Growing Virginia's Wine Industry

Jul 11, 2013

Credit Chateau Morrisette

Virginia may not be the first place that comes to mind as a winemaking region.  But it is, in fact, the sixth largest wine producer in the country. Vintners here would like to see even more growth in the field. 

The air is redolent with the smell of wine at Chateau Morrisette in Floyd County.  Large stainless steel tanks contain fermenting red grapes.

 “Part of the reason we keep these red wine tanks open for the red wine fermentation, is, that's actually the first part of the ageing process for red wines. The contact with oxygen is actually very important for the development of red wines," says sommelier Will May.

He specializes in pairing wines with food for diners at the restaurant here, gives tours of the winemaking areas to guests. He points to large outdoor crush pads where the harvest is brought in. For white wine, the skins are removed, but for reds, everything but the stems goes into the wine.
“Everything that makes a red wine a red wine comes from the skins without the skins all you have is a rose wine.  Rose wines are perfectly nice, but you lose all the tannin and flavor native to the skin of the grape.”

As in many of the 240 wineries in Virginia, there are amenities here, which make for increasingly popular destinations for visitors. A large timber frame building modeled after a French Chateau, houses a tasting room, event and meeting space, and gift shop.

Chateau Morrisette grows some of its own grapes, but it is also the largest buyer of grapes in the state in order to produce its 60 thousand cases a year.  General Manager, George Weldon says it buys nearly 700,000 tons a year, or 15 percent of Virginia’s grape crop.“But we’ve kind of maxed out the number of wineries with available grape production that we’re required that a large percentage of the grapes have to be grown in state to call it a Virginia wine.”

Scarcity of grapes also causes wine prices to rise, a tough situation for a state looking to increase its profile as a wine producer. So earlier this year, Weldon sent a letter to the governor suggesting an incentive program to encourage new growers to plant grape vines.  Upfront costs to start a vineyard are high and it will be years before the vines bear fruit.

 “None of this stuff is going to happen fast, so even if the governor today said we’re going to put out a grant out there for a billion dollars, it would still be 5 to 7 years before we would really recognize that investment in our industry so this is a long term problem we need to solve but every season that we don’t do something about it is one season further out." said Weldon.

Upcoming elections will likely delay any decision on juicing Virginia’s wine industry.   But it can’t come too soon for Chateau Morrisette.  It recently signed a five-year agreement to ship wine to Mainland China.