The Shenandoah Valley's grape pioneer


In 1996, John Kiers bought an abandoned 100-acre farm near Staunton. He planted 20 acres of it with grape vines in 1999. A decade later, he makes 1,500 cases under his Ox-Eye Vineyards label (with the 60 percent of grapes that he doesn’t sell to other winemakers) and has area distributors courting him, but he still hasn’t quit money managing, his day job.

John Kiers is making a big impression on the local wine biz by growing many rare varietals on his 100-acre farm near Staunton.

It’s not because winemaking is too risky. He’s just not convinced of how good he really is. “When I first bottled my chardonnay, I took one sip and it was hideous. I had taken beautiful fruit and then blown it,” remembered Kiers.

Brad McCarthy, Kiers’ first customer and biggest fan, reminded him that the bottling process is traumatic for wine and that it just needed time to settle. “In 2000, when I was making wine for White Hall, I took one glance at John’s vineyard and knew instantly that it was one of the best-executed vineyards I’d ever seen. I agreed to take his entire harvest,” said McCarthy. He continued to buy Kiers’ fruit for the six years he was Blenheim’s winemaker and then used it in his own Bradford Reed label. “His fruit is so good that it walks straight into the bottle,” said McCarthy.

So, what sets Kiers’ fruit apart? He took a risk by planting varietals rarely grown in Virginia (pinot noir and lemberger to name two), in an area too cold to grow Virginia’s grape darlings, viognier and petit verdot. He studied the wines of New York’s Finger Lakes region and recognized the similarity of its climate to the Shenandoah Valley’s. “We have 30 percent less rain than east of the Blue Ridge, lower humidity (which means less disease) and cool nighttime temperatures that preserve acidity,” said Kiers.

He had every acre of soil analyzed then planted on 1,800′ slopes with ideal sun exposure and 15′ deep calcareous soil with a strong limestone base. He started with chardonnay and cabernet franc vines and then added riesling, gewürztraminer, traminette, pinot noir and lemberger—an Austrian red wine grape that does well in cool climates. He’s never had to irrigate because of the “aquifers,” or underground rivulets, that are unique to the valley. “If you irrigate, you become a crack dealer to that vine,” said Kiers. He subscribes to the Old World theory that forcing a vine to dig deep with its roots results in wines with more character.

It was Old World wines that Kiers first fell for. He was in the Navy on the USS Destroyer and docking in Brest, France. “I tasted a vouvray and it was a complete eye-opener. My mom’s bridge group drank Boone’s, so I wondered how something could taste so good,” he said. He started buying cases and by the time he returned to Charleston, had 40-50 stacked up in his apartment with the air-conditioning cranked up to protect his treasures.

“That was when I met my wife and she’s been tolerating my hobby ever since,” said Kiers.
She may be “tolerating” it, but I couldn’t help noticing Susan’s own passion bubbling over when I visited them and Hannah, one of their four daughters (all of whom have their own engraved picking shears and can leaf pull with the best of them), at their newly renovated tasting room in downtown Staunton. Growing on the edge of town and selling in the center is another model they’ve adopted from Europe. Susan, who staffs the tasting room Thursdays through Sundays, chimed in with things her husband was forgetting, and championed him when his modesty interfered with the truth.

Susan poured their six wines (there were seven before the gewürztraminer sold out), knowledgeably offering aging information and pairing suggestions. The White Ox, a demi-sec (see Winespeak 101) chardonnay/riesling blend that tastes of apricots and orange blossoms, is their best selling white, and the lemberger—all cherry and black pepper—is their best-selling red.

Eventually Kiers wants to grow Ox-Eye beyond its current production, but he’ll always use 100 percent estate-grown fruit and keep it family-run. “There’s still so much to learn,” he said. “I’m in it for the long haul—and am going to doggedly pursue it.”
Ox-Eye Vineyards’ wines can be found locally at Tastings of Charlottesville, Feast! and C&O Restaurant. They range in price between $16 and $24.

Winespeak 101
Demi-sec (n.): A French term meaning “half dry” and referring to a wine with medium sweetness (about 12-18 grams per liter in still wines and 32-50 grams per liter in sparkling wines).