Great harvest: A look at the economic impact of area wineries, breweries, cideries, and distilleries

Photo: Andrea Hubbell Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Bordeaux, France. Napa Valley, California. Central Virginia? Possibly. Though Thomas Jefferson first attempted to plant a vineyard back in the late 1700s, our local wine industry is still young, only really emerging in the last 15 years. But in that time, the central Virginia region has become home to the second-highest number of wineries in the state, producing dozens of award-winning vintages each year.

People aren’t just stocking up on bottles. Vineyards are also enjoying the fruits of their labor in the form of agritourism: tourists coming out for the scenery, tastings, events, and tying the knot. It’s clear that our wineries, breweries, cideries, and distilleries are an important part of commerce in this region, but just how big is that economic impact?

VIRGINIA WINE AND AGRITOURISM

In 2015, The Virginia Wine Board estimated the full economic impact of the Virginia wine industry to be $1.37 billion, roughly the GDP of a small island nation. This marked a growth rate of 83 percent from 2010, and breaks down to 705,200 cases sold, 8,218 jobs, and 261 wineries.

Uncorking the official numbers for the City of Charlottesville or Albemarle County is a bit more difficult. The Charlottesville & Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau doesn’t currently track that information, though they are hoping to have the budget to conduct that research, and other estimates can vary depending on how you define the region.

David King, the King Family Vineyards’ co-founder who died in May, was instrumental in passage of the Virginia Farm Winery Act, which allows wineries to sell their products directly to consumers. / Photo: Jack Looney

What makes it especially tricky is that we aren’t just talking about the number of bottles sold and weddings hosted. The biggest slice of the economic impact pie comes from agritourism.

The Virginia Wine Board calculated the retail value of Virginia wine sold in 2015 to be $129 million, while winery-related tourism was more than $187 million. It becomes harder to estimate the local economic impact of tourism when you factor in other elements of a trip. Imagine a group of friends decides to come down from Washington, D.C. for a bachelorette party with Cville Hop On Tours. They aren’t just spending money at the area wineries they visit, they are most likely staying in a Charlottesville hotel, eating at Charlottesville restaurants, and shopping in Charlottesville stores during their visit. So even though Charlottesville does not have a winery within its city limits, it’s benefiting from the area wine industry.

By using the Virginia Wine Board report (“The Economic Impact of Wine and Wine Grapes on the State of Virginia – 2015,” produced by certified public accountants Frank, Rimerman + Co. LLP) to take the average number of visitors for each winery in the state, Neil Williamson, President of the Free Enterprise Forum and editor of The Virginia Wine Journal, is able to roughly calculate the impact of the industry in a given region. With 28 wineries, he predicts that the economic impact will be more than $110 million for Albemarle County in 2019.

“Thanks in large part to David King’s [the late co-founder of King Family Vineyards and champion of the local wine industry] contributions on the state and local level, Albemarle today has some of the best winery and winery event regulations in the state,” says Williamson in reference to King’s advocacy for the Virginia Farm Winery Act, which allows wineries to sell their products directly to consumers. “We fought hard to get them to this point.”

MONTICELLO WINE TRAIL

With the City of Charlottesville at its center, the Monticello American Viticultural Area stretches from the edge of Shenandoah National Park to the James River and was was the first AVA to be established in Virginia. The Monticello Wine Trail, which includes a current membership of 35 wineries within this designated grape-growing region, has an economic impact that is probably closer to $120 million a year. Current President George Hodson believes the region is primed to be the next big thing in wine. “When you look at a lot of the things that are happening in Charlottesville, it becomes a perfect place for the industry to thrive.” Hodson cites the area’s academic culture, natural beauty, and the land’s ability to grow amazing grapes as ingredients for the industry’s organic growth.

What makes the Monticello region distinct in the Commonwealth is the consistently high quality of its wines. More than 60 percent of the wines crowned at this year’s Virginia’s Governor’s Cup were from the Monticello AVA. While Monticello Wine Trail wineries have had success with a variety of vintages, Hodson believes that the region’s petit verdot, petit manseng, and red Bordeaux blends have the potential to define it.

The major challenges preventing economic growth for the region come down to supply and demand. Area residents and visitors are drinking everything the wineries are supplying before it can be distributed to new markets. “We’ve got to make enough to let it leave the Charlottesville area,” says Hodson. He hopes that the continued popularity of events like Starry Nights at Veritas Vineyard & Winery and regular polo matches at King Family Vineyards will bring in the revenue needed to allow wineries to plant more grapes and produce more wine.

Support from state and local tourism boards are also critical to ensuring the industry’s ascent. Virginia’s tourism board makes it a priority to funnel visitors to the vineyards by highlighting wineries, festivals, and wine trails in campaigns. Support from local governments can vary quite a bit by county. Advocates for the industry agree that the best outcomes happen when state and local governments proactively work together. The positive economic impact numbers have helped government officials understand the promise of a rosy future in wine.

“We want Charlottesville and the Monticello [American Viticultural Area] to be the first name in Virginia wine,” says Hodson. “We are wholly committed to and doubling down on making Charlottesville and Monticello AVA a renowned wine growing region.”

VIRGINIA BREWERIES, CIDERIES & DISTILLERIES

Spirit Lab Distilling’s Ivar Aass thinks craft spirits will attain a momentum similar to that of area craft beer and wine: “Prohibition throttled the industry for 80 years,” he says, “and we’re finally getting to the point where craft distilling is gaining steam.” / Photo: Eze Amos

The glass isn’t just half-full for wine. Local breweries, cideries, and distilleries all have plenty to toast about, too. The Virginia Brewers Association reported that 405,465 barrels of craft beer were produced in the state in 2017. That’s two gallons for every Virginian over the age of 21. With 236 craft breweries in Virginia creating a total economic impact of $1.37 billion (the same as the 2015 number for wine), that’s an average economic impact of close to $600,000 per craft brewery.

Local breweries have their own version of the wine trail: the Charlottesville Ale Trail is 2.3 miles, pedestrian-friendly, and includes six participating breweries. They’re plotted along a map that visitors are encouraged to get stamped like a passport.

Virginia’s craft beer scene has been cool for a while now, but Virginia cider is catching up and hotter than ever. Bold Rock Hard Cider currently outpaces almost every other local brewery in sales. The Virginia Association of Cider Makers reports marked growth in the number of cideries opened since 2006, with national cider sales growing an average of 73 percent each year.

Boutique distilleries are looking to be the model for what’s next for their industry. Spirit Lab Distilling became the first distillery to open within Charlottesville city limits in 2015, and owner Ivar Aass sees the potential for craft spirits to attain a similar momentum as the local craft beer and wine market.

“I think all distilleries are basically playing catch-up,” says Aass. “Prohibition throttled the industry for 80 years, and we’re finally getting to the point where craft distilling is gaining steam.”

Just as we saw with craft beer, Aass predicts that the trends in distilling will favor unique, high-quality, and historically-rooted products. He also sees a future in Virginia-made brandy after recently collaborating with local winemakers on a Virginia oak-aged vintage by distilling some of the 2018 grapes that were too sweet for traditional wine processing.

So whether you like to sip, swig, or savor your locally produced spirit of choice, you can be guaranteed to see more varieties and an improved quality in the next few years. And if you haven’t yet been invited to a wedding at a farm or barn where something boozy is made, you can expect that “save the date” to come any day now. Beverage-related agritourism in central Virginia is booming. We can all cheers to that.

WEATHER OR NOT

Winemakers are learning and experimenting with new ways to adapt to the forces of climate change so central Virginia’s wine industry can continue to grow. / Photo: Andrea Hubbell

The summer of 2017 was a gift for wine grapes. The arid days were the source of complex vintages with the kind of balance winemakers aspire to produce. Then vineyards had to deal with the wet summer of 2018, when too much rain too close to harvest encouraged mold and caused the grapes to swell with water, diluting flavors. Increasingly erratic seasons due to climate change mean that if the burgeoning Central Virginia wine industry is going to survive, winemakers need to find new ways to adapt.

“When you plant a grapevine, you want it to [last for] decades, so depending on how quickly things change, it can affect what you’re doing,” says Ben Jordan, who has been the winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards since 2015. Grapes can be a fickle fruit. And considering it can take three to five years for a vine to produce anything usable for winemaking, planting decisions are fraught. By that time, and especially with climate change, you may no longer have the right grape in the right site. “On top of that, we’ve always had a relatively dynamic climate,” says Jordan. “We can have droughts, we can have 2017, which was dry and hot, or we can have 2018, which is kind of a washout.”

For local winemakers, being in an emerging industry could be a protective factor when dealing with climate change. Unlike European regions, vineyards in central Virginia are not tied to producing certain wines or trademark processes that haven’t changed in 200 years.

The Winemakers Research Exchange, a local research cooperative for wineries, is encouraging experimentation and knowledge-sharing through studies and sensory sessions. Winemakers can invite their peers to try the unfinished results of everything from whole cluster fermentation to wines aged in concrete eggs. Joy Ting, research enologist and exchange coordinator for the WRE, believes the region’s ingenuity is a good thing when it comes to acclimating to seasonal swings. “It does help us to have more options when we think about how to respond to those things,” she says.

When your seasons become unpredictable, it’s not a bad idea for your wines to be too. “The world is changing,” says Jordan, “and you don’t have to make wines that taste one way or grow grapes the same way.” Central Virginia winemakers are integrating modern science in their old world craft. They are looking at how different clones of cabernet franc behave in the vineyard to decide what to plant for the next 10-15 years, and experimenting with breeding to try to make merlot more resistant to mildew.

Ting says that while the WRE isn’t set up for long-term experiments (most of the studies are designed to look at one year at a time), it’s an opportunity for winemakers to get creative with testing interventions. By learning new techniques for different scenarios, winemakers can be more prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws at them.

In 2018, several members of the WRE had success with one grape in particular: the petit manseng. Described as a “storm grape” that can take on loads of rainfall, it’s becoming a popular choice for local vineyards in need of a stable crop. “More and more people are looking to petit manseng because it does seem to have a good, consistent expression,” says Ting.

Petit manseng, a French grape typically used to make white wines, can be used to make dry wines, off-whites, and dessert wines. Local residents may not be as familiar with it as they are with a vognier or a petit verdot, but as the manseng grows more popular with winemakers, it has the potential to define the central Virginia region. “It’s something that can be really useful in our industry, and can help us stand out in the country and the world,” says Jordan. “It’s a distinctive grape that makes distinctive wine.”

Tony Wolf, professor and director of viticulture at Virginia Tech, started evaluating petit manseng in 1987. He concluded the grape would have an excellent time adapting to the Mid-Atlantic’s climate due to its hardiness against cold and rot, and consistent yields of crops per vine.

“Disease resistance is high on the list of desired traits,” says Wolf in regards to petit manseng. “But we are also going to need to evaluate new (and old) varieties that are suited to higher temperatures and higher rainfall conditions.”

Critics are taking note. This year was the first year a petit manseng won the top prize at the Virginia Governor’s Cup. The 2016 vintage produced by Horton Vineyards in Orange County was lauded for its dry palate and full body with notes of stone fruit and hazelnut.

Jordan is so confident in the grape that he recently ripped out a site of cabernet sauvignon grapes, vines that were planted with generations in mind, to plant the manseng in their place. “That’s part of adjusting to these changing factors,” says Jordan. “It’s about understanding a piece of land in context to its climate as opposed to just what you like to drink.”

CHANGE AGENTS

Beverage leaders are disruptors by nature. Their willingness to take risks when it comes to flavors and production can often lead them to delicious places—and profits. Several have made big changes in the last year.

Potter’s Craft Cider

Potter’s Craft Cider, which currently operates a 128-acre cidery in Free Union, is expanding, adding a 100-year-old church on approximately 20 acres in Albemarle County. The move comes thanks in part to a $1.56 million injection of funds from the state. This development will allow Potter’s Craft Cider to establish a much-anticipated tasting room, and is expected to quadruple its cider production. Governor Ralph Northam announced the investment in January and cited agritourism as a valuable source of income for rural areas. Renovations to the church will take place over the next three years while the team establishes an on-site apple orchard.

Wild Wolf Brewing Company

“Charlottesville has really become a mecca for great beer,” says Mary Wolf of Wild Wolf Brewing Company, which recently opened another location near the Downtown Mall. / Photo: Sanjay Suchak

The Wolf is also on the move. Wild Wolf Brewing Company, based in Nelson County, recently opened a satellite location near Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. Owner Mary Wolf said she fell in love with the location two years ago and had been thinking about it ever since. When it became available again this year, the company grabbed it.

She knew it was important to have a location within city limits. “Charlottesville has really become a mecca for great beer,” says Wolf. She attributes the city’s thriving industry to the mix of talented brewers who embrace innovation and a population full of young professionals who are willing to try new things.

While Wolf says she might consider opening other locations in the future, she’s not interested in becoming huge. “We’re focused on quality—on great food and beer.”

North American Sake Brewery

North American Sake Brewery may be the most unexpected newcomer to the city. The first craft sake brewery in the commonwealth opened at IX Art Park last year, and started distributing in Virginia last March. Co-owners Jeremy Goldstein and Andrew Centofante, a filmmaker and a web developer, respectively, are a self-described “unlikely [saki] duo,” but they put all of their passion for sake into the products they make. They managed to catch the attention of the Embassy of Japan and were invited to pour their own sake at a reception in D.C. this June.

 

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