His task was daunting.
My friend Corky stood in front of rows and rows of bottles of white wines.
He staggered a little, not from drinking, but from the thought of picking the right wine from the overwhelming number of choices.
“Whew!” Corky heaved a sigh. He drank wine and considered himself to be a budding connoisseur. In truth, he knew little about it.
That’s how it started 13½ years ago.
Corky was my alter ego when Vines & Wines began. He hung around for about two years, always asking questions, most of which seem silly now.
Back then, however, the column was written to be educational, and entertaining when possible.
The most-asked question of me since June 7, 2006, has been: “What’s your favorite wine?”
My answer was always the same: “Whatever is in my glass at the time.”
Always, without exception, my response drew a laugh.
The question was asked not because of my interest in wine and not because of my modicum of knowledge about wine.
It was asked because I wrote a wine column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
That column appropriately ends today, 50 years to the day — Dec. 29, 1969 — that I started working full time for Richmond Newspapers, first at The Richmond News Leader, then later with The Times-Dispatch.
A career in the News Leader and Times-Dispatch sports departments followed by freelancing my column for the RTD often led to another question: “You’ve never had a real job, have you?”
The answer to that question is easier than to the first question.
I’ve tasted more than a thousand wines and written about hundreds.
My favorite? I’m going to hedge. With a focus on Virginia wines through the years, my list will be on those, but not in any particular order.
First, a primer: At the start of 2006, Virginia had 97 wineries. Back then, you had to search for a decent state wine. Today, there are more than 300 wineries here, and most are producing quality wine, some across the board, others one, two or even more. They all have their following.
Some of my favorites with winery prices:
Barboursville Vineyards Octagon: Perhaps the most recognizable named wine in the state, this Bordeaux-style blend by Luca Paschina is always complex with layered flavors that are worthy of its price tag. ($55)
King Family Vineyards Meritage: Where to start? How about the consistently outstanding, merlot-based Meritages that winemaker Matthieu Finot produces? Finot’s touch with these Bordeaux-style blends is deft and award-winning. Line up now for the 2020s, but the 2011 ($80) and 2012 ($75) vintages are still available.
Michael Shaps Wineworks: Close your eyes, and pick just about any wine from this ubiquitous winemaker, and you won’t go wrong. Top choices? His Shaps Wineworks’ dry petit manseng ($30), a burgeoning grape and style in the state, or his blend of merlot, petit verdot and tannat (called Zachariah, $40) for Upper Shirley Vineyards.
Williamsburg Winery’s Adagio: Winemaker Matthew Meyer came up with a winner when he first produced this blend. Grapes can vary from year to year, but Adagio never varies in quality. (Currently $75)
Cooper Vineyards Petit Verdot: Through the years, this was a luscious red produced by underappreciated winemaker Graham Bell. Why this varietal is not the state’s red grape is a mystery. Widely produced here, PV remains a delicious varietal at Fifty-Third Winery & Vineyard, formerly Cooper. (Current vintage sold out)
Chatham Vineyards Church Creek Chardonnay: Two choices here, and both rate among the best in the state. The steel-fermented (unoaked) chard ($21) is the perfect complement to oysters and other seafood dishes. If creamy chard is your preference, the Church Creek oak chard ($22) is an excellent choice.
Stinson Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc: As newbie winemaker Rachel Stinson learned the trade, her Sauvignon Blanc (among others) improved to be one of the best around. Simply delicious and refreshing. ($23)
Elk Island Winery Chambourcin: Using a grape often dissed by so-called wine experts, winemakers Paul and Sue Anne Klinefelter have produced a chambourcin ($16) that is the absolute favorite at the Goochland County-based winery. It just might be that slight cinnamon flavor that pops through the cherry, plum and blackberry on the taste buds. Try their array of Norton wines, too.
New Kent Vineyards White Norton: Tom Payette’s unique creation ($21) is a winner, especially for those who like a touch of sweetness in their wine.
James River Cellars Gewürztraminer: Winemaker James Batterson has perfected production of this hard-to-grow grape, and the result is a mouth-pleasing treat and great food companion ($20).
There are more, too many to mention all, from excellent winemakers such as Emily Pelton (Veritas), Kirsty Harmon (Blenheim), Stephen Barnard (Keswick), Jim Law (Linden), Lee Hartman (Bluestone), Doug Fabbioli (Fabbioli Cellars), Jeff White (Glen Manor) and others. Wineries not to be missed include Early Mountain, Trump, CrossKeys, Barren Ridge, Gabriele Rausse, Lake Anna, RdV and the many wineries on the Northern Neck and in Loudoun County. The Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office, led by Annette Boyd, is a terrific resource for state wine information, and the Virginia Wine Expo is the perfect place to taste many, many state (and other) wines.
Beyond Virginia, take your pick, but Richmond-based Broadbent-imported wines are clear winners, especially Bartholomew Broadbent’s own Vinho Verde.
If you’re like Corky was and have those daunting questions, small wine shops, such as Once Upon A Vine, Barrel Thief, The Vino Market, J. Emerson and Corks & Kegs, as well as others, will have the answers ... and often a unique variety of wines.
Now, for me, the cork is out of the bottle. Corky has left the building.
Jack and Corky aren’t retiring from life, just from writing the wine column. Last seen, they were headed off on the Heart of Virginia Wine Trail.