- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

Chrysalis Vineyards winemaker Andrew Reagan stood over freshly picked grapes last week and proclaimed the harvest a success.

“All in all, the clusters look clean,” he said.

As they begin to pick grape clusters, many Virginia winemakers are expressing satisfaction with the crop this year. Dismal grape yields last year left a sour taste in their mouths.

“Last year was the year everyone complained about,” said Tony Wolf, viticulturist — the official grape-growing expert — for the commonwealth of Virginia and professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech University.

But the growing season still could present some challenges for the state’s wine industry, which has quietly blossomed into a $69.2 million industry, based on sales and production. Rainy weather has caused headaches for growers in central and eastern Virginia. A soggy end to the growing season, due to a prolific hurricane season, is creating more anxiety.

“We have a lot of nice stuff, but it’s still hanging. If we get creamed again [by more rain from hurricanes], it could be rough,” said Dennis Horton, owner of Horton Cellars Winery, a central Virginia winemaker and one of the commonwealth’s largest wine producers.

Virginia wineries and vineyards will continue plucking grapes into October. While grapes for white wine are being harvested, many grapes for red wine still are hanging on their vines, and growers are hoping for a few more weeks of sunshine to dry out vineyards and ripen fruit.

Vineyards have gotten deluged the past month, and too much water causes mildew and makes fruit rotten.

Problems with mildew occur every year, “but this year was particularly difficult,” said Tim Gorman, who owns Cardinal Point Vineyard and Winery in Afton, in central Virginia’s cluster of winemakers.

Remnants of Hurricane Frances dumped eight inches of rain in some parts of Virginia this month. Tropical Storm Gaston produced a foot of rain in parts of central Virginia last month, and HurriStorm Gaston produced a foot of rain in parts of central Virginia last month, and Hurricane Charley brought lingering showers in eastern Virginia in mid-August.

Hurricane Ivan spawned dozens of tornadoes in the state but produced little rain.

Vineyards in western Virginia have been spared heavy rainfall.

“It really depends on where you are. Some parts have been sunnier and drier than others. Up to this point the quality of grapes has looked good, but we’re getting to a critical period,” said Bruce Zoecklein, enologist — the official wine-making expert — for the commonwealth of Virginia and professor of enology at Virginia Tech University.

Jenni McCloud, who owns Chrysalis Vineyards, in Loudoun County, walked through tall grass up to rows of vines that are chock-full of beefy Norton grapes, a red American berry.

Surrounded by dogs that keep deer from eating the fruit, Miss McCloud says her 55-acre vineyard has been spared torrential rainfall.

“We will have much fuller, much richer flavors than we had last year,” she said.

Piedmont Vineyards and Winery owner Gerhard von Finck has an equally favorable review of the year’s bounty.

“There’s really no comparison to last year,” said Mr. von Finck, who devotes most of his 15 acres near Middleburg to Chardonnay grapes.

Most berries harvested by Virginia growers are vinifera grapes, or French hybrids such as Chardonnay and Merlot, and the commonwealth has become the nation’s fifth-leading producer of vinifera grapes.

Last year’s thin harvest produced 3,600 tons of grapes. Vineyards will produce about 4,300 tons of grapes this year, Mr. Wolf predicted. The increase also is because growers cultivated an estimated 2,400 acres of vines this year, about 100 acres more than in the past year.

More vines are on the way. There are 90 wineries in the commonwealth, and officials have applications for three new wineries, according to the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Even growers whose vineyards get soaked have shown that they can make good wine in adverse conditions.

“I look at last year as a defining year. These people showed they can make good wine even in challenging times. So I’m not as concerned about this season or these rains as some might think I am,” Mr. Zoecklein said.

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