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Yes, Virginia, you can make wine

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 8, 2007

Dan Mortland once was able to fit what he knew about the wine business into a small glass of Syrah. Now, he can tell you about soil composition, area rainfall, oak barrels, crushing machines, tasting rooms and government regulations.

It's all part of an education Mr. Mortland and his wife, Cheryl, have acquired in the past few years, after deciding to chuck corporate jobs and open their own winery in Northern Virginia. This year, Fox Meadow Vineyards and Winery in Linden will produce 1,900 cases of wine.

"We were visiting Virginia [from Pennsylvania], and we saw some ads for wineries," Mrs. Mortland says. "Dan always thought it would be nice to own a winery, but I thought they were all in California. I didn't even know there were wineries in Virginia."

Turns out there are plenty in Virginia, and new ones are opening every year. In 2000, when the Mortlands became serious about their venture, Virginia was home to 54 wineries. Today, that number is 123 and growing.

That number is still smallish when compared with California, the country's top wine producer, with more than 1,800 wineries. However, the recent growth makes Virginia — even with its hot summers and cold winters — something of a vintners' hot spot for the new millennium.

"I think Virginia has sort of gained a national reputation for small wineries," says Ann Heidig, owner of Lake Anna Winery and president of the Virginia Wineries Association. Ann and her husband, Bill, have been in the business for 25 years.

Many of Virginia's wineries are, like Ms. Heidig's, family-run businesses producing fewer than 10,000 cases of wine annually.

"People see it as a way to make a living in agriculture," Ms. Heidig says. "You can enjoy the scenery and work off a small piece of land. People see vineyards as romantic and fun — but that is because they don't have one yet."

To get to the point of pouring wines for visitors in a cozy tasting room takes a lot of hard work, not to mention money. Mr. Mortland recounts the six-year process to get from a parcel of land that used to be part of an apple orchard to the first bottling with Fox Meadow's own grapes in 2006.

Prepping the soil, including moving boulders and adding soil amendments conducive to grape growing, took about a year. Planting about 9 acres of vines was no quick task. Spraying and pruning the crops to keep them healthy takes time. The first grape harvest at Fox Meadow was in 2005.

Meanwhile, the Mortlands kept their corporate jobs for the first few years. After all, the product has to age more than a year before it is wine fit for drinking.

"People think 'what a beautiful life,' " says Mr. Mortland, 57. "What they don't see is you're working the fields when it is 90 degrees and the gnats are getting ready to carry you away."

Mr. Mortland is not complaining, though. The beauty of the land, the spectacular view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the opportunity to be his own boss — they are all part of the plan.

There are two keys to that plan, Mr. Mortland says — not carrying a lot of debt to start the business and consulting with people who know what they are doing.

"Our motto is, 'We know what we don't know — which is almost everything,' " he says.

The Mortlands, like most newbies in the Virginia wine business, have worked with specialists every step of the way. They have a vineyard consultant, who taught them what grapes would grow best at their 1,700-foot altitude. They have a tasting-room consultant who has helped them set up a nice place to sample and sell wine. Also crucial: working with a winemaker who has the right touch.

Then there is the matter of money. The Mortlands won't say how much they have spent so far, but they will say the operation is primarily self-financed. With no debt other than the mortgage, they expect to show a return on their investment within a few years, Mr. Mortland says.

"This isn't a 'retirement job,' " he says. "It needs to be a profitable business. But in spite of working with the best professionals, the cost of business is far more than we imagined."

Chris Pearmund is the managing partner of two Northern Virginia wineries and has served as a consultant for a dozen other local winery owners. Going into the wine business is not exactly a get-rich-quick scheme, he says.

"To have a successful winery in Virginia, you need a million dollars," he says. "If someone comes to me and tells me they are going into it to make money, I would talk them out of it. If they have a passion for the product and a long-term commitment, then I will help them.

"There are a lot of people in Virginia, though, to whom money is not important," Mr. Pearmund says. "They have enough to put $5 [million] or $10 million into the winery. They can hire good people and will be competitive. For me, I have a mortgage to pay. For me to compete against these guys makes it harder."

Still, for most people — the Mortlands and the Heidigs included — it is a business. Ms. Heidig stuck with her operation even while working weekdays at the Pentagon and commuting to Spotsylvania on the weekends. Now, two of the Heidigs' grown sons help run Lake Anna Winery. Last year they produced 7,000 cases of 10 varieties of wines, including cabernet franc, merlot and chardonnay.

Mr. Pearmund says the wineries dotting the landscape are doing a lot for Virginia tourism and Virginia's reputation for wine production.

"If I were to have friends and family here for a week, what is a tangible thing to hand them?" he asks rhetorically. "Peanuts? Cigarettes? Or wine? I think it is becoming the signature thing for Virginia. Maryland has crabs. Virginia has certainly come to embrace that wine has boosted the state's reputation."

Meanwhile, the Mortlands, as well as their son Bob, who manages the vineyard, have big plans to be part of the growing economy. In the works are an expanded deck, more visits to wine festivals, and a goal of producing 3,500 cases a year. There are vines to prune, bugs to fend off, suppliers to pay and wines to make.

Most important, there is a reputation to build.