by Lee Graves
Tyler Franks’ wine cellar in South Richmond features an item that seems out of place in a collection of fine wines: a dirty T-shirt.
It’s not just any dirty T-shirt. It bears smudges of earth from La Tâche vineyard in France, where a sommelier took Franks to illustrate the vast differences in soil characteristics of Burgundy vineyards. “She and I reached down and inhaled the dirt. It was fabulous, very earthy, like the dirt you remember from your grandfather’s garden when you were a kid,” says Franks.
Now the T-shirt, along with a piece of flint and a canister of soil, holds a prominent place in what amounts to a shrine to La Tâche, one of the world’s great Burgundies. The display is but one testament to Franks’ devotion to wine. His cellar features racks of non-aromatic cedar and a specially designed air-conditioning unit that controls temperature (he likes 57 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity (50 to 55 percent). Some 700 bottles of wine are arranged by country — France, Italy, the United States and elsewhere — with a section for his wife, Bobbie, and a “grab-and-go” area when there’s a need for speed.
Franks prefers taking his time to savor the wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux, as well as Rieslings, Viogniers, Cabernet Francs and others. He frequently invites friends for tastings, with fruit, cheese, salsa and other food to bring out various flavors in the wines. “I do not buy to collect,” he says. “I buy to drink and taste and share.”
Formerly a corporate pilot for the Martin Agency and now semi-retired, Franks, 51, developed a love for wine through his passion for food. He took a series of cooking classes at a Richmond restaurant, and each session included wine recommendations from the general manager. “By the end of the classes, I was hooked,” says Franks.? “The wine was making the food so much better. The synergy was amazing.”
Franks’ knowledge of food and wine has earned him a nickname, “The Mayor,” at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Richmond, where he is a member of the
Though he believes “no one’s mouth is wrong,” Franks definitely has opinions: Wines of the Old World rank highest for their maturity and depth; Californians can be brash and overstated; and Virginians find world-class status with only two grapes, Cabernet Franc and Viognier.
Though his collection is extensive, there’s one variety you won’t find in Franks’ cellar. The Italian Amarone is just too raisiny for him. Judging by its popularity, he knows others might say his mouth is wrong.
“I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t like it.”
With 140 farm wineries, 2,400 acres in grape production and wine trails stretching from the Shenandoah Valley to the Northern Neck, Virginia stands among the
nation’s top states for wine.
Wineries have been a boon on at least two fronts. Vineyards fuel growth in the state’s agricultural sector, and they draw tourists whose purchases feed the
economy. Travel and Leisure magazine singled out the Old Dominion last year as one of the top five new wine travel destinations in the world. (For more
information on the state’s wine industry, see page 12).
As a group, Virginia’s vintners find strength in several organizations — the Virginia Wine Board, the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, the Virginia Wineries
Association and the Virginia Vineyards Association.
Importers such as Richmond-based E.C. Robins International and Empson USA in Alexandria have fed the growing market for fine wines. In April, the state
launched the Virginia Winery Distribution Co., which gives vintners an alternative to using independent wine wholesalers.
Oct. 4-5: Autumn Explosion and Barrel Tasting, 11 a.m., Barboursville Vineyards, Barboursville. (540) 832-3824 or http://www.barboursvillewine.com
. Oct. 11: River City Wine Festival, 4 to 8 p.m., Constitution Park Pavilion, Waynesboro. (540) 942-6705 or http://www.waynesborodowntown.org
. Oct. 12: 18th Annual Virginia Wine and Garlic Festival, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Rebec Vineyards, Amherst. (434) 946-5168 or http://www.rebecwinery.com
. Oct. 25: Pick of the Piedmont Fall Wine Festival, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Booster Park, 19046 Constitution Highway, Orange. (540) 672-5216 or
Nov. 1-2: Winter Wine Trail Weekend, Heart of Virginia event with four wineries. Call for times. (804) 550-7516 or http://www.HOVAwinetrail.com