Virginia Chronicles

Posted on Jan 01 2009 | By


In the beginning wine….now tales on whatever drives the imagination. Visit our sitemap for over 180 chronicles.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES

Winding Road leads to quiet beauty

Posted on Nov 21 2014 | By

Nestled might best describe Winding Road Cellars, located in Markham. Opened a little over a year ago, the small, picture perfect winery is situated behind a slight rise and—nestled—between two diminutive hills with a view of an expansive pond.

The setting engenders an immediate, “Oh, this should be fun,” reaction. And, of course, it is. 

The dream come true winery is love’s labor’s found for Scott and Linda Culver. It began several years ago when Scott Culver decided to take up the hobby of home winemaking. He found a local winemaker who was willing to sell him juice.

“One day I left the house with an empty five-gallon carboy and returned home several hours later with an oak barrel and 60 gallons of juice,” said Culver. His first problem was the realization he had to remove a basement window to install the barrel in his nascent winery and then gravity siphon the juice into the barrel.

“The wine turned out so well one thing led to another and I got the bug,” said Culver.

Let that be a warning to those interested in pursuing winemaking. The hobby can pop from mild interest to passion faster than a cork flying from a champagne bottle.

But the hobby was a productive counterpoint to Culver’s career. He had spent 20 years with the Fairfax County Police Department and went on to second careers as director of security for a large Virginia bank and then a law enforcement position with the Federal government.

He is still employed full-time but anticipates “retiring” to work at the winery within three years. “I always knew I would never retire and do nothing at all. I’ve always had the bug to do something for myself,” explains Culver.

Since winemaking held its fascination, the idea of opening a commercial winery began to crystallize after working part-time for several years at a local winery. The winery owner became Culver’s mentor and “because of the enjoyment we had visiting other wineries, it triggered going commercial,” said Culver.

Today, the winery has evolved from a home basement operation to a stand-alone tasting room and cellar facility located behind the Culver’s residence.

The transition from his lengthy daily commute in Northern Virginia to a two-minute walk to the winery will further incentivize the vintner to move onto his next career.

Winery & vineyard
IMG_0165The winery and tasting room is housed in a new attractive farmhouse styled building with an inviting front porch, emblematic of what might be found at the end of a winding road. The interior is all spacious polished pine that creates a relaxed feeling as one heads to the tasting bar in the back center of the room.

There are six wines on the tasting menu: Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay, Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and a semi-sweet Chambourcin dessert wine.

On the back side of the property a five acre vineyard is planted in seven varietals including a small block of Pinot Noir, a grape that is notoriously hard to grow in Virginia. Culver will likely make wine from the temperamental berry only for his family’s personal use.

As is typical for a new winery, all the current wines have been produced off-site in the early going. The first estate bottling will be released soon. It’s an undisclosed blend of three reds and will be called Tribute.

Total annual production is around 700 cases a year and the Culvers do not see their dream growing exponentially. “I’m happy in trying to create a very small, intimate boutique winery. I don’t have any grandiose plans to compete with large wineries,” said Culver.

Linda Culver mans the tasting room during the week when her husband is at work. The winery embodies one of her life long dreams. “When we first got married I thought it would be a wonderful experience to work side by side with my husband. Now we are living that dream and it’s much better than I though it would be.”

Winding Road Cellars is located at 4280 Leeds Manor Road in Markham and is opened Thursday through Monday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit them at http://windingroadcellars.com/.  


John’s Pick of the MonthIMG_0185 

Winding Road Cellars 

2010 Chardonnay 


Chardonnay is one of the most ubiquitous wines on the planet and for good reason. It tastes great. And so it is with Winding Road’s Chardonnay. This medium-to full- bodied white showcases nice tropical notes on the palate and is framed by a creamy mouth feel with a soft butter finish. Thanksgiving dinner offers an opportunity to enjoy a wide range of wines and this clean, bright Chardonnay would make a boom companion to the repast.

Published in the November 20, 2014 edition of the Culpeper Times.       

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

It’s been said that experience trumps knowledge. But when a person possesses both, success typically follows.

Old House Vineyards

Old House Vineyards

This summer, Andy Reagan joined Old House Vineyards as its full-time winemaker. And if past is prologue, look for the 14 year-old winery to further advance its reputation for quality wines.

Reagan’s 20 years of winemaking includes stints at both Old Dominion and out-of- state wineries. In the process, he has amassed a closet full of medals; over 300 alone during his seven years with Jefferson Vineyards in Charlottesville.

“Finding wine talent today is hard,” said Pat Kearney, owner of Old House. “When we heard Andy was available, he was what we were looking for.”

Kearney explains he had been using winemaker interns from France for years, assisted by a consultant, and was pleased with where they had taken his wines. “I had a connection with the French. My consultant was invaluable to our success.

“But when the opportunity to bring a dedicated, full-time winemaker on board, I made the decision to hire Andy.”

Reagan began his career working for his sister in an upstate New York winery as a teenager and subsequently made wine at several wineries, including one producing 30,000 cases a year. A typical Virginia winery produces 2,000 to 5,000 cases annually.

But Kearney’s goal is not about churning out mass-produced wines. His wants to slowly grow his small production of high-end bottlings. “Often guests say they have enjoyed every wine in our tasting line up, not just one or two. I want to further that reputation.”

In the beginning

Andy Reagan

Andy Reagan

Reagan recalls his first year in the business was 1992 as a 17-year-old high school student working during his summer break. “I had a blast and wanted to keep doing it,” said Reagan.

One invaluable job experience unfolded while working at a large out-of-state winery. “They were making so many wines I had to fully learn the chemistry side of winemaking. I super honed my lab skills while working there,” he said.

Most wine lovers are not aware that producing wine is working with a living product. Unwanted organisms can create havoc during the process. Knowing how to quickly identify problems and make necessary corrections is integral to being a successful vintner.

Over time, the Norfolk native sought employment farther afield than Virginia to grow his experience. “But every time I tried to move out of Virginia I started to quickly miss the state and the people who work here. There is a certain type of special person who lives in Virginia,” states Reagan.

Asked if there is a secret to making award winning wines, Reagan said, “Paying attention to detail makes clean, balanced wines. But producing good fruit in the vineyard and using quality equipment is important.

“When I was interviewing for this job I was impressed with the quality and amount of French oak barrels Pat had. Oak ageing plays an important role in quality wine and costly barrels are critical to its success.”

So will more gold medals be raining down on Old House Vineyards in the future? “We’ll see,” says Reagan, “That’s up to the consumer. I hope so.”

Pat Kearney and his wife Allyson make up the Kearney perpetual motion machine. Proof is in their next venture to be launched early next year. A distillery is sited next the winery and will produce brandy, grappa, vodka, gin and whiskey among other libations.

“We are just an adult Disneyland out here,” said Allyson laughing.

Old House still

Old House still

John’s Pick of the month   

Old House Vineyards 



The Bacchanalia were Roman festivals celebrating Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. And as one pours a glass of Old House Bacchanalia and takes in its dark ruby color and rich aromas, celebration is an appropriate thought. The wine is an eclectic blend of Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Tannat and is a perfect match for any beef entrée on a crisp fall evening.   

Published in the October 23, 2014 edition of the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Real estate with zeal

Posted on Oct 23 2014 | By

 Horizon Real Estate, Inc. led by experience with a smile  

When seeking a real estate firm to help sell or buy a home, a client seeks out a knowledgeable agent who is attentive to their needs. After all, it’s likely the biggest financial transaction of their life. Optimistic business acumen makes good things happen quickly.

Loni Colvin

Loni Colvin

And making good things happen is the hallmark of Warrenton real estate broker Loni Colvin. Goal setting is not a dry business term to Colvin but rather the mantra she lives by. “I never feel like I hate getting up in the morning and coming into the office,” said Colvin. “I love helping people.”

As a result, over the years a cavalcade of individuals and couples have felt that love and gotten into a home on its cresting wave. The energy driving this successful real estate entrepreneur is not about to let up either. “I don’t ever want to retire,” said a laughing Colvin.

The native of Kentucky catapulted out of the Bluegrass state in 1989 and hasn’t slowed since. It’s been a trajectory of success with several businesses now a memory as she accumulated experience and moved on to bigger challenges.

In the beginning
After arriving in the D.C. area, Colvin worked for a Roy Rogers restaurant as general manager while doing cleaning on the side. Her fiancé, now husband, suggested she start a cleaning service and she took the advice. “It’s because of him that all of this other stuff has happened,” Colvin said.

As the cleaning service evolved it led to snowplowing. She had contracts with the town of Warrenton for a couple of years and her cleaning business blossomed with 14 daytime employees and a smaller staff working nights cleaning office buildings in Prince William County and elsewhere.

The business success led to the idea of starting a property management company. She obtained her real estate license 2000 and began focusing on real estate. She eventually closed the cleaning business to devote full time to selling real estate.

What happened next was as assured as the sun rising. She met with immediate success and in 2001 was named Rookie of the Year by the Greater Piedmont Area Association of Realtors.

She was subsequently recognized for her performance with multiple awards with names such as Platinum and Chairman’s Club. Over the course of the next several years, Colvin worked at three different real estate firms, gaining more experience with each passing year.

In 2006, she sold $26 million worth of properties, earning the distinction of being placed in one company’s Hall of Fame.

“I remember the broker telling me I had achieved a big thing. I was in the top 2 ½ percent of the nation’s real estate agents,” said Colvin.

In 2009, her peers installed her as the President of the Greater Piedmont Area Association of Realtors. But there was no resting on her laurels. Hard work, some disappointment and greater success lay ahead.

Industry structure
Titles used in real estate can be a bit confusing. Who does what and why? Let’s recap the meaning of the most frequently used industry titles:

Real estate agent: Simply anyone who earns a license to sell real estate. State requirements differ but in every state the person must take a minimum number of classes and pass an exam to earn a license.

REALTOR®: An agent that is a member of the National Association of Realtors®. The person must uphold the standards of the association and its code of ethics.

Real estate broker: An individual who has pursed education beyond the agent level and passed a state’s broker license exam. Brokers can work alone or can hire agents to work for them.

Real estate associate broker: A person who has taken additional classes and earned a broker’s license but chooses to work for a broker.

In Colvin’s case, after gaining extensive experience as a real estate agent she elected to purse a broker’s license. The move set the stage for her next career step.

On her own
In 2008, after eight years in the industry, Colvin obtained her broker’s license and struck out her own and founded Horizon Real Estate, Inc. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it was the best of times and the worst of times. Yes, she now headed up her own agency but she launched it at the onset of a severe recession.

Timing is everything. “It was the worst of times. My building fees were overwhelming but I made through that period,” said Colvin. She started with one employee and three agents in a snail’s paced economy. Today, the office, located at 26 N. 5th St., is home to three administrative employees and 25 agents.

“I looked at the companies that had closed and merged and had no clue of being a broker myself. But I have a great group of agents at my office. We all worked together. It’s wonderful,” said the always expecting the best Colvin.

She is also poised to open a second office in Front Royal in October. The office will initially be staffed by two agents but if the past is prologue, look for her to attract additional agents into her sphere of success.

In 2009, she became certified as a real estate instructor and launched yet another business teaching potential agents. Given her track record, being a student in one of her classes is key to launching a new career. It is a 60 hour course conducted to fit a student’s schedule. To date, 20 students have graduated from the school and she has brought an additional instructor on board.

Most recently the energizer broker opened a title company appropriately called Sunshine Title & Settlement. It recorded the first of many deeds to come in early September and adds another entity to her growing number of businesses.

Ever looking beyond today, Colvin has plans to open another agency when her work schedule permits. It is already licensed and ready to go and will operate under the name Ches-Bay Real Estate in Hartfield. “Today Warrenton, tomorrow Virginia” might be her mission statement.

Model for success
The mark of a successful executive is to envision their company five years into the future. If they focus on the here and now, stagnation can set in. To underscore the philosophy Colvin said, “I don’t look at how much I’m earning. I’m looking to grow the business. As long as I’m still going forward that’s an accomplishment.”

Colvin’s advice for a successful career is for people “to figure out what they want to do and what they enjoy” because then it’s not a job. Goal setting is paramount for her. And while she won’t elaborate, it’s obvious her goal oriented work ethic is alive and well with bigger things to come. “I will never retire because I’m having too much fun.”

Her advice to those looking to advance is to “follow your heart” and don’t listen to other people. “When I started out I didn’t have deep pockets. You have to believe in yourself and believe in what you are doing,” she said.

Another critical element to her success is “I’m honest. I’m fair. I treat everybody the way I want to be treated. You can’t get what you’re not willing to give.” When managing her employees if there is a problem in a business relationship she meets with the individual and asks, “Tell me what you think I need to be doing to help you succeed.”

One of her pet peeves is a lack of commitment. She emphasizes she doesn’t ask 100 percent from an employee but “if you’re not giving 60, 70 percent then you’re not moving forward.”

When a new agent joins the company, Colvin knows it’s her responsibility to help them succeed. “They’ve come here because they believe in Horizon. I am going to help them. I can’t let them down,” said Colvin.

When asked how she would summarize what she has achieved Colvin said, “I love laughing. I pray a lot. I’m always positive. I wake up every day and thank God for what I’ve got and for everything that’s coming in that day. And if it’s a bad day, I say ‘OK’ its’ been bad but let’s get on with the new.”

If one were to check a thesaurus for the word success, one of the synonyms might likely be Loni Colvin.


Published in the Fall 2014 edition of the Piedmont Business Journal.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES

Serving the local community

Posted on Oct 23 2014 | By

 Summit Community Bank leader seeks to personalize financial services  

Community banks play a valued role in a local economy. The institutions are typically operated by local or regional owners and focus on the needs of businesses and individuals living where it’s located. Think Wall Street comes to Main Street.

The banks help keep local economies growing by providing a host of financial services. When lending decisions are made by people who know their community needs, the entire citizenry benefits.

“I love being here. I love being able to know most of my clients on a first name basis,” said Trisha Hwang, branch manager and assistant vice president of Summit Community in Warrenton.

Hwang connects deeply with her customers and is rewarded by getting to know their children and helping their families achieve financial goals “much more so than I could if working in a larger bank.”

Hwang has a resume of management experience that dates to her first job at 16 when working in the fast food industry. Her position today is enhanced by growing up in a small town in western Kentucky and subsequently working retail in Ohio where she met her husband.

In 2003, the couple moved to Loudoun County and Hwang landed a job in a large bank. Banking provided more predictable and stable work hours than retail management and it enriched her experience by working for a large financial institution.

What happened next is typical for a person on the move. In 2008, a headhunter called. Was she interested in a position at the Summit Community bank in Warrenton? Say what? She accepted the job.

“It’s been a wonderful experience having been able to work in both worlds—a larger bank and smaller community bank,” said Hwang.

She reminisces on the old chestnut that the grass is greener on the side. “Some things run more effectively in a larger bank and some more effectively in a smaller one. At the end of the day, it’s a question of are you happy where you work,” said Hwang.

And this banker is happy. Very.

Hwang manages a staff of three; a customer service representative and two customer service tellers. The bank also employs a commercial lender with an assistant and a chief banking officer also with an assistant at the same location at 250 Lee Highway.  

Summit Community history
Summit Community Bank is headquartered in Moorefield, W. Va. and dates its founding to 1883 as the South Branch Valley National Bank.

South Branch Bancorp was formed in 1987 and in 1999 changed its name to Summit Financial Group. Today, the bank has 15 community banking locations; nine in W. Va. and six in Va.

Summit Community BankWhen the Warrenton office opened in 2005, the bank’s initial objective was “getting our name out, having a face with that name and making sure people knew us. We don’t do a lot of advertising like larger banks do. But today we are a force to be reckoned with,” said Hwang.

“We have really great products. We show people what we can do for them. One of our mottos is ‘We put ourselves in your shoes’. If you are sitting on the other side of the desk from me, I want to know what I can do for you.”

While Summit Community is a local institution, its services are national in scope. It is a full service bank offering checking and savings accounts, money markets, home equity lines of credit, insurance, investments, and retirement planning. “You name and we do it.”

“There is an assumption that because we are a smaller community bank we don’t offer investment advice, retirement planning or mortgages, but we do,” said Hwang.

She underscores the bank has grown during a difficult economy and has fewer loans going into default. “We try to work with those customers because we understand everybody has gone through a difficult time as some point in their lives. We believe in offering a helping hand.”

She also sees signs the local economy is starting to right itself. Compared to 2008, more personal savings accounts are being opened because she thinks people are beginning to set aside some of their earnings for the proverbial rainy day.

But is the economy finally back? “It depends on who you are talking to and it depends on the month. Some months I attend ribbon cuttings and it’s great to see the new businesses open. But at the same time I see firms going out of business too,” said Hwang.

Building the bank
All successful companies seek to create and build solid customer relations and banking is no exception; perhaps more so than for many firms. “I regularly visit businesses in our area,” said Hwang. “I take clients to breakfast or lunch and talk about our product offerings; checking and savings with no minimum balances or monthly fees and more.”

She seeks to educate on not only Summit Community offerings but banking issues in general. “When I return from an appointment my staff is eager to know, ‘How did it go? Did you get the account?’ but I tell them that’s not what it’s about. It’s more about building the relationship,” said Hwang.

To reinforce her point, Hwang recalls a business customer who made an appointment to discuss opening an account. “He told me he remembered me giving a  presentation to a local group a few years earlier. He became a customer because of that initial contact. I plant seeds in this business. You might not need us today but you could later on. Being friendly and accessible to everyone pays offs,” said Hwang.

During a typical off-site meeting, the banker spends about 15 minutes discussing her product line and “package account” of services, including no charge for ATM usage at other financial institutions. Summit even refunds such fees incurred at other banks. The perks of many of the bank services is attractive.

Her secret to signing new accounts is to listen to the potential client before discussing her product line and asking questions to better understand actual needs. “Often they simply want to be heard,” underscores Hwang.

Hwang takes the time to educate on the merits of her offerings and not try to force a sale. Selling the customer may come later when their comfort level with the bank is secure. One particular attractive product is a savings plan earning one percent interest. “The national average is .2 percent so our rate is a big deal,” said Hwang.

Knowledge coupled with friendly patience pays off. In today’s world, no one wants to listen to a pressurized sales pitch. The days of the iconic Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman are gone.

Additionally, while the bank has a plethora of products it’s important not to treat each in an in-depth fashion. If she has 10 things to share with a promising client, she will not attempt to discuss all of them. Understanding where an interest lies will lead to deeper and more fruitful discussion of the bank’s services that are actually needed.

After six years with Summit Community, Hwang’s sales philosophy is not to product- push but rather provides for immediate needs and waits for satisfied customers to return for additional services.

“I deal in a down-to-earth way with clients. What’s best for them today may not work six months from now,” said Hwang. If a solid relationship is established in the beginning, customers will likely return to explore ways to address new financial challenges.

If all this sounds like common sense being brought to bear in a complex industry, then it’s easier to understand why this bank is climbing steadily toward the summit of success.


Published in the Fall 2014 edition of the Piedmont Business Journal.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES

Warrenton Huntington Center scores high marks for students and owner

Donna Isler’s love of learning is in her DNA. Her great, great grandfather was the first black lawyer in Washington, D.C. Her grandfather was head of the Linguistics Department at the University of Michigan and her father led the Orthodontics Department at Howard University.

“Education is in my blood,” said Isler. Education, coupled with a driving work ethic that created five tutoring centers in 10 years. “I’ve always believed in providing every student the best education possible.”

The Jamaican native knows first-hand those who are not able to receive an education because of the cost. Being able to help others is “extremely important” to her.

Early in her career the speech language pathologist worked at D.C. General Hospital and for the Fairfax County school system. But the entrepreneurs lurking in her and her husband wanted to build a business of their own. “It was the combination of my passion for education and his desire to own a business that we ended up choosing Huntington,” said Isler.

With over 37 years experience in premier student tutoring, Huntington Learning Centers is a pioneer in the field. It has a proven model in supplemental education for those committed to building a successful franchise business.

“What we really liked about Huntington is the founders are actively involved in the business,” said Isler. “We see them every year at various meetings.”

Each franchise is independently owned and operated and is provided corporate support in teacher training and student instruction methodology.

In 2005, Isler opened her first center in Manassas and subsequently opening centers in Fredericksburg, Lake Ridge, Stafford, and Warrenton. She has 15 full-time administrative staff and employs 25 to 32 part-time certified school teachers at each location.

Success is demanding
The firm’s growth has been steady but demanding. “Five centers is a lot to manage,” said Isler. In the tutoring industry customer service is extremely important. “It’s not as easy as I would have anticipated.” Hiring and training staff, while still teaching whenever she can, requires a full-time commitment.

Her favorite aspects of the job are administering student evaluations and working with parents. The evaluations are critical to a student’s performance since it identifies strengths and weakness prior to developing a specialized program of instruction.

“It’s an academic x-ray,” Isler explains. “It pinpoints the areas to work on and focuses on an enrichment program of remedial study skills.” The emphasis is often on building reading, comprehension and math skills.

All of the instruction is individualized with recommendations to parents on what can be done at home to reinforce classroom instruction. One typical technique Isler uses is assigning students the task of reading a newspaper then writing a summary of what they read. “Writing is the active form of reading,” she emphasizes.

Each center has 38 to 70 students depending on the time of year. There is no set time limit for the length of individualized instruction. Typically, during the school year a student will attend four to six hours a week. During the summer program it runs 12 to 16 hours.

“When school is out Huntington is in,” said Isler. “It’s the perfect time for students to build their skills for the upcoming school year.” Mid-June to mid-April is the busy time of the year. Issuance of second semester report cards—when detention notices go out—also see an increase in student enrollment. Alarmed parents want help immediately.

While 90 percent of the student body is kindergarten through 12th grade, adult instruction is provided, often in building English language skills and the study of foreign languages, mostly French and Spanish. “Our oldest student was 67,” said Isler.

Business strategies
Operating a small business is fraught with challenges. The moribund economy of the last several years has taken a toll on many local businesses. One negative impact unique to the DC area was the government shutdown in 2013.

With government and military families laid off during the shutdown, parents were worried about spending money for tutoring. It’s difficult to make such an investment when concerned about paying household bills.

School closures due to snow days in 2014 also saw a reduction in the number of Huntington students.

“We’ve had to get creative on how to cut expenses and while working with parents so they can continue” sending their children to the centers.

Active involvement with the business community is key in building the firm. Isler uses grassroots marketing to increase student enrollment. This includes providing promotional literature to appropriate restaurant, retail and medical offices that highlight the importance of tutoring.

Often customers have free time while waiting for appointments or services and can educate themselves on the benefits of a Huntington student experience. The firm’s newsletter “Huntington News for Parents” is a vehicle for driving business to the company while providing useful information to parents of school-age children.

Additionally, newspaper advertising, Google Adwords, direct mail and parent referrals help strengthen the business. It’s a multi-channel approach employed on a daily basis. “Yes, it’s a franchise firm but it operates as a small business” and it is up to Isler and her staff to build enrollment.

In the course of ten years, Isler has learned two important lessons: listening to her staff and learning from past mistakes. When things don’t go right one needs to develop a more effective response to a problem to avoid repeating it.

As an example, working within the Huntington structure requires compliance to proven educational strategies the corporate firm has developed. “It’s like learning a new language and new ways of doing things. I can’t expect a new teacher to pickup up the Huntington system and perform at the same level as I do. Everybody has a different learning curve,” said Isler.

So she has to work closely with instructors to assure the classroom strategies are implemented. One mistake she learned from was retaining staff that was unable to accept the Huntington instructional format.

“It’s was hard letting go of teachers who could not adapt to our structure but it’s necessary to the success of student performance,” said Isler. In some cases teachers simply cannot implement the necessary curriculum given their previous training. “We must follow our program because it works,” said Isler.

Personal satisfaction
After ten years in building the business this passion-driven educator even now becomes emotional when enrolling a student. “I still cry during the initial conference” if parents are struggling with a child in need. “But it’s very gratifying. There’s nothing better than when a light bulb goes off and a student makes a learning connection. It’s the moment they get it and they understand it.”

Other collateral rewards unfold when a student comes to class excited about their first B on a school exam. Or a parent relates how their son wants to pickup a book and read it when he has never wanted to in the past.

So what might be some important lessons learned in achieving success? “First, don’t take on more than you can handle. I am married with three children. I still work on the weekends. It’s gratifying but hard work.”

Secondly, success is all about customer service. Meeting and greeting new parents and students is important. “It’s like inviting them into your kitchen and having a conversation. The family is bringing their child to us because of academic concerns. By the time they leave that are literally changing their child’s life,” said Isler.

The success of the center even extends to her daughters. All three of her children attend the Huntington center to further improve school performance.

“I truly believe in this business,” said Isler.

Published in the Fall 2014 edition of the Piedmont Business Journal.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES

High expectations need to be held in check when starting a small business. Only 44 percent survive after four years and the average life span is eight and a half years.

Yet this year, Battlefield Travel of Culpeper is celebrating 30 years of success and still going strong. The E. Davis St. firm’s secret? Consistently planning and providing successful travel experiences.

Cheryl Clear

Cheryl Clear

“If we weren’t good at what we did, we wouldn’t be around for 30 years,” said owner Cheryl Clear. And there are no plans to close shop. “Battlefield will be around for considerably more years.”

That’s not hubris talking. Clear has a staff of four that have an accumulated six decades of experience in making vacation dreams come true. The key to the successful business is agents who are widely traveled.

“Our certified travel consultants have over 60 years combined experience,” said Clear. Traveling the world provides her clients vacation getaways to places the consultants often have firsthand knowledge of.

Experience combined with educational training further assures successful adventures. Clear is an Elite Cruise Counselor, Certified Travel Agent and holds certifications in various fields of travel. Her sheepskins are brought to bear with each client encounter.

While enjoying multiple decades of achievement, it doesn’t mean there haven’t been bumps in the road; sometimes big ones. “I purchased the agency in January 2001. Then 9/11 happened. It hit us really hard. I had to downsize,” said Clear.

The business had to relocate to smaller quarters and the only staff she retained was her receptionist. But perseverance prevailed and today her staff is back to the same size as when she assumed ownership.

Interestingly, and fortuitously, when the recession hit business actually increased. While the cruise segment of travel declined, Clear realized working professionals were more insulated from the impact of the recession and continued to travel worldwide. She focused on selling excursions to this market segment.

“Because we had been around so many years people knew who we were. We have a good reputation so we made more money than before the recession,” said Clear.

Reputation is golden. As a result, the business has ceased most forms of advertising. “Most of our marketing today is word of mouth. I found advertising did not make that much difference. Past performance is our best marketing tool,” said Clear.

The industry
There are two key benefits in employing a travel agency. First, except for airline ticketing fees, there typically are no extra charges levied by the agency above lodging and airfare costs. There is an hourly charge if a specific itinerary is requested.

Agents are usually compensated by the companies they use to book lodging. “It’s not going to save anybody to not go through a travel agent. Lodging and air fare will be the same,” said Clear.

Secondly, often an agent’s personal experience will be employed to plan a vacation. Imagine a relative going to Ireland and later sharing every step of the trip. It’s same with an agent. No muss. No fuss. Board the plane and fly off to happy times.

“One of my agents spent two weeks in Italy. There is not a whole lot about Italy that she can’t tell you,” said Clear.

She emphasizes her first question posed to a client is “What is your budget?” The answer will determine how the trip is assembled.

Clear also recognizes in the digital age vacations can be planned on a keyboard in the comfort of one’s home. But often it takes hours of research and the luck of the draw that a traveler has chosen well.

Conversely, an experienced agent frequently brings “boots on the ground” to the planning process. “We are not just selling trips. We are sharing our experiences. You can’t get that on the internet,” emphasizes Clear.

Today, one small trend Clear has observed is that Americans are turning more to domestic vacations. “I’ve noticed we are selling more Alaska and Hawaii trips and less of Europe,” said Clear.

Sounds like a good time to enjoy London, Paris or Dublin since there might be fewer tourists to compete with, eh?

Battlefield Travel is located at 163 E. Davis Street. Visit them in person or at battlefieldtravel@comcast.net. (540) 825.1393.


Published in the October 16, 2014 edition of the Culpeper Times.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES

Unicorn Winery for sale

Posted on Oct 23 2014 | By

Unicorn Winery in Amissville is on the market for $1.8 million. The sale includes 18.8 acres, a five bedroom brick residence and a turnkey winery with all equipment needed to produce over 2,000 cases of wine annually.

A one acre pond is nestled next the winery with a pond-side deck. It was the 55th winery established in Virginia. Today, there are 275 wineries in the state.

Proprietors Richard and Sandy LePage are the second owners of the winery that originally opened in 2000; the couple purchased the property in 2008.

An on-site six and a half acre vineyard is planted in five varietals and produces 60 percent of the tasting room wines. The remaining fruit is purchased from other Virginia vineyards.

Unicorn wineryThe winery is located on Old Bridge Road just north of the Culpeper County line in the Clevengers Corner area. The LePages built a covered stage on the back of the property—bordered by 650 feet of Rappahannock River frontage—and host many events there.

“Last year, we sponsored a fundraiser for Hospice that generated $14,000 for the organization,” said Sandy LePage. The setting is ideal for outdoor performances utilizing a sweeping natural amphitheater overlooking the river.

“The property is phenomenal, Mother Nature’s natural landscaping,” said Richard LePage. “We have no plans to leave the Piedmont region. We love the Blue Ridge Mountains and the foothills. We’ll stay in the area.”

Not only will they remain in the Piedmont, the sale of the winery comes with an offer for the LePages to manage it and train new owners, with the couple living either onsite or off; preferably on the property.

The river setting is dramatic and the hard-working couple often relaxes by setting up plastic Adirondack chairs in the middle of the shallow river and “enjoying a bottle of wine” after a day of working in the tasting room.

Interestingly, years ago, well-known Old Dominion vintner Chris Pearmund bottled his first wine with his name on the label. Pearmund was consulting for the winery at the time.

So what precipitated the sale of the winery? “Our financial and working partners unexpectedly retired to Wyoming last May,” said Sandy LePage. The couple was the “right arm” of the LePages, running the winery whenever they attended festivals or were otherwise away from the operation.

“We don’t have them available anymore” and it’s become more work than passion for the LePages whose adult children have not shown an interest in running the business.

Another challenge was the closing of the Waterloo Bridge last year for safety reasons. The bridge was used by over 800 cars daily and provided access to winery guests coming from Northern Virginia.

“We’ve seen a drop in foot traffic since the closing,” said, Sandy LePage. She is working with GPS firms to create new coordinates for travelers.

While the real estate listing is being marketed as a full winery, the LePages will consider offers for purchase of the residence, winery or winery equipment separately. “We are flexible” and would negotiate any portion of the property in part or whole. The equipment includes wines presses, tanks, tractors, trucks and inventory.

Interested buyers can contact Horizon Real Estate in Warrenton for further details.


Published in the September 26, 2014 edition of the Fauquier Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Galloping Grape blending leather and wine

Posted on Oct 23 2014 | By

Specialty shops are a minority of the 23 million small businesses operating nationwide.

But one such shop opened eight years ago in Warrenton and is gaining popularity with each passing year. And why? Because the saddle and wine shop, Galloping Grape, attracts a loyal group familiar to the Piedmont region: Wine loving horse people.

Kim Pinello

Kim Pinello

“I have a fantastic wine crowd and equally great saddle customer base,” said owner Kim Pinello. “A lot of the business overlaps. They come in for fly sprays and bridles and will definitely pick up a few bottles of wine.”

Pinello explains that horse folks often enjoy a glass of vino so the shop’s target audience has produced growth every year since its opening in 2006.

But is it all Fauquier County fans? No way. “More than 30 percent of my business comes from Culpeper County. A large saddle shop in Culpeper closed a few years ago and since then my Culpeper customers have increased each year. When that shop closed, all of his traffic came our way,” said a smiling Pinello.

So how does one conjure up a business model rarely seen elsewhere? “I was an accountant working in DC and the commute was a nightmare. I couldn’t do it anymore,” said Pinello. So the entrepreneur began looking for an alternate lifestyle.

She and her husband own a ten acre farm in Fauquier County with a stable of five horses. As a professional accountant she had a head for numbers and knew an option to the grinding commute was only a good idea away. Oh, and she loved wine.

“I wanted to open a saddle store—our county needed another shop—particularly one that was consignment,” said Pinello. “But I knew I needed something else to sell. Saddles don’t walk out the door every day. I wanted something that brought in the every day traffic.”

Serendipitously, an old Southern States feed store came up for lease as she ruminated on how to build a business. “I found that crummy old building and saw how we could possibly renovate it. We came up with the concept and the store name in one weekend and signed the lease on Monday,” said Pinello.

A few years ago, the store relocated to an upscale setting at 143 E. Shirley Avenue across the street from the Fauquier Horse Show grounds. Location is everything, eh?

IMG_9167On the leather side of the house there is a wide selection of saddles covering the riding interests of any equestrian. English, western, endurance and dressage saddles are offered for sale; most are stocked on consignment from the local horse set and priced to sell.

All riding-related gear is also available: riding helmets, bridles, saddle pads, sprays, and shampoos, “everything you need for your horse.” Pinello assures that most of her leather inventory is made in America.

Along side the rows of burnished leather saddles, there are over 800 selections of wine. It’s an impressive collection of high quality bottlings sure to please discriminating palates. And while the wine is competitively priced, the store’s policy is to beat or match any bottle purchased elsewhere. “We want our customers to stay here and shop for their wine, not the local grocery store,” emphasizes Pinello.IMG_9173

Free wine tastings are held each Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and all day Saturday.

Over 75 craft beer selections round out the libation portfolio. Keg beer is also sold. “We sell tons of kegs” that are likely welcomed at many a horse event.

For the cowboys, there is a humidor with over 50 hand rolled cigar selections.

With an obvious streak for creativity, Pinello also features horse and wine related art that grace the walls of the shop. “We have a variety of artwork and iron work and strive to get anything created by local artists” that fits the shop’s theme.

“Business is fantastic. It grows every year. This is by far the happiest place I can be. I love my customers and I can’t brag enough about my little shop,” said Pinello.

Great affirmation from a former road warrior who got out of her car and on to a horse to make her dreams come true.

Galloping Grape is opened 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and closed Sundays. Visit http://www.gallopinggrape.com/ for complete information on products and events.


John’s Pick of the monthIMG_9189

Roederer Estate



For the last several years, I have encouraged wine drinkers to break the mold and drink more sparkling wine. It’s not just for special occasions. It’s delicious anytime; especially in the summer months.

One can’t go wrong grabbing a bottle of this Brut (dry) sparkler at the Galloping Grape. It’s a French-owned winery located in California’s Anderson Valley.

Here’s Wine Spectator’s take on this tasty bubbly:
“Focused and vibrant, with aromas of creamy apple, cinnamon and hazelnut leading to complex, layered flavors of lemon custard, mineral and almond. The finish lingers.”
91 points.



Published in the October 2, 2014  edition of the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Beautiful Fairfield

Posted on Sep 28 2014 | By

Fauquier County manor house celebrates 200th anniversary

Virginia history is replete with scenic properties graced by memorable personages. One of the lesser known—but richly historical homes–is Fairfield, located in western Fauquier County.

There have only been 12 owners of the property since 1600; the property has not been flipped for quick profits over the ensuing centuries. Like the Commonwealth itself, stability is highly prized when it comes to Virginia legend and history.

Sunrise at Fairfield

Sunrise at Fairfield

The first owner of the property was Charles I of England, who held control over vast areas of land in the New World. In 1649, his son Charles II granted all the land between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers to Lord Culpeper and six other supporters. The grants included Fairfield.

Today, the current owner is Marriott International and the property has resized itself from hundreds of thousands of acres down to 4,200; a shadow of its former size but impressive nonetheless.

Story line
The land encompassing Fairfield is an artist’s palette of rolling pastureland. Seemingly it would have been the colonials who leveled the original dense forests to plant a variety of crops, most notably tobacco. But not so.

Centuries ago, Indian tribes of the Five Nations periodically burned off land in the area to create pasturage for deer, elk, buffalo and more. These natives were the Nation’s first land managers.

In 1608, Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame traveled the interior of Virginia to where Fairfield is located. He was the first of numerous historical figures who walked, hunted or lived on the property in the ensuing four centuries.

George Washington fox hunted on the land, “The Gray Ghost”, Confederate John Mosby, periodically resupplied his rangers there, and at times the Quartermaster General of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was headquartered on the property.

Robert Ford—“that dirty little coward that shot down Mr. Howard”—or Jesse James as he is more accurately remembered, was born in a log cabin not far from the manor house. The cabin’s stone chimney stands today as a silent reminder of the bucolic-to-violent times of the mid-to-late 1800s.

Marriott & Reagan

Marriott & Reagan

Fast forwarding to the 20th Century, presidents, governors, and statesmen were frequent guests of J. Willard Marriott. Marriott and President Reagan became fast friends and spent many weekends at the ranch horseback riding and enjoying their mutual love of the out-of-doors.

The house
The manor house at Fairfield was built in 1814 by James Markham Marshall, brother of the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall. John Marshall was the “Babe Ruth of the Supreme Court” having written or co-written over 1000 decisions.

The Marshall brothers, along with Raleigh Colston, paid $70,000 for 220,000 acres encompassing Fairfield after the Revolutionary War and divided the property into three separate ownerships with James taking possession of 80,000 acres.

The house was built in the Federal-style except for the roof. The hip roof reflects an Italian influence most likely due to the period that Marshall and his wife Hester spent in Europe. An east wing was added in the 1820s but the west wing was never built.

Bricks used in the home were a combination of ballast from ships coming from England and transported overland from Alexandria and those kilned on the property. Marriott Ranch General Manager, Lanier Cate said, “There is a huge carved out section of clay bank on the property that looks like it would have been the source to make the bricks.”

The rooms in the Manor House are twenty-five feet square, sixteen feet high with eighteen inch thick walls, making the house comfortably cool in an era predating air conditioning.

In September, the Marriott Ranch celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Fairfield manor house with a corporate celebration. Given the loving restoration devoted to the historic home, the celebration will commemorate its storied past and assured future. 


   J. Willard Marriott 

MarriottIn 1951, J. Willard Marriott and his wife Alice were seeking a getaway for the busy executive. At 53, he had already met with considerable success with more to come. The couple came upon Fairfield while driving the back roads of Fauquier County.

It was love at first gaze. Fairfield immediately reminded Marriott of his youth in rural Utah where as a young lad he herded sheep. At  age 14, his father entrusted him to take 3,000 head of sheep via railcar to the San Francisco market. The young entrepreneur never looked back.

Until he saw Fairfield.

While the landscape of pastoral Fairfield was stunning, the historic manor house was not. It had been unoccupied for over 30 years and was in severe disrepair with a badly leaking roof and the first floor serving as a grain silo. The grande dame was slowly slipping away.

But Marriott was not wearing his executive cowboy hat when he purchased the 4,200 acres and manor house. He called the property Marriott Ranch and for almost thirty years offered its hospitality to his many friends and associates. It was a family farm.

Marriott and his sons never attempted to turn the estate into a resort but have lovingly restored the historic home and maintained the property as a sheep and later cattle ranch. It’s been an investment of over a million dollars.

In the late 90s, the manor house was opened as a seven room bed and breakfast permitting the general public to enjoy its history and beauty.

Lanier Cate, general manager of the ranch says, “Fairfield is a working cattle farm and a historic home that J. Willard saved from decay and destruction.” Another owner could well have subdivided the land and razed the old home. But stewardship prevailed.

Today, Fairfield is a legacy of the Marriott family, a gift to Fauquier County and a treasure for the Nation.

Fairfield Manor House

Fairfield Manor House


Published in the Fall 2014 edition of inFauquier magazine.


Categories : HAGARTY TALES

Take a hike!

Posted on Sep 25 2014 | By

Boots ‘n Beer: Rescuing overworked men one hike at a time 

Twice a month the hard-charging owner of a Warrenton land-use consulting firm takes to the mountains with a bunch of guys in tow.

“A few hours of walking in the woods are the greatest form of stress relief I know of. It’s therapeutic and the quickest way to get out of your own head and relax,” said Jim Carson, owner of Carson/Ashley. The firm specializes in land planning, civil engineering and land surveying.

Given the moribund economy of the last several years, stress relief is in high demand among working men in Fauquier County. The proof? The five-year-old club has over 100 members. A typical hike will see 10 to 20 men navigating the trails of the Shenandoah National Park and other mountain venues.

But is it all heart pounding, sweat inducing physical labor that eases a worried mind? Not at all. Each hike is followed by a rehydration stop at a local tavern for a burger and beer. The club frequently descends on Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill to enjoy its varied selection of microbrews and tasty menu offerings.

Boots-n-Beer-Logo-Updated-e1388253792240 (1)The club’s motto states its charter succinctly: “A drinking club with a hiking problem”. Its whimsical logo depicts a pair of hiking boots, one with a mug handle and foaming beer head, and the other lying on its side in dreamy beer-induced repose.

Nobody’s taking anything serious here; except physical and mental health.

In the beginning
So how did it all start? “Over 15 years ago, my wife Kim and I would go out on mountain hikes. We laughed about how out of shape I was. I don’t think I would have gotten out on my own and started this journey if she wasn’t the type of person who loves being out in the woods,” said Carson.

Carson, 52, further explains that for years he was just, “grinding it out, building my business, paying the bills and tending to all the responsibilities and obligations of life”. He realized he wasn’t taking time out for himself. He thought lots of other men might be in the same trap.

And he was right.

After a few years of the idea incubating in his head, Carson gathered his first 10 club members and headed out to climb Mary’s Rock in the Shenandoah National Park in December 2009. Word soon spread that anyone could join the club. The only criteria? You had to be male.

In the politically correct world of today, a male-only anything tends to bring cries of outrage. But Carson stands firm. “The club allows men the freedom to be men. Guys being guys are not always what the ladies enjoy. But a non-judgmental environment builds esprit de corps and is unifying.” It’s also lots of fun.

“Truth be told, the wives are the best endorser of our club. They see their husbands more relaxed and healthy and they appreciate it,” he explains.

The ladies are welcomed participants at the club’s annual dinner held at a local restaurant or club.

Any “well-oiled” organization needs a set of by-laws to operate by. In keeping with the simple Boots ‘n Beer philosophy, there are only two:

  • No business can be conducted on an outing. Men can share what they do but no actual work is permitted.
  • All hikes must end with a post-hydration stop.

That’s it. In fact, no club-wide meetings have been conducted since its creation. Simple is as simple does.

The club conducts two hikes a month; always on a weekday to assure members book time off from work. One hike is dubbed “Pilsner” and is an easy five to seven mile jaunt. The second is called “Stout” and involves higher climbs and longer distances of eight to 12 miles.

Another key person who has contributed to club’s success is Andreas Keller, a reverse mortgage specialist based in Warrenton. Keller is the group’s official photographer and publishes a glossy, picture-filled yearbook replete with landscape views, trails scenes, and smiling men carrying day packs and hiking poles.

Keller also worked with Bob Moe, owner of Moetec, a Warrenton website design firm and a fellow club member, to fund and build the club’s website and create its Meetup page.

The enthusiastic Keller is a charter member of the club and has been on 55 of the club’s 60 hikes. “We have at our doorstep beautiful mountains, forests, streams and prepared trails. We can connect with nature while working up a good sweat. In the process you can resolve problems and come home tired and happy,” said a smiling Keller.

So it’s decision time guys. Interested in free emotional and physical therapy while having a great time? Oh, and tasting craft beers? Then visit boots ‘n beer.com and sign up today.


Jim Carson: Man on the move 

IMG_7168Jim Carson smiles. A lot. And it’s not the thoughtless smile of a man covering up a lack of interest in the person at hand.

It’s a smile—often a heartfelt laugh—that connects directly to the person he is talking to.  The man has charisma but would be first to disclaim such a trait. It’s his ability “to connect” that has enhanced his professional and personal success.

But for all of his sincerity and interest in others, it belies the heartache he has experienced in life. Within the last several years, Carson lost his six-year-old son, Devin, to leukemia; his business development manager, Les Nichols, to pancreatic cancer; and his planning department manager, Bob Counts, to a massive stroke.

And yet he still smiles. And still seeks to serve. Within a few years of his son’s death he joined Team In Training, a national fundraising organization dedicated to finding a cure for blood cancers. The organization sponsors hikes, marathons and century bike rides that task participants to raise money for cancer cures.

In the last few years, Carson has personally raised $50,390 for the organization.

He is now expanding Boots ‘n Beer to embrace charitable causes. A blood drive has already been held and other charity events will follow, perhaps Habit for Humanity, Rappahannock Rough Ride (helps fund the Fauquier and Rappahannock County free clinics) and more.

“We have a resource of over a 100 men in the club. We can use that resource for good. I would like to see a Boots ‘n Beer chapter in every city in the country. My goal is to keep spreading the word and changing lives,” said Carson.

And there’s no doubt Mr. Can Do will work hard to make it happen.


Clymb and Wyne answers Boots ‘n Beer  

So is it only the guys that have fun roaming the Blue Ridge Mountains? Of course not. A group of Fauquier County ladies got wind of what Boots ‘n Beer had created and launched their own hiking club for gals in January 2014.

It’s a diverse group of women focused on healthy living and camaraderie. The group was inspired by the men’s club but established a bit different model. The ladies hike the second Sunday of the month starting in the morning and conclude with a stop at a local winery or restaurant to rehydrate.

Leslie Keller said, “I recently joined Clymb and Wyne and have gone on the last two hikes, which were beautiful ones along rushing spring waters in the Shenandoah National Park.

“We all enjoyed hiking the trail, chatting with new friends and then wrapping up the hike with a glass of wine and a bite to eat. It was fun, happy and healthy!”

A late spring Facebook post read: “Beautiful Morning for a hike in White Oak; the falls were gorgeous! Shelly, Leslie, Gloria and Marianne enjoyed the day and topped it off with brunch at Griffin Tavern!”

Interested ladies need only visit their Facebook page Clymb and Wyne and post a message to join the club.  



Published in the Fall 2014 edition of inFauquier magazine. 

Categories : HAGARTY TALES

California wine going dry

Posted on Jul 30 2014 | By

Virginia and Golden State vineyards share mutual problem: water

As one travels through California this summer, lush vineyards are ubiquitous. But if you glance beyond the undulating rows of manicured-like vines, it’s scorched hills that dominate the views.

Paso Robles countryside

Paso Robles countryside

Drought has struck—and struck hard—in the state that produces 90 percent of all wine made in the U.S. And the driest part of its growing season lies ahead.

This writer recently spent ten days on a 1,300 mile road trip visiting with numerous winery owners and staff. The picture that emerged is unsettling and causing serious concern in every wine growing region in the state, from Temecula in the south to the Anderson Valley in the north.

Conversely, Virginia’s landscape appears almost jungle-like as spring and summer rains have vineyards producing heavy vine canopy that will demand regular pruning and spraying to turn the BB size grapes into plump, juicy bottles of wine.

In May, John Delmare, owner of Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly said, “We had a lot of rain early here this year and bud break was so late our vines have barely been growing for six weeks now. Temperatures have been cool and with the late bud break we don’t have near the canopy growing we normally would.

“But with 15 years of growing here I won’t panic until September,” he said chuckling.

Nonetheless, excess water in the form of either rain or humidity is a problem California wineries don’t have to deal with. In fact, the daily summer mantra of the Virginia weatherman, “with a chance of showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon” is seldom heard in California.

One marker for meeting the moisture challenge is the scope of spraying programs employed in the Old Dominion compared to California. Typically out West, vineyards are sprayed two to three times a season. In Virginia, 12 to 14 applications are normal and can go over 20 during a wet and humid growing season; protecting vines from fungi and mildews is paramount.

Another rainy day in Virginia

Another rainy day in Virginia

In 2011, a dry summer foretold of a stellar harvest only to have it drowned out by heavy September rains and a cool October. One nine day period in September saw 12 inches of rain fall in the Charlottesville area resulting in waterlogged grapes.

To the north, the U.S. department of Agriculture has declared the Finger Lakes wine region a disaster area after wave after wave of “polar vortexs” damaged up to 100 percent of some vineyards.

Many grape farmers will need to replant vineyards damaged by the long deep freeze that saw sustained temperatures hover between -7 to -18 degrees Fahrenheit.

The heart of winemaking is farming. Lord Amherst, commander-in-chief of the British forces in the late 1700s said, “There are three easy ways of losing money; racing is the quickest, women the most pleasant and farming the most certain.”

And it is most certain that if significant rains do not fall in California in 2015, dry wine will have an entirely new meaning for American wine lovers.

The drought
California is historically a dry state so droughts are not a new experience. Water is supplied through a complex infrastructure developed over decades. Winter rains and mountain snows fill reservoirs and irrigation ditches that drive agricultural production in normal years. But for the last seven years normal has not been normal.

Today, the entire state is officially in drought, the worst since the mid-1850s. B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California at Berkeley, believes the state may be headed for a megadrought of 200 years or more. “During the medieval period there was over a century of drought in the Southwest and California. The past repeats itself.”

Indeed, a millennium ago native tribes waited for winter rains that never arrived. The following years the wait continued until the marshes of the San Francisco Bay turned from cattails to salt grass, resulting in the loss of rich fishing grounds. The Indians packed up and left the region in search of water. Might this be the fate of the state’s winemakers?

Most scientists are reserving judgment but agree the past century has been exceptionally moist and warm in California and an extended drought could be measured in decades, if not centuries.

Bright-eyed optimists are convinced that 2015 will see the return of an El Niño and heavy rains. In fact, warm water is being observed in the depths of the Pacific Ocean now, a precursor of a rainy season. If is rises to the surface in the next several months, it could trigger an intense El Niño effect. Keep your Farmers’ Almanac handy.

With this preamble on the California water issue, slide into the back seat of the rental car as this writer and his wife head out on a wine odyssey.

Santa Ynez
Located thirty minutes north of Santa Barbara, this area is home to the Neverland Ranch, the late Michael Jackson’s colorful 3,000 acre property. But there be will no swing by to gander at the edifice. The task at hand is wine.

At Firestone Vineyards the knowledgeable guide explains the challenge of growing grapes in a desert-like environment.

“We recently planted a block of 16,000 new vines to replace ones destroyed by root rot. At $20 per vine and four years before maturity with an additional few years more before a sufficient quantity can be harvested, a good bottle of wine is expensive to produce.” “We have four different reservoirs plus two wells, enough water for about a year. We have pruned from typical four shoots down to two, focusing on quality not quantity.The drought will likely dictate an early harvest.”

At Bridlewood Estate Winery, an employee said, “In the past, we’ve had a 10 year drought cycle and old timers don’t get nervous. But with three straight years of drought everybody is now getting nervous.” The winery has two years supply of water sourced from ground wells that produce 40,000 cases of wine annually.

Two terms you hear a lot of are “dry farming” and “drip irrigation”.The former involves no watering of the vines. This is “tough love” grape farming and forces the vines to seek cooler moist soil at depths of 15 to 30 feet. It is not employed without some risk and in extreme conditions some water would likely need to be applied. The latter produces a slow drip of water through polytubing suspended about a foot above the vine’s base and is used sparingly.

Bridlewood employs drip irrigation. The winery already sources some of its grapes from outside of California, mostly from Oregon and Washington. Federal law permits up to 25 percent of wine from another state to be bottled and still labeled with the receiving state’s name. If the drought worsens, it’s a strategy an increasing number of wineries could use.

Foxen Winery is located in the rural area of Santa Ynez near the eponymous Fess Parker Winery. The landscape is palpably dry with broad vistas of rolling brown hills and fields of straw colored grasses. Extended hikes in the region would demand a day pack full of bottled water.

“Next year we will be hugely affected by the drought,” explains the tasting room host. “Wine prices could get ridiculous.” The winery does both dry and drip irrigation. “In our drip vineyards our winemaker is seeing so much fruit he is having to drop 50 per cent of it”, a strategy designed to conserve vine energy and produce deeply flavored wines. “We’ve also shorten the cordons” (the branches extending from the trunk that will produce the fruit).

The technique draws down energy demands of the vine. “Next year forecasters are predicting an El Niño that will turn everything around. We are staying as positive as we can” she said.

Before leaving Santa Ynez, a stop at the Roblar Winery elicits a telling comment from our host, “Lake Cuchuma is ridiculously dry. We’ve only had about five or six days of rain in the last year. The ocean fog does provide some moisture.” The nearby 3,100 surface acre lake is at thirty-nine percent of its capacity.

Paso Robles
Moving north and entering the county of San Luis Obispo—home to some 300 wineries—temperatures rise to the upper eighties with low humidity. It’s apparent the drought has applied brute force to the region.

An extended conversation with a long time grape grower and winemaker was as revealing as it was heartbreaking. “The big question I have this season is, ‘will my well run dry,’” said Jim Jacobsen, who along with his wife Mary Beth, have been farming fruit and grapes for over 40 years, the last 17 at his winery Doce Robles.

Jim Jacobsen Doce Robles Winery & Vineyard

Jim Jacobsen
Doce Robles Winery & Vineyard

“My well is not dry yet but I’m hearing my neighbor’s went dry recently.”  Jacobsen farms mostly red grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Barbera, Malbec and Petit Syrah. White wines don’t thrive well in the hot countryside but his Viognier was tasty.

“In 17 years, I’ve only flushed my well filters four or five times. I have really clear water. But at the end of last season, I was flushing daily because of dirt starting to come up from the bottom. I’m just hoping we make it another year,” said Jacobsen.

It’s the same story heard from wine farmers throughout the region. Vine growers on the east side of town are hurting a bit more than those on the west side nearer to the ocean, but “the long term prognosis is not good for them either.” Jacobsen’s well is 300 feet deep and he opines that some of the other wineries have deeper and larger wells to help survive the summer.

He currently is drip irrigating his 36 acres of vines over an 11 day cycle. “I can survive one year without a crop. I can’t survive four,” referring to the length of time it takes for a new vineyard to start producing some fruit to make wine. “I have never been in a situation when I didn’t have rain to grow fruit.”

Jacobson thinks the problem isn’t ultimately the lack of rain but the failure of the state to conserve its precious water sources. “If we get a wet winter, nobody worries about it. We need to build more dams,” he states.

As the visit draws to a close, his wife Mary Beth echoes the soon-to-be commonly heard refrain, “They are predicting an El Niño next year.”

As one proceeds up Highway 101, with Paso Robles fading in the rearview mirror, the landscape turns as flat as the Bonneville Salt Flats. But instead of a barren white landscape, miles of irrigated fruits and vegetables are on display. The Central Valley stretches some 450 miles long but it’s the southern half that will feel the first impact of the drought.

It is estimated the state’s agricultural economy will lose $1.7 billion this year, leaving some 14,500 farm workers without jobs all because farmers will receive one-third less irrigation water. Not only are wine drinkers nationwide going to be feel the drought’s impact, so will anyone who enjoys fruits, vegetables and nuts. Everyone will likely have to dig deeper in their wallets to enjoy this region’s normally bountiful agricultural products.

Napa and Sonoma
Moving still further north, one enters the Valhalla of wine growing in the U.S., Napa and Sonoma County. Legendary wineries abound here as do enormous amounts of money and prestige. An acre of prime Napa vineyard can exceed $300,000. Given what is at stake if the motherland were to go dry, wineries here monitor water supplies and vineyard stresses closely to assure the vines remain viable.

Ground water can be accurately measured and a vine leaf can be placed in a pressure chamber to extract stem water and determine the specific level of stress the plant is encountering. Seemingly no technical tool available is left unused to coddle the vines. At Martin Ray Winery in Sonoma, Greg Ray (no relation), is the wine club and e-commerce manager.

“The drought has not affected us too drastically. We’ll start seeing more prominent effects as get we further into the summer,” he said. The majority of the winery’s grapes are dry farmed and rely on drip irrigation only when plant stress rises. “Droughts are fantastic for the vines. They love it.” It’s true. The harder a vine struggles the higher the quality of fruit that is forthcoming. But if the stress becomes cataclysmic an entire vineyard can go down.

After a fascinating two hour tour of Jack London’s early 1900s Beauty Ranch in southern Sonoma, a visit to nearby Benzinger Family Winery was in order. The hospitality host was again knowledgeable and friendly, an almost universal experience encountered at every winery.

Lake Sonoma dam

Lake Sonoma dam

“There is voluntary rationing of water throughout the state. Our last two vintages have been great so the warehouse is well stocked to meet a shortfall, if it occurs this year. We have been dealing with the water issue for about seven years,” he explains. An early harvest is predicted because of early bud break and the vineyard is two weeks ahead of where it was last year.

The majority of water is currently retained in the soils “so we’ll let the vines go through that before adding additional water. We also do water reclamation. All the water used at the winery, such as rinsing barrels and on the crushpad, goes into a “gray” water system and from there into man-made wetlands we’ve created. We save a million gallons of water annually using these processes. We do our best to conserve, he said.”

Chateau Montelena in Napa earned its bona fides in 1976 when its 1973 Chardonnay beat the best of white French wines in the historical competition dubbed “Judgment of Paris”. Our host was Nick Rugen, a winery chef and tasting room employee.

“With our estate reds and Zinfandel we practice ‘deficient irrigation’ watering only when we have to. In January, we came close to having to do so but received rains in February and March that really saved us. Our lake was bone dry and we were expecting see a die off of some of the vines. We are now back to about 70 percent where we need to be. So it hit the reset button on the drought. In the middle of June, it will start to heat up and we typically won’t see rain again until the end of October.”

Rugen recalls back in 2008, dry weather caused brush fires further north in the state and the resulting wine was tainted by smoke that covered the vineyards. “They claimed it was from using toasted wine barrels,” he said smiling. The story points up another threat from arid conditions.

In extreme situations the winery would drop all the fruit to save the vines. With the dry farmed blocks—no polytube lines installed—truck water would be brought in to irrigate. He also emphasized if die off began they would pump all the water out their lake to save the plants. Once again, the frequently heard refrain closed out the informative visit, “Let’s hope for an El Niño next winter.”

Two other visits to highly regarded Napa wineries reinforced many of the lamentations previously heard. Mumm Napa and Frog’s Leap wineries produce acclaimed wines and are within a short distance of each other. But Mumm grows no fruit on its property and has no wells because the climate in Napa is too warm for its lineup of sparkling wines. “Grapes for our wines wouldn’t be happy in this environment. We grow our fruit a little closer to the Bay Area,” states the host.

At Frog’s Leap, a young native of Michigan, Megan Anderson, poured wine and provided knowledgeable commentary on the winery and the drought. “Our two hundred and fifty acres are dry farmed. No irrigation, no pesticides, no fertilizers. We believe in nature taking care of nature,” explains Anderson. “Our concern rises when temperatures are above 90 degrees. But the roots of our vines go 20 to 30 feet deep where the soil has more moisture and is cooler. We have no ground wells on the property.”

When really hot weather occurs, water is sprinkled on the leaves to protect the grapes and foliage from sunburn. The root stock comes from Missouri and Texas and has been acclimated to hot weather since birth. “Our grapes are use to being hot and thirsty.”

It also helps that the winery is near the Napa River. And while it is located where the river is more “Goose Creek” than “Potomac” is does provide for a higher ground water table than other locations in the valley.

When pressed about a doomsday scenario, Anderson said, “We’ve never had drought and climate change like this before. We have no idea what will happen. Yes, we would have to do something but we still would not want to irrigate,” she said.

The visit crystallized the passion and knowledge brought to bear in producing fine wine. But it also underscored the subliminal fear and concern that accompanies the possible destruction of a life’s work.

Rounding out the Napa tour was a visit to the iconic Joseph Phelps Winery. An interesting footnote is that Phelps brought the Viognier grape to California from France back in the early 1980s thinking it could become the new chardonnay. But the state’s terroir was not conducive to expressing the best the grape had to offer. In 1991, Dennis Horton, owner of Horton Vineyards in Gordonsville, planted the grape on Virginia soil. The rest is wine history as the berry fell in love with the Old Dominion—hey, Virginia is for lovers—and it became the state’s signature white varietal.

The host at Phelps said dry farming is employed but not exclusively. “”We make the right decision when we need to. We use drip during the bloom and flowering growing period and during veraison (when the fruit turns golden or purple in August). A major expansion of the winery’s hospitality rooms are in progress and for the next 10 months tastings are held on a patio and temporary buildings below the main facility.

But sitting on the patio and focusing on the nearby vines a quiet drip, drip, drip was observed as the vines received an H2O transfusion. It was 87 degrees without a breath of air under a cloudless sky. July and August awaits.

Anderson Valley
Swinging back onto Highway 101 and leaving the Napa Valley behind, the winemobile headed for the last of the regions to be explored, the Anderson Valley.

Anderson Valley

Anderson Valley

The level landscape slowly gave way to hill country and the feeling of dryness was tangible even from inside the air conditioned car. Brown and straw-colored hills with muted green trees predominate here. Leaving Highway 101 and heading west on a twisting two lane road, the stark beauty further reinforced the image of extreme dry country.

Our primary destination was Roederer Estate, owned by the French champagne producer Louis Roederer. Buzz Busse was the hospitably host, a quiet spoken and knowledge retiree with an air of professionalism. A former engineer perhaps?

“The late spring rains saved us but we are still way behind. For those who believe in climate change we are experiencing it. This is the first year we’ve had really bad conditions,” he said.

The winery has 612 acres under vine and produces 110,000 cases annually, predominately sparklers. “Traditionally we receive 40 inches of rain a year but 60 to 80 inches is not unusual. But in the last five years if we got 30 inches we are jumping for joy. It’s expected to be closer to 20 this year.” And some of that rain did not fall when needed.

“In the last couple of years we’ve had rains in early October which played havoc with the grape harvest. Most of the entrapped water in our ponds is needed for frost protection” so can’t be used for it for heavy irrigation. Only light sprinkle irrigation is used during hot weather to protect the vines and fruit from sunburn. The winery does have wells on the property and they haven’t gone dry yet.

“We are keeping our fingers crossed. We’re not sure what’s going to happen.” This year we did long pruning. Normally we prune to two shoots but we went to four. If we do get frost, it will affect the outer shoots so we build in a scenario that will provide for fresh, younger shoots that will produce fruit. But that also raises the cost of production to have to double prune such large acreage,” he said.

Busse’s fellow host opined that she has mixed feelings about several recently purchased wind fans used to augment water misting to protect from frost. “Which is the lesser of the two evils? Using the environmentally unfriendly propane-powered fans or the water? “We also need to save water for the valley people. The locals say ‘Well, you shouldn’t being doing the fruit protection. You are hurting people. You should be like other farmers and let the drought run it course and have a bad year.’ The vines don’t need water to survive. They need water to produce fruit,” she states.

The discussion points up an interesting dilemma. When a natural resource becomes scarce, who has more entitlement to dwindling supplies?

Leaving the winery in the early afternoon, the azure sky and still air sends the temperature to 97 degrees. The valley and its people have a long, hot summer ahead.

The Virginia wine industry has much to be thankful for, notwithstanding its often overly moist environment.

As the wine journey comes to a close, thoughts drift to car a rental return and boarding passes. But the predominate emotions are concern and melancholy. Nature is once again impacting humans and their productive lives.

May the California wine industry live long and prosper.


                                    Out of crisis opportunity?

If California wine production were to drop precipitously, would it create an opportunity for Virginia to become a major wine player?

In the short term, the limiting factor would be the amount of Virginia wine available for national distribution. The Old Dominion produces 511,000 cases annually. While it sounds substantial, it’s a mere drop in the wine glass of California’s production of 214 million cases.

But given the rising quality of Virginia wine, could the state attract investors to dramatically expand vineyard acreage if the Golden State’s wine bottle were to eventually run dry? The Nation’s annual vinous thirst—close to four billion bottles—is seemingly too great for investors not to jump in quickly to meet demand.

But think again.

Brian Roeder

Brian Roeder

Brian Roeder, owner of Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane, said, “I don’t see a source of fruit coming out of Virginia to make something like that happen. Demand here is already outstripping supply.” Roeder thinks it is at least a decade-long problem that cannot be resolved quickly.

“I don’t see any conceivable way we could see the required dramatic investment. And on top of that, we still have our own problems with rain, with spraying, with bugs. We are going to see a whole series of environmental demands placed on us if California’s past experience is the rule.”

Roeder thinks it would be a formidable challenge for an investor to amass small vineyard parcels in Virginia and manage them for large scale wine production. “It would take a billionaire to do something like that,” he said.

What Roeder does think is feasible is the creation of wine factories that would aggregate finished wine and grapes from Europe, South America and the East Coast to produce a large-scale industry to meet demand from a multi-decade drought in California.

“We have the talent, the physical location and the access to European markets that California doesn’t have,” he said.

He also firmly believes the Commonwealth can become an agriculture-tourism wine destination. Virginia has it all with, “its beauty, its easy to reach location and the wealth of the region. We can become America’s Wine Country,” he said.


Published in the 2014 summer edition of the Piedmont Business Journal.

Chateau Montelena

Chateau Montelena

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Guests encouraged to relax and savor Virginia

Here’s an unlikely question: Have you ever relaxed in a 3,500 square foot living room?

If not, then head down to Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison. Its expansive tasting room is one of the largest—and most comfortable—in the Old Dominion.

Comfy couches, oversized chairs, a fireplace and artfully placed tables produce an atmosphere conducive to lingering over a wide selection of Virginia wines. Management won’t encourage you to drink up and move on. Your task here is to settle in and sip.

“We want you to come in and relax. Here you are able to truly taste through a variety of wines and contemplate the nuances that each presents,” said General Manger Dave Kostelnik. “So maybe it’s a two or three hour trip to Early Mountain rather than the traditional winery visit.”

Early Mountain Vineyards

Early Mountain Vineyards

The success of that goal is reflected in the numbers. “We’ve seen attendance increase 30 percent over last year. It’s a big, comfortable but very elegant tasting room,” said Kostelnik.

The overall winery itself is an expansive 19,000 square foot mansion-like home that sits on 300 acres dedicated to all things wine; 27 acres are under vine.

A separate production facility covers 28,000 square feet, producing 4,500 cases annually. It’s best to suspend any previous ideas of what a typical Virginia winery looks like when visiting Early Mountain. The place is huge.

What further separates the winery from the rest of the state’s industry is wines from across Virginia are served in addition to its own lineup. Swing by Early Mountain and they’ll include “visits” to other top producers. It’s more than just a twofer; up to a dozen other wines from top producers are available daily.

“Quality has increased in Virginia. It’s been dramatic. We wanted to find a way to make a contribution to Virginia wine,” said Kostelnik. “We are constantly scouring the state looking for wines we feel are the best representations of Virginia; unique wines, wines of place.

“That’s why we are serving wines in flights. A flight allows you to compare and contrast and integrate some cheese and charcuterie and see how they interact together,” explains Kostelnik.

Of course, if you already know what you want, it’s available by the glass or bottle.

The vision of an over-the-top winery showcasing the state’s industry belongs to Steve and Jean Case. Steve Case was founder of AOL and today is chairman and CEO of Revolution, a Washington, D.C. based investment firm.

His wife Jean has taken the lead in turning the winery vision into reality. The Cases were impressed with Virginia’s wine ascent and had an opportunity to purchase the former Sweeley Estate Winery in 2011. After a six month renovation, the facility opened as Early Mountain in 2012.

More than wine
In keeping with its theme to entertain, the winery hosts live music Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. “Friday evenings the tasting room is absolutely full,” says Kostelnik, which speaks to the success of creating a club-like atmosphere for both locals and out-of-towners.

Tasting room nook

Tasting room nook

A consulting chef from DC, Jenn Crovato, oversees the kitchen menu that serves soups, sandwiches and similar light fare.

Other Virginia made products are also available including ham, charcuterie and artisan cheeses; products that go nicely with a glass of wine.

The facility includes a large main hall for special events and weddings. Over forty weddings a year are hosted at the winery and include the use of a cottage on the property, primarily for use by the bride in getting ready for the ceremony. It’s also where the Cases stay when visiting and is available for rental for romantic getaways.

With the summer months upon us, there is a patio that seats forty and a terrace area with picnic tables and picturesque views of the vineyards. “The goal is to allow you to come out, relax, enjoy the scenery, have something to eat, bring the kids and dog, and appreciate the wine,” says Kostelnik.

Early Mountain Vineyards is open six days a week and closed on Tuesdays. For information on upcoming events visit: http://earlymountain.com/


John’s Pick of the Month

“For The Love Of Whites” wine flight


Rather than select a single bottling this month, you be the expert and evaluate the white flight selections and make the call yourself. The flight includes a sparkler, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay and a white blend.

The flight concept allows you to engage in the “compare and contrast” fun of wine evaluation. After you’ve picked a favorite—and they’re all good—your purchase decision will have been made. Cheers!

Published in the July 24, 2014 edition of the Culpeper Times.


Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Bealeton firm emphasizes “feel good” performance 

“I’m a people person. Home remodeling and restoration demands close interface with your clients and I enjoy that. You become part of a client’s life when you take on a project. In this business a couple’s home comes in second only behind their family.”

Tom & Dawn Wooten

Tom & Dawn Wotten

While that’s not a mission statement, it could pass for one coming from Tom Wotton, who along with his wife Dawn, are owners of Home Sweet Home Improvements. “We develop a personal relationship with each client. We are not just a builder or contractor,” said Wotton.

Founded in 1991, the custom remodeling and restoration firm has steadily grown in good times and bad. Today, the firm averages 25 projects a year, ranging in cost from several hundred dollars for a simple design fee up to a $2 million dollar restoration effort.

The company focuses on construction management, additions, whole home remodels and historic renovations throughout the Northern Piedmont area. Typical of most businesses in the last seven years, the recession has had its impact. “We see a ‘pumping’ effect in the industry. At times business surges and then it drops off.”

While the recession officially ended in June, 2009 that has not been the Wottons experience. “The recession hit us really hard but 2008 was one of our best years; by 2010 business had dropped by 50 percent. Today, we are back to where we were 15 years ago,” said Wotton explaining the slowly improving economic conditions.

An important benchmark for projecting industry trends is Harvard’s Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity, or LIRA. The model is designed to estimate national homeowner spending on improvements for the current and subsequent three quarters.

The LIRA projects a strong growth in 2014, with gains in home improvement spending projected to be in the double digits for the first half of the year and just under 10 percent by the third quarter. Wotton’s firm is well positioned to take advantage of the favorable forecast.

In the beginning
Tom Wotton grew up in a military family and experienced numerous moves as a youth, much of it in Europe. When he was 15, he landed a job as a laborer for a historic restoration project and became fascinated with the construction industry. That early job led to his earning a degree in Construction Management and later obtaining a Class A Contractor License.

He is also a certified Master Plumber and Graduate Remodeler with the National Association of Home Builders. The man has his bona fides.

His early career was spent working for a residential home builder. As is often the case, the builder was not interested in pursuing remodeling work and handed off such projects to the up and coming Wotton.

Twenty-three years ago, he had sufficient remodeling experience and business leads to justify creating his own company. In 2004, his wife Dawn joined the firm bringing her degree in Business Administration and nine years experience as a senior budget analyst for a U.S. Government contractor to bear on the company’s success.

Dawn Wotton serves as the firm’s Office and Business Manager and oversees marketing, payroll, bookkeeping and finances. The firm has five full-time employees.

Company culture
As the company’s business grew, the essence of what they wanted to provide to clients crystallized. Today, it’s embodied in the “feel good” relationship they seek to establish with every customer.

“When we chose the name of the firm, we did not want to use the word ‘contractor’ or ‘builder’ because we felt we were more than that. We wanted our projects to make a customer feel good. We work harder at that than we do pounding nails, cleaning up and providing safety on the job,” says Wotton.

He shares a story that embodies his firm’s vision: “Recently, we received a phone call from a former client from a year ago. She said she was sitting in her kitchen and wanted us to know, ‘She still loved it!’ and that she missed our crew and wanted to know how everyone was doing. That’s the kind of experience we want to create for every customer.

“It was also a feel good moment for us,” said Wotton smiling.

To reinforce the success they have achieved, a visit to the firm’s website is revealing. Under the testimonial link are several comments on past projects:

“Your work at Boxwood Winery over the past few years has always been excellent. You are knowledgeable, prompt and always reasonable in your charges. We have never been disappointed and will rely on you in the future.”  J.K. Cooke (Middleburg)

“Excellent! I felt that you guys care about all of your projects. You are prompt to answer/return calls and deal with any issues that arise. I have never seen such care taken to where the nails were placed in the trim. It was very nice to work with you all.”  Shana S. (Warrenton)

“Polite, qualified workers, willing to listen, change, and come up with ideas to have a great outcome! Thank you for taking so much time to help me work through so many ideas and red tape.  It was so worth the wait, what a beautiful job!” L. Jones (Marshall)

“Very good! The employees of HSH are exceptionally nice to work with. There was never any question that you cared about us and our project. There is a sense that this house was built with loving hands!”  Cammie F. (Jeffersonton)

When former customers freely share their experiences about job performance, it employs the most traditional way of building new business.

While a valued reputation and word of mouth advertising are proven ways to build revenues, it often is not sufficient to advance growth. The Wottons generate about 60 percent of their business from repeat customers and referrals. To augment that trade they have undertaken other strategies.

One technique is seminars. Tom Wotton has held two of these in the past year and plans to continue the practice. He assembled six cabinet companies to sponsor the presentations that are held at a vendor’s office. Potential customers are registered for the seminar and Wotton covers the ins and outs of kitchen and bathroom remodeling, both from a do-it-yourself perspective to hiring a professional.

Another promising avenue for lead generation is the website “Houzz”. Houzz is a clever child of the digital age. It provides people with information they need to improve their homes; from decorating a room to building a McMansion.

The site offers builders the opportunity to upload photos of their work and showcase past projects to potential new buyers. “We posted photos of two of our projects and use the site to create ideas for prospects before we meet with them. It’s also a good sales tool. We recently had 800 views within a week,” says Wotton.

Print advertising rounds out their marketing efforts.

In discussing the scope and timeframes for completing specific jobs, Wotton emphasizes he doesn’t use high pressure sale pitches. “”It’s their home and it’s done their way.” Projects are often segmented into the three stages: material selection, purchase of supplies and final installation. “We must be flexible. Typically projects last from three weeks to several months, depending on the scope of the work to be done.”

One interesting segment of the business is people who have recently purchased a new home but want to make changes or additions. “Buyers tell us they were only able to get so many options with their new home and want to further customize it. That’s where our conversation with them begins,” says Wotton.

Historical renovations and restorations take remodeling to another level. Often such projects are tied to a family’s needs. The projects can be sensitive since older homes embody memories of times and people from yesteryear. The Piedmont area has a substantial number of these homes given its rich history dating to the founding of the country. “Family ties to the past and nostalgia are important considerations when undertaking such projects,” said Wotton.

A critical marker of success for Home Sweet Home Improvements is the cadre of trade partners it has developed. “Our partners are important and have been with us a long time. Our plumbers, electricians, designers, architects, and material suppliers share our culture.

“All of us want to provide a project that is on time and on budget and deliver a safe, clean, worry-free home investment. At the end of the day we want it to be a good experience for our customers,” emphasizes Wotton.

In the age of mass production, it’s reassuring to know homeowners in the Piedmont region have a local firm that is committed to providing hand-crafted home remodeling in the best sense of the tradition.

For a full description of the firm’s services, estimates, financing and more visit http://www.homesweethomeimprovements.com/


Published in the 2014 Summer edition of the Piedmont Business Journal.            

Categories : HAGARTY TALES

Winemaker Reagan back in the cellar

Posted on Jul 24 2014 | By

Experienced vintner returns to making magic with fermented grapes

Andy Reagan, multiple gold medal winner, is again crafting Virginia wines since his departure from Jefferson Vineyards in December 2012.

Reagan chose two avenues for his reappearance on the Old Dominion winemaking scene. First, he joined forces with Mike Shapiro, a budding venture capitalist, to produce a new line of wines. He’s also been given the keys to the cellar of a small but respected Virginia winery.

During his hiatus, Reagan collaborated with Mike Shapiro to create Roundabout Cellars. Given the entry level costs of a million dollars or more to start a winery, the two entrepreneurs took a “round about” way of producing quality wine at an affordable price without cashing in their 401(k)s.

“I always had a passion for wine and when I learned Andy was looking for opportunities, I thought it was a way to try a new approach to selling wine,” said Shapiro. The wines are only available online since there is no brick and mortar winery.

It’s reality wine retailed from a virtual tasting room.

Reagan, well connected in the industry, arranged for the purchase of finished wines from a few top Virginia wineries. He then utilized cellar space at an established winery and employed his blending skills to create five different cuveés.

Lest one thinks blending is a minor part of winemaking, Google Michel Rolland and learn how the French “Flying Winemaker” gained international fame by consulting to wineries worldwide. He achieved much of his success by employing his educated palate to taste and then blend wines of exceptional character.

Both Rolland and Reagan believe blending embodies the old chestnut that “the sum is greater than the individual parts”.

To confirm the quality of Reagan’s wines, the 2013 Governor’s Cup awarded three silvers to his first vintage and the Virginia Wine Of The Month Club snatched up 150 cases for its December 2013 selection.

Oenophiles interested in tasting the product of a talented winemaker need only visit www.roundaboutcellars.com and keystroke their way to a purchase.

Cellar redux
With over twenty years experience as a winemaker—yes, he started in his teens—Reagan was soon off on another project. After working on his Roundabout Cellars brand, he found himself creating wines at a conventional winery.

Old House Vineyards in Culpeper is where Reagan is now nurturing some ten different varietals. The winery is sited on an old alfalfa farm and draws wine tasters to its bucolic setting graced by a small lake, pavilion and wood burning pizza oven situated on a large stone patio.

The winery’s newest claim will be wines crafted by a top vintner with his best years ahead of him.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Laurel Mills Store reopens

Posted on Jul 10 2014 | By

In June, the Laurel Mills Store in Castleton reopened its doors after a four month hiatus between ownerships. Local residents couldn’t be happier.

Pete & Brenda MacMurray

Pete & Brenda MacMurray

The new owners, Pete and Brenda MacMurray, are familiar with the Piedmont region having renovated and reinvigorated the Orlean Market in Fauquier County in 2008. The serial entrepreneurs are pleased to be back in Virginia after operating a B&B and gift shop in New Bern, N.C. for the last three years.

Pete McMurray is a creative businessman with a host of successful companies on his resume’. Among his more unique ventures was the development of one of the first eCommerce businesses in the country, called PC Flowers. Created in 1989, the business sold flowers nationwide via the embryonic Internet.

Later, he shifted gears and purchased and operated a major marina located near the Outer Banks in North Carolina. His early career involved stints with IBM and Boeing Computer Services. His wife, Brenda, operated a grocery store in Manassas in the 1990s.

The energetic couple has breathed life back into the historical village store that was built in 1877. An old woolen mill next to the store manufactured confederate uniforms during the Civil War.

The MacMurrays restored the pine flooring and exposed the original brick walls to showcase goods typically found in a small grocery store. And more.

By the end of July, wine—both Virginia and international—and several craft and popular beers will be featured along with fresh sandwiches, soups and salads.

Former longtime co-owner of the store, Mary Frances Fannon, says, “I am thrilled to death to have the store back in operation.”

As are a host of unique customers.

“All the kids from Castleton Festival come in. They are really, really nice kids; musicians, singers, costume designers, and more. Who would have thought we’d have an internationally acclaimed music festival in Rappahannock County? We have people from all over the world come in the store now,” says Pete MacMurray.

And that includes local residents, many who have enjoyed successful careers elsewhere and seek the beauty and quiet of Rappahannock County as counterpoint to their busy lives.

One such legendary cohort is the “Sunday Morning Front Porch Group” that has been meeting for years at the store for coffee, pastries and banter. If one was to stumble onto this crowd, they’d be chatting with consultants, political figures, high-priced lawyers, former CEOs, and judges just to mention a few of the diverse occupations.

Long time Front Porch member Richard Viguerie says, “The Laurel Mills Store has changed but it hasn’t. You’ll find the same warm smile and friendly greeting from Brenda and Pete that we’ve grown accustomed to over the years from Mary Frances Fannon, then Marion Sharp.”

Viguerie explains that as one walks onto the front porch and up to the heavy wooden door, it looks like the mom and pop store he’s known for decades. “But when you step inside—wow—you feel as if you’ve been transported to a charming boutique shop in Greenwich Village.

“Brenda and Pete have clearly made a long term commitment to our part of beautiful Rappahannock County. I, and the other front porch regulars, welcome and thank them.”

Brenda MacMurray is doubly pleased to be co-managing the store since she is again able to visit nearby family members.

The Laurel Mills Store is opened seven days a week in the summer from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sundays 8 to 5 p.m.

But locals know that if an item is needed during off-hours they can, “Simply knock on the front door and we’ll let them in since we live on the second floor,” says a smiling Pete MacMurray.

Rappahannock hospitality continues in fine form with the rebirth of the Laurel Mills Store.


Published in the July 10, 2014 edition of the Rappahannock News.

Laurel Mills Store

Laurel Mills Store

Categories : HAGARTY TALES