Virginia's True to Our Roots Authenticity
Keep'n it Real in Virginia Wine
I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since I first planted vines at our Madison County country property. This year we at DuCard Vineyards will be celebrating our 10th anniversary as a Virginia farm winery. Time flies of course. Back then, the industry was mostly individual entrepreneurs like me – just guys with a few acres wanting to make some great wine and hoping some tourists roaming the countryside would stop in, try it and take some home.
There are more and more options for local consumers today. Farm wineries like us, of course, but also other types of wineries that are closer to wine shops or wine bars. There are also countless new categories of alcoholic beverages: cideries, urban microbreweries, ‘farm breweries’ and distilleries. And what the heck are those ads on NFL games for Bud Light seltzer anyway – they advertise specifically that it does not have any Bud Light in it?
The more options, the more challenging it is to differentiate yourself and appeal to a particular ‘niche’ market of some kind. At DuCard, we have emphasized being a boutique winery. We operate in a ‘green’ and sustainable fashion in a gorgeous mountainside setting. We offer artisanal, high-quality wines made from grapes grown and lovingly tended and controlled by us and made the old-fashioned way in small quantities that are sold only on-site at our tasting room. Our emphasis is on providing a personal and memorable consumer experience. That’s a mouthful, but we have been able to stick very close to it.
Where It All Started
Historically, pretty much the entire Virginia wine industry pursued this niche. To go wine tasting meant a trip to the countryside to look out on vines and rub elbows with the vineyard manager and the winemaker (often the same person – the owner, who half the time was the one pouring too).
You got to taste the local wines while enjoying music on the patio and other appropriate on-site events that the Virginia legislature has uniquely allowed “farm wineries” to do, with few local restrictions, to enable growth and provide a rural experience. You’ll still find many of the pioneers who laid the foundation for the industry involved at the older wineries in the state – grape growers, winemakers, and visionaries on whose shoulders we all stand. Even today, the state motto is "Virginia Wine: True to Our Roots."
But the landscape is changing.
Virginia's Savvy Wine Consumers
Every day someone asks me in the tasting room: Do you grow your grapes? Do you make the wine yourselves, here on the property? Wow. Uh, yes, and yes. Of course, duh. Until the past year or so I never heard anyone pointedly ask that. Maybe consumers are becoming savvier about the changes that are going on.
It’s becoming big business, with 6.6 million bottles of Virginia wine produced last year, over 2 million visitors coming to our tasting rooms, and overall economic impact measured at more than a billion dollars. And, maybe not surprisingly, new ways of operating are being launched by a new generation of business-savvy and well-capitalized entrepreneurs.
There are now “Virginia farm wineries” that grow few of their grapes. They are not a farm, and they let others worry about the pesky farming details - frost, humidity, mildew, harmful insects, hurricanes, tractor maintenance, labor availability and all the rest. By using ‘leases’ they can still call the fruit their own. And PS some of that fruit is coming from California, too, to boost production.
There are now “Virginia farm wineries” that grow the grapes but don’t make the wine that has their name on the label. By outsourcing the winemaking to others they don’t have to invest in expensive equipment, tanks and barrels, and all the rest, and don’t have to deal with the inevitable vagaries, risks, and challenges of processing, fermenting and aging the wine.
These folks often are in the midst of planting some grapes and maybe planning to build their own winery later, but the attractiveness of these new approaches might mean they won’t end up doing so.
New Styles of Virginia Wineries
Maybe I should be jealous. It all sure seems ‘easier’ than the dirty fingernail, sweat the details work that we’re doing every day at DuCard in the vineyard and the winery. These new style operations, often elaborate wine-themed bars located close to major population centers and using the same “farm winery” privileges, can start selling and getting a return on investment right away, without having to wait years for new grapevines to produce grapes and then wait further to make and age the wine before selling it. Weddings and large events can provide great cash flow too, with wine sometimes being a secondary or supporting activity.
Contracting out to experienced, in some cases nationally and internationally known, winemakers located elsewhere in Virginia certainly helps improve overall wine quality and enables us to better compete against France, California, and others (PS we’re doing pretty well in that regard already). And growing the grapes in “off-site” locations allows new vineyards to be situated in the most suitable (and lower cost) places, spreading weather-related risks across multiple sites and enabling economies of scale that drive operating costs down.
OK, so these guys are smarter than me, I guess. Are these new “business models” popular and successful? Sure, look at the crowds. But I think something is getting lost along the way. They just don’t seem authentic.
In these new-style operations, the consumer is probably not going to meet the guys tending the grapes or the woman (yes, increasingly so) making the wine – or experience the passion they bring to their work. The owner is unlikely to be found walking around on the patio, chatting with customers, sharing personal history, and answering questions. The bar staff is less likely to know details about the wine or be personally involved with the grape growing or winemaking. There’s less of a connection with the unique aspects or sense of place (“terroir” is the famous French term for it) associated with where the grapes were grown. And that annoying or inconvenient trip out to the boonies no longer becomes necessary – though ironically it’s what often fulfills the soul, helps reconnect with nature, and provides a welcome glimpse into a more traditional lifestyle.
Where is Virginia Wine Heading?
Our industry is not blind to the issues. We need to evolve and want to continue to be a great success story for Virginia. But common sense dictates that to be a “Virginia farm winery” you’ve got to be farming grapes and you, yourself, need to be producing the wine that reflects your unique location and style. What has made us popular to date has been the full authentic experience – not ‘just’ the wine in the bottle. And most Virginia wineries, especially those who have been around for a while, are focused on this niche. We are moving in the direction of tightening things up regarding who qualifies as a Virginia farm winery and what we can uniquely offer – though the devil is in the details, as always. The world has lots of niches so there’s room for everyone and I expect we’ll eventually sort it all out.
In the meantime, I sincerely hope you will continue to search out and celebrate authenticity at places like DuCard Vineyards, where we are and remain True to Our Roots.