Is Napa Style Coming to Virginia Wineries?

By K.A. White | April 9th, 2024

A winery owner’s perspective

Virginia vineyard with mountains in the distance, by Igor Skryagin. Is Napa Style Coming to Virginia Wineries?

The owner of Chateau MerrillAnne winery in Orange, Virginia, K.A. White, reflects on the history and future of Virginia wineries and vineyards.

There are few institutions in the Commonwealth of Virginia that are as beloved as its wine industry. With a backbone of small, family-owned wineries, it offers a one-on-one charm that few other business environments can present. But, many see a trend emerging that could change that.

The dawn of the modern Virginia wine industry is widely regarded as Gabrielle Rousse’s first planting of vinifera grape vines at Barboursville in 1976. If that indeed was the seed, then the fertilizer was the Virginia Farm Winery Act implemented in 2007. Passed in large part through the hard work and persistence of David King, the Virginia Farm Winery Act offered a streamlined path to success for farmers, wine makers, and enological entrepreneurs.

Making the Virginia Wine Dream Come True

Prior to the passing of the act, Virginia barely had 100 wineries and vineyards. Today, that number has swollen to more than 330 wineries, cideries, and meaderies in the Commonwealth. Originally not considered a viable economic investment by many legitimate investors, this explosive growth was fueled by a seemingly endless parade of mom-and-pop operations that featured converted barns, garages, and sometimes the dining room tables from their homes as makeshift tasting rooms. With each being so different and having their own particular quirkiness, these mismatched enterprises formed a wonderful mosaic of personalities, recycled architecture, and, of course, wine. There was a charm to wine tasting in Virginia that went far beyond the linear tasting of wine samples.

Unlike Napa, where almost every driveway leads to a winery, tasting in the Commonwealth offered a pleasant journey between each destination. The scenery, relaxing conversation, and palate recovery time between stops all added to the overall quality of one’s wine tour.

white and red wine in glasses outside at Blenheim vineyards. Grettig photoAs Virginia’s wine industry expanded, so did the quality of its product. Having seen California benefit greatly in its formative years from information sharing and cooperation, Virginia’s vintners took a similar path. Both vineyard and production techniques were shared and refined as well as marketing cooperatives like wine trails. Tasting room operators quickly realized the benefit of sharing customers. The majority of these consumers were looking to visit three or four wineries per outing and always appreciated any recommendations on where to go next. And, by recommending fellow wineries the vintners understood they were both providing a service to their departing customers and helping their fellow wineries. Help that they knew would be reciprocated.

By the early 2000s, demand finally caught up with supply as an incredibly loyal fan base had grown from a small group of traveling wine fanatics to a diversified assembly of sophisticated consumers and full-blown wine tourism. Suddenly some of the wineries were becoming profitable. Purpose-built tasting rooms started to pop up and expansion was the order of the day. Investors started to take notice, and large, Napa-style tasting room projects were suddenly finding the financial support they needed to become a reality. Featuring huge square footage, stunning architecture, great views, and desirable amenities, these large operations were dependent on customer retention. Soon in-house restaurants, live music, and, in some cases, breweries became the calling cards of this new breed. It was all about keeping the customer onsite.

For some, this was a welcome change. Ed Trainum, a retired electrical supervisor, enjoys dining at wineries with his wife, Charlotte. “We enjoy taking a picnic to the small places, but it’s nice to just show up at a larger winery that has a full-service food establishment and enjoy a meal.” They understand that quite often one-on-one time with the vintner or wine maker is the price to be paid for that convenience, but minimizing driving time and enjoying high-end dining are the values that make it worthwhile.

Others see the flip side of the coin. Rob and Wendi Delaney have been ardent Virginia wine lovers for many years, visiting both the large, very commercial wineries as well as the small mom-and-pop places. “We visit them all,” Rob says, adding, “but we prefer the small ones.” Their main attraction to the more grassroots establishments is the ability to talk directly with the owners and winemakers. And, because their goal isn’t necessarily to visit every winery, they revisit their favorites on a regular basis and have become friends with many Virginia vintners. For them, it’s the best part of the experience.

Exterior of a winery in Virginia. Photo credit Rob DelaneyEven in the most friendly and cooperative environments, the will to survive is always present. Feeling the growing market share of the large, commercial wineries and unable to simply add full-service restaurants, lodging, or amenities, the small wineries increasingly offer visits from popular food trucks, live music, and on-site RV parking. And, the wine-consuming public responded positively, as the health and viability of most small Virginia wineries have remained high. Despite the concern of some that “mega wineries” would squeeze out smaller ones, all evidence now points toward a Virginia wine industry that is well-balanced between large and small – making it one of the nation’s most eclectic.

Just as any successful enterprise has its stars, the people who made it all happen, the Virginia wine industry has a galaxy’s worth of personalities that are as interesting and diverse as any wine region in the world. In the 200-year runup to the beginning of the modern Virginia wine industry, people such as Thomas Jefferson, Philip Mazzei, and Daniel Norton laid a foundation of hope and desire. In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, visionaries like Gabrielle Rouse, Dennis Horton, and Jennifer McCloud steered a path for Virginia wine that most could not see at the time. Their persistence, financial investment, and undying faith in what they were doing paid off. As the new century unfolded, incredibly talented vintners such as Jim Law, Luca Paschina, and Michael Shaps developed production techniques specifically designed to deal with Virginia’s unique challenges, raising wine quality exponentially. Following in their footsteps, but using their own ideas and refinements are the new top guns of Virginia wine, Mathew Finot, Ben Jordan, Jake Busching, Melanie Natoli, Stephen Bernard, and Chelsea Blevins, just to name a few. And, with the contributions of all the aforementioned, and many more, Virginia has become a world-class wine producing region.

In the end, with more wineries coming online every year, and an increasing percentage of them being of the large, full-service variety, consumer choices have never been better. Whether you want commercial and glitzy, a mom-and-pop shop in a barn, or anything in between, Virginia is the place for you. Drink up Virginia, and have it your way!

K.A. White is a freelance writer and has been a member of the Virginia wine industry for 13 years. He is currently owner of Chateau MerrillAnne winery.

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