May 2016 Issue of Wines & Vines

Virginia Winemakers Share Research

Monticello Wine Trail winemakers conduct research and taste the results

by Linda Jones McKee
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Participants taste through wines created from the 2015 harvest during a sensory session hosted by the Winery Research Exchange in Virginia.
Charlottesville, Va.—Across the country, winemakers gather for state meetings, talks by extension experts or simply as friends. In the Monticello American Viticultural Area that surrounds Charlottesville, winemakers meet four times per year with a specific purpose: reviewing the results of research trials done by fellow winemakers with the goal of evaluating techniques and expanding knowledge that will be directly applicable to the Virginia wine industry.

According to Scott Dwyer, coordinator of the research exchange and assistant winemaker at Pollak Vineyards, three winemakers—Kirsty Harmon at Blenheim Vineyards, Matthieu Finot of King Family Vineyards and Emily Pelton at Veritas Vineyard & Winery—were the impetus behind starting the Winemaker’s Research Exchange in 2014. The trio wanted to see more research done that would be applicable to Virginia and went to the Monticello Wine Trail, which has 31 member wineries, for support. They secured a $5,000 grant from the wine trail and set up 25 projects for the 2014 harvest.

“The projects were anything winemakers wanted,” Dwyer noted, “including a lot of yeast trials and whole-cluster fermentation with Cabernet Franc.”

The Winemaker’s Research Exchange (WRE) was set up with a board of directors that included the three founding winemakers plus Ben Jordan from Early Mountain Vineyards, Michael Heny at Horton Vineyards and Stephen Barnard of Keswick Vineyards, with Dwyer as the research exchange’s coordinator. “We emailed all the winemakers on the wine trail” Dwyer said, “and asked them if they were interested in doing research projects and to let us know.”

Dwyer, who has a background in biochemistry, then met with the winemakers to help them design research protocols and fine-tune their projects. The WRE board reviewed the projects, made some suggestions for changes or the addition of specific analyses, and afterward, Dwyer went back to the winemakers. After harvest, Dwyer conducted another round of reviews to determine if the research projects could move forward. The board then met with Dwyer to see what projects they had and to set four dates to present the results. Similar experiments were grouped together, and between six and eight projects were scheduled for each session.

In 2015, WRE received a $30,000 grant from the Virginia Wine Board (established within the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services) as well as continued funding from the Monticello Wine Trail. The increased monies covered the cost of all analyses done for the winemakers’ experiments in addition to a salary for the coordinator. The group worked with Enartis Vinquiry for its laboratory analyses and also involved researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). More than 40 projects were completed in 2015, and four sensory sessions were scheduled to present the results.

Sensory session
Eight separate research projects were presented at the fourth and final sensory session for the 2015 vintage. Two were presented as difference tests (tasters sample three wines and identify the wine that is different from the other two). For the other six flights, participants were asked to compare the aroma and taste characteristics and then determine their favorite wine. The wines were each numbered, but no information was given about the varietal or the project before the tasting. After each flight, information about the research project was handed out, and the winemaker conducting the research described his or her project and answered questions.

The final flight was not based on a research project but satisfy the interest of Virginia winemakers about the aging potential for Petit Manseng wines. The varietal has increased in popularity during the past 10 years or so, but not many wineries have a long history of producing that wine. Michael Heny, winemaker at Horton Vineyards and host for this WRE session, has made Petit Manseng wines for approximately 15 years, so he was able to select four vintages (2008, 2011, 2012 and 2014) from the Horton wine library for attendees to taste.

A total of 24 people attended the May 4 session—most of them winemakers from the Monticello Wine Trail wineries. Winemakers from wineries outside the Monticello Wine Trail are welcome to attend WRE sensory sessions and should contact Dwyer. Additional information about WRE is available at

WRE is currently finalizing its grant applications for research projects based on the 2016 harvest. “We were better organized in 2015 than in 2014, and 2016 should be even better,” Dwyer stated. “The winemakers enjoy seeing what others are doing, and hearing the different reactions to the same products. It’s been very positive.”

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