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Monday, June 28, 2004

Festival shows that Va. wine industry is aging nicely

Virginia wines aren't "just a novelty anymore," said an officer with the Virginia Wine of the Month Club.

By Jeff Sturgeon

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    Uncork a Virginia wine and a crowd gathers. The south lawn of Hotel Roanoke became an outdoor tasting room Sunday during one of the largest annual wine events of Roanoke Valley. Many made an afternoon of it, spreading blankets under shade trees to drink and listen to a jazz band. The air smelled of cigar smoke.

    "I would take a Virginia wine over a California wine," Gary Hall of Salem said at the Roanoke Valley Wine Festival, a benefit for Center in the Square. "Virginia wines have gotten so good."

    In 1979, Virginia had six wineries, barely enough to throw a small festival such as Sunday's. In 1994 there were 43 Virginia wineries and today there are 87. Vineyard and winery owners expect the industry to continue growing.

    However, Virginia wineries supply only between 4 percent and 5 percent of the wine drunk in the state, said Gordon Murchie, who directs the Virginia Wineries Association.

    This year, Virginia crafted its first strategic plan for the industry's expansion. The plan found "too few high-quality wineries and inconsistent quality across the existing industry," but said Virginia has made a solid start. The industry adds $69 million to $96 million a year to the state's economy, the strategic plan said.

    Strategic planners working under the auspices of Gov. Mark Warner set a goal to double the industry's market share in Virginia by 2015. He has named members to a new Virginia Wine Board that will begin work Thursday.

    Among other steps, the strategic plan proposes a new quality assurance program, more grape - and wine - production research and more marketing using the slogan, "Virginia Wineries: Next Big Thing." Of interest in Southwest Virginia, the plan said Virginia Tech should offer its wine industry technical courses at off-campus locations, at community colleges and online.

    According to Gray King, chief operating officer of the Virginia Wine of the Month Club, Virginia wines aren't "just a novelty anymore."

    The quality is up and people drink them because they like them. And winemaking is a major business opportunity. "It's not just some crazy farmer who planted grapes on his land, which it was 25 years ago."

    The club's membership has grown 25 percent since an ownership change two and a half years ago, King said. The 5-year-old club does not release membership totals.

    Some consumers complain the cost of Virginia wines is too high. It's possible to spend $15 or $20 or more on a 750 milliliter (22.5 ounce) bottle.

    In that regard, a $15 investment in a festival ticket ($20 at the door) might have been a good bet because five Virginia wineries each poured samples of multiple offerings, both red and white.

    One of the five, Rockbridge Vineyard in Raphine, believes some wine should be available for under $10 a bottle and sells three at $9 apiece, said Susan Friski, a volunteer who poured samples.

    "And at $9 a bottle, you don't mind opening a second one," according to Friski.


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