Good grapes: Geologist dishes the dirt on local vineyards

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Ernest “Bubba” Beasley digs a hole with a hand auger at Turk Mountain Vineyards to test the soil. Photo by Earnest Beasley Ernest “Bubba” Beasley digs a hole with a hand auger at Turk Mountain Vineyards to test the soil. Photo by Earnest Beasley

There is more to pouring the perfect glass of cabernet franc than one may think—it starts not with the grape, but with the soil in which it grew. One local expert and his team, who are not afraid to get their hands dirty, will soon receive international acclaim for work that revolutionized industry-wide fertilizer recommendations for vineyards on the East Coast.

With funding from the Virginia Wine Board, Charlottesville-based geologist Ernest “Bubba” Beasley has spent the past five years mapping vineyard soils and studying how they affect wine quality, while working on groundwater development in the county.

In mid-July he will present his work at the 11th meeting of the International Terroir Congress, which will be held  in Oregon—on domestic soil for the first time. He’ll give his talk alongside leaders from countries including France, Italy, Spain and Brazil.

“I’ve always loved wine,” says Beasley, who graduated with a geology degree from James Madison University in 2005 and took a job in the tasting room of the Kluge Estate Winery & Vineyard before it was bought by Donald Trump in 2011. He founded HydroGeo Environmental LLC in 2013. “I got the wine bug quickly and saw the connection with geology,” he says.

At Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison, Beasley is currently using geographic information systems to locate a site to grow premium red varieties.

“There’s so many factors that you have to weigh,” Beasley says. “You can’t put all of your eggs in the soil basket.”

The taste, color and aroma of wine can be affected by elements such as a vineyard’s elevation, the direction a hill of vines faces and the relative temperature at the bottom of a hill. Beasley uses an electromagnetic mapping technique to learn the lay of the land and advise vineyard owners and operators on what kinds of grapes to grow where.

Though he has clients in several nearby states, locally he’s worked at sites such as King Family Vineyards, Blenheim Vineyards and Pollak Vineyards—just to name a few from “little ol’ Virginia,” as he calls the fifth top wine-producing state in the country.

His research team includes mineralogist Dr. Lance Kearns, geologist Clifford Ambers, who owned and operated Virginia’s Chateau Z Vineyard for more than a decade, and viticulturist Lucie Morton.

In Albemarle County, Beasley says cab franc grows well because the length of the local growing season is good for early-ripening varieties, while late-ripening red varieties of grapes, like cabernet sauvignon, can struggle because many local soils have a high water-holding capacity that doesn’t bode well for cab sauv. Merlots thrive in local soils, he says, but can present a challenge because their vines are sensitive to cold weather. After a chilly winter, some winemakers are still dealing with the damage.

To assess a site, or “ground-truth [his] geophysical maps,” Beasley describes the pleasure of digging a hole with a backhoe and “jumping in,” to log soils, collect samples and send them off to the lab for further evaluation.

“It’s fun,” he says. “I get to geek out.”

But for those who aren’t as thrilled by dirt as he is, Beasley offers a summer wine recommendation: “I love a white burgundy this time of year.”

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