Grey Horse Vineyards clearing the hurdles

By Posted on Apr 04 2015 | By

Midland winery reflects owner-driven work ethic 

Jay Fenske is everywhere present; at least on his 35-acre spread. From dawn to dusk, the lean, talented and youthful-looking retired Federal employee performs an endless array of tasks.

Grey Horse Vineyards (4)Farmer, horseman, general contractor, vineyard manager, winemaker, hospitality host and businessman are some of the jobs he tackles daily, logging up to 90 work hours a week. The man is on the move, literally.

Does it wear him out? “I love being in the wine business. It’s a great job. Everybody who comes here is on a mini-vacation and predisposed to having a good time. They are wonderful people,” Fenske said.

A can-do attitude and propensity for hard work are a given in the Virginia wine industry. From the challenge of growing grapes in a demanding climate, to trying to cover expenses and achieve profitability, it’s hard work plain and simple.

Time and again one is struck that being an over-achiever is the defining characteristic of a state winery owner. Fenske is no exception.

Lifestyle driven
Fenske and his wife Kathy grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. His father owned a machine shop and he learned metal and woodworking as a boy. He built or acted as general contractor on three of his homes over the years.

The couple also loved the outdoor life. His government career took him on assignments around the country, including Virginia, where they enjoyed hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, and kayaking throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

Upon retirement, they were drawn back to the commonwealth. “We wanted to live out towards the Shenandoah Mountains,” Fenske said. They discovered the Midland property with a new home on it. Thirty-five acres was more land than they were looking for “but it was too good a deal to pass up.”

Embracing the country life, the couple cast about with what to do with their newly purchased spread. “My wife wanted horses but I knew nothing about them. I had only been on two trail rides in my life,” Fenske said.

Emblematic of his focused life view, he delayed buying stock before learning all he could about the animals. They took lessons and became accomplished riders. Their young daughter, Laura, accompanied them and began riding herself at the age of three.

They slowing began building a herd of seven horses; three of them greys. His daughter’s first horse was a Welsh Arabian named Grey Tara. “She was a sweetheart. We all loved her.” They obviously took well care of the mount since she lived to be 42 years old, a rare age for a horse.

Grey Horse signTwo more grey horses were added to the herd that subsequently led to the name of the winery.

With horses now the focus of the farm, Fenske began clearing the heavily forested property for hay production. That led to the purchase of a modest goat herd to help keep the land cleared. Goats multiply and by the time they sold the herd it had grown to 160 animals.

Next, a young male pig took up residence under the family chicken coop. They were unsuccessful in trying to find its owner and decided to raise pigs. That effort grew exponentially and 120 pigs later he exited that business too. “I decided I didn’t want to be a pig farmer” when the original boar—now 900 pounds—attacked his tractor tire one day; better sausage than personal injury reasoned Fenske.

Enter grapes
During this period of their “Green Acres” lifestyle, they regularly visited Virginia wineries and fell in love with the state’s wines. As a home winemaker for 25 years, his thoughts of going commercial began to stir.

One day while visiting Molon Lave Vineyards in Warrenton, Fenske made the simple inquiry “Where do you buy your grapevines?” The answer resulted in a deep friendship forming with the owner, Louizos Papadopoulos. The successful vintner became his wine mentor.

The two men still maintain close contact. “I would not exist anywhere close to my current form if not for him. He continues to provide me advice to this day,” Fenske said.

Once committed to opening a winery himself, his winemaking education commenced in earnest. He enrolled in college courses, engaged the services of the cooperative extension office at Virginia Tech and joined the state’s winery and vineyard associations.

Grey Horse 2He contracted to have the foundation and shell of a two-story 17,400 square foot production facility and tasting room built then completed the interior work himself, including the electrical, plumbing, HVAC, flooring, tasting bar and painting.

The winery opened in October 2014. The venture has grown faster than his business plan called for and includes a successful wine club; always a good indicator the wines are tasty.

Today, the winery has five and a half acres of grapes under vine with a total of 16 acres planned. Current varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay. His current production is 1,000 cases annually with anticipated goal of 4,000.

The entrepreneur is also employing a farsighted strategy to assure future grape production. He has 11 rows of 25 vines each of several varieties. They are planted to determine which grapes will grow best on his land. Likely additional plantings from these test beds will be Petit Verdot, Chambourcin, Petit Manseng, Traminette, and Vidal Blanc.

When asked what he views as his best success, he quickly responds, “The staff I have chosen. We are in the hospitality business and my staff makes each visit a great experience. I’ve chosen well in my hiring decisions.”

Grey Horse Vineyards is located at 12285 Elk Run Church Road, Midland. It is opened daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For information on its wines, special events and more visit http://www.greyhorsevineyards.com/

Categories : WINE ARTICLES