Cover Story

Virginia Vintners: A Growing Bunch

 

by Audrey T. Hingley, Contributing Writer

 

Barren Ridge Vineyards in Fishersville is owned by John and Shelby Higgs..

If it seems like you’re seeing more emphasis on wine these days, with everything from supermarket wine tastings to winery tours being promoted, it’s not your imagination.

In 1979, there were six wineries operating in Virginia; today there are 193. In 2008, wine grapes entered the top 20 agricultural commodities grown in the state for the first time, accord­ing to Elaine Lidholm, director of communications for the Virginia Depart­ment of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“The top four [grape/wine production] states are California, Washington, New York and Oregon, then there’s everybody else,” explains Annette Boyd, Virginia Wine Marketing Office director. “I say we are a solid fifth place in production. Wine as an agricultural entity is growing.”


Annette Boyd, Virginia Wine Marketing Office Director

Although a dozen Virginia wineries export internationally, the majority of Virginia wineries still sell their wine directly via on-site tasting rooms. Boyd says the average Virginia winery produces 2,500 to 5,000 cases of wine annually, noting that wineries selling less than 5,000 cases per year find it difficult financially to sell via wholesalers to restaurants or wine shops. Typically, a 5,000-case-per-year Virginia winery has between 15 and 25 acres devoted to vineyards on land owned or leased. There are also growers who don’t make wine but grow grapes to sell for wine, juice or jams.

One of the state’s first wineries is Ingleside Vine­yards, with 10 full-time and 10 seasonal or part-time employees. Located in Oak Grove in West­more­land County, for years the 3,000-acre Ingleside Plantation, in the Flemer family since 1890, had been a dairy farm. Carl Flemer, now 90, turned 1,500 acres into Ingleside Plantation Nursery in the 1940s. Then after an extensive trip touring France’s most prominent vineyards, son Doug returned home to help his dad expand initial vineyards planted in the 1970s.

“Our first year in 1980, we produced 1,500 cases of wine,” Doug Flemer, now 61, recalls. “We now produce 15,000 cases annually, with 60 acres devoted to [grape] vineyards.”

Doug Flemer realized early on that agri-tourism could be a good way to make people aware of his product. In the mid-1980s, Rappahan­nock River Cruises approached Ingleside; the resulting passenger boat cruise, originating in Tappa­han­nock in Essex County with a stop at Ingle­side for tours and complimentary wine tasting, remains a popular tourist attraction. The winery averages one special event monthly, has a cottage on the estate that can be rented to travelers, and hosts weddings and private parties. Flemer is chairman of Westmoreland County’s Tourism Council and works with numerous area attractions and the Virginia Tourism Corporation.


Duog Flemer has been producing wine at Ingleside Vineyards in Oak Grove since 1980.

“In a rural area like this, tourism fits the lifestyle of people already here. In the beginning we didn’t see the state promote wineries at all; now it’s a big part of [tourism],” Flemer, who received a lifetime achievement award at the 2010 Virginia Wineries Association Expo, explains. “The industry started picking up steam in the 1980s but it really wasn’t until the 1990s that the industry took off in Virginia. Awareness has increased about wine as a food beverage and more people are appreciating it as a food beverage.”

Boyd confirms that “culinary tourism” is a growing segment of the tourism market, noting that people have discovered that visiting wineries is fun.

“People want to experience things in an area that make it unique and different. Obviously, Virginia has history, and southern foods and wines from the area are unique to that area. The sun and soil [here] cannot be duplicated anywhere else,” she explains.

One of the state’s newest wineries is Barren Ridge Vineyards in Augusta County’s Fishersville. Owners John and Shelby Higgs took possession of 33 acres once devoted to his dad’s apple orchards in 2004. John Higgs, 72, who spent 30 years in management with Philip Morris Inc. and lived in both Turkey and Switzerland, explains, “I worked in Italy where they had ‘Opera in the Vineyards’ with beautiful music, lots of people, and I thought, I could do something like this [on my dad’s former property]. Being raised in an apple-growing family, I had fruit in my DNA.”

It took two years just to clear the neglected orchard land. He turned the old packing shed, complete with a new second floor and total renovation, into a 5,000-square-foot winery/tasting room with a rustic ski-chalet feel. Today there are six acres of vineyards, with 3,500 cases of wine produced annually. The Higgses also host weddings, receptions and special events on the property. 

“We are not just selling wine, we are selling an experience,” John Higgs says. “More people are crammed into cities and this gives them a chance to come through the countryside.”


Jane and Jon Zieman of Ridge Run Vineyards in Stuart's Draft. 

Jon Zieman, 60, of Stuarts Draft grew up on an Iowa farm and has owned Ridge Run Vineyard for six years. Zieman moved from Minnesota to buy the farm, looking at future retirement in a warmer climate. He travels for his sales job but also runs an Angus herd on his 176-acre farm, established in 1847, and has nine acres of grapes producing a harvest of 36 to 40 tons for sale to wineries. His advice for those who want to grow grapes? “Have deep pockets!” he says with a laugh. “We had frost last year and lost 90 percent of our [grape] crop. But we have a reputation for growing really good grapes, and some of the wines made from our grapes have won awards. We sell to as many as six different wineries.”

Jeannette Smith, a wine consultant based in Stephens City near Winchester, also operates a vineyard on her Shenan­doah Valley farm. She says her company, Vinesmith Inc., which helps startup and established growers with advice on such concerns as establishing and managing a vineyard, pest control and nutrient management, is one of about a half-dozen similar businesses in the state.

“Some [are farmers] looking for another crop to diversify into, some are enamored with wine and some are approaching retirement and have land and want something to do,” she says of many clients. “It’s not for the faint of heart ... typically I tell people to count on $14,000 to $20,000 per acre to install and bring to production an acre of grapes for grape production, including the cost of vines, trellis and labor to plant and manage them. They may need to install irrigation and deer fencing, and that [estimated cost] doesn’t include equipment like tractors or mowers.”

Higgs says his winery has all the attributes of an intense small business operating seven days a week: “The interesting thing about a farm winery is that it has the complete economic cycle: you buy the land, cultivate the product, turn your product from your raw materials and package, advertise and market it. You have to finance all that. What’s nice is that you have control over [the whole cycle] but it’s also extremely time-consuming.”

Flemer agrees, noting that the “romantic” image of wineries can be a problem when it comes to recruiting people for the business: “Many people think it’s fun but are not ready to do the work part of it ... it’s labor-intensive and harder than many people think it will be. It’s glorified farming.”

Flemer says the biggest challenge remains marketing Virginia wine profitably. “The ‘buy/grow local’ movement does not roll over to the wine industry as much as it should,” he says. “Although wine sales are up, Virginia wines are about 4½ percent of all wines sold in Virginia; my wife is from Washington state, where the wines sold are 20 percent Washington-state wines.”

Italian immigrant Gabriele Rausse, who received the 2011 Virginia Agribusiness Council’s Distinguished Service Award, came to Virginia to be a winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards, established in 1976, an operation that helped put Virginia wines on the map. Barboursville Vineyards includes The 1804 Inn, Palladio Restaurant and a wine museum that opened in 2006.

Barboursville Vineyards wines have won numerous awards and, recently, two of their wines were selected by the Embassy of Great Britain for the evening reception celebrating the royal marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Today Rausse is a winery owner, consultant and educator; after leaving Barboursville Vineyards, he opened his own vineyard, Gabriele Rausse Vineyard in Afton.

More Virginia wines are winning awards, gaining recognition and appearing on faraway restaurant menus.  Publications like Travel and Leisure and The New York Times have favorably mentioned Virginia wines, and recently the Virginia industry received more press when real estate mogul Donald Trump bought most of Patricia Kluge’s winery and vineyard, now known as Eric Trump Wine Manufacturing LLC.

“Wine is sold on reputation, and we have some great wines in Virginia with reasonable prices,” Flemer notes. “We need to convince people that Virginia wines are worthy of their purchase.”

“There are good wineries in Virginia that can compete on the world stage,” Higgs agrees. “People are often surprised at how good Virginia wine can be.”

For more information on Virginia’s wine industry, or to find a list of wineries in the Commonwealth, visit The Virginia Wine Marketing Office website: virginiawine.org.

 

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