Virginia wine industry booming, needs growers

The Virginia wine industry has earned plenty of national and international accolades in recent years, but the amount of grapes being raised in the Old Dominion has remained relatively flat.

economic-forecast-headerAnd that’s hampering the potential growth of the whole industry, according to Bill Tonkins, vineyard manager at Veritas Vineyards and Winery.

“Nobody’s growing enough grapes for large-scale production,” Tonkins said. “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.”

Under state law a wine cannot be called Virginia wine unless 50 percent or more of the grapes used in it come from Virginia.

The number of Virginia wineries jumped to more than 250 this year, Tonkins said. That represents tremendous growth from 78 wineries a decade ago.

“There’s opportunity in Virginia for growing grapes to sell to wineries,” said Tony Banks, assistant director of commodity/marketing for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “Given the greater growth among the wineries in Virginia, demand for grapes has outpaced production and has led to high prices for wholesale grapes in recent years. This is a trend that’s likely to remain until enough vineyards are planted to catch up with demand.”

Virginia wines have gotten enough recognition to open up new markets, Tonkins said. “We’re even opening up markets in China. We’re getting terrific recognition in London, but we’re not selling much wine there because we’re not making much. We’ve got our own brand now going, and we just need to be growing.”

Virginia is ranked fifth nationwide for wine production, tied with Texas. 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,” he said. “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. Enough to avoid spring frosts. Even farmers on the Eastern Shore could raise grapes.”

Technical support and information is available from Virginia Cooperative Extension and industry specialists for potential growers. The Virginia Vineyards Association’s 2014 Winter Technical and Trade Show is scheduled for 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 atwineriesunlimited.com.

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