Eastern Promise: east coast US wines

The small wineries of USA’s eastern seaboard seem able to find success while bypassing the world of ratings, national publicity and even distribution networks. Roger Morris finds out how they do it.

Window-onto-vineyardALTHOUGH HIS small estate winery is only 12 years old, Anthony Vietri, owner and winemaker at Pennsylvania’s Va La Vineyards, has been producing wines of such quality that his best bottles command up to US$50 (HK$388). Yet his wines have never been reviewed and rated by a national publication.

Jim Law, considered one of the most accomplished winegrowers in the US, has had similar quality and commercial successes at his Linden Vineyards in Virginia over the past 25 years. Likewise, he receives little national or international attention.

What’s more, it’s unlikely you’ll find either of their wines on most restaurant wine lists in nearby towns or in local wine stores. If you want to taste the wines, your best bet is having someone in the area send you a bottle or drive up to the cellar doors.

The middle Atlantic coast of the United States – which stretches south from New York to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and, finally, North Carolina – is the most densely populated and affluent part of the country. It is also a hotbed of hundreds of small vineyards and wineries that collectively defy easy categorisation.

Feature findings
• The east coast of USA is home to hundreds of small wineries, which sell their wines primarily at the cellar door or locally.
• Business models are based around small scale production, and the only state which has more than a whole one percentage point share in national production is New York.
• Until the 1960s, it was generally believed that vitis vinifera vines could not be grown on the east coast. Changes in laws and tastes in this part of the country means that it has been a growing niche for only 25 to 30 years.
• Many east coast winemakers are self-taught, adding to the area’s quirky nature, but others see a real need for wine education in the area to develop.

But like a twilight zone with a confused magnetic field, business plans that would bankrupt winegrowers anywhere else in the world work here, and what makes economic sense for wineries in Europe, California and the southern hemisphere doesn’t here. To survive, eastern wineries have had to devise business models different to that of any major New or Old World wine region.

As a result, the east coast invites some intriguing observations:
• Although there are more than 900 wineries along the east coast, very few of them have distribution deals locally or regionally, and almost none nationally. Most could be labelled “artisan wineries” because the wine they hand-make is mostly sold directly to consumers.
• Despite the likes of Robert Parker living in Maryland, smack bang in the middle of the east coast, but wines here get less coverage of vintages and wine ratings compared to other major wine regions.
• The wines of the east coast are decidedly Old World in structure, though not always by preference or design of the winegrowers.
• Wineries that produce excellent, world-class wines often exist next door to those whose wines are – charitably – rustic in nature.
• But both the regal and the rustic are most likely profitable. In fact, fewer east-coast wineries went out of business or changed hands because of economic difficulties during the recent recession than on the more-glamorous west coast.
• The region is possibly the only one in the world that can be economically viable without having large networks of distributors, either inside or outside the area, or any major wine cooperatives.
• In spite of, or perhaps because of, their almost-instant success over the past 25 years, many winegrowers in the region are still not certain that they have planted the right grapes in the right places.
• If the east coast were magically relocated to Eastern Europe or South America, small American wine importers would most likely be fighting each other for rental cars at local airports to explore the area.
• Finally, if you don’t live on the east coast but know firsthand of a half- dozen wineries in the region, then you must be a true devotee or writing a book on the area.

So what is the secret to survival for these wineries – and in some cases, prosperity? Eliminating dependence on the profit- sapping, many-layered American wine distribution system. To adapt the famous line from the movie, Field of Dreams: “Open a small, quality winery, and they will come.”“The best business plan for limited capacity,” says Virginia winegrower David Pollak, “is to sell at least 80% of production at the winery, and use distributors to target restaurants and retail exposure for prospective customers who would likely visit the winery in the future. If I sell my wine at the winery,” he continues, “I get 90% of the list price. If I sell the same bottle to a distributor, I get about 50% of list price.”

Seneca Lake Wine Trail, New York

Seneca Lake Wine Trail, New York

“I can understand why national magazines don’t publish our ratings, and I don’t really blame them,” says Law, who has a similar business philosophy, “Most of their readers can’t buy our wines.”

It may help go back in time and examine how things got this way. Until the 1960s, it was generally believed you couldn’t grow vitis vinifera grapes on the east coast. Often cited were the crushingly unsuccessful but well-publicised attempts of founding father and Francophile Thomas Jefferson to grow French and Italian grapes during the 18th century at Monticello, his Virginia plantation. Eastern winters were too harsh, and its humid summers too disease-infested in an era that did not have modern chemical pesticides. And there was understandably little demand for wine made from native, overly vinous grapes, although many acres of them were grown to provide grape juice for school children.

Phylloxera, America’s gift to European vineyards, actually produced an early ray of hope to the region’s dismal winemaking prospects. Two attempted solutions to the vine plague were grafting vinifera shoots on American rootstock or, alternately, creating disease- resistant French-American hybrids. The first solution proved the better one, and eventually hybrid grapes were banned from French vineyards (except in Armagnac where some Baco Blanc is still grown for distillation).

Grapes such as Vidal Blanc, Marechal Foch, Chambourcin, and Baco Noir were soon planted up and down the east coast and in the country’s interior. They were prolific, generally winter-hardy and if they didn’t taste exactly like vinifera, they were close.

One Response to “Eastern Promise: east coast US wines”

  1. Michael DiCrispino says:

    Very much enjoyed your article as I am discovering the east coast wine country. I was surprised that Boordy Vineyards of Maryland was not mentioned, not only a pioneer of wine making in the US but winner of the Maryland Governor’s Cup and still going strong after 65 years in business.

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