzz was Barboursville Vineyards' 2006 Octagon. The Charlottesville winery's merlot-based blend of Bordeaux grape varieties would go fantastic with a rack of lamb or by itself in a tip cup on a pier somewhere in Deltaville. A packed bowl is recommended in the second scenario.

Other wines that stood out and that I can remember as I plunged into the abyss of wine torpidity were Jefferson Vineyards' 2006 Meritage, James River Cellar's 2007 Petite Verdot, Keswick Vineyard's 2008 Consensus (which the cute tasting manager told us she likes because it's “like getting kicked in the face.” OK. We bought a bottle for that comment alone.) and Horton Vineyard's 2007 Cabernet Franc.

With the “eat local” kick in full swing, I see no reason why drinking local should be a problem either. Not after that array.

The last “wine” that stood out was the Peaks of Otter Winery's “Kiss the Devil.” It uses more than 30 of the hottest peppers in the world to create serious heat in the bottle. Sure, it's more of a cooking wine, but I'm a liquor enthusiast, so this was right in my wheelhouse. I can only describe it as a microwaved shot of rail tequila supplemented with Texas Pete, a habanero and Bacardi 151. That's not an insult either.

With 75,000 customers, the Wine Expo clearly was a success for industry and economic outlook in a state that needs these types of victories. Virginia may never reach the volume of the California wine-making industry, but quality-wise I wouldn't bet against us.

Though next time, maybe they could consider holding the tasting portion of the event in a room less suited for a college basketball game and more conducive to wine-tasting.

Richmond bartender Jack Lauterback consumes and slings drinks at a number of local establishments. He also writes a surly blog at jackgoesforth.blogspot.com. Find him on Twitter @jackgoesforth and on e-mail: bartender@styleweekly.com.

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