On occasion, I write on subjects far afield from my typical interests. The following is a comprehensive look at the future of smaller housing as the economy shifts into recovery mode. The article was published in the spring edition of the Piedmont Business Journal.
Beginning in 2007, the U.S. experienced the greatest housing collapse since the Great Depression, posting a nationwide 30 percent drop in housing prices. After six years under that shadow, it now appears there is light at the end the tunnel – and it’s not a freight train.
Last month, the Fiserv Case-Shiller index projected home prices to grow 3.7 percent between the third quarter of this year and the third quarter of 2014. Further, the firm said the trends point to a return to a normal housing market over the next five years, with prices projected to grow at an annualized rate of 3.3 percent from the third quarter of 2012 to the third quarter of 2017. That’s bright news, given the wrenching six years of withered home sales nationally.
Assuming a sustained housing recovery continues, will the industry leap back into the construction of large homes? Or will the rebound signal a reset of the type and location of the next generation’s housing needs?
Preliminary signals are mixed, but buyers might want to adjust their view of what constitutes the American Dream. And builders need to be prepared to respond to an emerging market if demand for smaller homes on smaller lots, in fact, materializes.
Historically, small houses have been the norm in the Unites States. In 1950, the average home was 983 square feet. But as prosperity accelerated in the latter half of the 20th century, homes grew.
The Census Bureau reports the average U.S. home rose to 2,480 square feet in 2011, up from 2,392 square feet the previous year and seemed to defy the inherent economies of owing a smaller home in a tough economy.
One industry observer, Jack McCabe, CEO of Florida-based McCabe Research and Consulting, told Bloomberg last July that large home sales were rebounding. “It’s about opportunity, it’s about interest rates. And it’s about short memories,” he said.
A similar market reaction occurs when gas prices drop for an extended period; sales of larger vehicles begin to accelerate. Pain, indeed, has no memory.
What housing patterns are emerging in Prince William, Fauquier and Culpeper counties? And, as importantly, should local governments be developing policies that drive the recovering market toward smaller residential dwellings for the overall benefits of their residents?
Concerned Culpeper Citizens was formed in 2001 to assess county growth planning. CCC publishes its findings and opinions for public information and testifies before public boards and commissions.
Perry Cabot, director of operations for the organization, sees a changing mentality in home buyers. “Today’s fluctuating fuel costs, younger couples opting to live closer to work, boomerang children moving in with parents for extended periods and older parents opting to live with their children, are driving demand for different housing options,” he said.
“In some cases, these forces are changing the demand from larger homes to smaller ones and to condos, townhouses and multi-family construction in our region. Even a shift of 10 percent can affect tens of thousands of units. Distance, location and density are driving this new demand. But I would not yet call the movement a surge.”
His observations mirror the reports of other experts. The real estate research firm Trulia found that in 2010 the median “ideal home size” for Americans had declined to 2,100 square feet. More than a third of its survey respondents said their ideal preference was below 2,000 square feet.
Yet a sustained pattern of building homes of this size is not easily discernible in the Piedmont. Even a modest economic recovery in the years ahead could stall any significant shift to smaller housing.
Keller Williams real estate agent Brian Hagarty (Disclaimer: Brian is my son) agrees that buyers are downsizing, but that price is the No. 1 motivator. Older, smaller homes, even those in need of some renovations, are attracting buyers.
“It’s driven by economics,” he said. “I don’t see the market wanting smaller homes per se, but [buyers] do want to reduce mortgages and taxes. A secondary driver is the desire to shorten commuting time.
“The combined benefits of smaller mortgage payments, taxes and faster commutes are the motivators we are seeing a lot in Prince William County,” he said. “We’re hearing a lot of people say, ‘We don’t want to struggle with our payments.’”
Tom Campbell with Long & Foster in Fauquier County agrees. “People are downsizing for multiple reasons, including first-time buyers who do not want to mortgage their lifestyle for a large home,” Campbell said. “Buyers are foregoing formal living rooms and extra bedrooms when their salaries are better spent on more modest dwellings that offer a better lifestyle.”
It’s not just young home buyers. As the Baby Boom generation — people born between 1946 and 1964 — heads into its later years, there will be an avalanche of older Americans seeking smaller homes and alternatives to conventional assisted-living facilities .
The economic impact from the wave of retirees will put pressure on entitlement programs and health care, to be sure, but housing will also be affected. Consider that the first baby boomers reached retirement age in 2011. There are about 76 million adults in this cohort representing 29 percent of the U.S. population.
The dialogue on smaller homes began in earnest in 1997 with publication of “The Not So Big House” by Sarah Susanka. The book sold nearly half a million copies and is widely recognized as the essential treatise on home design emphasizing “build-better-not-bigger.” Susanka, an architect, believes today’s homes place far too much emphasis on square footage rather than lifestyle needs.
She wrote on making the kitchen the focal point of a home and creating the illusion of space through the creative use of storage, lighting and furniture arrangement. The objective of such design is to make a smaller living space a comfortable and inviting alternative to large and often under-utilized conventional homes.
Another important book, “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World,” written by Ross Chapin and published in 2011, highlights the move toward smaller homes gathered around common, park-like settings.
Buyers of such homes are often young families, empty-nesters and single homeowners — major population segments inclined to seek homes on a scale that matches their needs.
Such living arrangements foster closer social bonding among residents, their adherents say, enhancing a sense of community.
After decades of suburban sprawl, there is an emerging demographic which is ready to turn elsewhere for its housing needs. With natural resources shrinking, the green movement on the ascent and people feeling increasingly isolated from one another, the smaller-home movement offers a more rewarding, budget-conscious lifestyle enhanced by deeper connections with neighbors.
Jim Carson, president of Carson/Ashley, a land-use consulting and engineering firm located in Warrenton, agrees with the need for a new paradigm in housing. “Natural land-planning standards for the last 50 years have been that we segregate uses,” he said in the January 2013 issue of a local lifestyle magazine. “We live here, we work there, we shop over there, so we’re always in our cars and there’s no community. Mixed-use communities are walkable, live-work type of environments which is what most land planners these days are saying is ideal.”
Just as fine dining blossoms when an experienced chef is in the kitchen, so smaller housing becomes a reality when home builders are incentivized to build them. For builders, finding the profit in smaller structures has been the challenge. “The last two years have been as tough as I’ve seen it in home construction,” said Larry Aylor, a custom home builder in Culpeper.
Aylor’s 39-year career has included construction of very large homes, and he said that while he’s “been labeled as ‘he only does the big ones’, today I’m into remodeling, repairs, and whatever business I can get. I’ll even remodel your garage.”
From his perspective, building smaller homes is clearly profitable. There are many elements to making money in homes with shrunken floor space. One key is getting buyers qualified for a loan by reining in their desire for more living space.
“I do think the market is pushing smaller homes, but it’s all about affordability and price point,” Aylor said. “In Culpeper, the housing market is starting to clear of foreclosures, and it’s getting better every day.”
Retirees are a customer segment Aylor sees as holding great promise. “They are moving down from their 3,500-square-foot-plus homes and looking for little jewels that are one level, on smaller lots and easy to care for,” he said. “But I do not carry an inventory of building lots to always meet that need.”
Finding land is a challenge for small-home builders. Moreover, deed restrictions and covenants in existing subdivisions can prohibit smaller homes because of minimum square foot requirements.
Local governments’ role
Given the mixed demand for smaller housing, local governments play an important role in either fostering or discouraging the trend, particularly in view of the housing industry’s modest interest in building such units.
Kim Johnson, zoning administrator for Fauquier County, underscores builders’ general lack of interest, saying, “We haven’t seen developers coming in wanting to build smaller homes. Typically, it’s the individual property owner who is seeking a special exception, such as an auxiliary dwelling unit up to 800 square feet for an aging parent or in-law.”
With respect to pocket neighborhoods — homes fronting on a common area without street frontage — Johnson said county zoning does permit such dwellings when clustered on smaller sites in some planned residential districts. But there are still no recognizable pocket neighborhoods in Fauquier County.
Where an applicant wanting to build such a neighborhood runs into problems is with regulations that “require homes to have frontage on a public street,” Johnson said — a costly expense for builders considering such an option, and one that likely makes building a community of smaller homes economically unattractive, perhaps even economically unfeasible.
“We are editing our Transportation Design Manual and asking ourselves do we always need frontage on a public street?” Johnson noted when she was interviewed last year. Amending the current regulation might open the opportunity for builders to build smaller homes and still make sufficient profit to make the project attractive.
In summing up the slow pace of small housing projects in the county, Johnson said that “Part of the reason people move to Fauquier is the idea of owning a nice piece of land with a house. I know the smaller home movement is happening around the country, but I don’t know if it’s come to Fauquier County yet.
“But certain segments of our population would be well served if smaller homes were available,” she mused. “Young people who grew up here and who’d like to stay but can’t afford the bigger homes are a good example of one of those groups.”
Prince William Zoning Administrator Nick Evers said “Generally, I think there is an interest in smaller homes here. People are downsizing. I’m not sure what percentage overall. But homes are getting smaller and developers are looking to put as many homes as they can on a development parcel.”
Perhaps one reason for the interest is population density. While Prince William County is slightly smaller than Culpeper County and only about half as big as Fauquier, its population is nearly nine times that of Culpeper and seven times Fauquier’s population.
The shrinking availability of land close to work centers and arterial highways may be driving greater housing density in Prince William.
Concerning Pocket Neighborhoods, Evers said, “We have cluster development standards. We have what we call ‘pipestem lots’ that allow a builder to place homes off private drives, enabling builders to maximize the number of building sites in a given subdivision.”
However, Ray Utz, the county’s long-range division chief, cautions that any such development as a pocket neighborhood would have to meet zoning requirements. Those requirements often include the deal killer – minimum road frontage. “My perception is everyone needs to get a driveway to their house,” Utz said.
“Generally, there is some sort of vehicular access to the front of a residence. Prince William offers quite a bit of flexibility in allowing private road access to some, or in certain cases, all of the homes in a development. We usually encourage and support a range of housing types.”
From here to where?
In assessing the movement toward smaller housing in the tri-county area, a mixed picture emerges. While demand exists, it does not appear to have reached the critical mass that would drive builders to respond.
Until they can discern a sustained movement away from the traditional-size single-family home and townhouse, they are likely to pursue business as usual.
It can be argued that local government policy could be the strongest catalyst for such change, and that government should take the lead — especially to the benefit of those who are ill-equipped to buy or don’t need or want a traditional-sized home.
Additional benefits include housing that helps preserve open space and the natural beauty of a region, does not place undue demands on taxpayers for infrastructure, and enhances community and overall lifestyle. Increasingly, that includes people who cannot find affordable housing, such as middle-income families, individuals and retirees.
Except for the retired, these are people who often hold jobs in local essential services – trade, manufacturing and government — and are forced into long commutes.
While local government often has little control over many factors that affect housing cost and size, that does not mean it is powerless.
In setting local land-use and development regulations, specifically in the areas of land acquisition, site development and location, local planning commissions and boards of supervisors hold the key to change.
It’s not the purpose of this review to address in-depth actions local governing bodies might undertake. Nonetheless, there are some ideas on how local leaders could respond to the movement for smaller housing that needs its support and regulatory action.
• Comprehensive Plan. The comprehensive plan sets out the broad outlines of the community’s plans and goals governing land use. While comprehensive plans establish the broad policies and goals which guide the land development process, a community’s zoning and subdivision regulations provide the detailed means for achieving those goals.
• Zoning regulations. Zoning ordinances govern such matters as density — the number of housing units per acre of land — lot sizes, setbacks, frontage requirements, and the placement and mix of residential, commercial, and industrial uses.
Density standards in particular have been identified as having a direct relationship to land values. Land values, in turn, are a central component of housing costs.
According to a study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the cost of raw land can range from 8 to 25 percent of the cost of a new housing unit, depending upon the local market.
Where density standards are unduly restrictive, land prices per housing unit are likely to be high.
Reducing land costs through increased density is generally the largest single factor in achieving smaller and more affordable homes.
• Subdivision Regulations. Subdivision regulations set standards for street widths and construction, sidewalks, parking, drainage and other site-development requirements.
Site planning and development represent major areas of potential cost savings for housing developers. These costs may make up 10 to 20 percent of the cost of a new single-family home.
A number of communities are reviewing the development standards in their subdivision ordinances to determine where they can be modified to enhance housing affordability.
Successful approaches to affordable housing require more efficient utilization of land than has often characterized American home-building practices in the past.
Many towns and cities are employing new approaches to encourage development of smaller housing, either by providing incentives to developers to include such housing in new developments, or by giving developers greater flexibility in design and site development, or a combination of both.
Other approaches seek to make more efficient use of existing housing resources by removing regulatory barriers or by encouraging the adaptive reuse of existing buildings.
Upzoning, or higher use application, is a basic and effective strategy for promoting rational house size and affordability.
It involves the selective rezoning of residential land to allow greater density, as measured by the number of housing units that can be placed on a parcel of land. Higher density can include both multi-family and single-family housing.
Municipalities that allow higher densities may also enact special design requirements to ensure that new higher-density developments are compatible with existing housing in the community.
A single-family home on a half-acre lot uses 12.5 times as much land per household as a garden apartment of 25 units per acre.
At the extreme, a steel-and-concrete high-rise of 80 units per acre holds 400 times as many households per acre as a five-acre lot development of single-family homes.
Many communities have developed programs that offer developers “density bonuses” in exchange for the inclusion of smaller units within a proposed residential project. A density bonus allows a developer to build more units within a project than would otherwise be permitted under normal density limits. Both zoning and subdivision regulations can be modified to allow density bonuses.
Density bonus programs must be designed on the basis of a thorough understanding of the real estate market to determine feasibility and to develop appropriate regulations. If current zoning allows enough density to satisfy current market demand, developers may have no interest in using a density bonus.
Additional strategies include, performance/impact zoning, planned unit development, cluster subdivisions, small-lot subdivisions, infill development, adaptive reuse, mixed-use development, office-housing linkage, impact fee exceptions and a host of other approaches.
Perhaps none other than the 14th-century Italian Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci summed up the ultimate marker of smaller housing: ”Small rooms or dwellings discipline the mind, large ones weaken it.”
It will be interesting to see what size homes Americans will embrace as the economy strengthens over the next few years.
Not so fast
Not everyone is sold on the idea that smaller homes are the wave of the future.
Warrenton Long & Foster Realtor Charles Ebbets, who works closely with builders of larger homes in FauquierCounty, sees little indication the housing industry will scale back the size of units it intends to build as the economy picks up steam.
“There is pent-up demand for housing in the 2,500- to 3,500-square-foot range,” he said. “There is almost no inventory of these existing homes. The demand for housing this year — both old and new — will go crazy, but it will be for the conventional-sized single-family home that we’ve seen in the past.”
To underscore his point, Ebbets lamented his lack of progress in launching a development in Warrenton within walking distance of the Warrenton Aquatic and Recreation Facility (WARF) that would feature seventeen 2,000-square-foot homes for buyers over 55 years old.
His market research demonstrated the demand was strong, but he could not find a single builder who was interested in the project. “One of the reasons the builders cited was the lengthy time it takes to get a site plan approved by the county,” Ebbets said.
But builders and Realtors should do well this year, Ebbets predicts. “This year and next will be a slam dunk,” he said. “The housing industry is going to go crazy; prices will jump 25 percent to 35 percent over today’s prices. No spec houses have been built in the last three years. Demand will be great. The young married couple with an infant six years ago now has two growing children. They will be looking to move further out to a larger home, especially with the attractive interest rates available.”
The larger builders are still focused on the conventional size family home. The $325,000 to $400,000 homes are their bread and butter, Ebbets said. “What I don’t see is much interest in the McMansions with more than 4,500 square feet,” he said.
Last August, Toll Brothers, the No. 1 luxury home builder in the U.S., reported its highest revenue since the recession, sending its shares to a five-year high. In Prince William County, Toll Brothers Group President for Virginia John Elcano confirmed the market for larger homes in his Dominion Valley project is making a strong comeback.
“We think the American Dream is still the American Dream and buyers want large, luxury homes,” Elcano said. “Now that interest rates are at an all-time low, people can afford a lot more house. Around the Beltway, we are seeing prices growing 5 percent to 11 percent this year, and that creates equity sellers can use to move up.”
He cites Toll Brothers experience with its Villages Collection of homes that are 2,500 square feet. “When we first introduced that collection, they were smaller homes, but we found buyers wanted more space, so we made them larger.”
As a result, Elcano does not think there is a growing market for smaller homes and reinforces the premise that as the economy grows, the memory of hard times will fade.
“Buyers have been sitting on the sidelines waiting for the equity in their homes to rebound,” he said. “In December, we had one of our best months in years selling our estate homes that range in size from 4,000 square feet to 6,000 square feet. When people are starting their families, they want room; a bedroom for every child, and, hopefully, a bathroom for every one of their children. The market for large homes seems to have returned.”
Jim Epstein is chairman of his family’s investment firm based in D.C. and has been involved in a number of diverse ventures, including a project called Blue Ridge Produce that markets locally grown produce from artesinal farms. That venture, still being planned at the time, was featured in Piedmont Business Journal in the Winter 2011 issue.
In 1978, his father purchased 125 acres in northern Culpeper County known as Clevenger’s Corner. Epstein saw an opportunity to develop the property using “new urbanism,” design concepts that came to the fore in the 1980s and which promote mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities containing a range of housing and business options. “I made an effort to use those concepts at Clevenger’s Corner,” he said. “My efforts didn’t get very far. There were all kinds of issues. Then and now, people aren’t ready for something new and different.”
Last July, Epstein pulled his application for Clevenger’s Corner, saying he would return to the project in six months. As this was being written in January, the county had not heard from the applicant. It could well be he’s waiting for a stronger housing market to emerge in Culpeper County before proceeding. Epstein successfully developed BelmontBay in Woodbridge, a 325-acre community that will ultimately have 1,600 homes.
The town center is 80 acres of condos and businesses built by Epstein and embodying the principles of new urbanism. Other builders constructed the community’s remaining conventional single-family homes. “People love living there,” he said.
His project reinforces the idea there are successful alternatives to sprawling subdivisions with large homes where the automobile rules. “There is definitely a growing interest in smaller, more compact houses,” Epstein said.
In Prince William, long-range planning chief Ray Utz cited “two over two” housing as an example, perhaps, of a contrary signal for the housing market. These are four-story townhouses with two separate entrances. One of the residents would access his or her home by climbing two flights of stairs.
“While we have such homes in the county, some builders who thought it was a good product later found out the market had moved away from the concept,” Utz said. “Those builders came back asking for modifications to allow other types of housing.”
Last November, The Washington Post wrote about a high-tech cottage dubbed the “Granny Pod” and marketed by a Blacksburg company called MedCottage that could revolutionize the way Americans take care of mom and dad in the later stages of their lives. Several other companies sell similar “auxiliary dwelling units.”
The prefabricated mini-homes are placed on existing home sites by crane; utilities are connected directly to the primary residence. The Pods are designed with a kitchenette, bedroom and bathroom and monitor the inhabitant’s vital signs, filter contaminants from the air and permit communication with the main house.
The average cost of an assisted-living facility is about $45,000 a year, and full nursing-home care costs more than $83,000 annually; prefabricated Pod housing, ranging in size from 288 to 605 square feet and costing up to $125,000, including installation, is an attractive option to a traditional elder-care facility.
Three years ago, Virginia passed legislation requiring all localities to allow auxiliary dwelling units for relatives requiring temporary assistance. However, the units cannot remain in place after that family no longer needs the dwelling.
And that, some observers believe, kills any chance that such structures will make many inroads. It is, they say, simply too expensive to bring in the small structures, then take them out. If they could stay in for other family members, perhaps….
At the extreme end of small housing concepts is the tiny house. One firm marketing such building plans is the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company based in Santa Rosa, CA. It exemplifies the smallest of small homes that are available.
The firm sells design plans for homes ranging in size from 50 square feet – -that’s not a typo — up to 847 square feet. It does not offer turnkey finished dwellings, but rather a host of plans a construction firm or individual would use to build a house, typically for $20,000 to $50,000.
The smallest of the houses are crafted to look like traditional homes but Lilliputian in size and built on a trailer bed similar to a mobile home. They range in size up to 150 square feet. The plans are sold under its “House To Go” category.
The next level of homes is dubbed “Cottages” and offers floor plans up to 847 square feet. They are not mobile and a typical reaction on seeing such a home is, “How cute!” The exterior designs mimic classic home styles, including front porches.
Jay Shafer founded Tumbleweed in 2000 and has sold more than 1,500 sets of plans so don’t look for subdivisions of his tiny homes sprouting up anytime soon.
While these are radical living options for singles and adventuresome couples, such micro-housing offers relatively low-cost home ownership in lieu of renting.
A group of tiny home advocates calling themselves Boneyard Studios erected three tiny homes in an empty lot off an alley in Washington, D.C. late last year to demonstrate an urban affordable housing alternative.
“Although the diminutive homes are made of high-quality materials, they are priced for a flagging economy,” The Washington Post reported. “They sell for…less than the down payment on a two-bedroom condo in a trendy D.C. neighborhood.”
As with more traditional smaller homes, local government has a role to play if these housing options are going to get a foothold in the Piedmont.
Divide and conquer
Piedmont Business Journal interviewed Crissy and Daniel Southard of J&D Handyman Services for another article in this issue. More than handy, both Southards have Class A building licenses and do, indeed, build some homes from the ground up.
During our interview, the Southards noted, in passing, that McMansions are still popular in the Piedmont, though oftentimes for reasons that have changed substantially since their original construction.
“McMansions are holding their own because parents are now living with the kids,” Crissy Southard said. “Five, six bedrooms is not uncommon – people need them because so many more of these homes are housing multiple generations.”
Many of those families, likely, would consider making changes to the structures themselves to make living together more comfortable. Many, likely, would like to divide their McMansion, to duplex or even triplex the building. If so, they better be prepared to hoe a long, tough row.
In Fauquier, that would “typically require a special exception and the home needs to be on a larger site,” Zoning Administrator Kim Johnson said. The general consensus is that builders don’t want to get involved in such projects because at least some of them perceive it’s a lengthy process to get special exceptions approved in the county.
“Over the last five years, we have had two or three controversial applications that took a very long time,” Johnson said. “But, on average, they don’t take long at all. The majority of applications hit the mark within the 90-day process. It may be the perception that the process in lengthy, but the record doesn’t reflect it.”
In Prince William, Ray Utz, the county’s long-range division chief, also views duplexing as problematic.
“We don’t allow more than one dwelling unit per lot,” he said. “To turn a single-family home into a duplex, you would need to subdivide the property. You would have to be in a situation that allowed land subdividing and that would be unlikely. It would also involve creating multiple drain fields and other issues,” he said.
Another alternative which doesn’t seem to be moving forward in the PBJ readership counties has to do with allowing the construction of “backyard cottages” in already existing neighborhoods. “In many cities, growing populations are putting a stress on existing housing options,” apartment therapy.com noted in an article two years ago.
“Instead of building new condos and apartments, one creative solution is to increase the density of existing single-family neighborhoods by allowing ‘backyard cottages.’ These small dwelling units can be rented out for supplemental income or serve as a living space for extended family. (Some homeowners are even deciding to downsize to the cottage and rent out the primary home).
“Cities like Seattle have recently changed their zoning code to allow these detached accessory dwelling units (nicknamed “DADU’s”) and local architects and homeowners have been eager to explore the possibilities.
“In addition to the their small size and urban settings,” the article pointed out, “many of these examples also boast sustainable features like rainwater catchment, super insulation and the use of simple and durable materials.”
It is interesting to note that some of the most fashionable streets in Warrenton and Culpeper feature large, older homes, many of which have “backyard cottages” that do nothing if not increase the appeal of the property.
“We really have extremely liberal accessory dwelling unit [regulations],” Fauquier Zoning Administrator Kim Johnson told Piedmont Business Journal last year, though liberal is in the eyes of the beholder.
“Almost anybody can put a second house, for family members, or even an apartment, a small apartment up to 600 square feet, or even a larger apartment in some cases, on their property,” she said, “if they have the room for it and they can meet setbacks and can get the sewer and water and all those issues resolved.”
There are opportunities, she noted. There are also a lot of restrictions.
Build an efficiency apartment in your home, for instance, and “you can have only two people living in it, and it can only be so big, and, in the case of an efficiency apartment that’s open to anybody, not just family, it has to be incorporated above a garage or other existing building, or it could be in a basement or be part of the house,” Johnson said.A free-standing backyard cottage must be occupied by a family member.
And if that family member should die or move away? “The planning commission is looking at that,” Johnson said.
As winter draws to a close its farewell to a loving friend
Gazing into her magical depths transfixes me. Night after cold and dreary night she comforts me. Her warmth and charm infuse our living room with a presence. She never speaks accept to murmur assurances that peace prevails. And now, she begins to fade as the days grow longer and the sun gains strength.
Until we meet again next fall, I will soon bid farewell to my beloved wood burning fireplace.
Fire. Perhaps only the sound of a gurgling creek holds such hypnotic power over man. The fossil record dates fire to 470 million years ago; well before man appeared on the planet. Archaeological evidence points to man’s mastery over fire some 400,000 years ago. Capturing and controlling fire enabled man to assume his position as the dominate force among all living things.
Through the centuries fire embedded itself in our psyche. Our Stone Age ancestors’ greatest fear was the loss of its fire source. Earliest man captured a flickering flame thrown down by a bolt of lighting. Cradling and lovingly protecting this miracle from the heavens was central to his survival. The warmth and protection afforded by the flame is seemingly hard wired into our DNA.
But today, man’s proximity to fire is far removed. Fossil fuels provide most of the energy needed to drive the modern world. Direct connection to fire is remote for most of us; more often associated with pollution and burning buildings than comfort.
And yet the lure remains. As I sit in my living room and watch my newly lit wood fire gain strength, it generates a feeling of security and peace. I have often reflected that fire is a real presence, as if an old friend were joining our company and comforting us with her warmth and ever changing landscape of hot coals and burning logs. I cast back 400,000 years and understand the powerful link between the dependence on light and heat to man’s existence in a harsh world.
When we first purchased our home twelve years ago, we had a faux gas burning fireplace installed. It bore a close resemblance to the real thing but was a cold and indifferent companion. Hour after hour it burned with the boring sameness of a rotating drum-like photograph. All glitz but no character. Monotonous.
Fortunately, six years ago we discovered an out of work master bricklayer who offered to build the real deal at an attractive price. It was designed to accept a wood burning insert stove with a variable speed blower fan, maximizing the heat produced to reduce our propane furnace fuel costs.
Securing a local wood cutter to keep us supplied with split wood was later augmented by white oak slab wood delivered from a nearby mill. It made the entire unit a cost saving proposition; not dramatic, but nonetheless cheaper that our previous heating costs.
So it is with mixed feelings I embrace the coming spring. The winter has been long and dreary and the brown-drab forests and fields a one dimensional landscape. Spring with its lush greens, yellows and purples will soon be upon us.
But my old flame will steal away with the coming warmth and vivid colors.
Till next fall, adieu.
Vintner earned hundreds of medals during tenure
As 2012 came to a close, so did Andy Reagan’s seven year stint at Jefferson Vineyards in Charlottesville. Last year’s wines are still in barrel and tank but Reagan will not be bottling them.
“Let’s say I had a difference of opinion with the owners coupled with a desire to build my own brand. After twenty years in the industry I’m looking forward to creating my own vision of Virginia wine,” says Reagan.
The man will have a challenge to equal and exceed the wines he produced at the historic site on the outskirts of C’ville. Italian winemaker and industrialist Fillipo Mazzei planted grapes on the winery’s grounds in 1774, with the help of Thomas Jefferson who invested in the new venture.
Last year Wine Spectator observed, “Jefferson winery produces 12 wines from 25 acres and has one of the region’s most consistent track records.” Similar accolades poured in from around the state and nation since Reagan took control of the cellar in 2005.
During his time at Jefferson, Reagan’s emphasis on quality wine resulted in more than a doubling of production and an increase in net profits of 250%. He credits his multiple roles as General Manager, vineyard manager and winemaker to his success.
Reagan is now looking for both a site and financing to open his own winery which will be called AJUDE Wine Company. Jude is Reagan’s middle name.
“To succeed in this business you need to produce quality wine at a great location. I intend to stay in the Charlottesville region because it’s home to some top wineries and has the best winegrowing land in the state. Being near two or more quality establishments is key to a successful venture,” he emphasizes.
Reagan underscores his success will be achieved by starting small and performing most of the work himself. Major investments and large annual case production can often lead to over supply and the inability to sell a warehouse full of wine. Reagan’s first year production will be 500 cases with an ultimate goal of 2,000 cases annually, numbers that are clearly in the boutique winery category.
The winemaker has written a business plan and identified possible properties to purchase but securing financing is his primary goal; not an easy task in a tough economy. While his preference is to obtain a full loan for the venture, he is also open to investors bankrolling his dream. “I’ll talk with anyone interested in producing limited quantities of very high end wines,” he says.
His intent is to pursue varietals that he built his reputation on: Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Petit Verdot.
Not only has Jefferson Vineyards recently lost its winemaker but Rappahannock Cellars, Boxwood, Chrysalis, and Ingleside vintners have also moved on for various reasons. The early months of winter are prime time for a change of winemakers. The past vintage’s wines are sleeping safely in the cellar and its months before the next harvest will commence.
Reagan asks any readers who may have an interest in becoming part of his vision, or know someone who is, to contact this writer at Hagarty-on-wine.com.
Moon shining brightly on legal & illegal distilling
In 2005, there were some 50 craft distilleries in the US. Today, 250 are in operation and ten years hence it’s projected there will be over 1,000 nationwide.
Craft distilleries generally produce less than 100,000 gallons a year; often much less. By comparison, the handful of major distilleries can distill 100,000 gallons a day. The $63 billion distilled spirits industry is dominated by the major producers. Small distilleries generate less than 1 percent of sales.
On the amateur side, some industry observers believe there are over 50,000 home nano-distillers who are operating without a license; not a risk-free endeavor for scoring a few bottles of liquor considering the severe penalties for firing up an unregistered still.
Here in Virginia, there are seventeen holders of distilling licenses, eleven of which are operating craft distilleries with more on the way. In 2012 alone, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control issued 12 new distillery licenses; eleven of them for manufacturers seeking to produce less than 5,000 gallons.
So what’s driving the resurgence in booze?
The demand for hand-crafted, artisanal beverages and the creative urge to produce such libations, coupled with the reduction of licensing fees to operate smaller distilleries. The cost of obtaining a legal license in Virginia is modest; $450 for producing less than 5,000 gallons annually.
The days of moonshining in mountain hideaways may be fading just as urban hobbyists and professional distillers are gaining traction in the world of upscale liquid refreshments.
In the beginning
The distillation of beer and wine dates to the 8th century when a Muslim alchemist named Geber developed the alembic still and observed that heated wine from the vessel released a flammable vapor that he described as “of little use, but of great importance to science.” Little did he know of its future employment as a libation.
Then again, his religion would ultimately forbid the consumption of alcohol even if he had been aware of its “medicinal” qualities. But mankind soon learned of alcohol’s use as an inebriate. Less than a century later, the poet Abu Nuwas observed a wine that “has the color of rain-water but is as hot inside the ribs as a burning firebrand.”
Moonshine had arrived. And with it a host of descriptive monikers such as white lighting, ruckus juice, hillbilly pop, panther’s breath, jump steady, mule kick and more.
The process of distillation migrated to America when the Scotch-Irish began arriving around 1717, driven by their thirst for freedom, land ownership, and the making and drinking of whiskey.
Distilling also was an economic necessity, enabling a farmer to convert any surplus corn crop into a lighter weight liquid easily deliverable to market via mule trains. Twenty-four bushels of corn could be converted into two eight-gallon kegs of whiskey. Whiskey farming enabled the backwoods men to buy nails, sugar, coffee and other much needed necessities.
These hardy pioneers peacefully distilled until 1791 when the Federal government implemented an excise tax on whiskey. The frontiersmen wrath erupted in the form of the Whiskey Rebellion as 5,000 hot-tempered home distillers descended on Pittsburgh to torch the town. The city fathers dissuaded the violence with wagon loads of whiskey, dried venison, bear meat, hams and poultry. In 1794, George Washington in command of 13,000 troops persuaded the rebels to forgo their cause without any loss of life.
With implementation of the excise tax, thousands of men and their families began migrating deeper into the mountainous regions of Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky and Georgia to escape the prying eyes of the revenue men. The stereotypical legend of the mountain moonshiner was born.
On the homefront
The growth of professional distilling can be understood in the context of creating a business and lifestyle centered on the production of an artisanal product. But why would home distillers risk the penalties of the law to make hard alcohol?
It’s useful to consider the background of making alcoholic drinks hearthside. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the law permitted the making of up to 200 gallons of wine per household. Home winemaking has a long and peaceful track record.
Home brewing was not legalized until 1979. Since the law’s passage, the hobby has exploded. Today, there’s an estimated one million beer lovers who brew at least once a year. The essence of beer making is the mashing of grain, brewing the wort and fermenting the liquid into beer. Forty years ago, there were only a small number of craft breweries. As home brewers learned the art, it was inevitable some of them would consider doing it professionally.
As a result, there are currently 2,200 craft breweries in the US. The legalization of the hobby gave birth to a new industry. A similar situation is unfolding as home and craft brewers pursue both illegal and legal distilling; the important difference is individually the former is typically producing five gallons or less and the latter 3,000 gallons or more.
An integral part of brewing is mashing—steeping crushed grain in hot water to release fermentable sugars. It’s also a necessary process in distilling. To a degree, the home—and more importantly the craft brewery phenomenon—is driving an increase in hard alcohol production.
Nano-distillers are able to fly under the radar because selling their product is not in their “business plan”. Home distillers often eschew the moonshiner tag, largely considering it an insult. Their only goal is to enjoy crafting a beverage in extremely limited qualities, often as few as 3 or 4 bottles at a time.
As one home distiller of wine explained, “I purchased a small stove top distiller in Portugal 15 years ago. Since then, I’ve distilled wine into brandy more than fifty times and aged it in a 5 liter oak cask. As it’s consumed, I distill a new batch. And truthfully, while my brandy is good I can buy higher quality stuff. The fun is in the doing.”
The fun may also be in the romance of breaking the law, if only on a modest scale.
While home distillation of a bottle of alcohol seems innocent enough, both federal law and the Virginia ABC takes a decidedly different view. In response to an inquiry to the ABC, their response read:
Producing ANY amount of a distilled spirit (even a single bottle for one’s own consumption) is a Class 6 felony with a penalty of 1-5 years imprisonment or jail up to 12 months and up to a $2500 fine, either or both. Simply possessing a still or distilling apparatus without a license from the ABC is a Class 1 misdemeanor, if convicted.
The penalties are clear so caution is advised. But in reality, budgetary constraints and the priority on more serious offenses likely keeps the ABC focused on more pressing concerns. It reports it has not received complaints involving nano-distilling but if made aware of such a violation it would investigate and determine if prosecution was necessary.
The ABC also posits that illegal alcohol manufacturing is a public safety issue. One can’t quibble with that view given the tales of rotgut whiskey poisoning consumers. On the production side, exploding stills can have lethal consequences.
However, New Zealand legalized home distilling in 1996 and research indicates minimal negative impact from the law’s passage. On the positive side, sales of legal liquor actually rose, apparently due in part to the hobbyists taking a greater interest in commercial distilling versus their amateur endeavors.
As for the traditional moonshine trade in Virginia, in 1941, the ABC Division of Enforcement seized an all-time high of 1,771 illegal stills. In 2011, a collaborative four-day air and ground operation between the ABC and Virginia State Police resulted in the discovery and destruction of just 25 inactive but operational stills in Franklin, Pittsylvania and Carroll counties. Clearly things have settled down since the heyday of the moonshiners.
Franklin County is legendary for its moonshining industry. The 2012 movie Lawless was based on a book called The Wettest County in the World and takes place in Franklin. The Discovery Channel reality show Moonshiners is also filmed somewhere in the region. The ABC states no booze is actually being made during the show’s filming and if it was attempted, they would take action to shut it down.
Surfing the internet is a quick way to get the pulse on any endeavor. Google “moonshine” and you’ll get over 16 million results. Sites will include equipment sales, recipes, books, videos and yes, even sources for purchasing legal shine. Anyone tempted to engage in the pursuit will have no trouble finding out how to do so.
What you won’t find are sites selling illegal liquor. Commercial moonshining may be fading but the elusive practioners are not resorting to marketing to boost sales. They don’t have to.
Since Prohibition, moonshine has declined in quality in pursuit of the fast buck. Grain is seldom used to create the potions. Sugar and water are often the majority ingredients employed and result in an inferior drink frequently sold to suppliers of “nip houses”. These establishments are located in poorer neighborhoods where patrons can buy a nip for a dollar or two.
Old Dominion shines
Virginia is home to eleven distilleries; six of which are located in the Virginia Piedmont.
Critics’ reviews of the libations have generally been positive. One assessment of Wasmund’s Single Malt Whiskey reads: Very complex fruit, smoke and barley notes. Imagine a young Islay whisky with apple, cherry and hardwood smoke. Finish is warm and bracing.
Or, a review of the Catoctin Creek Distilling Company enthused: The result is a collection of high quality, handcrafted, small-batch spirits, including the poplar Rye, a four-month aged 100 percent rye whiskey.
Acclaim will accelerate as more Virginia distilleries open their doors and its distillers’ craftsmanship grows. For as Mark Twain said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”
For additional information on the state’s distilleries, visit these establishments online:
1. A Smith Bowman Distillery
2. Catoctin Creek Distilling Company
3. Chesapeake Bay Distillery
Virginia Beach, VA
4. Cirrus Vodka
5. Copper Fox Distillery
6. George Washington’s Distillery
7. Great Dismal Distillery
8. Laird & Company
9. Reservior Distillery
11. The Virginia Distillery
As time moves on so does one’s outlook
Three years ago, I was asked by the editor of my local paper to pen a monthly article on wine. She knew of my involvement in the Virginia wine industry and thought a lifestyle column on the subject would be of interest to her readers. I had never written commercially and embraced the offer; today, I have written for numerous state newspapers and magazines.
Almost simultaneous to my first columns, a friend suggested I create a website—which he offered to build—to archive my work and share with a larger audience. To date, I have posted 151 stories, short and long, focused mostly on wine.
But a feeling began emerging as I approached my thirty-six month of blogging. I began to run out of steam. I found it difficult to plow ground I had covered before. Yes, new Virginia wineries were opening almost every week and interesting owners and winemakers still made for fertile editorial ground.
Subject matter was not the issue. Ebbing passion was.
As I would hover over my keyboard, my mind would increasingly drift to other subject matter. Here and there I began to contribute articles for publication unrelated to wine. I knew it was time to evolve. This post launches that shift.
One subject I found intriguing was homebrewing. In 1979, it became legal to brew beer at home (legal home winemaking dates to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.) Craft beer shares many of the same components of boutique wines. The variety is endless; and the aromas, tastes and food pairing possibilities offer enjoyment similar to wine.
In the wine industry, a common refrain heard at harvest time is, “It takes a lot of beer to make great wine,”referring to the beverage of choice for many hard working cellar employees. It is estimated there are one million homebrewers in the US today. I’ve written on the evolution of craft brewing.
But beer is just one of many interests. I am not shifting from wine to a beer centric theme. I will explore the people, places and events of the Old Dominion and most subject matter—except politics—will be fair game. And yes, I will continue to write on wine whenever an interesting story attracts me.
For those who have followed my writing, I thank you and ask that you continue to drop by from time to time to see what’s on my mind. To all readers, I suggest if there is a story that you believe has merit, let me know.
A blank Word document now sits before me. I can’t wait to get started.
Owner of Vinosity wine shop succeeds in tough economy
Some of the best business advice Kim Kelly ever received was also a compliment.
She was taking a wine tasting course in Georgetown when a fellow student suggested she work for the wine distribution firm where he was employed. He told her she had a good palate, “You should really consider applying for a job. I think you’d be great.”
“I had never done direct sales before and didn’t consider myself a wine expert. But the firm I was working for was going out of business so I said, ‘what the heck,’ and applied for the job. They hired me,” Kelly says. The new job turned out to be the springboard to a great career.
Today, Kelly is the proprietor of Vinosity, a popular wine shop in Culpeper and living in the Virginia Piedmont.
In 1990, Kelly worked for AARP in DC in its membership development office. A fellow worker decided to start her own firm focused on selling discounted services to women. She asked Kelly to join her. As with many startup firms, success was elusive and the underfunded enterprise eventually went out of business. But Kelly says, “It was a great experience because I was part of a new business and got in on the ground floor. I learned a lot.
“Making sure you’re setting realistic expectations and goals and managing the business is key. The company burned through a lot of money not realizing how quickly it goes. It gave me a good understanding of what it takes to make a business go.”
In 2000, building on what she learned in both direct marketing and the failed startup, she accepted the wine job offer and applied her palate skills and business acumen to becoming a successful wine sales rep. For eight years she was employed by a small distribution firm in Northern Virginia. The company’s portfolio included about 300 wines from boutique producers around the world; by comparison most major wine distribution firms have a “book” of 3,000 to 5,000 producers.
Her accounts were restaurants and wine shops. But she was selling high quality esoteric wines that most of her clients had never heard of. “I learned I had to be prepared. I became knowledgeable about my producers so I could tell their story. It was exciting but incredibly more challenging to convince someone to buy wine that they had never heard of and knew nothing about.
“I also researched my clients businesses. Doing your homework and being prepared are critical. It’s how you build respect and sales in this business,” Kelly emphasizes.
Part of her research involved an analysis of each account’s wine inventory, looking for opportunities to place her distinct wines where they would offer greater depth to an account’s portfolio.
“Overall I think consistency was the critical component of my success. I always arrived at appointments on time. I did my homework, researching both my wines and my customer’s needs. I knew each of my shops and restaurants business profile. I knew the palates of the managers and owners and what type of wines to offer them. I really was looking to see where the holes were and offering unique selections to fill the gap. It was fun and rewarding and led to my next career move,” says Kelly.
In 2005, Kelly and her husband moved to Madison,Virginia. The couple had been renting a house near White Oak Canyon for weekend getaways. “We both loved the country and were looking for a way to make a permanent move to a rural area. The traffic and congestion in Northern Virginia can wear you down. My husband telecommutes so we began thinking about relocating,” she says.
When the lease on their mountain hideaway was not renewed, it set the stage for the purchase of their home in Madison. Kelly quit her job in wine distribution and for six months acted as general contractor for their home’s renovation and expansion. “At first, I was ecstatic at not having to work. But after the house restoration was done I wanted to go back to work,” she recalls.
Serendipitously, her former employer asked in she could again cover The Inn at Little Washington. “The Inn was an important client and they had been unable to find a wine rep to cover it. I agreed to do it and to also build a customer base in the Culpeper to Charlottesville area. Within three years I was servicing some 30 new accounts. But the job involved a lot of driving. I was ready to move on again,” she says smiling.
In 2008, the former Culpeper wine shop Chateau du Reaux came up for sale. The owner was retiring and the small shop offered an opportunity for Kelly to transition to wine store owner. “The shop was perfect for me. It was small enough for me to get my hands around the inventory and located at an ideal location on Davis Street. We opened in the middle of the recession and I threw myself into building the business,” she says.
And build it she did. Within three years she had outgrown the small shop and relocated to larger quarters diagonally across the street on Davis Street. The doors of Vinosity opened in November, 2011. The business has grown 15% annually since 2008 through one of the most intractable recessions in recent memory.
“All of my previous business experience paid off when I opened Vinosity. I had learned how to build inventory—don’t go crazy—and how to keep your funds in control,” she says. Kelly also knew what to provide customers. Today, the wine shop offers more than 500 different selections, almost twice her original inventory. Some 200 of her offerings are priced at $15 or less.
The shop also features nearly 100 beer selections, a host of artisanal cheeses sliced to order, and a humidor of hand rolled cigars. Wine tastings are held twice a week on Fridays and Saturdays.
“I am very proud of what I’ve accomplished and super thrilled with the growth we’ve experienced. But the best part has been getting to know the community. It’s been an integral part of our success. Our core customers are local and are our biggest cheerleaders. Getting to know them and their palates and making wine recommendations has really been fun,” says Kelly.
Community: Kelly is a member of the Board of Directors of Culpeper Renaissance Inc. CRI promotes Culpeper’s downtown Virginia Main Street Program. She also serves as co-chair for Taste of Culpeper, an annual wine, food and crafts festival held every October.
Insider Information:“My advice to women in business is the same as for men. Know your customers. Be consistent. Be reliable. Do your research. Work hard. The basics are really the key to success. Learn what your customers want and then provide it.
“When customers come to trust you and your knowledge success will follow.”
Published in the Fall 2012 edition of the Piedmont Business Journal.
Early reports point to fruitful vintage
On August 25, I received an email from my wine juice supplier in Charlottesville: viognier and chard to you next week.
That was my cue to convert my basement family room into a fermentation farm. It was time to start making wine again.
Late August is a bit ahead of previous white harvests but there’s been a trend in the recent past for early ripening fruit in the Old Dominion. This is especially true this year given the sweltering July heat.
Word from winemakers around the state echo my experience. Doug Fabbioli, owner of Fabbioli Cellars in Loudoun County, says, “Things are early and moving along well. Chard came in from Charlottesville two weeks ago; Viognier is coming in as we speak.
“I see Merlot coming off next week if the moisture from Isaac does not mess us up too much.” The tropical storm dumped much needed rain in the Midwest but generally avoided Virginia. Doug’s Merlot must be pleased.
Fabbiolo also opines that, “I am hoping to get some separation between varieties so we can press one grape off the skins without holding up harvest on the next grapes going into the fermenter.” Simultaneous ripening of multiple varietals can be a headache for winemakers.
Too much fruit coming in too fast with too little capacity makes for a cranky vintner; not to mention the endless hours of physical labor spent on the crush pad. Harvest is the most demanding time of the year for winery workers and a blitzkrieg harvest is hyper-exhausting.
Rick Tagg, winemaker at Barrel Oak Winery in Fauquier County, says, “I am excited about our Chardonnay; the fruit is clean and I anticipate a nice yield—four to five tons. This is the most uncertain time of the year when all the hard work we do to grow great wine comes to fruition. We need a little more time to get the grapes in while they are not soaking wet.”
Heavy rains in 2011 reduced the quality of the red harvest. Too much water swells the berries reducing sugar levels and creating opportunities for black rot and other unwelcome fungi.
Tagg goes on to say, “Things always look great this time of year. Let’s all hope they continue to look good for the next two months. It helps if I don’t check the weather forecast every 15 minutes.”
As for Hagarty Cellars, my email alert to pickup both Viognier and Chardonnay was a bit premature. The Viognier did come in and was beautiful at 23 Brix—or 23 percent sugar level—and decent pH and acidity. I am hopeful I can duplicate my 2011 Viognier. It was one of the best renditions of that grape I have created in the past eight years.
Conversely, the Chardonnay harvest did not materialize. An unusual dump of six inches of rain unrelated to Isaac slowed the maturing fruit. But today, I received word it has arrived at the winery. I will be in C’ville tomorrow morning with four empty pails in tow.
Meanwhile, my Viognier is bubbling along nicely. The five six-gallon pails are fermenting slowly to help retain aromatics and palate flavors. I keep the nascent wine at about sixty degrees by immersing each pail in an insulated tub of cold water. Ice and blocks of Blue Ice motors my refrigeration units. The big boys use glycol jacketed stainless steel tanks to achieve even cooler fermentation temperatures.
This vintage I will trim back production given my bumper crop of fruit last year. I will produce about 300 bottles of white and a somewhat lesser amount of reds for a total of 45 cases of wine. I will pick up the slack in wine production by continuing to pursue my new hobby of home brewing.
Do I have a problem or what?
Statute likely to be challenged
On July 12, the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors passed a controversial ordinance regulating the hours of operation and the type and number of events that can be held at the county’s 26 wineries. The public hearing saw 53 people speak in support or opposition to the proposed law. It takes effect January 1, 2013, assuming there are no challenges.
But that might be a bad assumption.
It seems many of the proponents and adversaries of the law aren’t happy with the legislation. The chances it will be reconsidered by the county either voluntarily or by law suit appear to be good.
Three players with strong interest in the ordinance shared their views on the issue.
Jim Law Law is winemaker and owner of Linden Vineyards and one of the most respected vintners on the East Coast. His support for the ordinance runs counter to most of the other county wineries. Moreover, his vocal endorsement of the legislation at the final hearing strongly disappointed his fellow winery owners who felt his record was clear and speaking publicly was unnecessary and harmful to the industry.
His take on the reaction is philosophical. “I’ve not really heard much since the hearing. I’m not plugged into the blog thing. People tell me some things but I’m just mostly out in the vineyard and don’t follow the issue. This is the fourth time I’ve spoken at the hearings so my position was nothing new to those who know where I stand.
“Many of my neighbors and concerned citizens tell me Linden is an ideal winery. When I hear the ordinance is going to put wineries out of business, I think it’s ridiculous. Some people say I held such events in my early years and don’t appreciate where the newer wineries are coming from. It’s true. I did hold a few events in the early nineties but soon stopped it.
“One time I had a jazz band performing in my wine cellar when they started playing Jimi Hendrix. I knew then that events would change the nature of my winery and I mostly stopped them. I did some after that but they were related to wine education. I even wrote an article on my position several years ago.
“I think the ordinance is good zoning and the Board is being unfairly bashed. The beauty of this countryside is attributed to good zoning. We don’t have houses scattered everywhere and businesses located helter-skelter. The law takes a very thoughtful approach and the supervisors really took their time in passing it. They probably dragged it out more than they should have,” Law states.
John Richardson practices law in DC and owns a 100-plus acre cattle farm in Happy Valley near Delaplane. He has followed the winery issue for several years. He underscores that he speaks as an individual but many of his views mirror those of the 400 or so citizens who supported the ordinance.
“I’m a wine drinker, as are many of my neighbors, and we support the industry. Some wineries are attractive and others are event centers. The essential business seems to be toward event centers rather than a vineyard or winery.
“Oasis was probably the catalyst for our efforts. Most people did not want that type of winery replicated. The county has an historic and environmentally protected heritage. Many people sympathized with our view, including the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Citizens for Fauquier County.
“Our concerns are noise, night lights, air pollution, water pollution and possibly unsafe buildings that do not have to pass inspection as part of a farm winery law. One lady at the hearing described how she won’t let her children play in her front yard because it’s perfectly obvious drivers are impaired as they pass her home after visiting wineries.
“But when the draft ordinance first hit the street last year, we knew it wasn’t harmless. If you give to one group, you take from another. Many of us don’t like the ordinance but its better than none at all. I think it needs to be revisited because it’s not a law than floats all boats.
“I would like see more flexibility in the ordinance. I would take a completely different approach. All the wineries are different; all neighborhood situations are different. I much prefer an ordinance that recognizes those differences and encourages cooperation rather than conflict.
“My preferred approach is to give the wineries the authority the state gave them but anything else would need a special dispensation from the county. I would have the wineries go their neighbors and see if they could reach accommodation then go to the county and say we all agree with this. The county would then say, OK you’re blest, go forward and do it that way.
“Nobody likes the ordinance. I think it’s a bad ordinance. It’s incumbent for everyone to come up with an alternative,” says Richardson.
Barrel Oak Winery
Brian and Sharon Roeder are owners of Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane, or BOW, emblematic of the dog friendly atmosphere in the tasting room. BOW has met with considerable success since opening four years ago. It also may experience the harshest impact under the new law.
“If this new ordinance was in effect when we first opened and we received no administrative permits or special exceptions, it would have reduced our income by $1.8 million during that period,” says Brian Roeder.
“Business hours are a core issue for Barrel Oak. We are open till 9 PM on Friday’s during the winter months and 9 PM on Fridays and Saturdays in the spring, summer and fall. Next year, based on the new hourly restrictions our revenue predictions—after allowing for full special exceptions and administrative allowances—it will cost the winery $411,000 in revenue. And that doesn’t include lost revenue from our food carts and arts and crafts.
“We have operated from day one without one complaint from anyone. I’ve reviewed the Sheriff’s police report for the last two years. We searched the data base for the word ‘winery.’ Of all of the wineries in the county, there has been only one instance of where the word winery and DUI show up together. One.
“We are not talking about neighbors approaching wineries with complaints. We’re talking about ‘concerned citizens’ who are not necessarily neighbors of the wineries.
“I think it was a mistake on the part of the wineries as much as the Board of Supervisors. The Board became convinced the wineries were going to sue so they decided to throw everything and the kitchen sink into the ordinance and let the courts sort it all out. That assumes the small family winery community can afford to foot the bill. This is highly destructive.
“It places the burden on the wineries to prove the ordinance is illegal and we don’t have the money. It’s functionally designed to force wineries out of business. The county has defined every single marketing activity of our businesses as an event. If you do anything other than tastings at your bar, it’s an event according to the ordinance.
“BOW will be forced to sue the county to protect our legal rights. I will file a suit because I am required by law to challenge it within thirty days of passage. But it will not be ‘served”, which means we will continue to work with the county. I believe another suit will be filed by the Wine Council, but can’t say for certain.
“I also believe the Governor’s office will get involved based on the state’s interest in the matter.
“I seek a re-visitation of the ordinance that takes into account the enormous financial impact upon wineries. The law requires that the economic impact be taken into consideration. That’s never been done. They also need to show the impact on health, safety and welfare and that’s never been done.
“Our winery encompasses 270 acres and we have the support of our neighbors. I am certain there will be modifications or elimination of this ordinance as it is written. It is so illegal it will not be able to stand.
“Finally, I don’t fault the Supervisors directly on this group effort. I don’t blame them. They are all good people trying to do the right thing. We need to differentiate between the actual impact and the implied impact of the new law,” says Roeder.
Passions run strong on all sides of the issue and it appears certain the ordinance will be given further scrutiny in the months ahead.
Let’s hope the adage, “The best wine makes the best vinegar,” doesn’t hold true for Fauquier County wineries.
Published in the Autumn 2012 edition of The Piedmont Virginian.
The Internet is a marvel. Recently, I received an email from Wildlife Tours Australia in Melbourne inquiring about the Virginia wine scene. The small firm sponsors a host of unique tours, including winery visits. I invited employee Leigh Franklin, who had discovered my website, to share his take on winery touring in Australia. Given the recent controversy surrounding the Fauquier County Winery Ordinance, I was particularly struck how wineries in his region embrace tourism. Read on.
Wine Tourism Down Under
Australia is no longer just a country known for its Outback and wildlife. It is also emerging as a world contender for quality wine because of its diversity and premier wine regions like the Yarra Valley. While Aussies consider the history of their wine production “long,” it’s nothing compared to the history of Virginia wine.
The quality of wines in our country has undergone remarkable advancement because of the industry’s drive to compete globally. Although the country still offers wines that may not please everyone’s palate, it has an array of respected wines that have earned international accolades. Wine producers worldwide are learning by watching how the Aussies are improving quality and expanding market share.
The principal wine grape of the country is Shiraz. Although it did not get much recognition in the past, there are now numerous Shiraz wines in Australia that compare favorably to those produced in California or the Northern Rhone Valley. The country also has several good Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays, along with some surprising offerings of Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Semillon, which is widely produced in the country, is known as the flagship white grape wine.
While Virginia wines are quite different from Australian in a lot of areas, I’ve found in travelling the world there is no better way to appreciate local wines than to sign up for a winery tour. If you want to see and taste the quality of local wines in Australia, there are a number of wine tours offered. The great thing about our tours is that the establishments just don’t let you taste the best wines of the region but typically offer food to compliment the tastings.
You are guaranteed to have fun on a winery tour especially if you are traveling with family and friends. A small group environment makes sure that you really get to relax during your visit to the vineyards.
Events at Aussie Wineries
Unlike some places around the world that have had trouble holding events at wineries, Australia is a lucky country. If you want to hold a wedding or other big event, you should have no trouble in Australia.
You won’t hear about the locals complaining about noise or traffic. Australians are use to wine tours and other affairs such as charity dinners or weddings. They welcome the tourism it generates. Because of the wide spaces of the vineyards and winery estates, there is plenty of room for everyone. No one will be interrupted or bothered by any festivities. Locals are thankful for the tourism and the visitors that are spending their money into their communities.
A fulfilled vision for some but money & hard work are the reality
The scene is repeated throughout the Old Dominion: undulating rows of verdant vines surrounding a tasting room where convivial conversation and tinkling wine glasses unfold before a backdrop of blue skies and mountain views.
But is the scene a mirage? What’s the reality behind calling yourself a winery proprietor?
With well over two hundred wineries gracing the rural landscape of Virginia, the dream has come true for a growing number of entrepreneurs seeking an income producing bucolic lifestyle. But be certain you aren’t wearing a pair of rose-colored wine goggles before taking the plunge. Measure twice cut once.
“Most people have no idea how complicated starting a winery can be,” says Dr. Bruce Zoecklein, Head, Enology-Grape Chemistry Group at Virginia Tech. “Before I agree to meet with a potential owner, I require them to complete a business plan.”
Zoecklein has written a comprehensive document, Winery Planning and Design, that guides a person through preparing such a plan. The CD formatted publication is available through the industry trade journal Practical Winery and Vineyard.
Preparing a business plan is de rigueur for any commercial undertaking but is particularly important when venturing into the wine business. Most people contemplating the trade have little or no agricultural experience and making wine is grounded in farming.
Today in the Old Dominion, the supply of grapes is tight and growing more so each year. The blossoming number of wineries is outstripping planted acreage. A successful venture demands a consistent supply of fruit and owning both the tasting room and vineyard is key to a sustainable business.
So what is the financial investment required to greet guests in a tasting room and pour them a glass of wine? For a winery to be profitable, production should ultimately be around 5,000 cases annually—60,000 bottles—or higher. Producing wine below these levels often does not cover costs.
The investment will vary, but assuming that a quality—not high end—facility is built and outfitted with commensurate equipment, here are some cost estimates:
*Purchasing land suitable for grape farming can run from $10,000 to $15,000 an acre, well above the price of average farmland. High quality vineyard land is not found in abundance; some experts estimate less than ten percent of the state’s rural land is suitable for growing delicate wine grapes. In addition to agricultural considerations, land that possesses scenic views is important in attracting paying guests. Overall, to provide for expansion, purchasing a twenty-five acre site is a sound decision. Cost: up to $375,000.
*Planting a ten-acre vineyard with six varietals and installing trellising, well, irrigation system and purchasing a tractor and sprayer. Cost: $275,000.
*Building a 6,000 square foot winery with crush pad, cellar, tasting room, point-of-sale software and computers, crusher-destemmer, press, pumps, hoses, stainless steel tanks, oak barrels, forklift, lab equipment, office furniture, wine glasses and various additional supplies. Cost: $900,000.
*A newly planted vineyard does not produce sufficient fruit to make wine for three to five years. In the interim, the winery will need to invest in grapes, bulk wine and bottling operations to build its inventory annually until wine can be made from the owner’s vineyard. If an owner wants to maintain an inventory of 5,000 cases of finished wine and an equal amount of bulk wine, prices can leap dramatically until the vineyard is supplying the needed fruit. Cost $75,000 to $500,000.
*After the initial investment on infrastructure and wine, an operating fund of $100,000 should be available to sustain operations through the first five years. Typically, small to medium size wineries can take up to seven years or more to show a profit.
Tallying up the capital required for the basic operations comes to around $2 million. True enough, a much smaller winery will cost significantly less but also likely run in the red for an extended period of time. Building sales quickly to 5,000 cases annually is the shortest path to profitably.
“Yes, for a bit less than $2 million a winery can open its doors. But, truthfully, I would encourage a serious entrant to marshal its resources and commit to a $3 to 5 million investment to do it right. Virginia needs larger producers to advance the state’s reputation and produce a rapid return on their investment,” says Chris Pearmund, owner of Pearmund Cellars.
Route to success
So how can a newly smitten winery owner lower the cost of his personal investment? Sweat equity and investors. Performing more of the work, hiring fewer employees and attracting capital from friends and business associates are proven ways to control expenses.
Unless an owner acts as both vineyard manager and winemaker, it can add an additional $100,000 or more annually to operating expenses to hire talented wine professionals. One viable approach for smaller operations is to perform these functions in-house but have a consultant guide them through critical production stages.
Outside money can also ease the burden of using personal funds, the challenge of qualifying for bank financing or having to pay top dollar for needed services. “When I seek out investors, I am looking for both money and talent. I try to attract an array of people with cash and business skills, says Pearmund.
“I want professionals in law, accounting, marketing, heating & air conditioning, food services, and landscaping to name a few. While these individuals are not going to work for free, they can provide guidance and a quick response to critical business questions. And when they do offer their services it’s at a good price,” he explains.
In Virginia wine, the 80/20 business rule generally applies as it does elsewhere; eighty percent of the business is generated by twenty percent of the accounts. While never an exact division, the rule holds true in most industries. Last year,Virginia’s 203 wineries produced 462,000 cases of wine, an increase of 11% over the previous year.
But just a half a dozen wineries produced over 200,000 of those cases; add in twenty or so second-tier wineries and the figure jumps to around 300,000 cases. That leaves around 175 wineries generating just 160,000 cases annually, or around 1,000 cases per winery, well below the profit generating level.
How do they survive? An owner performing much of the daily labor themselves is the key to viability. “Passion drives the success of smaller wineries,” say Zoecklein. “If a vineyard needs spraying at 3 in the morning, a committed owner will do it.”
And selling the finished wine can be even more demanding. The success of Old Dominion wine is closely linked to agritourism. There are very few wineries that can make money dealing with wholesalers.
Wine must be sold in the tasting room at retail prices to succeed. That requires spending hours at the tasting bar on weekends and holidays with wine lovers that are often escaping the rigors of stressful jobs and long commutes. Making their relaxation time a pleasant experience can be demanding on owners.
Pearmund says, “If a customer visits ten or twenty wineries over the course of several months and chooses not to return to your winery, ask why? If you can’t answer the question, do not expect to meet success.”
“A majority of wineries in the state are not operating as businesses per se,” says John Delmare, owner of Rappahannock Cellars. “And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. These are people who are enjoying a rural lifestyle, often with the help of their adult children and may be opened only three days a week. It’s a business model that succeeds through their labor and zeal.”
“But to create a business focused on the bottom line the work is significant. In the early years of building my winery, I worked eighty hours a week, seven days a week.”
Pearmund echoes his sentiments saying, “The work is endless, from securing ABC permits, label approvals, producing promotional materials, managing employee hiring and payroll, overseeing fruit purchase contracts, hosting wine dinners and much more.”
Zoceklin underscores the importance of enthusiasm in the business given its demands. “When an individual prepares an elaborate business plan and runs it by his accountant the reaction is often, ‘Wow, maybe you should just invest in condos in Vail.’ But that misses the point. If running a winery makes their heart sing, it’s not just a business decision. Some of the greatest satisfaction can come from building an enterprise from scratch and leaving it to their children as a legacy,” he states.
A somewhat controversial approach to building revenue involves hosting entertainment-style functions to build quick, steady revenue. Bachelorette parties, weddings, fundraisers and other large group events are a relatively easy sell given the bucolic setting of many wineries. Newer businesses can generate critical cash flow to help service debt by marketing such entertainment functions.
But balancing business needs with the concerns of local residents and county governments is important. Noise and heavy traffic on rural roads can raise the ire of nearby citizens and create a host of problems for an offending winery. As a whole, the industry is sensitive to such criticism and strives to act responsibly. But the issue further crystallizes the demands placed on many struggling young enterprises trying to succeed.
So what if an owner ultimately decides his decision to enter the industry is more work and less rewarding than envisioned? Does he simply sell and move on? “Selling a winery today and recovering your costs is problematic,” says Delmare. “There is not a vibrant market out there for even a profitable business. On the other hand, if owners can slowly build the business, their expenses will decline and sales increase. Most can survive and become prosperous. Patience is key.”
Today,Virginia is the fifth largest wine producing state in the Nation. Winery owners across the state can take pride and satisfaction in what is unfolding here and the role they are playing in achieving national recognition.
But as author David Bly ably wrote, “Striving for success without hard work is like trying to harvest where you haven’t planted.”
Published in the Summer 2012 edition of the Piedmont Business Journal.
Almost two years after restoration reviews confirm expectations
On October 29, 2010, a party—literally—of over fifty PATC members and friends dedicated Argow Cabin, located just outside the South District of the Shenandoah National Park, a mile hike west from milepost 70. The festivities of speeches, pork bar-b-que and hay rides culminated a five-year restoration project.
Standing on the covered porch that bright fall day, many of the attendees predicted the cabin would become a favorite of the outdoor cognoscenti. The thirty mile views from the side porch alone seemed to clinch that conclusion.
As the second anniversary of the cabin’s entry into the club’s rental system approaches, one need only flip through the log book or check out its availability on the PATC website to confirm its popularity. Let’s hope Travel & Leisure magazine doesn’t discover this place.
And what makes the cabin a magical spot to stay? Its natural beauty and history dating back to the Civil War. Samuel Eaton, the builder and first occupant of the cabin lived in the tumultuous era of the War Between the States. Time obscures what role Eaton played in the conflict but to gaze at the hand-hewn 13 inch thick chestnut logs is to look back at a time when a man’s success was often achieved by back breaking labor.
The restoration project is all the more remarkable when one views a photograph hanging inside the cabin taken in the early 1990s. The three story building had been abandoned for years and looked more like a decaying tobacco curing barn—with partial chinking and listing on its crumbling foundation—than a snug mountaineer’s cabin. Its days were numbered as the forest slowly closed in on all sides.
Then, two serendipitous actions occurred: the property was sold to the club at a favorable price by Keith Argow, a professional forester. And club member Jeff Testerman agreed to lead the restoration project. Testerman, a commercial construction project manager in Charlottesville, engaged his exceptional management and building skills to save the cabin.
One weekend a month for over five years, Testerman organized a group of some fifteen volunteers to slowly bring the cabin back to life. Given its location high on the evening side of the Blue Ridge, it required a steep ascent up a narrow, winding dirt road to reach the site. One transmission and an endless number of scratches on the crew’s vehicles were part of the project’s unfunded cost.
But on dedication day, only satisfied memories and a sense of accomplishment reigned among the work party.
So what has been the reaction among club members and the public since the cabin opened? PATC is in a unique position to assess renters’ experience through the evaluation of the cabin log books.
The journals are a throw back to the days when the written word prevailed everywhere. Today, it’s seldom one can read a diary-like journal of a person’s thoughts on living the outdoor life. There is a bit of Henry David Thoreau in all of us and his words resonate today for those seeking to briefly escape the stresses of modern society:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” he wrote. Amen.
Soon after Argow was dedicated, an occupant penned these words in the log, “What a great job on this cabin. There were some veteran PATC cabin-goers in our group and many times over the weekend it was mentioned Argow is one of our favorites.”
A month later, some winter visitors recorded, “The Drive was closed (snow), so we backpacked in the six miles from the park entrance. Wow—what a beautiful cabin. We were so impressed with the quality in the renovation, the beautiful covered porch and the unbelievable view!”
The log book is replete with similar observations since the cabin became available for rent.
Testerman has continued on as the cabin’s overseer and says, “It’s gratifying to read the comments of folks staying at Argow. Yes, it was a lot work and toward the end our crew was eager to wrap the project up. But to see what was gifted back to the club is rewarding. I hope this mountain jewel is still sheltering visitors decades from now.”
Anyone who has stayed at Argow cabin echoes his hope.
Published in the August 2012 edition of the The Potomac Appalachian.
Step back in time while tasting the wine
John Marshall was considered the Babe Ruth of the Supreme Court. He wrote or co-wrote over a thousand legal decisions during his thirty-four year span on the court and was the longest-serving Chief Justice of the United States.
He was also related to Thomas Jefferson, his political adversary. While they often opposed each other on a range of national issues, it’s likely they shared a glass of wine on occasion given Jefferson’s reputation for hosting numerous White House dinners.
On July 14, the home of John Marshall will open to the public for the purpose of tasting the best of Virginia and international wines. The legendary Chief Justice would likely have cast a vote in favor of his home’s new purpose; perhaps even calling it a wise decision.
The home, Oak Hill Estate, is located adjacent to Barrel Oak Winery and was built by Thomas Marshall, John’s father, in 1773. The home is reached by entering the Barrel Oak property in Delaplane and following the signs. While not as impressive as Monticello or Montpelier, the seven-room frame house was nonetheless a home of note in its era. John Marshall took ownership of the estate when his father moved to Kentucky in 1785.
Today, the home has been restored but not extensively. Given the likely millions of dollars required to bring the property back to its original condition one can understand the scale of restoration.
One week prior to its official launch, Brian and Sharon Roeder, owners of Barrel Oak Winery and creators of the John Marshall Tasting Experience, hosted friends and valued customers to a preview of the unique tasting. My wife Jean and I and our friends Fred and Betsy accepted the special invite. We’re glad we did.
After entering the home through the front entrance—with views of the rolling Piedmont countryside—we were escorted upstairs to a seated tasting. Our host, Andy Melton, a winery partner, explained how a guest would typically select one of five distinct flights of wines. However, only three flights were available for the preview audience given the gratis invitation.
Each flight appropriately had a legal theme:
The Circuit Tasting—“Sweet Piedmont”; four off-dry or semi-sweet wines from Virginia’s Piedmont. $25
The Superior Tasting—“Best of the Piedmont”; four wines representing top wines from the region. $35
The Appellate Tasting—“Best of Virginia”; four selections from quality producers statewide. $55
The Supreme Tasting/Reds or The Supreme Tasting/Whites; four quality wines from around the world. $75
Each flight opened with a sparkler, the Fitz-Ritter Riesling Extra Trocken NV (extra dry) and ended with a Blandy’s 5 Year Malmsey Maderia; all six selections were served with artfully presented and tasty food pairings.
Everyone in our group selected The Appellate Tasting that featured:
2011 Rappahannock Cellars Viognier—Ducard Vineyard
2010 Jefferson Cabernet Franc
2008 White Hall Cuvee Des Champs
2009 Barrell Oak Winery Reserve Petite Verdot
The wines were paired with spicy raspberry preserves on brie; chocolate filled farm raspberries; rolled stuffed cucumber, and prosciutto wrapped dates.
The flight was served on a modified aroma wheel tasting placemat reflecting the palate profile and tasting notes of each wine.
While we leisurely sampled the wine and food pairings for more than an hour, I was struck how unique it was to be sitting in an historical home in one of the most storied states in the Nation. History is my passion—along with wine—and the experience was enhanced given its location.
All the wine and food selections fulfilled our expectations but I anticipated more attention being given to the home and its history. While our knowledgeable host answered my inquiring-mind queries, I would have enjoyed a more docent-like explanation of the home and its former residents.
I could even envision a period costumed performer, similar to “George Washington” at Mount Vernon, ambling from room to room describing the home and its history.
The John Marshall Tasting Experience is offered by appointment each weekend from 11am till 6pm, through October. For more information, visit the Oak Hill Estate web site.
Pearmund out as managing partner
This past January, vintner Chris Pearmund sold his La Grange winery for $5.6 million to Beida Jade Bird, a multi-billion dollar Chinese corporation headquartered in Bejing. Pearmund retained twenty-five percent ownership.
The sale was predicated on the old Chinese proverb, “One joy scatters a hundred griefs.”
But joy and grief depends on who is telling the story.
“Unfortunately, the enthusiasm I experienced in taking La Grange to the next level of success has turned into disappointment,” says Pearmund.
Pearmund was recently fired as the managing partner of the winery and has been barred from having any involvement with the business he founded six years ago. He contends the conventional wine business was one the Chinese were not interested in pursuing.
To make matters worse, he is owed payment for nineteen shares of La Grange stock valued at $729,300; many other previous partners are also awaiting payment for their shares totaling nearly a million dollars.
Apparently his experience in working with the Chinese is not without precedent. “I have spoken with numerous business people who have met with failure in trying to bridge the cultural gap between western and Chinese business practices. The potential rewards are great but results are often disheartening,” says Pearmund.
Early on in the transition process it became apparent to Pearmund that the need to rely on an experienced hand to guide the winery was lost on the new owners. “Passion and compassion drives success in our industry. I found myself dealing with people who appeared to not care about the product, only the bottom line. Regrettably, one is not realized without the other,” Pearmund said.
Today, La Grange has lost not only Pearmund but also its winemaker, assistant winemaker, vineyard manager and accounting team. All have left or been removed from their positions.
According to Pearmund, he has heard unconfirmed reports that no fruit contracts have been signed for the 2012 harvest and the vineyards have not been sprayed in over six weeks. In addition to the production concerns for next year’s wines, Pearmund says he’s also heard the Virginia Alcoholic Control Board may be investigating a number of practices that are in violation of ABC law.
He posits that actions on these alleged violations may be slow given the delicate nature of dealing with the Chinese and its impact on future investment in Virginia.
But then, there is the opposing view.
Fletcher Henderson, the new general manger at La Grange effective July 1, takes exception to Pearmund’s observations. “The winery needed a sprayer and I submitted two bids to the principals here on site. They approved purchasing the equipment within twelve hours of my request.”
Henderson agreed there were some concerns with ABC compliance. “We have hired a consultant to audit our ABC forms and documents to assure we are in compliance. If there are any specific violations, I’m not aware of them,” he said.
As far as fruit contracts for the 2012 vintage, Henderson said, “We have located some fruit already. We have talked with a lot of people and 99 out of 100 are eager and willing to help this winery keep its reputation. One way or another we’ll produce wine in the 2012 vintage.”
“Everybody who is working here is happy to be here. The new owners have nothing but the best interest in La Grange. All of my communications with them have been straight forward,” he said.
Pearmund’s other two wineries, Pearmund Cellars and the Vint Hill Craft Winery are unaffected by the La Grange shake-up and are opened to the public at regular business hours.
“My experience at La Grange has been the most difficult of my professional career. I devoted six years to its success and have little to show for it. I hate to see it fail but I’m not optimistic,” Pearmund says.
The tale of The Winery at La Grange will be played out over the next year or so. For the sake of Virginia wine lovers, let’s hope it’s for the best.
Fauquier County vintner positions himself for career shift
Tracking Chris Pearmund down can be a challenge. The man is seemingly everywhere as he expands his wine realm.
Case in point: This writer recently placed a call to the wine maven and after the eighth ring heard him answer with a groggy, “Hello?”
Did I catch him at a bad time? “No, no, it’s four o’clock,” he responded. Indeed, it was exactly 4:05 p. m. “Not here. It’s four in the morning. I’m in Beijing.”
Ooops. Sorry about that.
But the ill-timed call was not surprising. The peripatetic wine merchant is constantly on the move as he consults, buys or sells wineries at a brisk pace.
His latest move is placing his original business, Pearmund Cellars, on the market. The asking price is $5 million. The property includes his home, twenty-five acres of land—fifteen in productive Chardonnay vines—and the winery. He has tasked two real estate agencies with extensive experience in the Virginia wine trade to find a buyer.
And if the new owner wishes to retain Pearmund as a consultant, he will oblige.
In January, Pearmund sold a seventy-five percent interest in his Winery at La Grange in Haymarket to a major Chinese firm, Beida Jade Bird. “The sale was valued at $5.6 million and I retained 25% ownership. I currently run the operation as the managing partner,” he said.
Pearmund’s quest is to advance the Virginia wine trade beyond the state’s borders and believes China is one of the lucrative markets. But he’s not limiting himself to just Virginia wine.
“There is a growing class of wealthy Chinese who are interested in an upscale lifestyle, including wine. Annual per capita consumption in China is less than one liter. Europe enjoys a 35 liter consumption rate and the US an eight liter. China has a huge potential for growth,” he says.
To underscore his point, he recently sold a container of Washington state wine—14,400 bottles—to a wealthy Chinese businessman who intends to gift a bottle to each of his employees. Pearmund will ship the wine with a customized corporate label affixed.
Why his involvement in wine other than from Virginia? “I’d love to sell more Virginia product overseas but, frankly, there’s not enough of it. Over the last several years there’s been a five-fold increase in wineries in the state but only a two-fold growth increase in productive vineyards. There’s a looming shortage of fruit with a commensurate opportunity for growers,” he explains.
In the interim, Pearmund will shift gears and focus on both domestic and international sales of Virginia and other wines, primarily those from Washington State, where he has close ties with some of its industry leaders.
In addition, Beida Jade Bird has hired him as its consultant and spokesperson. The multi-billion dollar corporation is a high technology enterprise focused on the production of software and advanced technologies and has made a commitment to pursuing the wine trade. “The firm is eager to advance their wine business but needs resources to make that happen. I’ll be providing my expertise,” he says.
Pearmund explains his latest ventures were driven largely by Lyme disease he contracted two years ago. “I lost a year of productive work. Lyme robs you of both physical and emotional energy. I pretty much turned the operations of my wineries over to my senior staff, Melissa Stephan and DJ Leffin. They performed beautifully. When I began to recover my strength, I realized I didn’t have to manage on a day to day basis. It reduced my stress and opened doors to new projects,” he says.
One of those projects was attending the fifth annual wine show in Beijing where he was awakened by an inquisitive reporter. “It’s an amazing scene here. There are hundreds of wineries from around the globe pouring thousands of wines for Chinese buyers. Only five are from the US, and only one from Virginia—me,” he says.
With his vision extending well beyond the borders of the Old Dominion, will Pearmund be leaving the area? “I have no intention of moving out of Fauquier County. I’ve lived here since ‘84 and love the area and its people.”
By moving into international business, the former substitute school teacher and native from Great Britain is paralleling his father’s career, who is a senior vice president for a world banking association. “Not many people know my family is exceptionally successful. My father has been to China dozens of times over the last several decades. He’s pleased to see me make this move, especially with my focus on China,” he says.
And as for his health? “I’m almost fully recovered from the Lyme attack. I’ve been walking five miles a day here in Beijing, my diet is nutritionally sound and I’m still enjoying wine daily. I’m eager to see what I can accomplish in this new arena.”
Published in the April 27, 2012 edition of the Fauquier-Times Democrat.
The Wine Guy Adds Brewer to His Resume
Its ten o’clock on a late September evening as I slip down to my dark wine cellar to observe white wines in late-stage fermentation.
As I shine a beam of light across the neck of a carboy, I stand in awe. A gazillion bubbles race up the sides and into the top of the six gallon glass jug. The air lock bubbles away. The exuberance of primeval fermentation transfixes me.
Fermentation has been used by man for thousands of years to make bread, cheese, yogurt, pickles, beer and wine. Essentially the action converts a carbohydrate such as sugar into an acid or alcohol. Eons ago earliest man harnessed this natural process to produce foods and beverages near to his heart. I relate to my ancestors’ ardor for the magic-like transformative process.
For eight years I have been a home winemaker. I’ve produced over 4,000 bottles of wine in my humble wine cellar. It’s an endeavor framed by challenge and satisfaction. To take fruit from the field and produce a libation that satisfies both body and spirit is rewarding. And it’s fun.
For a like period of time I have also been a home bread maker and its obvious derivative, pizza maker. My children and their families are known to clamor, “Dad, make your pizza when we come over tonight.” Not a problem.
Enter beer. Over the last two years, I have been a member of a local hiking club called Boots ‘n Beer. Its motto is “A drinking club with a hiking problem.” The group roams the trails of nearby Shenandoah National Park monthly. At the end of each ramble, we adjourn to a local pub to hoist a pint or two and have dinner.
While wine is my passion, the pub visits ignited an interest in microbrewed beers: Amber ale, Stout, Pilsner, India pale ale, American wheat, Bock, Porter, Vienna lager…the list is endless. I recognized a parallel between wine and beer. Both possess an incredible scope of styles and flavors. And both are produced by fermentation.
One reason for my previous low interest in beer was the bland and watery taste of most popular brands. Leading beer makers today produce light lagers that appeal to the widest audience. Unfortunately for me, they are boring; a grievous sin when it comes to alcohol consumption. Give me body, depth, complexity and variety over easy drinking any day.
Why Light Beers
Let’s digress a moment to better understand why Americans consume such large amounts of uninteresting beer. Granted, it’s refreshing. And given its lower alcohol content, it can be consumed in larger quantities. But volume consumption is not my thing. Flavor appreciation is.
The state of current consumption tracks back to the repeal of prohibition in 1933. After thirteen years of the “Noble Experiment”, only a few major breweries were still operating; they had survived by producing malted products for the food industry. Thousands of small brewers had long gone out of business and their equipment fallen into disuse.
After Repeal, the major breweries sought to produce a product appealing to the largest audience possible, including women. When World War II began, a significant percentage of the male population were overseas defending freedom, leaving women to run the factories and calling the shots on what type of beer they preferred. The production of light and innocuous beer exploded. When the men returned, the pattern was established for easy drinking lagers; think Bud, Coors and Miller type beers.
Further abetting the decline of interesting beer was an oversight in repealing prohibition that did not permit home beermaking. Not until 1979 was the error corrected and homebrewers emerged as a force. In the ensuing three decades these talented—mostly men—created the microbrew market. Today, some 2,000 craft breweries are operating throughout the country and they are growing faster than the major producers; most are run by former home brewers. The movement is analogous to the dramatic increase in small wineries being run by previous home winemakers.
Once the beer making bug bit, I jumped in full force. I purchased the equipment I needed such as a brew pot, bottling pail, capper and beer bottles. Other items such as a hydrometer and carboy came from my winemaking supplies. Making beer is not difficult but close attention to cleanliness is paramount. Fresh brewed beer is highly susceptible to bacterial infection. Cleanliness is next to beeriness.
To date I have brewed six different styles: Amber ale, American wheat, Oatmeal stout,Vienna lager,India pale ale, and Rye pale ale. Two more versions of ale are in the offing. In the months ahead, I will share my experiences in producing fresh, delicious and healthful homebrewed beer.
“Filled with mingled cream and amber I will drain that glass again. Such hilarious visions clamber through the chambers of my brain—quaintest thoughts—queerest fancies come to life and fade away; who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today.” Edgar Allan Poe