Virginia’s wine industry is expanding. Grape-growing hasn’t caught up.
Winemakers are hoping new vineyards will take root in southern Virginia. But with continued entry challenges, not everyone is jumping at the opportunity
An aerial view of grape vines planted at Woodbine Vineyards in Mecklenburg County, which was partially funded through a grant program aimed at expanding grape acreage in southern Virginia. (Courtesy of Woodbine Vineyards)
Patrick Young knew he wanted to preserve his family’s farm in Mecklenburg County, a gently rolling estate once devoted to boarding and breeding horses. The challenge was figuring out how to make a living from it. Tobacco, once the area’s dominant crop, was no longer economically viable. That left Young, 36, searching for other options.
“I started looking into the brewery and winery industry and it was just exploding,” he said. “I couldn’t get over the exponential growth it was having.” He started taking viticulture classes at Piedmont Community College and spent two years working at Rosemont Vineyards, an already established winery less than an hour from his own farm. In the spring of 2018, he finally put down vines of his own.
It’s a path Virginia’s still-developing wine industry is hoping more people will follow. Over the last 10 years, 90 new wineries have opened across the state, which now lists a total of 281 businesses in the directory maintained by the Virginia Wine Board. Annette Boyd, director of the agency’s marketing office, said another 50 or so have been licensed by the state, indicating that even more could open over the next several years.
“There’s a lot of people who are planning to open a tasting room,” she said. The problem, according to the industry, is that vineyard acreage hasn’t kept pace. The Wine Board is still in the process of collecting data on exactly how many more vines the state needs to keep up with demand — including which varietals are most requested. But anecdotally, Boyd said she hears a lot about the shortage of Virginia-grown grapes.
That can create a conundrum for the industry. To qualify as a “Virginia wine,” at least 75 percent of every bottle must contain grapes grown within the state. Beyond the marketing factor, there’s a real sense that building a reputation in wine — characterized, beyond all else, by the land where grapes are grown — requires vines rooted firmly in the commonwealth. With a shortage of grapes, some companies end up importing from other states or other countries, or even buying pre-pressed juice that’s fermented at a third-party facility.
“But if you buy the fruit from California, it’s not a Virginia wine,” Boyd said. “We want to make a wine that stands for Virginia — our terroir, our unique climate and soil that represents us.”
“Wine is from a place,” she added. “And if you can’t say where that place is, you’ve got nothing.”
Putting down roots in southern Virginia
As the push for locally grown grapes continues to expand, there’s been a focus on Southern and Southwest Virginia, former tobacco territory that’s still working to find its future footing. In 2016, the state’s Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission helped develop a grant program for farmers in the region interested in adding vineyard acreage or converting existing farmland.
Amy Turner, who now manages the program through the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, said it was part of an effort to bring southern Virginia into the growing wine economy. But from a financial perspective, it also made sense to the program’s developers. With tobacco no longer economically viable for most farmers — many of whom participated in a federal buyout program that paid them to stop growing the crop — the region is still working to develop sustainable new forms of agriculture. And the hope was that starting a vineyard in former tobacco counties would be easier than in Northern Virginia or the Albemarle area, some of the most well-known regions for Virginia wine.
“The cost of land here versus Charlottesville, which is outside of our region and is where a lot of Virginia’s wine grapes are grown, is much lower for producers,” said Jordan Butler, a spokesperson for the commission. “So we thought there was a real opportunity to increase returns for the growers, as well.”
Finding willing participants, though, has been a challenge. The program has funded a total of eight unique vineyards and added roughly 35 acres of vines with a fairly diverse distribution across the state’s 40 former tobacco counties, from Washington to Mecklenburg.
“I think from that perspective it’s been a success — producers have produced more acres of grapes,” Butler said. But only two of the funded projects were entirely new vineyards, and he said there’s still plenty of room to expand.
“My sense is that success would have been a much greater amount of acreage than we’ve seen put into vineyards,” added Tony Wolf, a professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech. “And I think some of us were disappointed that the increase wasn’t quite what we hoped it would be.”
No one is blaming the farmers. Growing grapes has been a challenge in Virginia since the early 1600s, when settlers struggled to cultivate imported European vines in the state’s unfamiliar climate. Thomas Jefferson, a noted oenophile (the third president was the first American to visit France’s Burgundy region), famously failed time and again to establish successful vineyards at Monticello.
Viticulture has advanced exponentially since then, and growing successful vines in Virginia is no longer an impossible proposition. Wolf has spent years researching and developing vineyard strategies specific to the state’s growing conditions, which Boyd said has helped Virginia’s industry outpace neighbors in Maryland and North Carolina.
Still, growers today are contending with some of the same challenges as early colonists. Popular European varietals can struggle in the state’s muggy climate, which allows fungal pathogens such as ripe rot and powdery mildew to flourish. Containing the diseases requires a labor-intensive schedule of spraying, and ripe rot in particular is becoming increasingly difficult to manage, especially with an increase of hot, humid weather around harvest time, Wolf said.
“Then spring frost injury has actually increased because we’re seeing more variable temperatures,” he added. Virginia has always had a continental climate, which can mean dramatic weather changes in the early months of the growing season. But global warming has led to even milder winters, which can cause vines to bloom early. If there’s a cold snap after that initial bud break, it can be devastating for growers.
“You can lose an entire year’s crop,” Boyd said. “That kind of volatility is really frustrating to everyone.”
2020 was a perfect example, according to Sam Perry, who began cultivating vines on his family’s former tobacco farm in Dinwiddie six years ago. The prior year had been a pristine vintage, but the start of the COVID-19 pandemic also brought spring frosts that decimated vineyards across the state. Young estimated he lost 80 percent of his crop that year at his vineyard in Mecklenburg.
That makes starting a vineyard a risky proposition for most farmers. Not all land is suitable for growing grapes, and Wolf, who screens applications for the grant program, said he’s looking for sites with the surest chance of success. Usually, that requires some level of elevation, which can help vines avoid cold air that tends to settle in low-lying areas.
Then there’s the price. According to Boyd, the upfront costs of planting a vineyard are roughly $25,000 an acre. Perry, who’s expanding his plantings by another four acres in the coming year, estimates he’ll spend $16,000 alone on trellises. And unlike annual crops such as corn or soybeans, grapes can take at least three years to produce a usable product. Vines can bear fruit in the first year, but the best practice is to prune the grapes back so the plant can concentrate energy on forming a strong trunk and root system.
“When you plant a vineyard, it takes 10 years to actually turn a profit,” Perry said. “Yeah, you’re making money in terms of gross receipts from sales, but 100 percent of it goes back to the business and nothing goes back in your pocket. Maybe enough for a Chick-fil-A lunch.”
“It’s a vibrant industry, and it’s not going to go away”
In spite of the challenges, industry experts are hoping more growers will be persuaded to take a chance on vines. While there’s a significant investment of time and money at the beginning, Young emphasized that grapes are perennial, coming back year after year without the need to buy new plantings.
There’s also no question that the demand for wine is booming. In Virginia, it’s a $5 billion industry, according to statistics from the National Association of American Wineries. The state ranks eighth in the country when it comes to wine production and sixth when it comes to the total number of wineries, and vineyard space has nearly doubled over the last decade, growing from 2,400 acres in 2007 to 4,200 in 2017, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It’s a good industry, it’s a vibrant industry, and it’s not going to go away,” Young said. “Not like tobacco or anything else like that.” There’s also continual discussion of ways to improve cultivation and reduce some of the challenges for growers.
While European varietals command higher prices and name recognition from consumers (think grapes such as Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Petit Verdot) Perry said there’s a growing acceptance of hybrid species. Many vineyards grow at least a few acres of vines such as Norton, Chardonel and Chambourcin, bred specifically to withstand and thrive in more challenging climate conditions. Wolf has also been a champion of the relatively obscure European variety Petit Manseng, which grows well in Virginia’s humid weather.
In recent years, he said there’s even been more experimentation with truly native species such as muscadine — long dismissed as inferior in quality to Old World varietals. But the grape evolved to flourish in southeastern climates, and is resistant to many of the pests and diseases that plague non-native vines.
“Now there are new varieties being produced,” Wolf said. “And I’m optimistic we’ll see muscadines in the future that produce very good wines, so people will finally say, ‘Well, maybe we should be growing these.’”
In the meantime, recruiting more growers is largely dependent on word of mouth. Grant funding through the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research will run out at the end of 2022, and it’s unclear whether the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission will set up a new funding stream. The agency’s most recent strategic plan calls for more investment in “systemic improvements” rather than programs aimed at individual producers, and Boyd said the Virginia Wine Board is also more focused on funding broader research efforts to improve grape cultivation statewide.
Both Young and Perry participated in the grant program, which reimburses up to 33 percent of start-up costs with a cap of $15,000 or $20,000, depending on the size of the vineyard. While they said the funding was helpful, it didn’t come close to meeting the true price of getting into the industry, which generally costs more than $100,000.
“If they want more people, the grant really needs to be like 75 percent of your upfront costs,” Perry said. “I mean, it helps, but the price of everything is inflating right now.” There is some funding available through federal agencies, but he said the risks continue to be a barrier except in the cases of wealthy investors.
“I think we did what we could do,” Wolf said. “But at the end of the day, people have to take a breath and say, ‘Do I want to make this kind of investment? Sure, there’s some money available, but is it really going to move the pendulum to make it viable for me and my family.’”
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