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Virginia's turn: Podcast brings local wine industry to the world

“Virginia wine still has soul.”

That’s one of the messages of Fred Reno, wine industry consultant and founder of “Fine Wine Confidential,” a podcast on Virginia’s booming wine industry which wrapped up in February with its 44th episode. Now, Reno is donating the series as an oral history to the Camp Library at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

Each episode in the podcast is a conversation between Reno and a winemaker or viticulturist in the wine country that surrounds Charlottesville who shares their background, perspective and approach to winemaking in the commonwealth. The series hopes to spread the word of what Reno said he discovered for himself not long ago: Virginia is making very good wine.

But even as Virginia wine enthusiasts are teeming with excitement for the state’s growing industry — now with a $105 billion economic impact, according to the state — west of the Mississippi, Virginia wines are fairly unknown, Reno said.

“We’re in that moment in Virginia that what we do in the next several years is going to determine whether we seize this opportunity, or if it will pass us by,” Reno said.

The Thomas Jefferson-era history and modern-day innovations provide a distinct identity for the Virginia wine country, something important to document, according to Stephen Barnard, president of the Monticello Wine Trail, who Reno interviewed for his 20th episode.

The casual, storytelling quality of the podcast is also more accessible and less “polarizing” than actually drinking wine, Barnard said.

“This is the easiest way to talk about wine,” said Barnard, who is now winemaker at Delfosse Vineyards and Winery and formerly at Keswick Vineyards. “If you hear the backstories and color in all the pictures, it brings to life a process that is quite complicated but very simple at the same time. We’re just farmers, and we tend to the land.”

Reno first realized Virginia was sitting on a powder keg — or barrel, rather — of exceptional wines in 2017 during his annual trip to Charlottesville with his wife. Sitting at dinner over a Meritage from Jefferson Vineyards, he had an “aha moment” where he realized the quality of wine he had been tasting every summer had grown exponentially.

“We’re in the early days here,” Reno said. “If we don’t capture this now, those kids are going to come along in 20-plus years and they’re going to think they’re responsible for the success of the wine industry.”

With more than 40 years of combined experience in retail, distribution, production and marketing, Reno knows a lot about the business. Still, Reno said he learned a tremendous amount from his interviews, starting with Gabriele Rausse, the first winegrower at Barboursville Vineyards who now has his own operations south of Charlottesville and is considered one of the fathers of the modern Virginia wine industry. Reno has interviewed other renowned players in Virginia such as Michael Shaps of Michael Shaps Wineworks, Luca Paschina of Barboursville and Andrew Hodson of Veritas Vineyard and Winery.

What became clear to Reno quickly was what the Virginia wine industry needed in order to solidify a place on the national and international map: better marketing efforts outside of the region.

“We need to quit selling wine to ourselves,” Reno said. Very few Virginia wineries have aggressive distribution models, bringing most income from wine clubs, tastings, events and hospitality, he said.

Distribution is tricky for a place such as Virginia, where production is simply too small to compete with bigger brands, Barnard said. There is no Virginia vineyard that produces more than 100,000 cases of wine per year, compared to the millions from California and Washington state.

Reno agreed that the distribution system is not only “broken” but difficult to break into. But it can be done, he said. Certain wineries in the world only produce 300 cases of wine a year and still enjoy international acclaim and renown.

That could be Virginia, if only they had the vision, Reno said.

“About 20% of wineries in Virginia today produce as good a quality as anyone in the world, full stop,” Reno said. “There’s a regionality to it, an old-world expression to it.”

“Fine Wine Confidential” has no sponsors and Reno did no marketing for the project. Still, the podcast saw wide circulation with listeners in 23 different countries and 33 different states, Reno said. His podcast was in the top 10% of all podcasts circulated with Buzzsprout, a popular podcasting platform.

Reno’s podcast is cataloged at Camp Library at the UVa Darden School of Business, according to library director Tom Marini. UVa is helping to spread the word of the podcast to faculty and students, especially among a growing international student body.

Documenting the history of a local wine industry is not uncommon, with oral histories cataloged at California and Oregon universities. But the West Coast wine industry is already internationally acclaimed and widely known.

Now, Marini said, it’s Virginia’s turn.


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