Quality Farming in Eastern & Midwestern Winegrape Growing

The pursuit of excellence in winegrowing throughout the Midwest and East Coast begets far greater challenges than for headline viticulture regions, such as the West Coast and Europe; yet recent years have seen the region’s winemakers fielding challenges, such as weather, choice of varietal, and the forging of a bioregional identity, with tenacity and intrepid spirit. The game is on for these pioneers to settle upon the most suitable grapes, transcend daunting climatic changes, and craft a strong identity for the world to behold.

As editor-in-chief of Wine Tourist Magazine and blogger at The Virginia Grape, Brian Yost is no stranger to the peculiarities, challenges, and vicissitudes of winegrowing and winemaking in this region. He will be moderating a panel entitled “Against All Odds: Quality Farming in Eastern & Midwestern Winegrape Growing”, to glean insights from three industry experts out of Virginia and Maryland, Long Island, and Pennsylvania.

Brian hopes the panelists will delve more deeply into several key topics: the region’s use of hybrids; the search for varietals that fit in terms of place and character; branding and identity; and, of course, navigating the unique climatic challenges that other regions do not have to negotiate. “I’m familiar with the mid-Atlantic area,” he says, “and everyone’s challenges are different. Growing wine on Long Island is different from, say, Pennsylvania and Maryland.”

“…the Midwest and East Coast begets far greater challenges than for headline viticulture regions, such as the West Coast and Europe”

Given the lofty challenges facing winegrowers and winemakers of the East Coast and Midwest, Brian is encouraged by the progress these regions have made in general quality and the refinement of their craft: “I started out observing the Virginia wine industry and seeing the trajectory of it – a dramatic improvement in wine quality…I began to look at the rest of the East Coast as well, visiting wineries down the coast and seeing much greater quality in recent years. We’ve really begun to crack the code on what it takes to make good wine on this coast.”

However, the search is still on, in many parts of the region, to find the right varietal or hybrid to fit the growing conditions, terroir, and character of a place: “When we look at our coast, to figure out what works for growing, there’s no clear identity. What IS a Virginia wine? What IS a Pennsylvania wine? Will we begin to see a clear type of wine emerge for each of these regions? Virginia chose Viognier for the state grape because it starts with “V”, but it didn’t work out nearly as well as expected.” Brian notes that many growers are planting Chambourcin (a cold-hardy hybrid developed in response to Phylloxera infestation), while many Virginians champion Norton, the state grape of Missouri; still others focus on Vidal Blanc, a versatile, Riesling-like hybrid. In the Midwest, winegrowers use a lot more cold-hardy hybrids. But the central question remains, “Is there really a market for hybrids, especially for consumers who have no idea about them?” He adds, “I’d like to talk about the future and market for varietals in Virginia, etc.; they thought you could only grow hybrids here, but you can grow all sorts of viniflora! And French and Italian varietals are what everybody knows, but how do we market our varietals and hybrids?”

Yet, in general, the region’s weather renders it an uphill battle: “Wine is really expensive to make here, from the climatic challenges. Hurricanes can mean a really wet harvest; you can get cold, hail, and predation like everywhere, but our climate really makes it hard and expensive.” Additionally, “It’s hard to get people to invest in increased acreage; we’ve had a shortage of grapes in Virginia.”

New York has seen much success in recent years: “Long Island is doing great things, and I’d really like to touch on the Finger Lakes…which has a very huge wine-growing scene, and some of the best wines on the East Coast. They once focused on bulk wine, but then, post-1970s, some vintners established a strong identity with some great varietals: Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Limberger, Cabernet Francs, and others. They’ve established a clear identity there; it’s one of the oldest growing areas, post-Prohibition. You won’t find their wines much on the West Coast, but you will in good New York restaurants and good Virginia markets.”

Given this quality revolution, the area’s food-and-beverage industry still shows an unfortunate favoritism toward West-Coast and European wines; such bias is one that Brian hopes will fade over time, as consumers experience the fruits of East-Coast and Midwest growers’ careful honing of their craft. Equally, the panel’s experts, he hopes, will provide insights into how area growers can build a strong identity and enhance their branding. The region is ripe for its heyday.

USBevX 2017 will take place in Washington, D.C., February 22-24, 2017. To learn more, visit www.usbevexpo.com.

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