Almost 400 years ago, the first colonial legislative assembly, the House of Burgesses, passed what was known as Acte 12, requiring that all households in Virginia plant ten vines of European Vitis Vinifera grapes, or be punished for not doing so.
Such decrees were committed to the history books long ago, yet this marked the beginning of efforts, which, other than a 17-year hiatus during the Prohibition Era, have continued unabated to this day, to cultivate and develop grapevines in Virginia. Those efforts were met with continued failure thanks to a harsh climate, difficult growing conditions and the dreaded phylloxera pest, rendering European varietals unsuitable for successful wine production on America’s east coast.
With failure, however, came gradual progress. During the 1800’s for example, a hardy Virginia grape was discovered by one Doctor Norton, which bears his name to this day, and which produced a quality wine, winning awards both domestically and on the international stage.
Despite the fact that Virginia produces less than 1% of all wine made in the USA – California not surprisingly claiming the lion's share – the Commonwealth is able to boast in excess of 260 boutique wineries, and has the fifth largest winery population in the nation, resulting in the production of over 1.6 million gallons of wine in 2016.
This growth in the number of wineries and vineyards may suggest that establishing a vineyard is a fairly simple proposition; the fact is that it is anything but and absolutely not for the faint of heart.
So, what is the business of wine?
Boxwood Estate Winery
Siblings Rachel and Sean Martin run Middleburg’s family owned Boxwood Winery, set on the glorious former horse farm of General Billy Mitchell, father of the United States Air Force. Rachel Executive Vice President, worked to establish the Middleburg AVA, or American Viticultural Area, in 2012, a wine producing region designated by the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), part of the United States Treasury, a process which took no less than six years to accomplish.
Her brother Sean, is Vice President of Boxwood, and together with their mother Rita Cooke and stepfather John Kent Cooke, they acquired the property in 2001 with the sole purpose of establishing a high-quality vineyard and winery.
Engaging the services of renowned viticulturist, Lucy Morton, they planted an initial eight acres of Vinis Vinifera in 2004 resulting in their first vintage in 2006. Since that initial planting, the estate has grown to 26 acres under vine today, bottling around 5,000 cases annually.
Boxwood’s unique, modernist tasting room and winery was designed by Washington D.C. architect, Hugh Newell Jacobsen, and to round out the mission of developing great wines to complement this special venue in which to showcase them to a discerning public, the family hired Stéphane Derenoncourt, an established Bordeaux winemaker, as consultant.
Additionally, Boxwood established tasting rooms some time ago in Reston Town Center and, latterly, the National Harbor, where its customers sample wines from all over the world in an atmosphere and style reminiscent of Boxwood itself.
So, what did it all take to get here? Colossal amounts of energy and vision, supported by significant initial and ongoing capital investment together with faith in experts in their chosen fields to get it right when it came to growing the best grapes in the best locations.
The Martins assert that it takes at least a decade of commitment to go from initial planting to first profits, and to start recouping their initial investment. Having just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, that may answer why there were smiles all round at Boxwood this summer! They are vested in their community, with Sean sitting on Middleburg’s Economic Development Advisory Committee and the winery regularly playing its part in support of various town events.
RdV Vineyards and Winery
RdV, in the bucolic hills near Delaplane, is the dream realization of its owner and founder, Rutger De Vink. De Vink, a retired Recon Marine sought out the perfect 100 acres he wanted, finding a fifth generation Angus cattle farm with ideal terroir and orientation, and went to work on the owners, to convince them that they should allow him to buy it. His persistence paid off and, 16 years later, one of Virginia’s finest vineyard winery properties produces high quality wines in limited amounts, and in an environment which exudes the impression of serious financial investment.
RdV produces two wines, both Bordeaux style red blends, priced at $125 and $75 a bottle respectively, with tastings at $50 per person. At around 2,200 cases bottled each year, RdV clearly sees its market as the very upper end.
Estate Director, Master Sommelier and graduate of the Culinary School of America, Jarad Slipp, joined RdV in 2014 following illustrious careers at some of the worlds great restaurants. Slipp is serious about wine, and explains that RdV, from an investment standpoint, is not looking at a profit plan measured in years, but to create a legacy measured in generations. De Vink did not go into this with plans to package up a top tier business into a saleable asset. He sees himself as a steward who will pass on something unique, much like a Patek Philippe or an old master.
De Vink’s investment is not counted simply in dollars and cents. After the Marines, he did his time as an apprentice under respected Linden Vineyards founder, Jim Law, so that when the time came to launch RdV, he would undestand first hand the process from start to finish.
Only one French cooper supplies RdV with its oak barrels, and in order to ensure that the best possible blending is achieved, each year, one of France’s most respected enologists visits the winery to blend from various barrels in ratios which will produce the ideal sought after balance.
The barrel cave at RdV is an underground complex created by blasting into solid granite. That granite which surrounds the cave ensures that temperatures remain constantly low all year round. Like Boxwood, RdV also has its own bottling equipment, a machine which is used three days a year, but considered a necessity in a place where only the best will do.
Greenhill Winery and Vineyards
In 2012, aeronautical communications entrepreneur, David Greenhill, who had been scouring the Virginia countryside for years to locate the perfect winery to acquire, contacted respected, third generation French master wine maker and viticulturist, Sébastien Marquet, after stumbling upon a small family owned vineyard and winery in Middleburg which he was convinced was ‘the one’.
Greenhill negotiated its purchase and, aided by Marquet’s expertise, immediately set about turning his vision into reality. Isabelle Truchon, Marquet’s partner and renowned equine artist was engaged to develop a Greenhill brand from the ground up, and to re-design the interior of the member’s clubhouse, an important revolutionary era stone manor which had been, until then, the previous owner’s home. Now, as the newly branded Greenhill Winery and Vineyards, they began the design and build of a custom two-story tasting room, to take the place of the smaller, existing one which they re-purposed into a farm store, and a dedicated winery with unique barrel room, all of which opened this past January. New French oak barrels were ordered, as well as the finest European wine making equipment and stainless-steel tanks.
Distinctive creamy white Charolais cattle, a breed which originates from Marquet’s native Burgundy in France, roam the fields near the vineyards. They not only provide a rustic background for tasting room guests but also excellent meat for sale at the farm store.
The original ten-acre vineyard was supplemented by the planting of nine more acres under vine, while a 12-acre vineyard called Naked Valley, located between Charlottesville and Lynchburg, was acquired in order to grow additional grape varietals and add new flavors from this different terroir.
Initially, Marquet, who as well as being the wine maker/viticulturist is also the Chief Commercial Officer at Greenhill, purchased grapes from other vineyards in order to supplement existing availability to be able to blend sufficient wine for the fast-growing demand at the new property. The intervening years have seen healthy increases in harvest, allowing Marquet to bottle some 7,000 cases of wine varieties and blends including Chardonnay, a dry Riesling, Viognier, Seyval and Vidal Blancs, Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Malbec.
According to Marquet, acquiring an existing operation provided some advantages over a green field site, in that there was a degree of infrastructure in place. However, Greenhill has committed significant capital and resources in this extreme makeover, with the goal of becoming profitable during the next few years. They have focused on carving out their own identity as a premium wine making business, and customer centric facility which has been further aided by David’s commitment to local polo both as player and patron, with the result that Greenhill wine is synonymous with polo both at Banbury Cross and Great Meadow.
At Greenhill, as with other quality properties, customers can enjoy fine cheeses and charcuterie with a warm baguette to perfectly complement their favorite vintages. Add to that some local, live music on a Friday evening overlooking the scenic, distant Bull Run and Blue Mountain ranges and one can see why so many people frequent these serene spots.
A clear picture emerges from this sampling of dedicated Virginia wine entrepreneurs, all of whom have invested not only significant sums of money, but more importantly long term personal commitments to see their businesses thrive, and become fixtures in Northern Virginia. Local government support has been a crucial element to their successes, as has been a healthy culture of camaraderie between wineries to help develop clusters and wine trails, further encouraging wine aficionados to explore these delightful destinations.
Moreover, each business runs its own version of a wine club, where members commit to purchasing a specific number of bottles each year. In return, these VIP’s are the first to sip the latest vintages at members only release parties, as well as enjoying other benefits specific to each winery, such as dedicated member areas, complimentary tastings and wine themed evenings. These clubs build a loyal and solid customer base plus a guaranteed revenue stream every few months when it is time for members to pick up their wines.
In 2015, 8,300 people were directly employed in the Virginia wine business and $180 million of tax revenue being attributed to it based on over $1 billion in revenues.
Gorgeous swathes of land are kept from over development by these clusters of delightful properties, in addition to providing destination seekers with beautiful places to visit to enjoy the fruits of the labors of countless passionate hard-working people. The cumulative effect is to generate significant economic bounty to rural areas, not simply as revenue for tasting rooms, but also business for local restaurants and stores, helping to maintain rural communities throughout the Commonwealth.
The business of wine is a complex one, nevertheless it shows no signs of discouraging new comers to this capital-intensive business, nor slowing down the expansion of existing operations.
Hunt Country SIR
We are Hunt Country Sotheby’s International Realty, a Northern Virginia based residential real estate broker located in the historic capital of Loudoun County, Leesburg