The postcard image of a hillside vineyard reflects beauty and tranquility, the countryside at its best. A grand picture, but it doesn’t even hint at the effort that creates it. All the more surprising then, that people with no background in agriculture become involved with viticulture—the cultivation of grapes, particularly wine grapes.
What often starts as a hobby can grow into a commercial enterprise, but only for those with an ongoing dedication to “doing the research,” a phrase heard repeatedly in any discussion about the subject. Learn the language, learn the processes, and be aware of the pitfalls in the hope of avoiding them.
The hobby phase of winemaking sparked an early interest for Paul and Katie Krop of Good Luck Cellars, and ongoing study maintains it. “Virginia Tech and other universities are sources of an incredible amount of information,” said Paul, “with courses in growing the grapes and making the wine. We were able to choose the grape varieties that thrive here.”
Stephen Madey of The Hague Winery studied viticulture for years, at Virginia Tech-sponsored seminars, at UC Davis, and at Linden Vineyards with Jim Law, who has been described as one of the preeminent winemakers in the mid-Atlantic.
THE LAND: Land is the first consideration. “My wife Joanne and I spent about 18 months looking for property,” said Keith Meenan, “and found Vault Field, which met most of the criteria noted on a Virginia Tech overlay map of area counties.” These items included soil, climate, slope (grapes don’t like wet feet), aspect (grapes need lots of sun), and more.
“When my wife Cynthia and I bought The Hague Winery property in 2000, I learned that six varieties of peaches had been grown there,” says Stephen Madey. “Since peaches and grapes have similar growing requirements, I was sure that wine grapes would do well. I also realized that finding people with more experience and greater expertise than mine would be important.”
A former sand and gravel mine is Good Luck Cellars’ site. “We’re proud of the fact that we could use this land,” says Paul Krop. “A lack of topsoil is actually better for grapes. We planted grass to prevent erosion. If necessary, we add a bit of nitrogen or lime. The land is hilly, so it drains well. This turned out to be a great location.”
THE GRAPES: Vineyards are planned so grapes will receive the most sun. Where possible, a slope provides drainage. Plants are placed according to the recommended amount of space between them and also between rows. An irrigation system and a trellising system of posts and wires are added.
“These farming aspects are most important,” says Keith Meenan. “All of our research indicated that good wine is made in the field, not in the winery. If you start with good fruit, you’ll end up with good wine.”
The plants must be pruned regularly and “trained” to grow in such a way that the right number of “trunks” will support the weight of the grapes, and the right number of vines will be left to grow the best fruit. It takes time for the vines to reach their full potential, and all the while they must be protected from diseases as well as insect, bird, and animal pests—more farming aspects. All this work must be done on a consistent schedule over a period of several years before a complete harvest is realized.
At harvest time, the grapes are hand-picked quickly at just the right time: determining that time is a multi-sensory task involving sight, taste, and touch. Each variety of grape ripens at a different time, the whites sooner than the reds.
“Our emphasis has been on growing the best fruit possible,” says Stephen Madey, “and for this we depend on Jeanette Smith, a viticulturist who was named Virginia Vineyards Association Grower of the Year three years ago. She guides us through whatever adjustments are needed in the vineyard each growing season to achieve balance and maturity in the grapes.”
THE WINE: After picking, the grapes are put through a “destemmer” to remove most of the stems. Then a conveyor takes them to a sorting table, where remaining stems, leaves, and anything other than grapes are removed by hand. Stems can add a bitter flavor to wine, so it’s essential to remove them.
Different processes are used for fermenting. White grapes may be crushed first, then pressed to squeeze out the juice, which is then put into the fermentation tank. Red grapes may go directly into the fermentation bin for ten days to two weeks. During this time, they are “punched down” twice a day. Keith Meenan explains, “In the bin, the grape skins float to the top, and must be punched back down to prevent the formation of mold and to add color to the wine.” After three or four days of natural fermenting, cultured yeast may be added, to better control the process and the flavor. Next, the mixture is pressed, strained, and allowed to settle overnight in stainless steel tanks. The following day, the liquid goes into oak barrels for aging.
“The proper aging of wine is necessarily very subjective;” says Meenan. “Even the age of the wooden barrel is a variable, because a new barrel imparts more flavor to the wine in a shorter time.” When the wine reaches the desired flavor profile, it’s placed in stainless steel tanks for further aging until bottling day.
At some vineyards, when it’s time for bottling, a phone call will schedule a day when a mobile wine-bottling service will bring its self-contained tractor-trailer to the vineyard. While that may sound simple, in fact, it can be a very stressful time. Everything must be ready—bottles, corks, front and back labels—with all items sorted and easily accessible for a number of different varieties of wine.
The Hague’s wines are not bottled on site. Instead, the grapes are sent to Michael Shaps, who trained in France and has been making wine for over twenty years. In a Charlottesville facility, Shaps produces The Hague’s dry French-style wines.
COMMENTS AND CAUTIONS
“A lot of our effort has gone into the vineyard equipment,” says Vault Field’s Keith Meenan, “and that has paid off—the wines are successful. But if you don’t do the research, you probably shouldn’t do a vineyard. This is a 12-month business. Weather is probably the biggest challenge; you have little or no control over how
the grapes are affected. Virginia’s annual rainfall is unpredictable. Two years ago, from May to August, only ten days had no rain. Grapes don’t like to be wet. It was a very bad year.”
The Hague’s Stephen Madey has
these observations for would-be vintners: “Be able to learn, adjust, decide, and
keep moving. If one doesn’t do well
with uncertainty and change, this isn’t
a good idea.”
Rick and Linda Phillips’ approach to General’s Ridge Vineyard was less about the romance and more about building a business around that idea. “If you don’t run it like a business,” says Rick, “you won’t be in business very long.”
Money, of course, is the first and biggest consideration in any new venture. Rick notes that in some cases, owners want to start small and add on as needed, but he cautions that it’s best to buy enough land initially to satisfy the ultimate business goal (including growing sufficient grapes). It will likely be more difficult to acquire additional land later.
“For General’s Ridge, we broke the plan down into doable pieces,” says Rick. “First, the grape farm: we sold grapes to other wineries, who did very well with them. A few years later we started producing our wine through Michael Shaps, a well-known winemaker. We restored the Manor House and built a cottage for short-term rentals, and we built two tasting rooms which can also be used for weddings and other events.
“It’s always important to have enough loyal staff, which we do in both the vineyard and tasting rooms. To make good wine, you need good grapes and a good winemaker. If you have the best of both, you have the best wine.”
While Good Luck may be a retirement project, that doesn’t mean it’s easy work. “At harvest time, especially, we work seven days a week,” says Paul Krop. “Of course we have a staff of professional workers to help. But we’d heard about all the hard work, and now we know it’s true!
“I learned to drive a tractor on my cousin’s farm when I was 12. Now I’m learning more about agriculture, and at the same time, meeting so many wonderful people. It’s been an incredible journey!”