Saturday, July 18, 2009

Thinking Outside the Boxwood

"I like a challenge," Rachel Martin says, and she has one. We should all be so fortunate.

Martin is director of the (relatively) new Boxwood Winery in Middleburg, Virginia, and she is in New York City on this July midday with the humidity rising on 53rd Street outside The Modern, that delightful - if painfully punctual in not letting anyone in before precisely 11:30 - restaurant that is an adjunct to The Museum, or perhaps the other way around, debuting her wines to large group of writers. With her are her father and mother, John Kent and Rita Cooke, who own Boxwood, and Stephane Derenoncourt, the Bordelaise wine consultant well-known for very carefully choosing his clients. If the name "Cooke" sounds familiar, John's father, Jack, was a sports and communications impressario best known for honcho-ing the Washington Redskins during their heyday.

Rachel's challenge is that she wants to make Boxwood not just a good regional winery, but a great one sold in key U.S. markets and in France, where she studied winemaking in Bordeaux after a hitch in Napa Valley. With a small winery (maximum cases: 5000; vineyard: 16 acres) and what is currently not considered prime-time cru real estate, that is a challenge that other East Coast wineries have attempted, notably Kluge in Charlottesville, with limited success.

There are three Boxwood wines, all Bordeaux in style and grape contents. Topiary is a Right Bank blend, Boxwood is a Left Bank blend, and a Rose is all Cab Franc. Price for the serious wines is $25, and $12 for the Rose. All are certainly worth their prices.

The first vintages of Topiary and Boxwood were from the 2006 vintage, which the group of assembled wine writers taste, along with the bottled 2007 and the 2008 barrel samples. The 2007s are quite nice, but we are not blown away nor do we expect to be. Derenoncourt, who believes in following the terroir and not leading it, cautions that, while the clay-based Virginia soil is very good for wine, it is not suitable for making big wines, so he settled on elegant ones. The two are certainly that, and their charms rise the longer they are swirled and sipped in large- bowled stemware over plates of rare Colorado lamb. But in addition to their understated, well-balanced fruit, they also have substantial tannins, more sensed than tasted, that bodes well for long aging. And we have to remind ourselves that the vines were not planted until 2004, so it may be another year or two before the wine will justify a price increase.

In short, I taste a very good present and a better future for the Boxwood reds - no white wines allowed - as long as Martin, the Cookes and Derenoncourt stay the course.

One of the best lines of the day - well-honed on previous occasions, no doubt - is Cooke's recounting of the family's lack of financial success with prior forays into farming. "My father lost his shirt with race horses," he says above the chuckling, "and I lost my pants raising purebred Angus." He admits that he would not be the first investor to be completely disrobed in trying to make a great wine that returns a profit.


New Publications: What do winemakers groove on (can I still say that?) when they are making wine, and does it change depending on whether they are crushing or racking? The musical answers are in my front-of-the-book piece in the August issue of The Wine Enthusiast (give me a note, and I'll shoot you a scanned copy)... Appellation America recently uploaded to its site two articles of mine on Long Island wineries - one on the lack of vineyard land mass in The Hamptons, and another on the North Fork's potential engagement to Merlot (photos by Ella Morris)... there is a cameo appearance in Amtrak's Arrive magazine that I wrote about their Acela-grade menu... and The Hunt magazine has features of mine on the Spice Guys (local chefs who dare to go beyond oregano) and one on people who collect fine art.

Follow my columns each Wednesday at, click Life, click Food. Tweet? @Battonage.

Until next time....

Roger Morris

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