Is Virginia for Wine-Lovers? Part 1: Davis Valley

In the far south-west corner of Virginia, just a couple of miles off of I-81 in the gorgeously-named town of Rural Retreat, up a hillside and with a beautiful near 360-degree view, sits the relatively new Davis Valley Winery. One of the joys of visiting wineries, particularly lesser-known places on off days like this hot August Monday, is the ability to meet and talk with the wine-maker, and for most of the time we were at Davis, we were proprietor Rusty Cox’s only guests. Despite mutual problems with our accents (his was the strongest Virginia twang I heard all week; my English trill seemed to catch him equally off guard), we bonded over our common language: the liquid he sells for a living.

Located in the town of Rural Retreat, Davis Valley is ideally situated for a picnic stop off I-81.

Davis Valley is a model of the modest winery: it makes less than ten wines, pours them for free (albeit in cheap plastic cups), sells them at a sensible price, and best of all, only grows what makes sense given the terroir. (Or, if not yet the terroir, given Davis’ status as the only winery in the area, at least the climate.) All vintage wines poured, as was the case with most from the other Virginia wineries we visited, hailed from 2005, a solid year in Virginia and therefore a good one with which to sample the State’s wine-making potential.

The Davis Valley whites included a dry Chardonnay, which was lightly oaked, passable, pleasant enough, and purchasable if I wasn’t so bored with seeing the grape at every tasting room I ever visit. There was also a semi-dry Chardonnel, a new hybrid made by Michigan State and Cornell from a cross between Seyval Blanc and Chardonnay. Given that both these grapes fare well in the kind of difficult east coast climate where hybrids are otherwise so necessary, it’s hard to justify Chardonnel’s existence, especially as I found its aromas and attack positively nasty. On a brighter note, Cox poured a perfectly agreeable dessert Vidal Blanc – a hybrid that has become so engrained on the east coast I tend to view it as borderline vinifera – that offered up all the appropriate tropical fruit aromas and textures under the name ‘Sweet Virginia.’ In retrospect, I should probably have picked up a bottle.

Winemaker Rusty Cox pours the fruits of his labor.

If there’s an equivalent to Vidal amongst red wines – a hybrid grape that’s become such an enjoyable fixture on the east coast landscape it’s actually possible to forget that it’s a hybrid to begin with – it would have to be Chambourcin. (An explanation for these two grapes’ quality may lie in the fact that they were both created not at Cornell or elsewhere in America but in France.) The Davis Valley Chambourcin 2005 comported itself admirably, a honest-to-goodness peppery juicy red wine with just a hint (2%RS) of sweetness, and a steal at $11. But just as the Vidal was undone by the Chardonnel, so the Chambourcin was canceled out by the 2005 Corot Noir, a brand new attempt by Cornell to make a sturdy Pinot Noir clone for the east coast. I tasted it twice and couldn’t get past the ugly attack on the front end that screamed “hybrid” in all its wild skunk madness, and could hardly agree with Rusty’s insistence that it served as a “light Pinot” – especially as, by his own admission, the alcohol content hovered around 14%.

The same high alcohol was true of his Cabernet Franc which, much as in New York State, and much to my own delight as a fan of the grape, is fast becoming the flagship red wine in Virginia. (Rusty did not list it on his tasting sheet, as he was only able to bottle 2-300 gallons in 2005 and, I soon discovered, does not trust the taste buds of the casual visitor to discern quality over sweetness, but the moment I asked about it, out came a bottle. Such is the way of the modern Virginia tasting room.) This Cab Franc, Rusty assured me as he poured, was judiciously oaked – not like the North Carolina example from a brand new high-end winery that he’d himself visited the previous weekend which, he said, had been like “biting into an oak board.” It tasted just fine in the plastic cup and so we took a bottle of his Davis Valley Cabernet Franc Virginia 2005 home with us (for $19) and tried it that night alongside what should have been a suitable dinner. While I wasn’t hit up front by any oak boards, the wine was nonetheless dominated by a vanilla component that masked all the tobacco-pencil-smoky-peppery-vegetal flavors I would normally expect from this most food-friendly of red wine grapes. Chilling the wine didn’t help any; bringing it back towards Virgina’s summer temperatures was no solution either. I came back it to it the next night and it was no different. Damn. I so wanted to like this bottle.

Rusty’s final pour was of a sweet red Steuben, a hybrid grape I’ve never knowingly tasted in wine before. Picked at normal harvest time, its light red color belying its naturally high sugar content, it apparently tastes in the glass just as it does in the vineyard – of pink grapefruit. Given that I often start my day with said fruit, I had no reason not be charmed by its simple honesty. (Ironically, Steuben is one of the parents responsible for the awful Corot Noir.) Rusty told us that next year he would blend it with the sweet Vidal to make a truly pink dessert wine – and poured us a sample by blending wine from his two open bottles! (Some of the finest pink Champagne is made in much the same manner.) I think he will have a hit on his hands…

The vineyards at Davis Valley are still relatively young – the oldest date I noted was 2001.

…And there’s good reason for this. There are two types of visitor to his winery, says Rusty: 1) the wine-lover, like myself, who may come from afar, who usually gravitates towards the red wines, and who certainly prefers the dry ones; and 2) the confirmed beer drinker, who may well be local, but whose palate is so conditioned that a dry wine will only shock his taste buds and so who inherently gravitates towards sweet wines. I had never thought of it in such starkly simple terms but, as we were leaving, an elderly couple came in to the tasting room. When Rusty asked what they’d like to try, the woman described herself as favorable towards Chardonnay while the husband proclaimed, in so many words: “I’m a beer drinker at heart. I only like sweet wines.” Touché.

Rusty’s words served as useful warning for the rest of our wine-tasting experience, and I paid close attention to the “sweetness” factor of other wineries before visiting. While he understandably tips his hat (and his Vidal, his Chambourcin and his Steuben) to the beer drinker with the sweet tongue, he’s a straight-ahead guy making unpretentious wines at a fair price. It was a pleasure to visit with him.

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October 2021