- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2000

The golf cart bumps along the rows of vines, scaring up butterflies, katydids and yellow jackets.

Driver Doug Fabbioli stops abruptly. "Did you smell that?" he exclaims. "Pure sugar."

He reverses the cart, backing to a stop beside a vine laden with dark purple grapes that give off a heavy, sweet fragrance.

Mr. Fabbioli's job is to pinpoint just when those grapes are ripe for picking, when they'll make a good wine. He is the winemaker and vineyard manager at Tarara Winery in Leesburg, Va.

The enthusiastic New Yorker came to the Virginia wine country via vineyards in his native state and California, the heartland of U.S. winemaking. Though the local climate presents challenges, he says the Virginia scene is promising the state's wines are continually improving.

There are about 60 wineries in Virginia and 10 in Maryland. Mr. Fabbioli, 37, is a member of the Loudoun County Wine Growers Association, and he says local winemakers try to publicize their craft.

"We in Virginia really are a wine community trying to educate people," he says.

His primary focus, however, is on making wine, not teaching people about it. And he is focused.

He arrives at work at 7 a.m., coming from his home on Tarara's property where he lives with his wife, who is an accountant, and two young sons. The 475-acre estate also includes housing for the winery's owner and workers, a bed and breakfast, man-made ponds and a wholesale nursery.

Mr. Fabbioli assigns the day's tasks. The staff is preparing the grounds and the wine for a corporate picnic on Saturday and a festival with other wineries at Tarara the weekend after.

He then spends some time in the cellars, tasting unfinished wines to check on their fermentation.

Grapes are hand-picked from the vines, then passed through a destemming and crushing machine. White grapes are separated from their skins. The juice of red grapes stays with the skins through the fermenting process.

The white pulp is put into large metal tanks with yeast, which causes the grapes to ferment. The yeast gradually sinks to the bottom, then is pumped through again.

The red pulp is put into a smaller tank. As it ferments, the skins float to the top, and Mr. Fabbioli or another worker repeatedly pushes them down again.

Both the white and red wines end up in oak barrels before being bottled. Tarara makes 10 varieties of wine, producing 8,000 cases per year, a relatively small output. Mr. Fabbioli sells one-third of the grapes to other wineries and home winemakers.

He is also overseeing an experiment of sorts. In the vineyard, some of the grapes are trellised. The winery's intern is making batches of wine from each trellis level to see if grapes closer to the sun are sweeter.

"There's a lot of experimentation in wineries. There is no one rule or one book on how to make wine," Mr. Fabbioli says.

After checking with another worker who is boxing wine and stacking pallets of boxes, he heads out to the vineyard.

At many wineries, the winemaker and vineyard manager positions are split up. Mr. Fabbioli thinks the combination allows him to be more in touch with the character of the grape, and therefore the wine.

"I'm able to see the whole picture… . If I grow good grapes, making the wine is a lot easier," he says.

This year has been a challenge because of wet, cool weather. Grapes thrive under hot, dry conditions that allow their sugar content to rise. With rain also comes increased risk of disease, Mr. Fabbioli says. He stops several times in the vineyard to check leaves that have been afflicted with downy mildew.

He also tastes the grapes. He has decided that certain varieties will be picked the next day and wants to make sure he's chosen correctly.

"I've spent a lot more time tasting the grapes than looking at the numbers," such as acid levels, he says.

After tooling around the vineyard for a half-hour or so, he heads back to the winery itself. In the afternoon he turns to administrative tasks. He also must lead a safety training session on clearing grape skins out of the tanks.

Whitey Hubert, who formerly owned a construction company, bought the land where Tarara stands in 1985 so he and his wife could retire there. He then decided to start the winery.

Mr. and Mrs. Hubert named the winery Tarara, say the women staffing the tasting room, because it is Ararat spelled backwards. As the Bible tells it, Mount Ararat is where Noah landed after the flood. His first act on dry land was to plant a vineyard.

Mr. Fabbioli got the wine bug as an undergraduate at Syracuse University. While he studied business management in school, he toiled in the cellars at a friend's father's winery.

"I started in the cellars and just stayed with it, really… . I really loved working out in the vineyard and getting the grapes to grow," he says.

He headed out to Sonoma Valley in California and worked at the Buena Vista Winery for 10 years before returning to the East Coast to be closer to family in 1997.

Now he's taken the next step, buying land of his own. On 25 acres up the road from Tarara he plans to plant his own vines in the next couple of years. He expects to see a wine-worthy yield a couple of years after that.

"I'll never retire from it," he says of winemaking.

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