Archive for February, 2010


Reining in the wineries

Posted on Feb 18 2010 | By

Does proposed Fauquier County ordinance threaten not only wineries but the county itself?

Over the last year, Fauquier County has been wrestling with an issue of import to its twenty bonded wineries: should additional restrictions be placed on events and operating hours at these establishments.

Under the Code of Virginia, wineries are allowed to grow, harvest, vinify and offer on-premise wine tastings, sales, and consumption during regular business hours.

Virginia state law further provides wineries the right to operate such businesses without local regulation, unless there is a substantial impact on the health, safety, or welfare of the public. Therein lies the rub.

In some quarters, there is a belief that the county’s wine industry is, indeed, impinging on the welfare of the public, and these forces are pushing to increase local control over the industry. Why?

The trigger for much of the debate began a few years back when one county winery overstepped its bounds and began hosting outdoor events with loud amplified music attended by large crowds. The entrepreneurship displayed by this winery owner recently surfaced again when he and his wife made international headlines by showing up uninvited at a White House state dinner.

Since those early episodes of disregard for folks living near a winery, there have been only a small handful of complaints about such activities. And in virtually all cases, the wineries in question responded by eliminating functions that might upset the pastoral setting wherein they reside. Over the last year, there have been no formal complaints of winery misbehavior.

Nonetheless, the county is proceeding to create additional regulatory control beyond what the current law provides for. The most onerous of the proposals are to limit the size and number of both day and evening group events. Actual restrictions would range from no daytime group events to a once a month limit of two hundred people for an evening affair. The acreage of the winery would dictate specific limitations.

These controls are being debated during the worst recession in decades—and absent any actual lifestyle disruptions to the community itself. Again, why?

For almost a century, Fauquier County was a rural locality with little or no change. In 1860, its population was around 24,000. A hundred years later, the 1960 census reflected an increase of only 2,000 residents. Today, there are some 70,000 citizens enjoying the beauty and lifestyle of the historic county, almost a tripling of the population.

Such rapid change has created alarm in some well-placed circles, and understandably a desire to control and guide future growth. Laudable objectives few would oppose.

But consider some of the contributions the wine industry provides Fauquier County:

· Attracts 300,000 visitors annually, some ninety percent from outside the county. That’s revenue pumped into the local economy for which no corresponding county costs are incurred.

· Employs over 250 full or part-time employees.

· Generates $500,000 in state sales taxes, expected to jump to $1.5 million over the next two years. Fauquier County will receive 20 percent, or at least $300,000 of those revenues.

· Drives additional money into the local community through use of vendors who provide food, music and event equipment rentals.

· Protects over 600 acres of farmland from subdivision sprawl, while using little water and minimal pesticides and fertilizers that foul creeks and rivers.

· Creates over $60 million in private investment in agricultural lands.

Keeping these contributions in mind, reflect on the impact of reining in winery operations. Could it force some of these businesses to shutter their doors while discouraging others from opening new ventures? In an era of draconian budget cuts, the county cannot afford to slow job growth and reduce its tax base through these initiatives.

Notwithstanding the romance of owning a winery, the reality is it requires a large financial and labor-intensive commitment with a modest return on investment. Often what drives such investment is the desire for a lifestyle change as much as the creation of a business. Opening a typical winery requires an investment of several million dollars and up to ten years of labor before showing a profit. A line often heard in the industry is, “If you want to make a small fortune in Virginia wine, start with a large one.”

Proponents of more regulatory control claim one does not need to engage in events and extended hours to be successful. That’s likely true for a winery that has been in business for years. But debt is a looming shadow cast across most of the county’s newer vineyards, and retiring that obligation in a timely manner dictates maximizing business opportunities. It’s a simple matter of survival.

Further consideration of any change in county law should include the impact on the recreational enjoyment these establishments provide the public. Most wineries are situated in scenic settings with views of lakes, mountains and forest. Guests are often families seeking a day of respite from the hectic pace of their workaday world. Weddings, reunions, birthdays and anniversary celebrations are high on the list of events a winery hosts. To limit such activities would be to deprive the public of what is, in a real sense, a country club setting, albeit one with no membership restrictions, high initiation fees or annual dues. These are the people’s resorts.

Recently, a letter to the editor on the role of local wineries appeared in a county newspaper stating in part, “Where else can you take children, even pets, for a fun filled afternoon, at very modest prices? Only by going to one of the many wineries that offer music, food and, yes, wine, can one come to appreciate what a welcome relief this is. No video games, no large-screen TVs, no screaming crowds angry that a ref missed a call.” Where indeed?

In January, Fauquier County delayed taking any action on its proposed ordinance change for three months. Hopefully, the county will continue to work with the wine industry to assuage the concerns of those hoping to checkmate the important financial, agricultural and recreational contributions the industry has provided—and will continue to provide—our region.

Local wineries are a valued asset. They need our support not our control.

Published February 18, 2010 in the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

John’s February Pick of the Month

Posted on Feb 18 2010 | By





The Tannat grape hails from southwest France and is not often seen in Virginia. And while it’s hard to find, winemaker Mike Heny produced a solid rendition in 2002 that’s worth tracking down. This full bodied and tannic red is almost black in color, exuding lots of robust smoke, tar, plum and raspberry on both the nose and palate, and closing with a lingering finish. A charcoal grilled filet mignon would be quite content nestled next to a glass of this hearty red. Drink now through 2013.

Horton Cellars is located at 6399 Spotswood Trail, Gordonsville, VA. Opened daily, year-round, from 10 am to 5 pm. (540) 832-7449.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Paean To Snow

Posted on Feb 10 2010 | By

White. The traditional color for love, purity, innocence, and of course, weddings. It reflects light and enhances all the other colors of the spectrum. Yet, mention it in the context of snow and the reaction is often, “Oh no.”

Here in Virginia, the 2009-10 winter has been the snowiest in several years. It’s mid-February and much of our state lies under a soft layer of white. Many parts of the Old Dominion have had over 50 inches of snow this winter. Reagan National Airport has recorded 54.9 inches, breaking a record for the Nation’s Capital set back in 1899.

And spring is still weeks away. By comparison, last year we had an average of less than ten inches statewide.

But as troublesome and aggravating as a heavy snowfall can be, its negative impact is eased by the beauty and serenity of snowflakes falling gently upon a dreary winter landscape. Gazing out the window of our home office, as snow slowly accumulates on lawn and forest, I undergo a transformation of mind and spirit. A sizeable snowfall on a cold wintry day comes close to being a magical thing, especially in light of today’s world of political discontent, economic hardship and security threats.

Snow transports us to another, more perfect world, if only for a short time. Embracing its gentle softness can let our minds drift with each falling flake. Soon enough, like life itself, the beauty will fade.

The scenes of a snowfall panorama are varied. In our world of rural Virginia, it’s the finches scampering and fluttering on top of the fallen white crest, feeding on seed we have scattered on the surface. Later in the afternoon, a small herd of deer, led by a young buck with a perfect eight-point rack, nibble on birdseed the squirrels and birds missed earlier in the day.

As evening draws closer, our feral cat—dubbed “Boots” because of his four white paws—wanders out of the woods looking for his bowl of Friskies located under the porch. And we wonder, how does he survive these frigid nights and deep snows? And where does he meander off to as the sun settles behind the hills to our west? Nature. Survival. Amazing.

Of course, there is work associated with this dreamscape. Shoveling walks, snow blowing driveways, cleaning vehicles laden with layers of white, and making runs to the grocery store between storms to maintain stocks of milk, bread and the important paper products.

But as the last light of day fades into soft purple hues, I start the fire in our wood burning stove and deal with the hard issues of life. “Viognier or Cabernet Franc tonight, hon?”  Hmmmm…no immediate response.  And then from upstairs, “Well, we’re having lamb stew, what do you think?”

Oh, that’s an easy one.  I pour two small glasses of Viognier that will serve as an opening aperitif, and then decant a bottle of Cabernet Franc to be enjoyed later with Jean’s world-class stew.

The winter’s been harsh.  The cold grows wearisome.  But life is good.

Perhaps we owe it all to snow.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES

The Inventive Grapevine

Posted on Feb 04 2010 | By

Freeloader. Hardly a term we think of when the grapevine comes to mind.

Sadly, it’s true. All those beautiful vineyards that inspire poets and artists and provide us the nectar of the gods are populated with a bunch of selfish little wannabes. It’s fortunate we’ve learned how to control the rascals.

The grapevine has evolved over time to take advantage of others. And we in turn have learned how to take advantage of it. What goes around comes around.

A vine really has only two desires in life: earth and sky. Long ago the vine looked around and was amazed how much time trees waste in growing huge trunks to support its life-giving canopy. Trees devote decades to bulking up so they can tower over other vegetative growth and bask in the life-giving rays of the sun. The grapevine ruminated on this waste of energy and thought, “I’ve got a better idea.”

And indeed it did. Rather than devote hard-earned resources in assembling a mechanical structure to touch the sky, the vine employed a quick and easy route to nirvana; climb on the backs of trees and race to the sun in record time.

Once the vine chose to pursue this survival strategy, it simply got better at it as time went by, perfecting its behavior over a 130 million year stretch. When the English colonists landed in Jamestown, they were astonished to encounter virgin forests draped with wild vines and grapes. Such heavy growth could even threaten the well being of the host tree. Although, it wouldn’t have been too smart to snap a trunk and end up lying on the forest floor looking for another victim to climb upon.

Kudzu Vines

An egregious example of a non-grape vine taking advantage of its host is the Kudzu vine. Originating in Japan, it was introduced in the United States in 1876 as a forage crop. Starting around 1935, it was given a new lease on life as a soil erosion agent. Over time, it rejoiced in the hot, humid summers of our southeastern states and the rest is history. The vine’s population exploded and today wide swaths of forests can be seen draped in green blankets of vines. Voodoo Kudzu.

The Greeks were the first culture to abandon the practice of allowing vines to do their tree climbing tricks. Instead, they developed a system of training vines to grow on trellises and stakes, a technique eventually adopted by all grape growers. It was at this point in history that man began to manipulate the vine and use its natural growing traits to advantage. It also was a bit safer than scampering up tall trees to harvest their wine.

Once the vine was placed in the harness of a trellis system, its urge to grow profusely needed manipulation. A variety of trellis and pruning techniques emerged to increase the quality and flavor of the grape crop. If vines aren’t shown “tough love”, they will grow profusely, the canopy overflowing and hiding the fruit and introducing the opportunity for fungus and mildew attacks. Vine growers have been managing these challenges for centuries and today’s vineyard managers are still vigilant in protecting and treating their disease-prone vines.

The stages of grape development begin after harvest when the vines fall into a winter dormant stage to protect themselves from the harsh climate. As solar energy increases in spring, the buds begin to swell, then break open with associated leaf unfolding and flowering, followed by fruit set and the formation of berry bunches, later to evolve into the iconic grape clusters.

As this stage of development progresses, the grape’s wildlife enemies slowly become aware that the vine is not growing up trees but offering easy pickings on low hanging trellises. Commercial vineyards protect their crop with nine-foot high fences to thwart deer and bear predation. The vine’s natural ability to grow away from such threats has been compromised by man’s intervention to keep it relatively close to the ground. Nonetheless, its ancient defensive mechanisms still provide some protection. The vine camouflages its grapes the same color as its leaf canopy and maintains high acid levels to make the fruit unappetizing to animals and birds. Not until the grapes near maturity will it drop its guard and let the fruit become more attractive to depredation.

After the threat of killing spring frosts, one of the most vulnerable times for wine growers occurs in late summer when the fruit begins to undergo veraison, or the changing of color. During this phase, grape sugars begin to increase and natural acids start receding. The vine has no clue that man has been working all year long to reach this important stage. This phenomenon is essentially a public announcement to wildlife to move in and have a bite of the tasty ripening fruit.

The green fruit turns either a translucent golden color for white grapes or a purple-black for red grapes. In both cases, it’s a visual signal for our feathered friends and other wildlife to begin picnicking. The vine’s purpose for the color change is to lure the animal kingdom into eating, and then disseminating, digested grapes seeds over a wide area. It’s a pure and simple survival mechanism designed to propagate the species.

And it’s exactly what wine growers don’t want to happen. The vine’s natural impulse is to take advantage of hungry critter appetites for propagation purposes. But its urges must again be reigned in. During the months of August and September, you will often see vineyards swathed in diaphanous netting to block the dance of the vine and the fowl.

In addition to bird visitations, deer and bear focused on beefing up for the winter months cannot resist gormandizing on the fruit. A sow bear and her cubs roaming freely in a vineyard can wipe out a season’s worth of work in a few nights. Maintaining bear and deer proof fencing is high on a vineyard manager’s to-do list during this part of the growing season. Although, it’s mighty hard to stop a determined bear unless you unleash the hounds.

As harvest draws to close, the vines—sans their leaves—are allowed to acclimate to winter temperatures for a few months before pruning begins. If pruning intervention did not occur, spring would see an explosion of foliage as the vines drop to the ground and seek adjacent trellises. Picture the rampaging Kudzu vine. Left unpruned, grapevines would slowly spread across a vineyard smothering as much territory as possible.

So has man always been destined to control and reap the bounty of the grapevine? Perhaps. Even Genesis 1:26 states, “And God said…Let them make dominion over every creeping thing that creepth upon the earth.” And so it is.

Published in the February 4, 2009 edition of the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

John’s January Pick of the Month

Posted on Feb 04 2010 | By





Vine grower Jim Law’s winemaking philosophy is embedded in the “somewhereness” of where his grapes are grown. He embodies the old adage, “You don’t make great wine, you grow it,” and his ’06 Avenius showcases the land on which the fruit was harvested. A blend of 79% Petit Verdot and 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, this dark red opens with aromas of spice and black cherry that follow through on the palate with earthy notes and a bright cherry finish. Pair with a hearty Beef Bourgogne. Drink now through 2015.

Linden Vineyards is located at 3708 Harrels Corner Road, Linden, VA. The winery is cradled high on the slope of a small valley, offering guests sweeping views of the vineyards below. The tasting room is opened April to November, Wednesday through Sunday from 11 AM till 5 PM, and December to March, weekends only,5 11 AM to 5 PM. (540) 364-1997.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Darden Does Libations

Posted on Feb 02 2010 | By

University of Virginia Darden School of Business

On January 29, the renown University of Virginia Darden School of Business hosted its first annual wine, beer and spirits MBA conference.

The event was sponsored by the school’s wine & cuisine club and featured an impressive array of speakers from the alcohol beverage industry.

The conference opened with a keynote presentation given by Robert Cavanaugh, a wine educator and marketing director and founder of Adventure Wine. Cavanaugh’s remarks centered on the burgeoning beverage industry and the growing career opportunities for graduating MBA students. He noted the expanding wine industry in the United States would soon result in the nation becoming the largest consumer of wine in the world.

One interesting insight was his take that the restaurant industry is broadly moving toward a reduction of its markups on dinner wines, stating, “Twice the markup is becoming the new three and half markup of the past.” Good news for consumers and creating an environment for accelerated growth of restaurants with reasonably priced wine lists.

Featured Speakers

Following his informative presentation, a panel of experts discussed today’s beverage industry. Representatives from Anheuser-Busch, E&J Gallo, Brown-Forman, Folio and Williamsburg Winery addressed a wide range of “hot topics”—as the panel was dubbed—including growth, marketing, and regulatory control.

One interesting insight was that most distributors today are not brand builders but simply delivery services, and wineries need to seek ways to create demand without relying on distributor relationships.

Following the opening session, held in the impressive Abbott Auditorium, attendees fanned out to breakout classrooms and played “MBA student” for a few hours. A choice of three sessions was offered: Entrepreneurship & Finance; Marketing; and Operations and Strategy.

I attended the marketing presentation and was rewarded with a fascinating glimpse of how major beverage firms identify and market their products. The presenters were from Gallo Winery, Anheuser-Busch and Guy Design and Illustration.

Lee Susen, Gallo’s Marketing Director, New Business Development, and a MBA grad from the University of Michigan, took our class though a fascinating power point presentation showcasing today’s wine market and how Gallo builds its brand. Two of his numerous observations were that Moscato, a sweet white with a gentle 9% alcohol level, was the fastest growing wine stateside with the potential to replace the entrenched white zinfandel.

He also noted, “Americans talk dry but drink sweet,” noting the growth in both red and white wines with residual sugar levels of one percent or more. Gallo’s market research shows when tasted blind, Americans often prefer the bit sweeter selections. Typically, dry wine hovers around .2 of a percent.

Katherine Booker, Innovation Manager, Anheuser-Busch, and a recent graduate from Darden, gave an equally interesting presentation on the beer industry. Booker spent some time focusing on a new beer that Busch will soon market nationwide called Select 55. It is a 2.4 percent alcohol brew with only 55 calories.

Breakout Session

Closing out the session, Allan Guy, owner of Guy Design, shared with the “students” several of his label redesigns, including Barcardi Run, Mount Vernon whiskey and five Virginia wine label upgrades.

As the day wound down, the attendees were treated to variety of wines and food during the evening reception. My wife Jean and I poured the Rappahannock Cellars 2008 Chardonnay and 2007 Meritage, garnering a number of compliments from the guests.

Darden is to be commended for conceiving and executing an excellent eight-hour conference packed with perspective and facts on today’s beverage industry.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES