Virginia viticulture: Winemaking ripens in the Old Dominion
HUME, Va. — Tucked away in the rolling hills of Hume, Virginia, is Desert Rose Ranch and Winery.
Bob Claymier has been operating the Fauquier County business with his wife, Linda, for seven years.
“I didn’t start out to do a winery. I started out with my horses,” he said. “And then I planted a little bit o’ grapes to make wine for the family and somethin’ happened. Few years later, we had a winery.”
April is Virginia Vineyard Month and vintners like Claymier are putting Virginia wine on the map.
While California has long been the nation’s top wine producer, Virginia vineyards are on the rise — with state wine sales nearly doubling between 2010 and 2015, per a report by the Virginia Wine Board.
According to the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, there were just six wineries in the state in the 1970s. That grew to 40 by the late ‘80s.
Now, Virginia has nearly 300 wineries in seven distinct viticultural areas — from the Shenandoah Valley to the Eastern Shore.
American winemaking has its roots — quite literally — in Virginia.
“The first wine grapes grown in the Americas were in Virginia 400 years ago,” said Chris Pearmund, executive winemaker at Pearmund Cellars in Broad Run. “I mean, what a better place to be, be living?”
A law passed in 1619 required Jamestown’s male colonists to each plant at least 10 grapevines. Their hope of producing a cash crop got off to a rocky start.
“The Old World was looking for New World outlets. But they didn’t do very well because they were attempting to plant European vines,” Claymier said. "They very quickly found out that tobacco did better than, better than grapevines.”
In the 18th century, Virginia native President Thomas Jefferson was also unsuccessful in his decades of tending European grapes.
But what did take root over the next 200 years was his dream that Virginia would one day be lauded for its exceptional wines.
“We have developed a reputation for producing world-class wines,” Claymier said.
Pearmund agreed, “The quality-value relationship to Virginia wines at 25, 35 bucks a bottle — when you compare the same price point and the same labor involvement into a vineyard, and hand craftsmanship — Virginia competes at a world stage.”
Boasting internationally acclaimed wines, Virginia is among the nation’s top wine-producing states.
According to December 2017 data from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Virginia ranks seventh in terms of bulk production of still wines by the gallon.
January 2018 metrics from Wines Vines Analytics place Virginia sixth in its list of states with the most wineries. According to these data, Virginia, Texas and Pennsylvania are each home to about 3 percent of America’s wineries, while California houses a whopping 45 percent.
But veteran winemaker Pearmund says Virginia’s vineyards produce an array of wines even the Golden State can’t compete with.
“California can’t do what Virginia does,” he said, smiling. “Our opportunity to make unique wines in Virginia that California can’t do is really our focus, rather than trying to do what California does that we can’t do.”
Tom Kelly is the past president of the Virginia Vineyards Association and current director of operations at Brown Bear Vineyards in Woodstock. He’s spent nearly the last 20 years cultivating grapes that he says give Old Dominion wines their pleasantly unpredictable flavor.
“Virginia wine, in my mind, is a little more adventurous and interesting,” he said. “I’d much rather be pleasantly surprised or even have a little bit of disappointment or just that curiosity of what am I gonna find in that bottle when I open it up as opposed to the ... I know that flavor, I know that flavor, I know that flavor.”
Kelly thinks Thomas Jefferson would be impressed with what the Virginia wine industry has become.
“I think he’d be quite pleased,” Kelly said. “And he’d probably wonder how the heck we did it. ‘Cause he couldn’t do it.”
Bob Claymier is proud to be part of a growing industry that contributes more than $1 billion to the Commonwealth’s economy each year.
He says if you haven’t yet tried Virginia wine, “You are in for a treat — and maybe a surprise.”