May 2009: A hyper-local wine

May 2009: A hyper-local wine

The younger Staffords, Elizabeth and William, are getting an early education in small-scale viticulture.

When they talk about the vineyard in their front yard, Philip and Martha Stafford—he a C&O founder and Michael Shaps’ partner in Virginia Wineworks; she the Charlottesville Cooking School proprietor—show an appealing mix of seriousness and self-deprecation. “I do think of it as a vineyard,” says Philip of their 50 or so vines, running in four rows down the slope of their yard toward the driveway. “There’s probably an Italian word that denotes a very small vineyard, but I don’t know what that is.”

It is small, but it seems to be flourishing. The spot faces the morning sun and sits on high ground—good for avoiding late frosts. And it’s well-loved. Actually growing grapes was a dream of Philip’s through a career “in restaurants, retail, the parts of the business where you move wine around…One of the reasons to come back here [from New York, where he and Martha married] was to try to grow some grapes.”

Six years ago, the Staffords came to this brick house on Dairy Road. “We thought, well shoot—it’s not much, but it’s a great spot,” Philip says.

Now, the vineyard is a family project, pulling in 13-year-old Elizabeth and 6-year-old William. The Staffords have already made wine at home, using grapes grown elsewhere—crushed by Elizabeth “and a bunch of her little friends, with their pants rolled up to their knees,” remembers Martha—and this year they hope to produce their first vintage from a homegrown crop. “It could be the ultimate boutique wine,” Martha jokes. “Stafford Front Yard Wine.”—Erika Howsare

Philip: “They’re all red wine grapes. I wanted to see what some grape varieties would do that aren’t normally planted in Virginia—zinfandel and pinot noir. So it’s an experimental vineyard. And it’s a microcosm, because we’re buying tons of grapes from local vineyards [at the Wineworks], so I can go out in the morning and see what’s happening here and get a sense of what’s going on [at other vineyards].

“For example, last week we had bud break. You can see the difference in the vines; some bud earlier than others. They came out four or five days ago, and it’s been cold so there hasn’t been much growth. But now that it’s sunny, they’ll grow.

“Elizabeth goes out and helps, and William, our son, will help. They seem to have a good time. Elizabeth just helped me put in a couple of posts. Both William and Elizabeth came out and did some pruning. You prune severely; otherwise you get way too much growth.

“They’ll probably help put the netting up for the deer. That’s a family affair. We have a lot of deer here. They took most of our grapes last year. I knew they were coming; I’d ordered the deer netting. But I was three days too late. It came two days after they got the grapes.

“At the harvest, everybody will be out there. We’ll have our pruning shears. We’ll dress in native garb and sing harvest songs.

“We’re hoping for a few hundred pounds of grapes. That would make five or six cases of wine; that’s not bad. That’ll last us a week or two. [They laugh.] We’ve got the whole [setup] for making wine in the basement. You need something to ferment in, you need a press…you have to go down twice a day and mix it up.”

Martha: “We’ve had neighbors come in and mix the grapes when we’re away.”

Philip: “You can make wine at home. It’s like cooking. If you don’t start with good ingredients, it’s not going to be very good. But if you start with good ingredients and keep everything really clean, you can make some good wine. Better than plenty of wines on shelves.

“We’re trying to get the neighbors to grow grapes. There’s a neighbor there with a few vines, a neighbor there with a few….We’re trying to encourage Dairy Road to become a wine-growing region. Really! If we had three or four neighbors with 10 vines apiece…”

“That would slow traffic down on Dairy Road.”

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