Virginia Wine Making

Happy Thursday readers!

Whew, this week has been a long one!  Yesterday I left the house at 7:00 am and didn't make it home until 10:00 pm.  Luckily, it was such a late night because I visited some special people after my seminar in Cville.  I was thrilled to have dinner with the family I babysat for over 2 years--C, the 2 and a half year old said "No, I want you stay forever all day" as I told him I had to go!   Dinner was followed by Arch's (fabulous Cville frozen yogurt) and girl talk with one of my residents from last year.

All that being said, I am SO glad to have Student Teaching Guest Post #7 today which is by none other than...BRYCE!  If I haven't mentioned it yet, Bryce has quite the green thumb (unlike me) and has been working on making his very own wine.  I can't wait to try this wine in the future and today, his guest post will share the story of his winemaking journey--enjoy!

As a young man, I spent many weekends and summers on my family’s farm in Southside Virginia.  My family has lived in Charlotte and Campbell Counties for the better part of three hundred years and were predominately tobacco and cattle farmers, as they still are today. 

I can remember spending many summer afternoons looking for arrowheads in between long rows of bright tobacco and listening to music and stories told by my great uncles who were born in the 1920’s and grew up during the depression-era. They would always have “homebrew” (homemade wine, beer, and moonshine) and passed on their love of farming and home brewing to all of their nephews.  Growing up on a farm, there were always extra fermentable fruits, such as wild blackberries, huckleberries, persimmons, apples, and wild native grapes (probably of the Scuppernong variety) and during The Great Depression, they made use of everything that they had.

The tradition of American winemaking is almost as old as the Commonwealth of Virginia itself, and can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson in Albemarle County.  Jefferson, who has always been one of my heroes for being a great statesman and horticulturist, also shared in my love of all things viticulture.  He saw the similarities of the Virginia climate and soil to those of France, and began cultivating grapes here in Virginia. 

Figure 1: The current vineyards of Monticello (photo courtesy of Monticello)

Unfortunately, Jefferson had limited success with imported ancient European varieties such as Vitis vinifera (a species dating to between 130 to 200 Million years ago). Due to native diseases and pests, he had to continually replant his vineyard and probably never produced any wine at Monticello.  It was not until more recent years, when grafting to native grape varieties and the use of pesticides were common practice, that growing good winemaking cultivars was a success in the United States.  However, Jefferson is arguably the greatest steward of growing grapes in Virginia and is the undisputed patron of American winemaking.

Three years ago, I decided to plant sixteen (16) Corot Noir grapevines in Middlesex County, Virginia.  The Middle Peninsula is probably not the greatest place to grow grapes, but I have seen some success in the last few years.  Generally, the first year is devoted to establishing your vineyard and allowing the young vines to mature with vegetative growth.  The second year is for training your vines to a trellis or wire. 

Figure 2: Early second year – BAC and Jeb (the best black lab ever) after I finished putting in the wires

The third year will see some grape production, if you have been successful in the endeavors of the two previous years.

This September, I harvested my first grape crop and began producing my first vintage. 

Figure 3: De-stemming the freshly picked grapes

After sorting, de-stemming, and washing the harvested grapes, they are mashed by hand and put in a bucket to ferment. To start the fermentation process, yeast and sugar are added to the grape juice, skins, and seeds.  During fermentation, the special strain of winemaking yeast eats the sugar (both natural and added), and as a product produces both alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2). When either the sugar has all been eaten by the yeast or the alcohol content gets too high for the yeast to survive, the yeast will die and the fermentation is complete.
Figure 4: My homemade fermenting vessel made from a five gallon bucket.  The plastic piece on top is an air lock/water trap to allow CO2 to escape and to prevent wild yeast or undesirable bacteria to contaminate the wine.

Figure 5: The Must (from the Latin Vinum mustum meaning “young wine”) in the last stage of fermentation.  In parlance, must is the wine, before it can be considered “wine.”

This is the current stage in my production. To follow will include:

  • pressing - squeezing the grapes to exude any wine that they are holding
  • fining - the process that allows the lees (dead yeast and suspended solids) to precipitate and settle
  • racking - the process of siphoning wine off of the lees
  • bottling
  • maturation 
As you can see, there is a lot of labor and love that goes into making a very small amount of wine (there are about 2.5 gallons here).  This was the first year of grape production, so hopefully yield will improve.  I think that quality is always better than quantity and that artisanal production has much merit in any instance. 

Projects like these are often a great school in their own right.  They teach patience, forward thinking and planning, and most often humility.  It is a very special experience to see the fruit of your labors come to fruition (puns intended), and also the creation of a product that you oversaw from start to finish.

Lest we forget the most important thing…you get to drink the wine! It can take a good year (and arguably much longer) for a wine to mature enough to be enjoyable, so I will let you know how it turns out.

Virginiae Fidem Praesto.  Enjoy!


Have a great day!