“Wine’s not expensive compared to what goes into making it. The work of bringing a bottle of wine to someone’s table is extremely varied, with thousands of gestures and centuries of traditions to honor and remember. It’s not an industry, at least not to us.”—Christine Campadieu, co-owner with her husband of Domaine La Tour Vieille in Banyuls France
Harvest time at Lovingston Winery.
The small John Deere Gator roars over the rough, recently plowed dirt and rock on a steep hillside above Lovingston Winery in Nelson County. The wind blows Stephanie Puckett’s long blonde hair back as we bounce along, me perched awkwardly next to her trying to hold on and take notes at the same time. Behind us, at the top of the hill, is a small cabin into which her grandparents have just moved, and below and to the left is the white, wooden farmhouse where Stephanie’s parents, Ed and Janet, live, and below that stretches five acres of grapevines. The Gator threatens to toss me out at every turn, and Stephanie and I have to shout to be heard. The grapevines below us curl and twist along thin wire stretched between wooden posts. In a few months, these vines will be weighed down with fleshy bunches of purple fruit, but right now each grape is small and green and the size of a BB. A small industrial building that houses the winery is partially built into the base of the hill, and below that, where the hill flattens, is a pond with a dock and a flagpole flying the stars and stripes and the orange and blue crossed swords of the University of Virginia.
Location has always been an integral part of wine. The French call it terroir. Terroir is a Gestalt theory, namely that what you taste in a wine is more than just the mathematics of fermentation, or the skill of a famous winemaker. Terroir is an epic novel about a certain soil, in a certain plot of land, farmed by a certain person or people. It is a certain grape, in a certain earth, with certain weather, in a certain year. It can be magnificent or tragic. It is, in short, what wine means. In this way, a bottle of Virginia wine represents precisely what wine should be: an agricultural expression of a people, a culture and a place.
But that bottle isn’t cheap. A perusal of the shelves at Harris Teeter shows that most Virginia wine falls between $15 and $23, with very few bottles in the $10 range. Wines from California, South America or Australia, on the other hand, offer numerous choices below $15, and many below $10. Virginia wines are now starting to creep above $30, and even though plenty of wines from around the world are more expensive, those are balanced by the many lower-priced options. Not so with wines from the Old Dominion. This invites the question: Why is it cheaper to buy wine that is shipped here from halfway around the world, than wine that is made literally down the road?
Exclusive video: Industry leaders discuss the cost of Virginia wine.
To learn why Virginia wine is “so expensive,” I have looked inside a single bottle of Virginia wine to find out what goes into it. How is it made, and by whom, and where, and why? What is Virginia terroir? I am not talking about taste or quality, but rather process and personality. Not that how wine tastes isn’t important. As someone who markets Virginia wine told me, “All the marketing in the world can sell one bottle of wine. You’ve gotta have the quality to sell the second.”
Jeff and Michelle Sanders arrived in Free Union one year ago, with the dream of starting a vineyard. “If you close your eyes,” Michelle says, “you might think you’re in the French wine country."
And yes, Virginia, there is good Virginia wine. Just not in every bottle. Part of my own fascination with the wine that my home state produces is that I so rarely love it; yet it is a wonderful surprise when I do. It is, however, getting better. And many people, including families like the Pucketts, are moving here in increasing numbers to be a part of it. The wines they are making, or will one day make, might be expensive, but given what goes into making them, they might also be worth it.
Curse of the glassy-winged sharpshooter
Ed Puckett is a large man with a ruddy face that shines through his white beard, and in glasses, gray sweatpants and a black t-shirt, he looks a little bit like Jerry Garcia. In the early 1980s, Ed became interested in wine. It began slowly; he was the general manager at GNB Battery Technologies based in Minnesota, and at corporate dinners it was helpful to be the person who could handle the wine list. Soon he was reading magazines like Wine Spectator, visiting Napa Valley, and beginning to put together a collection. Wine had become a passion.
In the early ’90s the company moved its headquarters to Atlanta, which suited the Pucketts fine, as it was closer to Charlottesville where Ed had gone to school. On weekend trips to see UVA games, they began to visit local wineries. At one of these wineries, Afton Mountain, Ed had what he calls “a moment.” Drinking the wine, looking out over the rows of vineyards, he turned to the owner of the winery and said, “You’re doing what I want to do.” “You don’t know what you’re getting into,” came the reply.
“He was right,” Ed tells me. It is 15 years later and he is standing in his winery surrounded by dogs. There are eight dogs on the farm, a ragtag collection of salvaged canines, including the aptly named One-Eyed Jack and Bostwick, a 72-pound basset hound. I lean against the sink as Ed talks, swirling a glass of new red wine that moments ago was aging in a wooden barrel. In 1997, five years after the Afton moment, Ed bought a vineyard in North Georgia. The sale included a five-acre vineyard, a cabin, and three dogs (one of whom, Bella, is still with them). It was a mess, filled with a grab bag of grape varietals: Chardonnay, Syrah, Viognier, Nebbiolo, Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon and two rows of Carignan, which was basically just deer food. The owner, a depressed chef, gave Ed a one-day lesson in vineyard management and then left.
At that point Ed was leaving his job and, as part of the deal, GNB gave him a small business in Texas that they were certain would fail. The company, Atomized Products Group, manufactures powdered metals that are used as lubricants in, for instance, oil exploration, but are also key components in radiation protection, like the bib you wear when the dentist takes x-rays. The company has done well, in part due to the current war on terrorism; GNB, meanwhile, went bankrupt.
The day-to-day operations in Texas could be run by someone else, leaving Ed free to spend three to four days a week at the vineyard. It became a family project, everyone staying at the little cabin on the weekends, and soon the vineyard had doubled in size to 10 acres, growing grapes that were sold to a Georgia winery called Chateau Elan. Stephanie and her younger brother Lee were in high school at the time, and they spent their weekends working in the vineyard, hauling water in buckets to the farthest four acres in the hot Georgia summers. “One day,” Stephanie’s grandmother told her,” all this will be yours.” Stephanie looked at her and replied without hesitating, “And the next day there will be a ‘For Sale’ sign up.”
But, the climate in Georgia is unsuited to quality grape production. Worse, the vineyard soon developed Pierce’s Disease, which is carried by a bug called the Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter and can only be cured by ripping out the vines. So, in 2002, with both kids at UVA, the Pucketts sold their house and put the vineyard on the auction block. “It was,” Ed says, “a tough day.” The vineyard hadn’t come close to making back what they put into it.
The oak chip incident
Stephanie Puckett is the assistant winemaker at Lovingston, helping Riaan Rossouw the head winemaker. Riaan, 30 years old, was born in Wellington South Africa. Growing up, his house bordered a vineyard and he knew from a very young age when it was time to harvest the grapes. He came here seven years ago and his gamble has paid off. He is head winemaker at Lovingston, consultant for Oakencroft (where he first interned), and is also starting his own small label, to be called Springbok. He and his wife live in a house on the hill near Ed and Janet, who consider them part of the family.
At first glance, Stephanie is a typical 25-year-old—when I first visited the winery, she greeted me in jeans and a Keystone Light t-shirt, groggy after spending the previous day at Foxfield. But her life differs from most of her peers. Although Stephanie lives in Charlottesville, she spends a lot of time 40 minutes away at the winery, even sleeping there during important periods like harvest. She helps make the wine, handles the sales and runs her own distribution company to market and deliver the wine. Her life is almost entirely consumed by the family business.
Although she grew up around grapes, she now says it took “maturity and being able to drink wine [legally]” for her to see her father’s obsession as a labor of love. “Most of my friends,” she says, “are in transitional jobs, they don’t work with their families, they don’t know if they’re happy or not. I love what I do.” While large corporations were interviewing her UVA classmates, Stephanie began sending resumes to local wineries.
During the year that Lovingston was being planned and built, Stephanie worked in the tasting room at King Family, and in the wine cellar at Keswick and Oakencroft. At King Family and Keswick she worked with well-regarded local winemaker Michael Shaps, and at Oakencroft with Riaan. During the ‘04 harvest, she would work all day at Oakencroft, then drive to Keswick and work until midnight or 2 in the morning in the winery, often by herself. She made mistakes, like the time Shaps told her to throw a bag of oak chips into the Keswick Norton. She had never seen oak chips before, and so she did what she was told, throwing the chips into the wine still in their foil bag. Ironically, Keswick won an award for their 2004, accidentally unoaked, Norton.
Stephanie learned the hard way, and both she and Riaan are proud of having not gone to school to study winemaking. Both of them learned by doing, and perhaps most tellingly, both of them began their training in vineyards.
The tyranny of the scorecard
After a bumpy couple of years at the start, Lovingston has grown successful, partly by being different. They do not grow Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, despite the fact that both grapes are easy to sell and are the most popular in the world. Instead, the Pucketts have championed two obscure grapes; Petit Manseng, a rare white grape from the Jurançon region in France, and Pinotage, a South African hybrid made by breeding Pinot Noir and Cinsault. Lovingston is not the first Virginia winery to bottle these particular grapes, but it may be the most successful. The Pinotage, especially, is a risk. It is often very strong and funky, with what is politely called a “barnyard” odor. But Riaan is a big believer. “I’ve worked with it in South Africa, seen it from vine to wine,” he tells me one day as I watch him extract some Lovingston Pinotage from the barrel. “It’s a hell of a beast to tame.”
Riaan uses only South African yeasts to ferment his Pinotage, but the end result is nothing like the South African versions. In fact, Pinotage is Lovingston’s best-selling wine. Riaan sticks his nose into the glass of Pinotage and smells deeply. “Mmmmm … it’s that Old World cellar smell. Reminds me of home.” It is a grape that really challenges a winemaker, but “the effort,” he says, “is worth it when you taste the bottle.” “Which is why I want to punch that guy who gave it a 79,” Stephanie replies angrily.
The Pucketts recently sent their Pinotage into the influential magazine Wine Spectator to be reviewed and it scored a 79 out of 100, which according to the magazine’s key means “Average: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws.” Wine reviews matter a lot in the wine world. A bad score can be a financial disaster to an established winery, and it can keep a young winery wallowing in regional obscurity. When I ask Stephanie and Riaan what the biggest obstacle is to making wine in Virginia, they do not say the weather, the expected answer. Instead Stephanie immediately tells me that it’s the attitude towards Virginia wine outside of the state, especially when it comes to scores.
No Virginia wine has ever scored a 90 in either of the two most important wine magazines, The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, and despite lots of glowing press proclaiming Virginia’s promising future, in a narrow commercial sense the score is all that matters. A few Virginia wines have come close, scoring in the high 80s, but the general feeling among many in the local wine trade is that publications like Wine Spectator have a bias against wine from outside of California, Washington or Oregon. One winery employee told me that if Virginia wineries could afford to take out a full-page ad, then maybe they’d get a 90.
Lovingston is open by appointment only; there is no tasting room staff, but whoever is around will gladly give you a taste if you call. Visitors during the week are rare. On weekends there can be as many as 10 or 12 people, or as few as one. I am helping Riaan, Stephanie and Ed one day when we are interrupted by the arrival of a young couple sent by the bed and breakfast in Lovingston. Ed greets them, and while Riaan and Steph go back to work, he begins to give the couple a tour of the winery. It is the same tour that he gave me the first time I ever visited, and the same one he gives to all of their visitors, with the same stories. But almost everyone who visits buys something. “He’s doing what he does best,” Stephanie says as her dad leads the guests to the tasting bar. “He’s a great salesman. Always has been.”
The tasting room at Lovingston is just a bar and some stools overlooking the winemaking equipment, a far cry from most wineries with their stone fireplaces, elaborate decks and banquet rooms. Tasting rooms cost money, money the Pucketts want to put into the wine, but they also prefer it this way. They want people to see the wine being made and see the family that is making it. It’s their way of expressing Lovingston’s terroir. The Pucketts are their wine; you can’t truly know one without knowing the other.
Why, I ask Riaan, if making wine in Virginia is so hard, would anyone want to do it? Because it’s the ultimate challenge. “If you can make good wine here, you can make it anywhere,” he answers.
Five dollars on the margin
Jeff and Michelle Sanders moved here one year ago, with the idea that they might want to grow grapes, and maybe even make wine. They had lived for five years in Roatan, Honduras, where Jeff ran a plant nursery. “I have a green thumb,” he says, “but grapes are different.”
The couple bought a 22-acre farm in Free Union, with a barn that had been converted into a house, and plan on planting five to eight acres of grapes in April. Before planting, however, they will have to prepare the land, which is no small process.
First, the Sanderses will have to remove any and all trees, no matter how pretty, from the future vineyard site. Grapevines can’t have any competition for sunlight (later, when the vines are mature and producing fruit, they will benefit from competition for water and nutrients. It is a truism in grape growing that vines that struggle produce the best grapes, saving all of their nourishment for the fruit, instead of new shoots or leaves.) If the vineyard site needed to be cleared of a lot of trees, then the leftover roots still in the ground must be removed, either by leaving them to rot or by digging them out. There is a fungus called White Rot that grows on tree roots, but will kill the roots of grapevines.
Next the Sanderses will have to dig up the soil with a ripper 2-3′ deep to break it up so the young vine roots can go deep enough to find the water they need. The soil will have to be analyzed to see how much it must be fertilized, and whether any chemical corrections to things like the pH level are necessary.
Finally, the Sanderses will have to determine the layout of the vineyard: things like how the vineyard is oriented to the sun and wind, and the proximity of the vines and the rows. Close planting, with a lot of rows per acre, ensures that the vines must fight with each other for nourishment. This is the standard in Europe, and again, the idea is that the more difficult it is for a grapevine to survive, the better the fruit will be. Close planting means that grapes must be picked by hand, as most machine pickers won’t fit between closely spaced rows.
Paradoxically, the practices that winemakers look for in the vineyard to produce the best fruit, are the very ones that work against the best interests of someone growing grapes to sell. The fewer grapes a vine produces, the better those grapes will be, for the all-important sugar will be concentrated in those few berries. If you are just a grower, however, and you get paid by the ton, as is the norm, then low yields don’t exactly make you happy. For that reason, most wineries like to either own or control the vineyards where they get their grapes. The relationship between growers and winemakers can be difficult at times. Think of it this way: Few farmers have a chef looking over their shoulder complaining about the crops.
After all that, it will be two to three years before the vines produce fruit. The Sanderses have had people from the enology department at Virginia Tech come up to look at the place, as well as the Nelson County Extension Agent, who handles grapes for the entire Commonwealth. “[Albemarle] county,” Michelle says, “has wanted to help us.” “The state is helpful,” Jeff adds, “the industry is helpful. …I think that most people think that if there’s more people involved in the industry it’s good for all of them.” And locally, the industry is booming. Virginia is the eighth largest commercial grape producer in the country, and Albemarle County is the leading producer in the state, with 1,116 tons annually.
As much as anything, The Sanderses are attracted to the wine lifestyle. “It’s just so fun,” Michelle tells me smiling, “the culture of going to the wineries.” Before Honduras, they had lived in Arizona, “a place where they had no wine, [but] you could go to wine events seven nights a week, two or three a night.” They are not planning to sell their wines in shops; they want to focus instead on tourism and winery events—the whole wine experience. Michelle admits that they don’t love Virginia wines, finding them thin and watery, “like a rosé.” But Jeff insists, “Wine is getting better here year after year. The trend is upward.”
Neither of the Sanderses is currently working full time. “We don’t consider ourselves retired,” Jeff laughs, “we’re just not working.” But he’ll be working soon enough. “[The winery] is going to be a huge challenge. It obviously won’t be easy.”
“To grow grapes,” Jeff tells me, “if you want a simple thing, it’s probably $20,000 an acre…if you want to put in irrigation it’s more.” Many wineries in the state do have irrigation, and, although mature vines like it fairly dry, in the first two to three years they need a lot of water. “The thing about grapes is, it’s agriculture. It’s a modest investment and the payback is forecastable.” It’s possible, he explains, to break even growing grapes, minus labor. “At five acres I can probably do this myself.”
“If you go to a winery,” Jeff says, “it’s a whole ‘nother level of investment. …To produce a bottle of wine here it’s probably at least $5 on the margin.” I ask Jeff why he thinks it’s so expensive to make wine in Virginia, and he doesn’t hesitate at all before answering: “I think it’s pretty straightforward. It’s more difficult to grow grapes here than in a good climate.” Veteran insiders estimate the total cost of planting a 10-acre vineyard at $150,000, minimum.
Virginia is rife with things that can kill a vine. The humidity can cause downy mildew, which
|Albemarle, home of the grape At 6,200 tons of grapes grown each year, Virginia is currently ranked eighth in U.S. grape production. Albemarle County is the state’s largest producer, at 1,116 tons. With quality grapes selling in Virginia for $1,600 to $2,000 a ton, Virginia’s annual harvest adds up to more than $10 million.|
coats the grapes and leaves in a soot-colored layer, eating the grapes’ skin, and powdery mildew which coats the underside of the leaves with a white film, causing the leaves to fall, and the grapes to rot. The list of pests that eat the vines or the grapes is various, including Japanese beetles and deer. And perhaps worst of all, the weather is entirely unpredictable. From hurricanes, like Isabel which turned 2003 into one of the worst Virginia vintages ever, to late frosts, like the one this April that killed much of the state’s Chardonnay, Virginia is nothing like the “stick it in the ground and let it grow” climates of Chile and Australia. There is a lot more spraying, maintenance, and hands-on vineyard work that must be done here.
And if does snow in May, or rain for three weeks in August, a bad year can’t just be ignored. Unlike growers of most agricultural products, a grape grower has to spend just as much time and money tending to the vines even in a year when they produce nothing. Most vintners depend on one year’s vintage to be able to fund the next. In an industry where the quantity and quality of your product varies year to year, and is sometimes completely out of your hands—well, let’s just say it can be a bit tense in a winery around harvest time.
There is also a natural limit to the economy of scale in Virginia that keeps the prices at a certain level. The kind of huge, corporate operations found in California, Chile and Australia, with thousands of acres of grapes producing millions of cases of wine, where massive machines ride down endless rows of vines, ensuring that you almost never have to touch the grapes with your hands, do not exist here. Virginia doesn’t have thousands of continuous acres of plantable land. Neither does it have weather that is stable enough for anything but hands-on, boutique wineries. We simply can’t make $10 bottles of wine that taste good, and still turn a profit.
The Sanderses and I leave their island-themed house, (a disappearing edge pool, bamboo torches and comfy outdoor couches around the grill) and walk the 100 yards to the hill where they plan on planting their grapevines. The hill slopes down to a lake with an island in the middle they call “Little Roatan” and is dotted with cows that will be leaving when the vines go in. Earlier, at their kitchen table surrounded by brightly colored wooden monkeys, Jeff had impressed me with the intensity of his interest in the process of growing grapes and making wine in Virginia. He is tall, well over 6′, and muscular, looking more like a Russian athlete then a wannabe winemaker. His face is endearingly goofy, but his eyes don’t leave yours for a second when he talks. I am fascinated by the seeming ease with which they are facing this epic endeavor. The Pucketts from Lovingston laugh later when I mention the Sanderses’ plan not to sell their wine in shops and to focus instead on tasting room sales and events. They have taken the opposite tack, and are focusing on getting their wines into stores and restaurants. The Pucketts tried one wine festival, but found, when they ran the numbers, that it wasn’t worth the hassle. “We’re not in the entertainment industry,” Ed explains succinctly. The Sanderses may have a rude awakening ahead of them, years of hard work and no profit to show for it, standing sore-footed and sweaty at festivals selling wine to inebriated tourists. Or they might suffer the aggravation of having your home open to the public, the constant weddings and events that test your hospitality and the patience of your neighbors. But the Sanderses have come to Virginia to grow a perfect life; they’re not the first and they won’t be the last. As the three of us stand amidst the cow shit staring out at Buck Mountain, Michelle tells me why she wants to make wine here: “If you close your eyes,” she says, “you might think you’re in the French wine country.”
The sound of two hands clapping
Here’s Ed Puckett on how much it costs to start a winery in Virginia: “The first law of wine economics is have another business somewhere else.” The success of the little business in Texas has enabled his family to build and run the winery and, at this point, is still paying their way. Lovingston Winery has not yet broken even; in fact, from 2002, when they planted the grapes, until November of 2006, it didn’t make a single dollar. Lovingston still loses $2 on every bottle they sell in a retail store. How can this be?
Each bottle of Lovingston wine costs between $15 and $17 to produce. The Merlot sells to retailers for $12, the Petit Manseng and the Rotunda Red for $13, and the Pinotage and Cabernet Franc for $15. The Pucketts have decided to sell them for less than they cost to make so as to keep the retail price of the wine at around $20. If they sold the wines to retailers for what it actually cost to produce them, they would sell for $23 to $26 on store shelves. To actually make money, say a modest $5 per bottle, the wines would have to sell to customers for $27 to $30, compared to the ocean of $7 to $15 wines from other places in which they must swim. For now, the idea is to get their name out there and establish a reputation for quality, and that’s hard to do if people don’t buy your wines because they seem expensive (or because the critics don’t like them). Initially, about 60 percent of Lovingston wines were sold out of shops, and 40 percent from the winery, but this has recently reversed, with sales from the winery and online increasing, thanks, in part, to repeat customers.
The Pucketts are prepared to endure years of cash outflow with little inflow in order to succeed in producing a quality wine in Virginia. They hope some day to reach the maximum capacity of the winery, which is 2,500 cases, and once production increases, the cost per bottle will go down. Going beyond 2,500 cases would mean hiring a staff, which they can’t afford. Currently it’s just Stephanie and Riaan doing most of the work, pulling all nighters from August to January. How can you make money with such small production? Riann says you have to focus on quality—build a legacy. “When you’re building a winery,” he says, “there is no short-term investment.”
“I recognize,” Ed tells me, “that this year and next year we’re gonna get a bloody nose.” But the Pucketts’ commitment adds value to the wine, I think. Upon leaving them, I stop at Foods of All Nations and buy a bottle of the Lovingston Petit Manseng. The wine costs $19.99. It is lovely, rich and full of fruit, with sweetness and acidity wrapped around each other in the finish. At dinner that evening, my father, who knows almost nothing at all about wine, proclaims it the best he’s ever had. Earlier, dressed in sweatpants and surrounded by his family, Ed had explained why the effort was worth it: “When someone really lights up and likes your product, it’s like applause. A lot of people go through their whole lives and never get applause.”
Get in on the ground floor
Rows of grapevines suddenly appear on the left side of Route 690, back in the hills past Crozet. The road is almost one lane, past the vines, past McMansions and trailers with unseen barking dogs, and abandoned churches, snaking under the 250 overpass. I turn into the driveway and pull up in front of the future site of Pollak Winery.
The more I look at the history of wine in Virginia, and the more I talk to the people who are currently part of it, the more I start to think that there is something happening now. Call it a new wave, Virginia Wine version 2.0. The modern era of Virginia wine began in 1976, when Farfelu Vineyard in Rappahannock County became the first to sell Virginia wines commercially. The early pioneers, like Al Weed’s Mountain Cove in 1973, Gabriele Rausse and Barboursville in 1976, Horton in 1988, and Oakencroft in 1983, laid the foundation. Early on, all kinds of grapes were thrown in the ground and grown, some were successful, but most were ripped up and replanted. Wineries were housed in old barns, grapes were planted more with an eye to where they looked good than where they grew well. I even heard a story about one winemaker in the early days who would take the same bottle of white wine and put on a sticker for whatever wine the customer had ordered—Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc—saying, “They won’t know the difference.” Mistakes, it’s fair to say, were made.
But others have learned from those mistakes. With many years of positive press, and with “up and coming” practically part of its name, Virginia is now a serious destination not just for people who want to drink wine, but also for the people who want to make it. A quick count shows me that at least 13 out of the 24 wineries around Charlottesville were founded between 1998 and 2007. Many of these are among what I consider the top wineries in the state today, like Veritas, King Family, Blenheim, Keswick and Kluge. Virginia is still barely a glimmer on the horizon to most of the wine world, which is why Virginia is, right now, a good place to get in on what is still the beginning, before costs become really outrageous, and all the good spots are taken.
From the early 1970s to the mid ‘80s, David Pollak was involved in growing grapes and making wine in the then-nascent California wine scene. In 1986, figuring it was time to concentrate on furthering his career, he sold the winery he part owned, thinking he’d seen the last of the wine business. But, as the years went by, he could never pass a vineyard without stopping. Eventually his wife Margo suggested that maybe it was time to get back into wine.
David and Margo Pollack’s love of the wine lifestyle has taken them from California in the 1970s to their Albemarle acreage today. They settled here, David says, for reasons of simple economics: “I couldn’t touch 100 acres in California."
And so they have, but they didn’t choose to return to California. In 1999, the Cincinnati Inquirer, (the Pollaks still live in Ohio), had a story about Charlottesville wine country. David was interested, and in 2001 he came to the area to look around. It took about a week to decide that this was the place. Working with Chris Hill, a noted Virginia vineyard consultant and grape grower, David began to search for the perfect site. “I want 25 premium acres, south facing, on a slope,” he told Hill. It took a year and a half to find the current location, 100 acres of what were once organic vegetable fields in Greenwood.
The Pollaks began planting in 2003 and currently have 25 acres of vines, with plans of increasing to 27. They have decided not to plant their vines densely, going with 625 vines per acre, as opposed to the Pucketts’ 1,200. The first vintage that will be bottled under the Pollak Vineyards name is now aging in barrels at a makeshift winery on the property. The site is ideal for grapes, on a south-facing slope, dropping from 900 feet to 800, with cool breezes that sweep down from the surrounding mountains. The vines are exquisitely groomed, the top angled like a solar panel, the back pruned to allow for exposure to sun, air and spraying. The bottom of the vines is trimmed in a “ballerina” cut with long, delicate tendrils extending like legs downwards and out.
I meet with David, Margo and Jake Busching, their vineyard and farm manager, at the site of their winery, still under construction, overlooking a large lake and farmhouse, where the Pollaks plan on living. The winery is impressively sized, with 7,000 square feet of production area, and 3,000 square feet of tasting room and office space. It is very modern and carefully planned. There is a massive 14′ wrap-around deck, with views of the lake, mountains and vineyards, designed to never be in the direct sunlight. David Pollak uses the word “vista” six times as he shows me around. The planned opening date for the new winery is next spring.
In contrast to Stephanie and Riaan at Lovingston, “weather” is the first thing David and Jake mention as being a challenge to winemaking in Virginia. They lost 25 percent of their vines as soon as they were in the ground due to the heavy rains that year, which had some parts of the vineyard under two feet of water. They installed underground drainage and replanted. Deer are another big problem: “You’ve got 100 acres for a deer to graze on, and the only plant they want to eat is the one you’ve just put in the ground,” David says. To combat this, they have installed 1.6 miles of deer fence around their property. Hurricanes, frost, mildew, bugs—the familiar list is rattled off. I ask the obvious: If it’s so hard to grow grapes here, then why do it?
Part of it is simple economics: The east coast is comparatively cheap. “I could afford to buy 100 acres in Virginia,” David tells me. “I couldn’t touch 100 acres in California.” He pauses, “I couldn’t touch 40 acres in California.” Virginia is also one of the few places on the East Coast where the weather allows you to grow European grape varietals well, farther south and it’s too hot, north and it’s too cold, a fact the state seems to recognize, as it actively encourages the growth of the wine industry.
So then I ask them: Why is Virginia wine so expensive? “We can produce wines that rival the best wines in the United States,” David says, “but we’ll never be able to produce enough of it.” It’s economy of scale again.
David echoes Jeff Sanders and Ed Puckett when he tells me that the natural price for a bottle of Virginia wine is $20. “We can handcraft everything and give you a good value at $20,” he says. But for good, cheap wine, “the economics just don’t work in Virginia.” The issue is farming costs, or as David puts it: “You’re hand-tending 18,000 vines.”
The amount of pruning, shaping and spraying that has to be done in Virginia, usually without the aid of machines, is just enormous. In California, David tells me, in a good, dry vintage, you might do a lot of the work by hand, but there’s a lot less of it. Here you have to constantly work to maintain the vines or the quality will drop.
Virginia is for wine lovers?
Winemaking in Virginia is, no doubt, a challenge. But that has not slowed its growth. In the last six years, the number of licensed Virginia Farm Wineries has increased by 50 percent, bringing the current total to more than 120. The number of acres planted with grape vines nears 3,000 today from 50 in 1973. Most of these are small boutique wineries making 200 to 5,000 cases a year, or medium-scale producers in the 10,000 to 30,000 case range.
Virginia wines have improved dramatically in the last decade, just as wines all over the world have improved, reaping the benefit of advancing technology and scientific knowledge. In addition, the local wine industry has benefited from over 30 years of accumulated knowledge that has been passed around between generations of winemakers and grape growers.
Naturally there are hurdles. The price of land and the cost of labor and operations are only increasing. Virginia may be a cheap wine region to buy into compared to Napa Valley or Long Island, New York, but the days of small, hobby wineries, is over. More importantly, our famously wine-friendly state regulations just took a blow with the loss of self-distribution for wineries. The biggest hurdle of all may be the hardest to fight: the ingrained, negative opinion of all “regional” wines like ours. Despite what I am sure will continue to be glowing articles about Virginia wine, it might very well be a long time before it stops being a curiosity and becomes just another choice on the shelf.
Or maybe not. Because there are a lot of reasons for the Virginia wine industry to feel pretty optimistic right now.
Virginia is way out ahead of the rest of the pack when it comes to challenging California, Washington, Oregon and New York. The breadth of experience operating in the state right now is staggering, with people arriving from California, Italy, France and South Africa, to work alongside natives, some of whom have been growing grapes and making wine here for more than 30 years.
And wine is hot right now. Mainstream media publications are increasingly covering wine. Wine tastings, winery visits, movies and books about wine have become a part of everyday life. The organic movement is giving way to the “eat local” movement, and why not pair a local meal with local wine? And wine, like the local food movement, is at its heart agriculture, the only agricultural area in our state that is not just growing, but thriving. And its growth saves our state from being overdeveloped; every acre planted with grapes, is an acre free of new houses, as well as an acre that contributes to millions of dollars in sales and tourism. All perfect reasons for Virginians to start paying attention to the local industry that is operating right under their increasingly discerning noses.
“You’ve gotta love the lifestyle,” David Pollak tells me, and his wife adds, “There’s a passion that goes with it.” Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to, passion, because otherwise, no matter how much money you have, making wine in Virginia just wouldn’t be worth it. “This is,” David Pollak says, as he sits inside his future winery and looks out at the fruits of his labor, “my one chance to leave behind something of artistic value.”
Return to terroir
I feel near the end of my work on this story that I want to get still deeper into it somehow. I send Stephanie Puckett an e-mail saying I’d like to talk to the family over wine and food. She invites me to dinner.
The house in Lovingston is small and cozy, with low ceilings, innumerable wine-themed knick-knacks, and rows of grapevines within 10 feet of the kitchen door. Everyone helps to prepare the food, and I ask if they have always enjoyed good meals together. “We did eat dinners every night,” Janet calls out from across the kitchen, “the old family dinner.” Ed agrees: “We always had that, we always had the kids and us at dinner together.”
After dinner, which is noisy and delicious (cheese and crackers to start, then steamed crab legs and grilled vegetables, wines from France, California, Australia and Washington State), we all take a walk, wine glasses in hand, through the vineyard. They point out numerous problems; damage from a recent bout of hail—hard, blackened berries among the healthy green ones, looking like they’ve been split with an axe—and Japanese beetles busy eating the tops of the leaves. One row is mysteriously dead, the leaves brown and withered. The prevailing theory is that it was hit by lightning.
The Pucketts seem unconcerned despite these many dangers that threaten their life’s passion. The light is fading, and we walk on, hands reaching out to touch the grapes, feet surrounded by a mass of misshapen dogs that stop now and then to pee on the vines. Ed, who had been lagging behind, takes the lead on the way back, empty wine glass hanging at his side.
We gather in the den and open a bottle of the soon-to-be-released Lovingston Estate Reserve, only 166 cases of which were made. Everybody settles into chairs and couches. The television is turned to a baseball game but the sound is left off so we can talk. After a while, I bring up a comment an acquaintance made at a party. She didn’t like buying Virginia wine, she said, because she didn’t want to subsidize the hobby of retired rich people. Stephanie bristles. “You have to start with money to be able to do this,” she says, leaning forward and speaking forcefully, “and lose money for a number of years before it makes money. And the thing is, all those people have made money by working their butts off. This is their retirement because they don’t want to be inactive, and be part of the golfing community.” It is clear that she takes it personally, and why shouldn’t she? For her, all of this can’t be anything but personal. “Dad worked in the lead industry for God knows how many years,” she continues, “before he was able to buy a separate company, that still we have to keep going because that is what funds this venture. Yeah, he doesn’t have to put on a suit and tie and go to work everyday…but he works hard every day.”
I look over at Ed who is asleep on the couch. He is about to turn 59, and the family will celebrate with a pig roast. I suddenly have a clear vision of Stephanie, years from now, taking over and running the winery. She looks at her parents. “They have the same excitement for that winery that I do, the same love, passion. It’s our family; it’s our life down there. I don’t want to fail them…they are the ones I want to succeed for more than anything.”