Magic is being made with Honah Lee Vineyard’s grapes

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Honah Lee Vineyard’s mountaintop location produces “lush and plump” fruit, including viognier and petit manseng, that is increasingly coveted by winemakers. Photo by Haley Jones Honah Lee Vineyard’s mountaintop location produces “lush and plump” fruit, including viognier and petit manseng, that is increasingly coveted by winemakers. Photo by Haley Jones

When Vera Preddy and her late husband, Wayne, purchased their property on Gibson Mountain in 1985, they never imagined they’d end up in the wine business. Their 150-acre farm was once part of Windholme Farm, and when they moved onto their parcel, they christened it Honah Lee, after the idyllic place described in the 1960s folk song “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” They started raising cattle and built a house, and later, on a neighbor’s suggestion, decided to get into the turkey-raising business.

Poultry has been a staple industry in the area for centuries (Honah Lee sits about four miles north of Gordonsville). In 1794, a Gordonsville tavern became known for serving chicken. In the 1840s, a railroad stop was established in the town, and by the 1860s locals sold chicken through the windows of stopped C&O trains.

The Preddys raised chickens in the past but switched exclusively to turkeys because they stay put. “When we had hens, they were sneaky and they’d get out,” Preddy says.

I wondered aloud to Preddy’s son, Eric Hopwood, if their business model made for a busy fall, going directly from grape harvest season into Thanksgiving turkey season. Hopwood explains that their turkeys are more for lunch meats than the holiday meal. “Our turkeys are about 40 pounds apiece,” he says. “The breast itself is the size of a Thanksgiving roaster oven. We raise turkeys year-round that are antibiotic- and hormone-free, and they go to specialty stores.”

The Preddys were focused on poultry and cattle when they leased a good portion of their land to a nearby winery. Grape vines went in the ground, but after a lease dispute in the 1990s, the Preddys found themselves in the sudden stewardship of vineyards.

“We had to learn real quick about growing grapes and making wine,” says Preddy, so they hired consultant Jeanette Smith. “She was great as far as teaching us how to take care of the vines.”

The Preddys, thrust by circumstance into a burgeoning industry, couldn’t imagine then how much the industry would grow. “There were a few vineyards around then, but now they are like little mushrooms; they’re popping up everywhere,” Preddy says. In 1995, Virginia had 46 wineries. A 2016 press release from Governor Terry McAuliffe’s office announced there are now more than 285 wineries in the state. That’s a 520 percent growth rate over a 21-year period.

As you travel up the mountain, the first vines appear around 650 feet. The vineyard is punctuated by two turkey barns and the colony of gigantic turkeys, then the rows of grapes continue up to the top where you’ll find older-vine viognier at about 1,000 feet.

At first, the Preddys sold their grapes to about 20 different wineries. Then, they narrowed that down to about five or six wineries. Today they work mostly with Michael Shaps Wineworks and Jake Busching Wines.

Life on the mountain began to change focus from grape-growing to wine-making when Hopwood took the reins in the early 2000s. “At the time, I was with the local law enforcement, and I retired from that in 2011,” he says. “That was when we started getting more into the wine business, and we added the event venue.” In 2015, Hopwood first made his wines at Michael Shaps Wineworks and now pours them under the Honah Lee label in his tasting room. Hopwood and his wife, Brandy, also oversee BerryWood Crafters, which incorporates local baked goods and crafts in their wine tasting room.

Hopwood points to the malbec near the top of the mountain as the source of his favorite wine from the property. Aside from the taste, that particular site has a special meaning to his family. “It’s a wonderful place to wake up to every day, the views, the peace and tranquility,” he says. “I often go up there to the top and sit and contemplate life. I take my little 2-year-old daughter up there and she just falls asleep in my arms.”

The perch up top is storied for its views. “At one time, we had a fire tower up here and you could see 360 degrees,” Hopwood says. “It was said that with binoculars you could see the tip of the Washington Monument.”

Mountain fruit is increasingly coveted in Virginia. Though it’s more intensive to farm, vines on sloped mountains have better airflow, which helps prevent frosts, and the soils usually have better drainage. The summit has also captured the heart of Jake Busching, who has been working with Honah Lee fruit since early in his career. Enchanted by the viognier on the mountain, Busching sourced his 2015 and 2016 Viognier from the Preddys.

Joy Ting, enologist and production manager at Michael Shaps Wineworks, also enjoys working with the Honah Lee fruit. “Honah Lee produces fruit that lives up to its whimsical name,” says Ting. “The fruit from there is always lush and plump. Each variety expresses itself fully, from the sauvignon blanc and viognier to the petit verdot and tannat. The petit manseng from Honah Lee has great chemistry, and is versatile enough to make a dry table wine, a sweet dessert wine or anything in between.”

Now, Hopwood is gearing up to begin harvest, which he says could be a record.

“Right now it’s shaping up to be pretty good. But…the summer’s not over yet. We’re watching tropical storms.”

Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog, thinking-drinking.com.

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