An innovative relationship between Southside Virginia farmers and Loudoun wineries is taking shape—with help from some of the state’s traditional tobacco growers.
The Virginia Tobacco Commission is scheduled to vote next week on a new grant program that would provide cost-share financing to help Pittsylvania County farmers grow grapes that could then be used by Loudoun wineries.
The concept is enthusiastically endorsed by both Pittsylvania County Agribusiness Development Director Fred Wydner, who wrote the grant proposal, and his counterpart in Loudoun, Agricultural Development Officer Kellie Boles.
Both note that Virginia’s burgeoning wine industry now ranks fifth in the country for production, but continued growth could be hampered by a shortage of grapes. That is the situation in Loudoun where winemakers often are forced to look outside the county and the state for supplies.
But, as Wydner points out, the decline of the once all-prevalent tobacco industry in Southside Virginia has opened the door for the Tobacco Commission to expand its programs.
“We have wineries here, but considering the love affair for Virginia wines and the state’s growing industry, we don’t have enough fruit to produce a true Virginia wine,” Wydner said. Although his region has fewer wineries than Loudoun, it does have important assets including cheaper land and more farming equipment.
As a commission study panel continued to explore the concept of developing Southwest Virginia as a grape source, wine industry expert Tony Wolf at Virginia Cooperative Extension and Jim Benefiel, winery owner and Virginia Vineyards Association member, were consulted. They both reacted favorably to the notion, endorsing the idea of increasing production in Pittsylvania County.
Eventually, the thinking morphed into a multi-prong approach to cover the 20 counties served by the Tobacco Commission. The program expanded beyond a cost-sharing concept, to include outreach to new growers, and research and education aspects, Wydner said.
The program contemplates planting one new vineyard for each of the 20 counties—100 acres of new vines.
“We would need significant acreage, a minimum of 30 acres, in Southside Virginia” Boles said.
As envisioned, the program grant would total $800,000, with $50,000 being set aside for education and another $50,000 for research. The remaining $700,000 would be for the cost-sharing component, resulting in grants of about $3,000 per acre up to a maximum of $15,000 for five acres. The cost of trellising, irrigation, deer fencing and planting vines is estimated at about $20,000 per acre.
For Boles, the venture could be a big help to the county’s shortage of grapes, as she noted the number of vineyards that grow grapes for Loudoun wineries.
Boles says a rough estimate of Loudoun’s shortage of grapes is 130 acres, even though the county has 535 acres in wine grape production. The new Pittsylvania grapes also will take time to come to full production. Wydner estimates the vines should be at about half capacity in year three, rising to three-quarter capacity in year four and reaching full capacity by year five.
Both ag officers stressed the need for strong and early cooperation between wineries and growers. “The wineries need to be in on the ground floor, working collaboratively with growers to learn which varieties would be useful,” Wydner said.
Boles agreed. “From the very start we need to develop relationships between the wineries and the new growers in Southside Virginia.” Southside growers need to learn what grapes Loudoun wineries need, she said, noting that certain varieties grow well in Loudoun’s soils, while others do not.
“We need the connection and a long-term commitment to selecting the grapes we need here, maintaining the vineyards and working with our wineries who have on-the-ground experience of what they need,” she said.
Several winery owners consulted for this article, while agreeing on the need for more grapes, gave opinions ranging from cautious approval to strongly enthusiastic.
Veteran Loudoun winery owner Lew Parker, who owns Willowcroft Farm Vineyards in Mt. Gilead, said the project could help. But he cautioned two issues need to be addressed first. “Land formerly in tobacco production can sometimes contain a tobacco virus.” Secondly, under the Virginia Farm Wineries Act, Class A license holders—including most Loudoun wineries—have to grow half or more of their own fruit. Starting a big new program with imported grapes could be a problem, he said.
Doug Fabbioli, owner of Fabbioli Cellars near Lucketts, said “It’s not going to be easy, but it can be done with some work.” However, he cautioned that tobacco is “a whole different crop.” If the Southside grapes had a varietal base, that would be perfect for his classic cabernet franc red—but not for some other wines that depend on the local soil for their flavors. “You can’t substitute that,” Fabbioli said.
But Ben Renshaw, owner of 8 Chains North Winery near Wheatland, gave the idea an enthusiastic thumbs up. “I’d support almost anything that would plant more vineyards in the state—they’re so badly needed,” he said, adding because the state marketing arm has got ahead of the agricultural sector’s ability to support the wineries ,planting more vineyards is the only answer.
The Loudoun Wineries Association and the Loudoun Wine Growers Association will hold their annual joint meeting Feb. 10. Boles has connected Wydner with North Gate Vineyard owner Mark Fedor, president of the LWA, in hopes that as soon as the grant program is approved it would help Loudoun wineries in starting to build relationships. Wydner plans to attend the meeting.
“We want to go ahead and move to set up on a long-term basis as soon as possible,” he said.
The Virginia Tobacco Commission vote is scheduled for Jan. 12.