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Virginia Winemakers Come On Strong

  • Jeff Swicord

Master winemaker Sebastien Marquet checks the vines at the Doukenie winery in Purcellville, Virginia.

Master winemaker Sebastien Marquet checks the vines at the Doukenie winery in Purcellville, Virginia.

State ranks sixth in production nationwide

Wine is produced in all 50 U.S. states, with California, Oregon and Washington leading the way. However, with its abundance of rich farmland and plenty of sunshine and rain in the summer months, wine connoisseurs are keeping on eye on the East Coast state of Virginia.

That's where master winemaker Sebastien Marquet is plying his trade. The Frenchman’s job at the Doukenie winery in Purcellville, Virginia - the heart of wine country - is the culmination of a childhood dream.

“I was studying winemaking when I was 13-and-a-half in Burgundy," he said. "My horticulture teacher asked, ‘What do you want to do later?’ And for me it was, ‘Oh, I would like to make wine in the U.S.’”

After making wine in Burgundy, Marquet started the first vineyard on the Caribbean island of Martinique. He then moved to the U.S., making wine in California’s Sonoma Valley. But coming to Virginia offered him the opportunity to work on a smaller scale, developing new wines in an emerging winemaking region.

“You need a lot of parameters to make good wine," he says. "You need good land, with some sun and the passion of people. And, in Virginia, I think this is really what it is. People have the passion of the wine industry.”

Thirty years ago, there were six wineries in the state. Today, Virginia has more than 200 and is ranked sixth in production behind California, Washington, Oregon, New York and Texas.

Lobbyist Michael Kaiser with Wine America expects Virginia’s prominence to continue to grow.

“I think they will pass Texas. They are not going to get close to New York. Because New York has about 200 more wineries," he says. "But I think they will consistently be the fifth wine producing state in the country.”

When Marquet came to Doukenie four years ago, the winery - which has yet to turn a profit - was producing 1,500 cases a year. Today it produces about 3,500 cases. The goal is to produce up to 8,000 in another four years.

California wineries often produce 10 times that. But the owners of Doukenie want to keep things small and sell their wine directly from the winery, avoiding large distributors.

“I don’t want to go to distribution," Marquet says. "Going to the distribution is very difficult for a small winery like us. We have to cut the price down 50 percent to go to the distribution. So, we are not quite ready to cut the price down 50 percent when we have small volume.”

In order to produce more wine, Doukenie needs more vineyards so Marquet is putting in two more hectares of vines this year.

“We got the vine from California. And they come from the cold room," he says. "So, immediately after the heat, the bud break quickly. So, we have five days to put them in the ground, that’s it.”

He will plant some of the common wine varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Merlot. But also Cabernet Franc, a grape that develops in a unique character when grown in Virginia.

“The weather, the soil, the 'terroire' [earth], work very well for these grapes," he says. "So I put the Cab Franc on a slope and we will have afternoon sun hitting the grapes. And exposing the sun to the grapes will make them express in a way that will give a more black peppery flavor.”

Marquet knows what he's talking abuot. Doukenie’s Cab Franc won a gold medal in 2007 and a silver in 2008 from the San Francisco Chronicle.

With constant care and a dose of winemaking passion, the new vines will produce their first vintage in five years. And with the additional vineyards, there should be enough wine for Doukenie to turn its first profit.

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