The economic recession has been causing many Americans to cut back on their spending in recent years. But one thing Americans have NOT been spending less on is their wine. While the figures are not in yet for 2010, the Beverage Information Group estimates that U.S. wine consumption was up for the 17th year in a row. Americans are also buying more domestically-produced than imported wines, and it’s not all from California’s famed West Coast vineyards. Our reporter visited one wine-growing region that is hoping to become the Napa Valley of the East, just a short drive from Washington, D.C.
Last year, about 12,000 people came to Hillsborough Winery in Purcellville, Virginia - about 80 kilometers from Washington - to taste its wines. Even in a recession, business has been good, according to owner Bora Baki.
“We have a saying in Turkish - I don't know if you translate this properly - ‘When you are in sorrow you drink, when you are happy you drink.’ So even if the economy was bad, people find a way of enjoying themselves at least with a glass of wine,” said Baki.
Baki did not plan on running a winery when he came to the United States from Turkey in 1979. He was ready to retire from the import business when his son Karem persuaded him to go into wine-making 10 years ago.
“I was graduating my college, my undergraduate degree, and we were both looking for something to do,” said Karem Baki.
Karem went on to get a graduate degree in winemaking. He not only makes wine for the family business, but for other vineyards in Virginia as well.
“With the different regions in Virginia, you have almost perfect conditions," added Karem Baki. We, of course, have our own issues and complications, but as far as the potential for a grape-growing region, it is quite great.”
When Hillsborough opened in 2003, it was the 96th winery in Virginia. Today, that number has grown to 190.
Ann Heidig is president of the Virginia Wineries Association. She opened Lake Anna Winery in 1990, when Virginia had only about a dozen wineries:
“I think the quality of Virginia wines has attracted some larger investors to come in and want to start growing grapes and making wine in Virginia," noted Heidig. "Even from California we have a couple of people that have come in to start wineries here. I think they see it as an opportunity, because it is a young industry and it is growing, and also it is a viable industry, I believe, in the state for agriculture.”
Although a few Virginia wineries produce as many as 40,000 cases of wine per year, most are small. They average between 2500 and 5000 cases, 60 percent of which is sold at the winery.
Tourism drives the wine industry here, says Pandit Patil, who along with his wife Sudha, opened Narmada Winery in Amissville in November 2009.
“In five years, I want everybody to think this is a destination, and that is what we are working towards,” said Patil.
Like many wineries in Virginia, Narmada is surrounded by beautiful scenery. And it has live music on Saturdays and Sundays. It also offers something no other local winery does.
“We have a unique thing being of Indian background. Some of our wines can be paired very nicely with the Indian foods that we serve here just as snacks,” noted Sudha Patil of the Narmada Winery.
Sudha has been making wine since 2008. She has already garnered several medals in competitions. That recognition may become increasingly important to Narmada if the Virginia wine industry continues to expand.
But Annette Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office, says the market is far from saturated.
“This can’t go on indefinitely, but for right now with the trends in consumption going up, the interest in local wines and knowing what is being produced in your own back yard is growing," said Boyd. "We have a long way to go I think before we reach that point.”
For now, Virginia winemakers like Karem Baki… and Sudha Patil will focus on making the best wines their vineyards can produce.