Fear and Viognier

by J. Tobias Beard

Gonzo Wine Tasting on the Monticello Trail

A version of this was originally published in the Virginia Wine Gazette circa 2007.

To answer your questions: 1. Yes, this is a true story. 2. Yes, I wrote it quickly and while drinking. 3. Yes, it is an homage to the work of James Fenimore Cooper. 

I was somewhere around Crozet on the edge of the parkway when the Viognier began to take hold. The assignment had been simple enough: pick a varietal, sample it at a few local tasting rooms, and write about it. But somehow, in my twisted mind, it became something far stranger and more dangerous. It became a challenge: I had decided to taste every Viognier on the Monticello Wine Trail in one day.

Of course it’s not possible. To paraphrase the movie Cool Hand Luke, nobody can taste 25 Viogniers. But I had to try, I had to experience the tasting room as it really was, if I was going find what I was looking for. But what was I looking for?

The heart of Grapeness, Das Drink an sich, the Virginia Wine Dream.

My time was limited: 11:00 am to 5:00 pm, standard tasting room hours. I had one trick up my sleeve, however. As soon as I woke up I immediately held a private tasting of a glass of Gabriele Rausse’s Viognier left over from last night. Since his winery is not open to the public, I figured this wasn’t really cheating. I don’t recommend Viognier for breakfast. It’s a bit heavy before you’ve even had coffee. Gabriele’s was especially rich, like drinking peach juice straight from the can. But, hey, that was one down, and I wasn’t even dressed yet.

First stop was, appropriately, First Colony. I arrived at 10 til 11:00. I was the only one there, and the winery looked hung over from a wedding held there the night before. The girl behind the bar was still setting up, but she happily poured me my second Viognier of the day. The 2005 First Colony was light, with good acidity, but not much body. I ate two sky blue M&Ms emblazoned with the name of the happy couple and walked out, just as the first tourists were walking in. It was 11:02 am.

Soon I was driving down Route 627 towards Jefferson Vineyards. As my tires squealed around another blind curve, I narrowly missed hitting two Mormons trudging along through the weeds on the side of the road. Looking at them in the rear view mirror, I briefly considered stopping. Our missions were not entirely dissimilar, and it might not hurt to have some sort of deity on my side. But there was no time. I drove on.

I pulled up to Jefferson Vineyards at 11:20 and strode into the tasting room. There were already three people there. I asked the barkeep for a glass of their best Viognier, sniffed, gargled, and spit. There was a tee-shirt on the wall that read, “Virginia is for Viognier Lovers.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” I thought.

I didn’t reach Keswick until 11:48. It was a long detour for just one winery, but they had 3 Viogniers, so I figured it was worth it. I sidled up to their new tasting bar and paid the fee. The 06 Vent d’Anges went down a bit too easily, but
the next two, the 05 and the 05 Reserve, were fuller bodied. I was about to leave when the winemaker, Stephan Bernard, came out of the back and offered to let me taste some 2006 Viognier from the barrel. Though young, they seemed better than the 05s, and I thanked Stephan and ran out the door. Eight Viogniers without breaking a sweat.

By 12:30 I was pushing through the teeming hordes at Horton Cellars, where VA Viognier began. I made quick work of the 2006 and the sparkling, and was about to leave when a friend who works in the tasting room pulled me aside and took me down into the cavernous stone winery. There we tasted a mysterious Viognier he had discovered hidden away in a dark corner. On the way out I saw a quote from T. S. Eliot written on a stack of wine boxes: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

It was probably a bad omen, but I’ve let bad omens dissuade me. To be honest, I tend to seek them out.

It was 12:44.

There was a long line just to buy a glass at Barboursville, so I pushed my way to the bar and flashed my journalistic credentials. “Just the Viognier, please, I’m a writer.” She understood, and soon I was on my way again, five wineries and 12 wines under my belt.

1:02, Burnley. There was nobody there, and the tasting room attendant informed me that they didn’t have a Viognier. “It’s a wine no one here likes to drink,” she sniffed.

1:39, Oakencroft. No Viognier. “It’s just been bottled … It will be out in a few months.”

At 1:58 I arrived at White Hall. There were three couples there, and I asked the girl pouring if it had been busy. No, she replied, “but it picks up between 2:00 and 5:00.” I tasted the Viognier, thanked her and walked out.

King Family, at 23 minutes after 2:00, was a sea of sundresses and sunglasses. The beautiful people were enjoying a Polo match, and I fought a wave of regret at not being able to stay, but I had no time for the good life. I went inside and ordered Michael Shap’s Viognier. It was round and full, with great acidity, the best I’d had so far. As I was leaving, I pulled out behind an antique, orange Mustang convertible I was sure I’d seen at Oakencroft, and made it to Veritas by 2:45. Inside the huge, baronial Mansion of a tasting room, the Viognier was wonderful; rich and elegant. On the way out I passed a couple reading Tarot Cards. What, I wondered, was my card? The King of Cups? Or the Fool?

3:11, Afton Mountain. No Viognier. “We like to be different.”

3:28. I parked my car at Cardinal Point right between the Tarot reading couple, and a blue BMW I thought I’d seen at Horton. I told the young girl behind the bar I only wanted to taste the Viognier.

“Oh you Viognier people,” she replied.

I tasted the wine and told her I was writing an article for The Virginia Wine Gazette. I told her I was on a savage journey into the heart of Virginia Wine Country. She gave me a sweet, forgiving smile, so I decided to stay and taste the A6 which is 58% Viognier. When I was done I turned to leave.

“Goodbye Gazette boy,” she called out. My reputation receded behind me.

I saw a sign for Flying Fox Winery on the side of the road and jerked the wheel hard, barely making it into the driveway as car horns blared behind me. It was 3:45. I’d never heard of Flying Fox. The tasting room was so small it was like drinking in a broom closet, which, let assure you, is never a good idea.

“If you’re looking for the best Viognier, this is it,” my pourer said. She was right, I was looking for the best Viognier. I thanked her and hit the road.

Wintergreen was a long way from anywhere, and I didn’t even know if they had a Viognier when I arrived at 4:02. As luck would have it, they did, their first vintage of that varietal. I tossed the glass back, and was gone. I began to relax. It was 4:11. Plenty of time to make it to DelFosse.

After getting lost I arrived at DelFosse at 4:45 and walked slowly up to the massive new tasting room. I felt dazed, confused. The last time I’d been there the tasting room was two stools and a spittoon in the corner of the winery. I stared at the manicured lawns and burbling fountains, not really comprehending what I was seeing. I tasted their two Viogniers, not bothering to spit, and then their Viognier icewine. The icewine dripped slowly into my shattered skull, curled once about my brain, and went to sleep. It was 5:00 pm, the end of the working day, blow the whistle. Slumped limply on the stool, I stared out of the huge glass windows at the terraced vineyards that swept up towards pine tree covered hills. Above that there was only sky.

It was the end of the road. I’d been to 15 wineries and tasted 19 Viogniers. I had seen much, and drunk more, but what, really, had I accomplished? I had done something I doubted would ever be done again, but my victory felt entirely hollow. Had I penetrated to the heart of the tasting room? And if so, for what? Did I understand wine any better?

And what did that girl mean by “You Viognier people?”

I got up and walked back to the car. Maybe it wasn’t to late to catch up with the Mormons.