The critics’ choice: Granite Heights Orchard & Winery

By Posted on Nov 10 2013 | By

 Opal winery garnering accolades early in the game 

Granite Heights Orchard & Winery opened just two years ago, but Toni and Luke Kilyk have burst upon the Virginia wine scene faster than a cork being pulled from a bottle of their wine.

It’s not a surprising achievement for the two over-achievers and their passion for creating. Be it their successful business careers or producing wine, jams, jellies and honey, the couple brings proven character traits to producing quality farm products.

Toni Kilyk

Toni Kilyk

Luke Kilyk is the winemaker. Toni Kilyk is his assistant and manages the orchard’s production and the business. And if you were to compliment them on their early success you’d likely to get a “We’ve been very fortunate” response. Interesting how good fortune follows hard work.

The high energy couple has been a married team for twenty-three years while advancing their primary careers. Luke Kilyk is a full-time Intellectual Property Law attorney who owns his own practice focused on patent, trademark and copyright law. His office is in Warrenton.

Toni Kilyk is a family practice physician who had an office in Manassas for nine years before shifting much of her focus to managing their farm. She still works two days a week at the Fauquier Free Clinic in Warrenton for a small salary. “I do it more for the love of it. The clinic serves individuals below the poverty level. Our patient load has increased from 100 to over 600 in the last six years,” she says.

Country life calls
Life before farming was similar to other professional couples living the harried suburban life in Northern Virginia. In 1997, while residing in Centreville, the Kilyk’s purchased a 55 acre forested property off Opal Road, built a home and in 2001 moved permanently to the country. They cleared three acres of land adjacent to their home and planted a fruit orchard and formal flower gardens.

“We both like to keep busy and can’t sit still,” says Toni Kilyk. What they’ve achieved underscores that assessment.

About a decade ago Luke Kilyk fell in love with winemaking. As is often the case, he started with home wine kits and soon advanced to wine made from fresh fruit. In addition to his law degree, he is a chemistry major, providing a sound foundation for making commercial wine. “Luke is like Thomas Jefferson. Whatever he does its like it’s been his career all his life,” emphasizes Toni Kilyk.

The winemaking operation moved from their home to a small cabin on the property but soon became a “hobby on steroids” as Toni Kilyk says smiling. The fruit operation was also expanding, producing numerous bottles of jams and jellies made from blackberries, peaches, blueberries, strawberries and other fruits. Honey was produced from their honey bee hives. Clearly, more room was needed to accommodate the nascent business. 

Farm grows exponentially
IMG_7932_1In 2006, a 168 acre farm located directly across the street from the Kilyk’s home went on the market. The couple made an offer on the property but the developer wanted to subdivide it and build homes. Then the recession hit and the project stalled. By 2009, it was obvious new home construction was going nowhere and the farm came back on the market.

“I was going to work at the free clinic one day and saw the For Sale sign again,” Toni Kilyk recalls. “I called Luke and said, ‘It’s back on the market!”. He said, “Well, maybe it’s meant to be.” And indeed it was with their quick purchase of the farm.

In 2010, the winemaking operation was moved across the street into a new processing facility and the stage was set for a larger production of fine wines. Country music artist and actress Reba McEntire once said, “It’s very important to surround yourself with people you can learn from.” The Kilyk’s embodied the philosophy and embraced two iconic talents in the wine industry: Jim Law and Lucie Morton.

Law, owner of Linden Vineyards, is one of the most respected winemakers on the East Coast and Morton is a vineyard consultant of international renown. The Kilyk’s enrolled in Law’s winemaking classes to learn first hand the skills required to produce quality wine. They also hired Morton to assist in planting their ten acre vineyard on the newly purchased farm.

Morton is an advocate of high-density planting of vines. Typical Virginia vineyards are planted at a density of 600 to 800 vines per acre to aid air flow and fight humidity. Morton’s vineyards are likely to have 1,600 to 2,000 vines per acre to help promote even ripening by reducing the amount of fruit per vine. Many award winning wines are produced off of her high-density vineyards.

The vineyard is host to Chardonnay, Vermentino, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Barbera grapes; all French clones. While they purchased wine fruit from other Virginia vineyards in the first few years, it is their goal to be mostly sustainable with their own grape crop.

Tasting Room

Tasting Room

Interestingly, the couple’s relationship with Morton deepened when they agreed to let her live in the late 1800s farm house that would eventually become their tasting room. “Lucie wanted to write a book and she came here to live for a year to complete it. We were following her philosophy and she liked us because we were self-sufficient. She still stops by on occasion to take a gut check on how we are doing,” says Toni Kilyk.

Self-sufficiency is a hallmark of the winery and orchard operation. The couple performs virtually every task on the farm. Toni Kilyk explains that often a retired couple will open a winery and hire a winemaker, vineyard manager and other personnel and be compelled to start selling wine quickly to help pay down the heavy  debt.

“We perform all of the work ourselves,” she says. The physical labor involved is intense; planting the vines, pruning and spraying the vineyard, making the wine, tending the orchard, bottling the wines, jams and jellies, mowing the property weekly during the summer months and the ubiquitous office work.

The only person they’ve hired tends the tasting room on weekends so the Kilyk’s can keep up with the endless farm chores. This is particularly true for Luke Kilyk who works full-time at his law practice. Weekends provide the only time to stay head of the work.

To protect their vineyard investment the Kilyk’s next purchase will be two 30 foot high wind fans to safeguard the vines from the threat of spring frost. The last frost date in Virginia is around May 10 but bud break can occur in early April. It is a tense six week period if grape vines have no protection. A single night’s chilling air can wipe out an entire vineyard and deprive a winemaker of the fruit needed to make the next vintage’s wines. 

Early recognition
It’s not unusual for new wineries to take several years to develop quality wines and garner the coveted recognition for its efforts. The science and art of winemaking is often a trial and error process that, hopefully, results in the caliber of wine a winemaker seeks. Quality is the reward for hard work and patience in the cellar.

Granite Heights is an exception to the rule. Their dedication was a given but within two years the devotion to farming grapes and making wine began to attract the attention of the wine cognoscenti. Positive feedback from industry professionals spurred further commitment and the Kilyk’s attention to quality is evident in their current bottlings.

While Lucie Morton was living in their future tasting room home, she was impressed with not only the Kilyk’s work ethic but the wine that was emerging from their cellar. Given her reputation within in the industry she contacted David Schildknecht, a wine critic and full-time employee of the Wine Advocate, a global bimonthly publication that publishes 12,000 wine reviews annually.

The publication was founded by Robert M. Parker Jr, the most influential wine critic in the world and creator of the 100 point wine rating system. Parker’s reviews can make or break a winery. His nose and palate are insured for a million dollars.

To be employed as a critic by Parker places an individual at the pinnacle of wine evaluation. Schildknecht operates in a rarefied realm of wine appraisal.

Last year Morton sent Toni Kilyk an email saying she wanted to bring Schildknecht out to the winery to taste the wines. “I was working at the clinic that day and when I read Lucie’s message my heart jumped in my throat because here was this big, important guy coming and he worked for Robert Parker,” say Toni Kilyk.

IMG_7929Her fears were unfounded. Schildknecht liked the wines and later wrote in the Wine Advocate about their 2010 Humility, a full-bodied red blend, “When I tasted it from the barrel, I was shocked that wine of such promise—very much fulfilled in the bottle—could come from young vines and inexperienced part-time growers, not to mention from Warrenton, Virginia.”

He went on to enthuse, “But when you start talking with Toni and Luke Kilyk about what they are doing, their meticulousness and determination are evident. The Barbelo—a blend of Merlot and Barbera—is as original as it is delicious.”

Soon after such high praise the wine columnist for the Washington Post, Dave McIntyre, stopped by and later wrote, “Granite Heights Winery. Atop a ridge near Opal, between Culpeper and Warrenton, this newcomer is already producing some intense Bordeaux-style blends.”

Given the early praise it’s noteworthy that unlike almost every winery in Virginia the Kilyk’s refrain from describing the aroma and palate flavors of their wines. The tasting notes state, “We try not to characterize our wines with what you should be smelling or tasting—it is like leading a witness or reading a book and knowing the ending beforehand (that is not our style)—we want you, the taster, to discover and decide.”

Toni Kilyk underscores the accolades to date are likely to continue. The couple submitted their 2009 Lomax Reserve—a Bordeaux-style red blend–in Virginia’s 2013 Governor’s Cup wine competition. It was “the first competition we had entered and it won a silver medal,” she says. Their 2011 Petit Manseng won “Best in Category” at the 2013 Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association competition. The couple will attend a Capitol Hill reception for all the ASWA winners in September to receive their award.

Business verus lifestyle
There are over 8,000 wineries in the US today. A small percentage produce the majority of wine sold nationwide. In Virginia, there are about 240 wineries but many are also not making sizeable profits. The line often heard in the Old Dominion is, “If you want to make a small fortune in Virginia wine, start with a large one.”

It typically takes eight to ten years before a profit is realized given the cost of buying grape-friendly land, planting a vineyard, purchasing the myriad production equipment and building a winery. So what draws people to the business? Often it is the lifestyle and the creative urge to make a libation enjoyed by a surging number of Americans.

“Luke wouldn’t be doing this unless he could make wine as good as he can. He wouldn’t be doing this if he had to hire a winemaker or go fully commercial and make ten thousand cases a year. Basically it’s a big hobby and we have to share it,” says Toni Kilyk.

So is there payback to running a winery making less than a thousand cases a year?  Yes. But it comes in the form of building a following of wine lovers who enjoy what you’ve produced and receiving serious recognition for its creation.

The Kilyk’s straightforward goal is to retire and have the winery cover its operating costs. The payback of large profits is less critical.

Like many successful artisans, a professional wine career is established over time and “profit” can be accrued both monetarily and emotionally. If the Kilyk’s early recognition continues, the future will bring them fulfillment personally and appreciation from their customers.

And that will be money in the bank for these two Virginia wine and orchard farmers.

Granite Heights Winery is located at 8141 Opal Road, Warrenton, VA. The tasting room is open on weekends from 12 noon to 5 PM. Call (540) 349-5185 or visit for further information.      


Published in the Fall 2013 edition of the Piedmont Business Journal.          

Categories : WINE ARTICLES