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Breaking Barriers in Virginia
By W. Blake Gray
Nov 15, 2011
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Virigina wine has yet to cross the $100 a bottle barrier, but Rutger de Vink will make that happen soon.  He has the same winemaker as Chateau Latour, and the former winemaker for Screaming Eagle recently told de Vink to go to three digits already.

De Vink now asks $88 for RdV, a Merlot-dominant Bordeaux blend, and $55 for his second wine, Rendezvous.  The prices are breathtaking in a state where, until recently, mere adequacy was a worthwhile goal.

But de Vink's setup is unlike any other in Virginia.  It's not his gleaming state-of-the-art winery that matters.  De Vink  took advantage of 20 years of trial and error at other people's vineyards to look for the ideal site in a state that presents unique challenges.

And de Vink, a native of Holland who served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, is not a man of modest goals.  He looked at the Sonoma Coast, Sierra Foothills and Mendocino County before deciding, "I wanted to be in a place where people have made good wine, but no one's made great wine.  I like it when they say it can't be done."

Charming and full of energy, De Vink comes from a family who made their money in the pharmaceutical industry.  He went to New Jersey for high school and Colgate University before joining the Marines and serving in Somalia.  He worked in venture capital before getting the wine bug, but making great wine in California seemed too easy.

In Virginia, brutally hot, humid summer nights and frosty spring mornings are problems, but they're not the main one.

Harvest coincides with hurricane season, and in a year like 2011, that means vintages so wet that they’d make Californians weep.  This year it rained 33 days out of 35 in late August and early September.

Other top Virginia wineries like Tarara and Glen Manor Vineyards had figured out that vines must be planted on slopes so the water rolls downhill, rather than accumulates.  That's part of the wisdom imparted from the state's most influential vintner, Jim Law, who has trained many of Virginia's best winemakers -- including de Vink -- through his apprenticeship program at Linden Vineyards.

The extra advantage de Vink has, also gleaned from a wistful Law, is his dirt.

"I was more focused on climate," Law said about buying his own vineyard sites.  "I wanted to be high, so I would get the cool nights.  I didn't realize about soil moisture retention and how important it is.  In Bordeaux, they've known for centuries."

De Vink's vineyard slopes down from a hilltop with a beautiful view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it's not there because it's pretty.  He has models of his soil -- granite soil with sandy loam, and 30% rock content -- to show to visitors.  It's the product of a perverse search that would make farmers of any other type of crop laugh.

"I said to a local soil scientist, 'Find me the shittiest soil you can'," de Vink said.

He wanted to make a Rhône-style wine.  But he went with Bordeaux because of the different ripening speed of the five major varieties, all of which he has planted.  That gives him leeway to get some grapes in ahead of the rains and leave some hanging.  In 2011, rain ruined late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and he might not end up using any of it.

"Our Merlot is three weeks ahead of our Cabernet Franc," de Vink said.  "If we had Syrah, we might harvest maybe two days difference between blocks.  That would be a risk."

De Vink has really good help.  After his first harvest, he sent samples of each variety to a friend who works at Cheval Blanc -- one of many experts he consulted -- and that friend passed them on to a Frenchman named Eric who de Vink hadn't heard of.

"He sent me an email," de Vink said.  "It said, 'C'est un vin de terroir.  I do your blend.'  That was all."

Turned out his correspondent was Eric Boissenot, who consults for four of the five Bordeaux first-growths and does the blend for Chateau Latour.  You can't easily buy Boissenot's services; his participation is a huge vote of confidence for de Vink and all of Virginia.

I tasted two vintages of both of his wines.  All four are striking, serious, over-90-point wines that I would not have been able to place.  The '08s have the dark berry fruit I associate with California, but without huge bodies; both were 14.5% alcohol.  The most winning characteristic for both was great length.  The RdV, 62% Merlot, seems more formidable, with more tannins that fortunately don't grip, but I preferred the $55 Rendezvous (85% Cabernet Sauvignon) because of its slight spiciness. 

In '09, a more challenging year, the Rendezvous was noticeably lighter than the RdV.  The latter impressed me with its bright yet elegant cherry fruit; this was a singer, not the bassist that played in '08. 

De Vink says his plan is to keep RdV close to the same style every year, while letting Rendezvous vary more by vintage, which in Virginia isn't difficult. 

Any of these four wines would sit comfortably on the table with a collection of Bordeaux-style wines from either California or the motherland.  Now the challenge is getting them on that table.

RdV is available in England and Chicago, but so far sommeliers in nearby Washington, DC are skeptical because of years of being burned by high-priced Virginia wines that didn't deliver. 

Andy Erickson, formerly the winemaker for Screaming Eagle, visited earlier this year and told de Vink raising his price would help with his marketing.  Sorry, folks, I told him the same thing:  A $100 Virginia wine will get him attention in a way that an $88 wine will not. 

De Vink doesn't have to sell much wine anyway.  He made 1800 cases in 2010, with a goal to get to 2500 cases total, perhaps 800 of them RdV.  He charges $40 for appointment-only tours that are sold out through the end of 2011, and most visitors leave with wine; wouldn't you?  I tried a lot of wines in Virginia recently, and de Vink's were easily among the best, with only a couple of others in the same class.  Considering the wealthy audience living less than 90 minutes away in DC, it seems like just a matter of time before his wines are sold out to a mailing list.  They can curse me and the Screaming Eagle guy while they write the check.