Archive for April, 2010


A Chat with Chris Pearmund

Posted on Apr 22 2010 | By

Occasionally my wine column—published in the Culpeper Times—will catch up with an owner of a Piedmont area winery and get their take on the world of Virginia wine.   Our first chat is with Chris Pearmund, Managing Partner of the eponymous Pearmund Cellars, the Winery at La Grange and the Vint Hill Craft Winery.  All three establishments produce a total of 20,000 cases annually.

The Tasting Room (TTR): What led to your career in wine?

Chris Pearmund (CP): I worked at Clyde’s in Tyson’s Corner in the eighties as their wine specialist and managed both the front and back operations of many other restaurants. I loved the concept of creating food with quality ingredients. The same concept applies to winemaking. I wanted to make myself more marketable by earning stripes in both the food and wine business. However, the restaurant industry is a daily repetitive grind while winemaking revolves around an annual production cycle. It’s hard to get burned out in the wine industry. There’s simply more variety, longer vision and less repetition. Once I entered the wine industry, I never looked back.

TTR: What’s the major challenge your wineries face today?

Chris Pearmund

CP: Cash flow, retaining quality staff, acceptance in the market place and antiquated distribution laws. Only four percent of all wine sold in the state is Virginian even as the industry has expanded. It should be around seven percent or more. All of these obstacles are limiting the continuing growth and long term viability of the industry.

TTR: So why has Virginia wine grown in popularity?

CP: It’s produced locally, and the quality-to-value ratio is good. We also benefit from an established tourism industry that attracts wine drinkers who want to drink local wine. Plus, it provides a fun day trip for our heavily populated and over stressed work force seeking a relaxing environment with family and friends.

TTR: What is the biggest challenge facing Virginia wine?

CP: Maintaining and increasing quality. There are tens of thousands of wineries worldwide. To be successful, each of them have to be good enough to attract a distributor, survive on thin margins, be sold by committed sales reps, attractive to restaurant lists, and consistently purchased by the public. It’s an enormous set of hurdles to clear to earn shelf space at wine shops and grocery stores. If you’re not producing quality wine, you won’t succeed in this competitive market past the mom & pop stage.

TTR: Can Virginia achieve national wine recognition?

CP: Yes. And we have. But, we need more wineries producing consistently higher quantity and quality-to-price ratio wines for distribution outside of Virginia. These wines need to fulfill consumer needs in major markets like New York, California, and Florida. What we don’t need is more wineries producing smaller volumes with variable quality. This sends the wrong message to the marketplace and hinders national recognition.

TTR: Any personal sacrifices you’ve made to achieve success?

CP: As with many owner-operated businesses, marriage, family relationships, and time off are often sacrificed in running the show. I work seven days week, ten to twelve hours a day. That kind of commitment creates success. But it also creates stress in personal relationships. I admit much of my work schedule is self-induced but creating a successful business takes an enormous amount of time and emotional commitment. Often, there is not much energy left at the end of the day. Keeping focused on both sides of your life is a challenge.

TTR: Any missteps in developing your businesses?

CP: Not many because I opened all of my wineries with a small group of smart investors who helped me think through big ticket items and were committed to long term involvement. Some things could have been better thought out, such as more functionally designed parking areas, larger septic fields, more professional electronic infrastructure for computing needs, and restrooms designed to handle peak weekend traffic. However, these are problems many in our industry face. You learn as you grow.

TTR: Biggest surprise you encountered after opening your wineries?

CP: I was pleased how open and supportive other winery owners were with each other. This camaraderie helps eliminate repetitive mistakes and moves the industry forward. An exchange of ideas and plans is important. The flip side of that coin is owners who take shared ideas but offer little in return. That’s disappointing. In the past, I did not see much of that behavior. Unfortunately, I think it’s an attitude that is growing as the industry expands.

TTP: Your favorite non-Virginia wine & region?

CP: I love the wines of South Africa, Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley of France. These regions produce wines that offer distinctive styles that are tied to the earth and climate of the area. Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are wonderfully complex and reflect what the French called terroir, or the place where the fruit is grown. You often hear criticism that today’s wines are increasingly homogenized in aroma and taste. This may be driving the overall growth in sales but it’s not what I prefer to drink.

TTR: Pet peeve?

CP: Burned out light bulbs. It’s my litmus test for a winery staff that may not be focused on quality in all aspects of their job. If a bulb goes dim and is not replaced immediately, it tells me other aspects of their job may also be slipping. If you start by checking the lights, you’ll also make sure the floors are clean, the trash is emptied, and the flowers are watered. Creating a quality customer experience is critical to success. The public picks up on mistakes quickly and that translates into reduced reputation and sales. The solution? Change the light bulbs!

TTR: Closing thoughts?

CP: I am hugely disappointed in the lack of support from commercial banks. Bankers fail to view wineries as long term investments. Because of this attitude, capital in the industry is largely self-funded. It’s a problem that’s impeding growth, especially for expansion past our state borders.

Anyone considering opening a winery needs to have expertise in five areas: agriculture, winemaking, customer service, small business disciplines and knowledge of local, state and federal law. If you lack any of these skills, hire a professional. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

And finally, Virginia needs to work harder on creating a definitive wine style. Buyers everywhere should be able to discern our state’s wines as having a distinct regional character and style. We are making progress but we have a ways to go in achieving this important goal.

Published in the April 21, 2010 edition of the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

John’s April Pick of the Month

Posted on Apr 22 2010 | By





Sudha and Pandit Patil realized a long held dream when they opened their winery in the fall of 2009.   Their 2008 Viognier is representative of Virginia’s up and coming grape. Vinified in stainless steel and aged in French oak, this light straw colored white offers delicate and crisp notes of lemon, melon and citrus. Pair this summer white with lemon shrimp orzo and a spring salad. Drink now through 2012.

Narmada Winery is located at 43 Narmada Lane, Amissville. The winery and its stunning tasting room overlooks meticulously kept vineyards offering elevated views of Rappahannock County’s rolling countryside. Plan on spending time on their spacious deck while enjoying the views and wines. The tasting room is opened Friday and Saturday, 11 AM to 6 PM during the winter; and Friday, Noon till 7 PM, Saturday 11 AM till 7 PM and Sunday, Noon to 6 PM during the summer months. (540) 937-8215.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

John’s March Pick of the Month

Posted on Apr 01 2010 | By



Shirland Syrah


Owner & winegrower Jim Dolphin has a created a wine with origins from the Northern Rhone Valley in France. This 93% Syrah and 7% Viognier blend spent eighteen months in French oak and exhibits a rich, dark garnet color with a full-bodied palate of black fruit, spice, toasty notes and a silky finish. This rich tasting red will pair well with Tenderloin steak with Gorgonzola butter and rosemary potatoes. Drink now through 2014.

Delaplane Cellars is located at 2187 Winchester Road, Delaplane, VA. The winery sits on a ridge in far western Fauquier County with dramatic views of the rolling hills and mountains of the Virginia Piedmont. The tasting room is opened April to November, Friday through Sunday 11 AM till 5 PM; Monday through Thursday by appointment; and weekends only from December to March. (540) 592-7210.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Putting A Cork In It

Posted on Apr 01 2010 | By


When a mobile bottler puts the wrap on a day’s work, some 10,000 new bottles of wine are ready for sale. Not bad for a day’s labor, eh?

And if it weren’t for their enterprise, the cost of your favorite Virginia Chardonnay might just be higher.

Blue Moon Bottling—one of just three such firms in Virginia—is based out of Oley and Judy Olsen’s home located a few miles south of Orlean, VA. Most folks are unaware such a business even exists, including their neighbors. Nonetheless, the service rendered by circuit-rider bottling companies is critical to the success of Virginia wine.

By the end of 2010, it’s projected 170 bonded wineries will be operating in the Old Dominion, a dramatic increase from only one in 1975. Today, Virginia ranks fifth in wine producing states behind California, Washington, Oregon and New York.


An extraordinary amount of work goes into producing wine: from cultivating the delicate grapes, to harvesting the fruit, making the wine, operating a tasting room, and marketing the product. It’s a demanding and capital-intensive business. An oft heard line in the industry is, “If you want to make a small fortune in Virginia wine, start with a large one.”

A bottling firm can reduce a winery’s workload and cut costs. And their clients know it.

Blue Moon is in partnership with Bottle Boy Mobile Bottling, a firm owned by Joe Sullivan. Sullivan has twenty years experience in the wine industry and thirteen years as a pro bottler. Today, rather than actively bottle he serves as a consultant to Blue Moon, and for good cause. “It takes about two years of practicable experience to become proficient with the complex equipment and five years to master it. That’s just one reason there are so few commercial lines in operation. It’s a technically challenging business,” says Sullivan.

Oley couldn’t agree more. “I’ve been working the line and had Joe yell, ‘The labeler is down!’ How does he know? He hears it. I can’t even hear myself talk when the line is running but he picks up on the sound of a downed labeler. Amazing.”

Two other firms providing service to Virginia wineries are Landwirt Mobile Wine Bottling, out of Harrisonburg, and a relatively new entrant in the business, Virginia Wine Bottling, owned by Mark Lacy, headquartered in Orlean. Lacy says his market research revealed eighty percent of the state’s wineries employ a mobile firm. Together, these three companies service well over a hundred state wineries.

So how does a bottling line work? It starts with a gas guzzling, seven miles-per-gallon rig weighing over 20,000 pounds and displaying a sticker price as high as $650,000, if purchased new. The Olsens lease Sullivan’s thirty-five foot gooseneck trailer pulled by their Ford F550. The trailer-designed unit enables access to even the smallest farm wineries where winding dirt roads and terror inducing blind turns demand vehicle maneuverability.

Inside the rig is an entire bottling line. Production starts at an acceptance unit where the empty bottles are fed down a conveyor line to be water rinsed of any packing materials, sparged with nitrogen to displace oxygen, filled with wine and leveled to exactly 750-millilitres. The cork is then compressed and inserted, and a capsule dropped on top of the bottle and pressure spun into place. From there the front and back labels are smoothly affixed and the finished bottles shunted around a curving conveyor line toward the back of the trailer where their journey began.

At the end of the line, a winery employee rapidly fills cardboard cases, two bottles at a time. And with a final hand push, each twelve-bottle case glides down a roller coaster ramp into the waiting arms of winery employees brandishing sealing tape and carton labels.

If you recall the I Love Lucy chocolate factory episode, you’ll get a good idea of the complexity of the operation. Of course, bottling pros don’t fall pitifully behind as poor Lucy did.


And why does a winery employ a bottler rather than undertake the job themselves? Cost and lack of experience. The installation of a small, privately owned line runs around $150,000 and can soar over $500,000 for a large producer. And after installation, a proprietor must have experienced employees to run it.

Mark Lacy's Virginia Wine Bottling Rig

Beyond its basic operation, a bottler needs specialized mechanical skills to deal with line failure and parts replacement. Bottling operates in a real time environment. This is not a machine you schedule your Sears repairman to come and fix. Think thousands of moving parts.

Gary Landwirt, owner of the Harrisonburg firm, says, “I’ve seen wineries build an in-house line and end up dismantling it and contracting with a mobile operation. The headaches of running a unit are often too much to deal with.”

And if these issues weren’t enough, a winery considering a private line needs to carve out enough room to install it; not easy for most Virginia establishments strapped for cellar space. Contracting with a reliable professional is a sound business decision.

With two years operating experience, the Olsens know the physical and emotional demands of the business are high. “I need a full day off after each job,” states Oley. “My day starts at 5:30 AM and often I am not home till seven at night or later. That’s hours of set up, production and driving time,” he emphasizes.

Experience has also shown the Oslens the importance of a winery being prepared for a bottling. “We are constantly refining our check list for customers. They must carefully prepare for our arrival, or time and money is wasted,” states Judy. “And they need to purchase supplies from qualified vendors. One thing we’ve seen in the recent past is a decline in the quality of glass coming out of Mexico. Because the demand for wine bottles is high across the country, quality has slipped. We know the top producers and encouraged clients to purchase glass from them,” she says.

One interesting insight is their perception that natural cork still reigns in the Old Dominion. But screw caps are gaining adherents. “Virginia produces boutique wines. I think many owners want to convey that quality message through cork sealed bottles,” says Judy. For now, Blue Moon has no plan to retro fit their line to handle screw caps.

Conversely, Landwirt Mobile and Virginia Wine Bottling have rigs that handle both cork and screw cap closures. “Over thirty per cent of our clients are now using some screw caps and I see the number growing,” states Landwirth. Over the next decade, the marketplace will likely decide whether the cork or cap prevails.

In addition to the mechanical skills necessary in managing an operating a line, another important attribute for a pro-bottler is a calm demeanor. “Bottling is a stressful event for a winemaker. It’s the culmination of all their work and tension is high. But, problems are a given. When they occur, taking calm control of the situation is important. Oley has the gift of staying cool under fire. When he comes home he’s free to vent his frustration, and often does,” Judy says laughing.

When reflecting on the role of itinerant bottlers, one can appreciate more fully what they provide Virginia wine lovers. For if it’s true that wine is bottled poetry, might these pros be our poet laureates?  But of course.

Winery at La Grange

Published in the spring edition of the Piedmont Virginian.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Wine and Global Warming

Posted on Apr 01 2010 | By

4.5 billion. An impressive sum. But just how large a number is it?

Well, let’s pretend you hit the lottery and won one dollar a second for twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, for the next 31 years. At the end of this non-stop cascade of greenbacks you would have amassed a billion dollars. String four and half of those billions together and you have a very large number, indeed.

By the way, it’s also the age of planet Earth—4,500,000,000 years old.

So, what are we to think when we’re told that the world’s climate has changed so significantly in just the last century that we are headed toward irreversible catastrophe. Just one hundred years of climate history out of the last 4.5 billion confirms the bleak future of our planet? Hmmmmmm.

If you have some skepticism about the claim, it’s understandable. Nonetheless, there is legitimate debate on both sides of the issue. So let’s set the discussion in the back room for now and ask the wine lovers’ question: If worldwide temperatures did rise significantly in the foreseeable future, what would be the impact on wine?

The delicate Vitis Vinifera grape species—which produces ninety-nine percent of the world’s wines—only grows between the 30° and 50° latitudes in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Travel outside these temperate zones and quality wine cannot be produced.

To better understand the sensitive nature of wine grapes, consider that Cabernet Sauvignon has a narrow window of optimum maturity that hovers around an annual average temperature of 60° to 68° Fahrenheit. Pinot Noir thrives best in the 57° to 61° range. These are very small temperature windows and highlight the “canary in the coal mine” characteristics of the grapevine.

One of the criticisms voiced about today’s wines is they are increasingly higher in alcohol, jammy and full-bodied. Many are produced in regions such as California, Australia and South America. Restaurant critics often claim these libations are not food friendly but heavy-handed, hedonistic fruit bombs that do injustice to fine cuisine.

Allowing the fruit to hang on the vine for two to three weeks longer than just few decades ago creates the opportunity for winemakers to craft such styles. This extended “hang time” increases sugar levels and decreases acidity contributing to the lush, over-the-top styles many wine-food connoisseurs find offensive.

However, another fundamental reason for the shift to these type wines is the trend in rising temperatures. Winemakers do it because warmer weather permits it and because such styles score well in competitions.

Over the last fifty years, records show Napa Valley annual average temperatures have increased 1.7° Fahrenheit. This rise, coupled with many winemakers’ desire to produce medal-winning wines, is altering the profiles of today’s bottlings. Increases over 3° Fahrenheit has been recorded in the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions of France since 1970. Such stylistic changes in winemaking may not have been as likely without the longer growing seasons these regions are now experiencing.

Yet, just over the mountains west of Napa, in Sonoma County, there have been virtually no temperature changes during the same time period. Ditto the Barossa Valley in Australia. This highlights the conundrum of global warming…it can occur in one region but not necessarily in another. And it begs the question, are these changes actually global?

If they are, what portends the future of wine?

Since the world’s wines are grown in specific latitudes, if warming did occur, these fertile bands would likely begin shifting in size, offering newer areas in which to produce wine grapes.

For example, while England produces little wine today, it’s possible Her Majesty’s subjects could increasingly focus on growing grapes and making wine if warmer summers and milder winters offered such opportunities. As in all human endeavors, the opportunity for profit would beget new markets.

Moreover, if the earth warms up a bit, not only will cooler climes start producing wine, it’s possible these newer areas of viniculture might ultimately create even higher quality wines than today. Since no one has been able to successfully cultivate many of these regions in the past, the nuances of the soil, air, sun and slope—together referred as terroir by the French—might reveal even better wine producing regions than we have today. Only milder weather and time would confirm such a scenario.

In fifty to hundred years from now, it’s conceivable Napa Valley’s reputation will fade as it produces cheaper, bulk quality grapes that today are grown in the warmer Central and Southern Valleys. Higher caliber fruit might well migrate north into Oregon and Washington State, further enhancing the reputation of these wine regions. And look for Canada’s emerging wine status to further accelerate.

In France, the challenge will be to change entrenched laws that today restrict certain regions to growing specific grapes, such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay in the Burgundy appellation. By the next century, Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre—grapes that like a bit warmer environment—might supplant today’s varieties. Meanwhile, the Champagne and Alsace regions to the north could inherit the classic Burgundian vines.

In Bordeaux, the distinction between Left Bank and Right Bank wines could begin to fade. The Left Bank, which borders the Atlantic Ocean, is cooler today than the Right Bank. This difference could be equalized in the future, blurring the quality and type of grapes grown in each region. A potential benefit for the Left Bank is that increased warmth could result in the vinification of even richer tasting wines.

Italy, Spain and Portugal would also see many of their most productive vineyards start drifting northward as winegrowers follow the more productive growing regions.

Since much of this worldwide change would occur over decades, viticulturalists could also begin to experiment with different clones of existing grapes, creating perhaps some new stunners worthy of 100 point scores. The unknown is a bit scary, but also exciting.

And let’s not forget the potential impact on winemaking in the Old Dominion. Our state is a bit south of center of where quality grapes can be grown. If our summers became much warmer than they are today, we just might find our future winemakers pulling up stakes and moving further north to create their tasty gems. Not a pleasant thought.

But, controversy swirls around whether all of these dire climate predictions will actually come to pass. Even some noted climate experts admit no significant overall warming trend has occurred in the last fifteen years.

One thing is fairly certain for most of today’s wine lovers, only modest, if any, changes will occur in our lifetimes. If there is an eventual geographical shift of the planet’s grape growing areas, it will doubtless present opportunities along with the inevitable losses.

Perhaps the one article of faith we can count on is that wine will still be produced and enjoyed as it has for the last 9,000 years. And the variety and quality could well be better than what we are currently imbibing.

Optimism is the hallmark of wine lovers. So no matter the reality of our future climate, tomorrow’s wine world looks as bright as a glass of Chardonnay.

Published in the March 19 weekend edition of the Fauquier-Times Democrat.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

John’s March Pick of the Month

Posted on Apr 01 2010 | By



Shirland Syrah


Owner & winegrower Jim Dolphin has a created a wine with origins from the Northern Rhone Valley in France. This 93% Syrah and 7% Viognier blend spent eighteen months in French oak and exhibits a rich, dark garnet color with a full-bodied palate of black fruit, spice, toasty notes and a silky finish. This rich tasting red will pair well with Tenderloin steak with Gorgonzola butter and rosemary potatoes. Drink now through 2014.

Delaplane Cellars is located at 2187 Winchester Road, Delaplane, VA. The winery sits on a ridge in far western Fauquier County with dramatic views of the rolling hills and mountains of the Virginia Piedmont. The tasting room is opened April to November, Friday through Sunday 11 AM till 5 PM; Monday through Thursday by appointment; and weekends only from December to March. (540) 592-7210.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES