By MELINDA WILLIAMS
If Virginia’s wine industry is to meet its full potential, more wine grape vineyards are needed, but a local agriculture agent warns potential growers need to do their homework before jumping into the business.
“I’m not trying to talk people out of it … there is a tremendous opportunity for Virginia to market wines worldwide,” said Scott McElfresh, Pulaski County’s Virginia Cooperative Extension agriculture agent.
However, he said potential grape producers should be aware of what they are taking on before investing in vines and becoming overwhelmed by the labor and delayed rewards.
According to Virginia Farm Bureau Federation (VFBF), the potential growth of the Virginia wine industry is being hampered by the fact the number of grapes being grown in Virginia has failed to grow along with the industry. State law requires at least 50 percent of the grapes used in a wine to be grown in Virginia in order to be considered a Virginia-produced product.
“Nobody’s growing enough grapes for large-scale production,” Bill Tonkins, vineyard manager at Veritas Vineyards and Winery told Farm Bureau. “The average-size winery is only about 5 acres. Those operations are not producing grapes in the quantities to make a large quantity of wine – no more than 2,000 or 3,000 cases a year.”
In the past decade, Virginia wineries have increased from 78 to 250, outpacing grape production and leading to increased wholesale grape prices. Tony Banks, VFBF assistant director of commodity/marketing, said this trend will continue until additional vineyards are planted.
In Pulaski County, McElfresh said the climate and soils “should work well for growing grapes,” but “that’s not to say everyone can grown them.” He said it would depend on the soil and elevation at each particular location.
He encourages those thinking about getting into the business to attend a meeting of grape growers and wine producers before proceeding. “There is a tremendous startup cost and you won’t see a profit for the first 5-10 years,” he said.
“Vineyards are also a considerable amount of work. As a grower once told me, it’s not all back-breaking work, but there is work to be done every day,” he added.
Virginia, tied with Texas, is ranked fifth nationwide for wine production. Tonkins said it could climb higher in the rankings with more wine grape vineyards.
“All you need is well-drained soil and, quite honestly, the rockier and stonier the better,” said Tonkins. “It helps the soil drain quickly. And that’s what we need to survive the hurricanes of September and October. If you’ve got a bit of elevation, that’s wonderful.”
Technical support and information is available from Virginia Cooperative Extension and industry specialists. The Virginia Vineyards Association’s 2014 Winter Technical and Trade Show is Jan. 30 in Charlottesville. Registration information is available at virginiavineyardsassociation.com/2014-annual-technical-meeting.
On March 13 an introduction to mid-Atlantic wine grape production will be part of the Wineries + Breweries Unlimited Conference in Richmond. Details are available at wineriesunlimited.com.