Behind the Scenes at Virginia's Wine Oscars

At the dawn of each new year, Hollywood hosts the Oscars. The glamorous evening fairly sparkles with otherworldly beauty and talent. The best of the best, reveling in the world’s attention and insider jokes as they air-kiss the powdered cheeks of friendly rivals. It all seems quite delightful. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the Virginia Wine Oscars.  

Yes, Hollywood has red carpets. And Moet in tiny bottles. And Renée Zellweger in a body hugging Armani gown any woman would gladly give back her first child to fit into, just once, dammit. But Virginia Wine Country makes its own star turn on its biggest night of the year: the Virginia Governor’s Cup Awards.

There’s the glittering venue (Main Street Train Station in Richmond). The line of chauffeur-driven Ubers dropping off bunch after bunch of (Virginia wine) celebrities. Handsome, recently-shorn men in rugged blue jeans paired with seldom-used jackets, and naturally gorgeous women who stride athletically up the steps, thanks to both the daily ritual of lifting 40-pound boxes and their sensible evening shoes, the clean scent of Dove trailing behind in lieu of wine-bespoiling perfume.

Inside, the wine media go on the hunt, snapping candids of the Old Guard (Lake Anna Winery’s Jeff Heidig chatting up Horton Vineyards’ Joan Bieda) and up-and-comers (doe-eyed winemaker Chelsey Blevins from 53rd Winery, whose Viognier is drawing raves.)  

Drink What You Like blogger Frank Morgan huddles with Terri Newman-Hyde from General’s Ridge Vineyard, debating tasting room tipping—yes or no? (Him: emphatic no. Her: yes, with caveats.)

WTOP Radio evening traffic guy Rich Hunter scurries off with wife-about-town Kathy Wiedemann to file a Gov Cup report for the evening news.

Center stage in the middle of this massive old train station-turned-event hall, nearly 40 gold medals drape the night’s winning wines, where a multitude of winemakers, the stars of the night – Ben Jordan from Early Mountain and Lightwell Survey, Bill Hatch from Zephaniah, Sudha Patil from Narmada, Lee Hartman from Bluestone, among many others – stand ready, if a tad impatiently, answering questions about brix and barrels. Soon enough, they sneak out to sample the competition, leaving volunteers and staff to handle the pouring. Off to the side, vineyard bosses, accustomed to working in isolation, send out a distinct deer-in-the-headlights vibe, so alien to their macho summer Facebook selfies.

John and Jane Q Publics who managed to snag some of the invitation-only tickets crowd the tasting tables, glasses thrust out festival-style. Meanwhile, the cognoscenti cradle their empty Riedel glasses in one hand while flipping through a glossy Gala program with the other, deftly zeroing in on the competition’s 12 top-flight wines—those that were chosen for the Governor’s Case—and then make a beeline for those most-likely-to-run-out bottles.

The noise level escalates in sync with the volume of wine sampled, until a sober, far-away voice entreats the crowd toward the stage end of the room. Guests look up from their glasses and gush what a beautiful place this is as the city lights glitter outside the window walls, while off to one side competition judge Richard Leahy ignores the speaker and joyfully carries on sharing industry stats with wine geek brethren. Longtime Gov Cup judge and major-league Port and Madeira importer Bartholomew Broadbent (yes, those Broadbents) begins the exodus, nabbing a seat near the front.

It takes some doing to tug the crowd from the wine tables, but the strictly-enforced pouring shutdown eventually has the desired effect, and the first award of the night goes out to Virginia Wine Person of the Year, Justin Rose of Rosemont Vineyards, who has recently completed his multi-year labor of love as President of the Virginia Wineries Association while simultaneously running his family’s 27-acre vineyard and 6,000-case wine production. Unsurprisingly, Rose appears both relaxed and relieved—peppy, even.     

Randy Philips, owner and winemaker at Cave Ridge Vineyards, accepts the Gordon Murchie Lifetime Achievement Award but neglects to mention what’s really on everyone’s mind: the Bubble Decker, Philips’ new, two-story wine party bus. Cheers for the home boy echo from Shenandoah Valley-ites in attendance.    

Emotions run high as the three sons of King Family Vineyards present a new award in their late father’s honor--the David King Advocate of the Year Award--to George Hodson, the head of Veritas Vineyards, Flying Fox Vineyard, and the Monticello Wine Trail. Hodson’s voice is strained from a cold and he struggles a bit during his remarks, prompting the crowd to wonder if the always-composed CEO is maybe a little verklempt. The moment is poignant; no one would hold it against him.   

Now it’s Governor’s Case time, and a back-patting group of men plus one elegant woman form a line off stage. Carl DeManno from 868 Estate Vineyards, the sole Loudoun County delegate, is first up, then Afton Mountain Vineyards winemaker Damien Blanchon is called, but the crowd murmurs in confusion—he’s MIA. Barboursville Vineyards’ dynamic duo--Fernando Franco, the head of the Bad Hombres vineyard crew, and winemaker/General Manager Luca Paschina—ascend to the platform together, as always.

Rick Tagg, longtime Northern Virginia winemaker now at Delaplane Cellars, where he earned this--his first spot in the Case—steps up to the stage sporting a trimmed goatee, sharply-pressed blazer and Redback work boots. Suddenly, a chagrined Blanchon is located at the hors d’oeuvres table and sprints to the stage (as much as a Frenchman is culturally able to sprint).

Applause turns to cheers when popular winemaker Graham Bell from Lake Anna Winery heads up the steps—it’s also his first wine to make the Case—followed by a couple of awards-stage regulars, Michael Shaps of the eponymous winery and Pollak Vineyards’ Benoit Pineau (wait—didn’t he move north, to Stone Tower Winery?).

Rockbridge Vineyard owner Jane Rouse seems comfortable enough as she and her husband, winemaker Shep Rouse, make their way up. At this point, Rouse’s V D'or dessert wine has become as much a Virginia wine icon as Barboursville’s Octagon, Horton’s Viognier, and Linden’s Hardscrabble Chardonnay. Pippin Hill Winery’s vineyard manager, Brooks Hoover, fills the last spot in the Governor’s Case squad and, like many unaccustomed to the spotlight, quickly moves to the back of the group. (In group photos published later, he’s retreated even further, looking amusingly like a photobomber with a smirk pointed directly at Michael Shaps.)    

Bettina Ring, Virginia’s brainy Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, steps to the mic to bolster the somewhat inebriated crowd with encouraging words about wine and tourism and pride and the predicted overall health of the industry as evaluated by complex economic indicators. Next, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam bounds onto the stage, looking reassuringly energetic and also jarringly corporate among all the Timberlands and leather clogs and comfortable sneakers.

As the clock ticks down, the crowd waits in near-breathless anticipation for the best-wine award, but Carl DeManno already knows he’s won. (Tip: always look for the guy in the suit). The Virginia Wine Marketing team hits “send” on the official press release as Carl beams at his co-owners, who abandon decorum and shout and hoot from the audience, and Governor Northam pumps Carl’s hand as they share an insider laugh.

The most unlikely of wines, a sweet Vidal blanc dessert wine made in the romantic-sounding appassimento method--which makes one think of wine dancing but actually means drying out loads of perfectly good grapes to resemble blueberries lost in the back of the fridge—has won tonight’s Best Wine Oscar, and is now king of the hill among 530 bottles entered in this best-of-Virginia competition.  Bragging. Rights. For. Life. Yo.

Awards over, the crowd heads back toward the pouring, and Carl DeManno hauls the 2-foot-tall Cup over to the 868 crew, which is swamped by Instagrammers and tipsy couples who think they tried the Vidal earlier but now can’t remember and would like another taste please.

Chatter turns to Ubers and bowling; the Monticello Wine Trail has rented out River City Roll for the Gala after-party. Lights come up and bottles are packed away, carried out on the shoulders of Millennial cellar rats. A cluster of still-perky winefolk stands on the sidewalk outside the Station, calling out “where to next’s?” and checking Yelp for the new Richmond hot spots.

Tonight, they will celebrate. Tomorrow, they’ll get back to work.

Photo credit: Jay Paul Photography