Taking root: An itinerant winemaker settles in at a new Earlysville vineyard

Central Virginia winemaking veteran Jake Busching takes a break during the harvest at Hark Vineyards. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith Central Virginia winemaking veteran Jake Busching takes a break during the harvest at Hark Vineyards. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

Jake Busching has a killer grin. It’s cozy and sly, a knowing, amused-by-the-world look that a salty old sea captain might wear. Except in Bushing’s case, it’s the smirk of a sweaty farm-tractor driver. I know this because I’m sitting down with him fresh out of the vineyards, where he’d been hedging—trimming back the wild growth on grapevines that could be his to tame for many years—and, um, sweating.

After 20-plus years of peregrination that included creating his own wine label, consulting, teaching, and working at half a dozen of the better wineries in the area—including Jefferson, Keswick, Pollak, and Michael Shaps—Busching has thrown in his lot with two ambitious Virginia wine newbies. Showing me around the new Hark Vineyards production facility—as big as an airplane hangar—the winemaker’s grin flashes into a wide, proud smile.

“Whaddya think?” he says, throwing his arms wide. “My new home.”

A great wine starts with great fruit. The 2019 harvest in central Virginia has been very good, owing to little rain and lots of heat and sunshine. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

Aaron and Candice Hark planted grapes on the property here, in Earlysville, in 2016. After graduating from the South Carolina Honors College at the University of South Carolina in the early aughts, the Harks moved to Charlottesville and co-founded the education-related software firm Maxient. While also active in philanthropy and the arts (Candice is a founding member of C’ville Gives and on the board of the American Shakespeare Center), the Harks are not mere dabblers in wine.

By hiring a top gun like Busching and investing heavily not only in their vineyards but also in a state-of-the-art, solar-powered production shop, the Harks have established themselves as serious entrants into the local industry. They have also done their homework, attending viticulture classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College—where their instructor was none other than Busching. “We hit it off and they asked me to be their consulting winemaker,” he says. “I was in flux with my label and they offered me a home alongside them at their facility.”

Smart move by the Harks, a great new opportunity for Busching—sounds like a win-win. Coming off a very good harvest this year, Busching is poised to move out of the background and stand—publicly—among the better winemakers in central Virginia.

In the run-up to the winery’s opening, planned for October, we spoke with Busching about wine, creativity, family, and settling down—so now you can say you knew him when.

Knife & Fork: The lore is that you were traveling with your band, Entropy, landed in Virginia in 1993 at age 23, and decided to stay because it was warmer than your native Minnesota. True?

Jake Busching: I sang in that band, an alt-punk-fusion kinda thing. We used it primarily as an outlet for a lot of crazy creativity. We were together for four years or so. Very cathartic and exploratory for the entire group.

You’ve said that you remember drinking your first bottle of wine around that time, a jug of Chianti you picked up for $7 from a 7-Eleven, after finishing up a late-night restaurant shift in Richmond.

That was honestly my first step onto the wine path. The Chianti moment thrust me into thinking about the provenance and the process of wine. I could taste something beyond the pleasure of alcohol and began to wonder about the “how” in the experience of wine. It was a single pivotal moment in a very pivotal time.

In 1997, a few years after the Chianti epiphany, you started working at Jefferson Vineyards. How did that come about?

I was working at Sunbow Trading company in downtown Charlottesville, doing rug sales and care, when I met Stanley Woodward, the owner of Jefferson Vineyards. He would come in weekly, after lunch at the C&O, and sit and have tea with me and talk about the tribal rugs and art in general. He was a fantastic artist and free spirit. He asked me to come to work on his estate as the farm manager’s assistant after a few months of “tea talk,” because we had such a great rapport. At that time Michael Shaps [of Michael Shaps Wineworks] and [vineyard consultant] Chris Hill had both recently joined the team there. I fell in with them and began to learn viticulture.

You’ve since bumped around a bit in your wine career—grower,  winemaker, consultant, educator, new-project-guy. Which roles do you relish the most?

I am a creator at heart. The process of launching a creation and seeing it come to life thrills me. That could mean a single bottle of wine from dirt to glass, a meal from shopping cart to table, or a 10,000-case winery from napkin sketch to full production.

The latter is your new adventure, Hark Vineyards. It’s quite a different gig than making wine under your eponymous label, which you’ve done for a long time. What has that taught you?

The lessons and hardships are all related to funding and having enough time to do all of the jobs at once. [Winemaking] is a near-impossible endeavor unless you are financially independent or have minions who work for smiles. Having done this for 20 years, for myself and other folks, has allowed me to find my voice, and unleashing it into bottle has been creative bliss.

You’ve managed to go your own way while still being very connected and respected in the community. What advice do you have for others who’d like to travel a similar path?

Do not burn bridges, and leave your ego at the door. I find that most folks that get into the winemaking thing are often assertive creative types that like to take ownership of what they are doing. You have to learn where to draw that line and remember to honor the goals and voice of the project you are working on. I learned that very clearly while doing custom-crush for 16-plus clients at once. Each place needs a voice and you have to just fall back and be a part of the chorus. Also, get someone to sell the wine for you! Otherwise you’ll have no time for living.

How do you expect your life will change now that you’ve joined Hark Vineyards?

I’m in the process of trying to slow my life down a few notches, from that of consulting road warrior back to winemaker. I’m digging in and really excited about working with the Harks to both launch their 100 percent estate-grown label and still do my vineyard-sourcing winemaking for my own wines.

What should we expect from Hark?

We bottled two vintages of Hark Vineyards–labeled wine this August, including chardonnay, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and merlot. Future wines will include pinot gris, petit manseng, cab sauv rose, red and white blends, and vidal blanc. I have been winemaker for all of these wines and am really excited about the level of excellence we have achieved so far.

Hark’s production facility can manage a comfortable 6,000 cases but will be able to produce 10,000 once the public facility comes on line. The vineyard property is maxed out at 18 acres and should give us 4,500 cases of estate-grown fruit within three more years.

When can people begin visiting Hark and tasting the wines?

We are planning to have pop-up sales days through the fall at our production facility. There are also some limited-ticket farm dinner plans in the works. But we are targeting spring of 2021 for a tasting room opening. The Harks are big fans of the outdoors and inspirational landscapes. The building promises to be a unique design for our area, and will emphasize the property’s beautiful views.

You strike me as a Renaissance guy—you majored in music, had a band, cook, write. Do you have other cultural pursuits?

I am a curious human. I get a little obsessed with a process and find myself driven to be adept or beyond, then I tend to move on to another thing. Wine has such a broad span of skills and interests that it’s been the one pursuit that keeps my interest piqued. My favorite thing to “cook” is a bottle of wine. Open it, see what it has to say, plan a meal around it, and execute. Could be scallops or fish or a piece of meat over a fire in the yard.

You’ve been involved with Virginia wine for more than 20 years. What do you think you personally have contributed?

I hope that I’ve been a part of raising the bar for Virginia wine from the cottage industry it was in the early days to the highly respectable industry it is now, whether through grape growing, winemaking, or just continuing to be stubborn about pushing the bounds of industry standards.

Hark Vineyards, 1465 Davis Shop Rd., Earlysville. Jake Busching Wines are available at the winery and through jakebuschingwines.com and at local restaurants and retail stores.

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