Marriage or bust: Why are Charlottesville weddings so dang expensive?

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Illustration by Robert Ullman Illustration by Robert Ullman

About an hour before sunset, Jen Fariello climbed to the top of a grassy hill with her camera. She looked through her lens down on the bride and groom exchanging vows under a rustic moss-covered altar with 10 rows of white chairs neatly arranged in a romantic countryside garden at Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard. And in the background, a panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains in misty, muted light. She waited for the moment when the sun sunk below the clouds to get the perfect shot. Click.

“It’s the quintessential picture of the Blue Ridge,” says Fariello, who has been a wedding photographer in the area for more than 15 years. “It captures what’s so beautiful about Charlottesville. It’s so simple and natural.”

Local wedding photographer Jen Fariello has been capturing brides in picturesque Blue Ridge settings for over 15 years. She has also seen the local wedding industry develop from intimate, country ceremonies to opulent affairs. Photo: Ron Dressel
Local wedding photographer Jen Fariello has been capturing brides in picturesque Blue Ridge settings for over 15 years. She has also seen the local wedding industry develop from intimate, country ceremonies to opulent affairs. Photo: Ron Dressel

It’s also the quintessential picture of a idyllic and fabulous high-end wedding. Fariello took the image in September 2011 soon after Pippin Hill opened. “I was the first person to climb up on that hill and shoot that,” she says.

Earlier this year, Brides magazine made a list of “the dreamiest spots in the country to say I do,” and named Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard one of the top 50 romantic wedding venues. The short write-up on Pippin was paired with the iconic image Fariello took back in September 2011. The other high-end venues that made the cut were the Beverly Hills Hotel, New York Public Library, Bellagio in Las Vegas, Sundance Resort in Utah, as well as exclusive beach resorts from Miami to Maui. Just the other week, it was even rumored that celeb couple Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux exchanged vows at a quickie wedding ceremony at Pippin Hill—the perfect locale for a celeb couple looking for a private and exclusive wedding off the beaten path and out of the limelight from the paparazzi.

Last year there were 924 weddings in Albemarle County, and the local wedding market was valued at about $28 million, according to The Wedding Report, a research group that collects wedding industry statistics and trends. Charlottesville’s wedding industry has exploded in the past four years, and its value is becoming comparable to bigger, more notable markets for destination weddings, such as California’s Napa Valley area, where last year there were 1,041 weddings bringing in $37 million.  In the Southeast, Charleston, S.C., is the most sought-after wedding destination, playing host to 2,925 weddings last year worth an estimated $72 million, according to the report. While Charleston’s market is almost three times Charlottesville’s, several wedding experts in the area told me that Charlottesville takes the No. 2 spot for wedding destinations in the region, because of its beautiful Blue Ridge backdrop and plentiful venues from wineries to historic estates.

“I think everyone is talking about Charlottesville and Charleston on the East Coast,” says Lynn Easton, co-owner of Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard and owner of Easton Events, with offices in both Charleston and Charlottesville. “Our reputation is going to continue to grow and so is demand… Charlottesville has a bright shiny future ahead of it for the wedding world.”

After living in Central Virginia for almost four years, I knew that Charlottesville was a hugely popular wedding destination, but having never planned a wedding myself, I didn’t realize it was so expensive. How did a wedding venue in little, ol’ Charlottesville, Virginia, get on the same playing field as the infamous Bellagio and the Beverly Hills Hotel? And, if the rumor is indeed true, how did a high-powered Hollywood couple like Aniston and Theroux choose a spot in Appalachia?

I am a young woman who has friends getting hitched left and right. Also, at the age of 26 (the median age women are getting married these days), I can see myself tying the knot in the next few years. As I venture into the wedding world, watching friends and family get married, I’m starting to wonder how much of a wedding I can actually afford as a 20-something journalist. And, in the end, I keep coming back to a question that TLC and a whole pile of magazines and blogs keeps asking me: Is a wedding—one day of the year—really worth shelling out a year’s salary for? Or, as wedding professionals say, is it really priceless?