Afton Mountain Vineyards’ motto is “grapes don’t grow in ugly places,” and a trip up the mountain in Nelson County confirms that. Morning mist tumbles over the estate’s 82 acres and lingers above the 15 acres of grape vines pretty as a picture. It was precisely this romantic scene that wooed Tony and Elizabeth Smith into selling their family home in Tidewater and buying the 30-year-old vineyard three years ago, shifting gears from a life of fighting traffic and pushing paper to riding tractors and pruning vines. But as is often the case with happy endings, there’s usually a crazy beginning and a messy middle.
The Smiths, who both grew up in Albemarle County, married in 1983 and moved to Suffolk, where they raised their two children, Hunter and Tess, while working in real estate. Back in 2002, they started dreaming of owning a vineyard, but had their sights set on the Eastern Shore and got no further than a few magazine clippings in a file.
Fast forward five years when the Smiths started spending more time on the Albemarle property they owned while Tess was studying at UVA and Tony was teaching at Darden. They attended classes through PVCC’s Oenology and Viticulture program and considered planting vines on their land before area vineyard consultant Christopher Hill recognized it as unsuitable for grape-growing. He encouraged them to look at Afton Mountain as an example of one of the best vineyard sites in the area. They fell hard and closed on the property April 1, 2009. “We went straight from Winemaking 101 in the classroom to Winemaking 102 on the job,” Tony joked.
Buying a vineyard in the spring on the winemaker’s last day meant a pretty steep learning curve. Tony kept his cool, cleaning tanks, barreling, blending, and racking until he discovered that three of the “finished” 2008 white wines were refermenting and producing carbon dioxide that was blowing the corks off the bottles. Friends and three generations of Smiths manually uncorked over 7,200 bottles. “It was a valuable lesson that we hope is never repeated,” said Tony.
Another debacle involved the old Italian tractor they acquired. Sounds charming, but with the gas on the left and the brake on the right, they promptly accelerated into a vineyard post, tearing the tractor door off its hinges. They had to rent a door from Cardinal Point to get through the rest of harvest. “The forced learning that took place during those first five months were invaluable learning experiences that we wouldn’t trade for anything,” said Tony.
Elizabeth still gets a good laugh remembering the time when Tony’s business associates came by to see him in his new glamorous life. She led them into the winery, where Tony emerged from a tank in his swim trunks, covered in grape debris looking like a newborn baby minus the wail.
The Smiths have not only worked out the kinks since those early days, they’ve won 25 awards for nine of their 14 different wines (including a gold medal at last year’s Governor’s Cup for their 2009 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon), built a beautiful new tasting house with an area for hosting special events, and are planting three more acres of vines.
That kind of growth means a seven-day work week and wearing about five different hats a day, but Tony and Elizabeth agree that their favorite job is out in the vines. “When Tony gets in mowing mode, we leave him alone,” said Elizabeth, who Tony lovingly refers to as his “tractor chick.” And even with the mundane parts of the job (like all the paperwork), they have no regrets. “We’re so happy that we jumped in headfirst. Our area’s been voted in the top 10 for wine- and beer-tasting and we’re poised to capitalize on that tourism,” said Elizabeth.
Despite working together, they often go the whole day without seeing each other. “Tony’s in the winery e-mailing me in the Tasting House,” said Elizabeth. “We have a rendezvous on the terrace every afternoon where we catch up with a glass of wine overlooking the vineyard.” A big perk indeed.
Afton Mountain Vineyards is open 11am-5pm Fridays through Mondays during the month of February. The brut sparkler “Tête de Cuvée” and the 2009 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon will be poured on Sunday at the Paramount’s Food, Wine, & Film series where Hunter, the marketing manager, and Damien Blanchon, the winemaker, will participate in the panel discussion.