- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

WISE, Va. — David Lawson’s vineyard begins at a small fishing pond and rises on a gentle slope to a prairie of clover and buttercup in the blue-green mountains that roll through this part of western Virginia.

It’s a paradise that could inspire good wine, even though the beauty in some places is only a few inches deep.

This is coal country, after all. A decade ago the vineyard was part of a strip mine where men drilled holes into the earth and planted explosives that made nearby homes rattle and quake.

“This is never going to be like Napa Valley where every vine is perfect,” the 25-year-old Mr. Lawson said. “Some of these vines are sitting right on top of a rock and won’t grow anything.”

But with care, Mr. Lawson said, grapes seem to like it here. The 3 acres of former strip mine that overlap his vineyard are now alive with leafy rows of golden traminette, deep red chancellor grapes and varieties of chardonnay, Riesling and Concord.

It’s an odd sight in the Virginia coal fields, a region certainly not known for fine wine. Most of Virginia’s 250 vineyards are in the northern and central part of the state. And mining officials say Mr. Lawson is the only farmer in Virginia to build a commercial vineyard on a former coal mine.

“It tickles me to death to hear that they can do anything with this” soil, said Barney Reilly of Clinchco, Va., a vocal critic of the environmental effects of mines.

For Mr. Reilly, Mr. Lawson’s vineyard is rare proof that people can still live off the land, even after its insides have been ripped out.

“Once they strip the land, all the trees are gone,” Mr. Reilly said. “All the good dirt that’s around the trees is gone. There’s really no top soil anymore.”

Coal mines carved up more than 141,000 acres in Virginia between 1966 and 2002, according to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

Much of that has since been reseeded and returned to forest as part of a 1981 state law ordering coal companies to leave land in at least as good condition as they found it.

Farmers have tried to grow crops on a small percentage of the “reclaimed” land, though the soil the miners left behind is mostly gray and lifeless and packed down from the heavy machinery.

It’s usually too rocky to plow and too harsh for a traditional field of tomatoes or corn.

“You need crops that can grow without any plowing,” said Jon Rockett, a Virginia extension agent who specializes in regrowing strip mine land. “Strawberries, blueberries … nectarines, apples.”

While there isn’t much of a wine tradition here, Mr. Lawson says vineyards should do well with the relatively cool temperatures and low humidity throughout the year.

“I’ve been doing some comparisons: Our day and night temperature is within a few degrees of Napa Valley during the growing season.”

The mine also gives Mr. Lawson some advantages, he says, providing an unusual mineral content in the soil that gives his grapes an especially intense flavor.

Bob Carlson, the owner of a winery 50 miles away in Abingdon, agrees. He bought some of Mr. Lawson’s traminette two years ago. “It was a very nice wine,” he said.

Mr. Lawson, a ruddy-faced farmer who wears a straw hat over his straw-colored hair, has wanted to grow grapes since he was a teenager. He started six years ago, borrowing money from his parents to build a 6-acre vineyard on land his family has owned since the 1800s.

It hasn’t been easy.

The coal company, which has mineral rights to part of the land, left it hard packed with an acidic soil full of crushed bedrock.

After six years planting and tending his vines, the ground still has no real layer of topsoil and Mr. Lawson says his grapes are in regular need of compost.

Then there’s the foul weather: Heavy rains one season drowned half his crop, and a surprise frost two springs ago wiped out his entire harvest.

Still, Mr. Lawson managed to sell his Riesling and traminette to a few small wineries in 2001 and 2002. And he has bottled some of his own private wine for years.

This year, Mr. Lawson expects to harvest about 6 tons of grapes.

“I’ll probably be out of debt when I have three more good harvests,” he said.

Already, Mr. Lawson is seeking out more strip mine land to expand his vineyard, and he’s building his own winery on the property. The hope, he said, is to someday have a grape variety that grows extremely well in the former mine.

Sitting on his porch and scanning his ripening vineyard, Mr. Lawson said that despite the difficulty and work that goes into growing on strip land, he still has many reasons to smile.

“Maybe this will someday become a tourist attraction,” Mr. Lawson said. “They could put signs from the highway.”

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