- - Thursday, October 20, 2011

Gray Ghost Vineyards has a curious way of building customer loyalty: Make them work for their wine.

During the fall, hundreds of customers turn out to help with the harvest. Their reward? The opportunity to buy a case of wine at a 15 percent discount (plus lunch and a T-shirt).

“I love wine, and I wanted to see the process in action,” said Kristy Malik, 30, explaining why she woke up at 5:15 a.m. to make the drive from Lucketts to Amissville, Va. “It is hard work,” she said, bending over to place a grape cluster into a yellow bin.

Up the road, a half-dozen volunteers at Delaplane Cellars sat around a table, plucking stinkbugs, spiders and moldy grapes from the vineyard’s Cabernet Franc crop. Sorting grapes isn’t glamorous, but the work is crucial this year, said Jim Dolphin, Delaplane’s owner.

“The wetness and the humidity has in some cases led to botrytis, which is a mold that can lead to sallow rot, which is basically where the grapes start to rot on the vine and turn to vinegar,” Mr. Dolphin said. “It’s going to be impossible to make great wine this year.”

Starting with Hurricane Irene, Virginia’s winemaking region has become drenched during the last months of grape-growing season — the time when vintners most hope for drought to concentrate the berries’ flavors.

Although 2011 Virginia vintages may be a bit of a disappointment, 2011 wine sales have been spectacular. The state’s wineries have sold at least 462,112 cases, an 11 percent increase over 2010.

The state attracts about 1 million wine tourists annually, and they bring in more money than the wine itself. However, these gains may be the result of relentless marketing and a legislative climate that is more favorable than the weather.

“We’ve been spoiled over the last six vintages or so,” said Andy Reagan, winemaker and general manager at Jefferson Vineyards in Charlottesville. “We’ve had vintages not characteristic of Virginia. In Virginia, you can expect a tropical storm to come flying off the coast — and stationary fronts to hang over top of us like bad relatives.”

The 113 wineries that have popped up in Virginia since 2003 have enjoyed unusually dry growing seasons until this year. To avoid the drenching rain of Irene, many growers had to pick their white grapes early, before they reached peak ripeness, said Mr. Reagan. As for the reds, growers’ hopes for a late-season dry spell to refine overly plump berries have largely been dashed, he said.

Weather isn’t the only element working against Virginia grape-growing.

The state’s fertile soil — great for most other crops — is bad for wine grapes because it encourages the vines to direct energy toward bushy leaf growth instead of grape development, said Kathryn Morgan, a master sommelier and former wine director of Citronelle in D.C.

Winemakers also prefer soil that drains quickly, like California’s sandy stock, because it keeps grapes from becoming overly plump, Ms. Morgan said. Virginia soil, in contrast, holds water like a sponge.

Pretty much the only thing that Virginia has in common with California, at least this year, is earthquakes.

“It’s definitely a challenging area for grape-growing,” Ms. Morgan said. “Most of the great grape regions you think of can be warm or wet, but not both.”

Perhaps the first person to discover how challenging it is to grow grapes in Virginia was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson made seven attempts to grow European wine grapes at Monticello, and he failed spectacularly each time.

In his most ambitious experiment, in 1807, Jefferson killed some 24 varieties of European grapes simply by planting them in Virginia soil, which teems with phylloxera, a species of aphid that bores holes through European grape roots. Modern winemakers get around the phylloxera problem by grafting European grape vines onto American grape roots — a process now also necessary in Europe as grape growers accidentally introduced the insect into French soil in the late 1800s.

Jefferson’s grape-growing attempts probably also were stymied by fungus — which Virginia winemakers now combat with regular copper sulfate spraying. “I would imagine that growing grapes organically would be nearly impossible here,” Ms. Morgan said.

Even with modern technology, Virginia’s grape growers have to work harder than their competitors in Napa Valley, Calif., and the Bordeaux region of France, said Frank Morgan, who blogs about wine at drinkwhatyoulike.wordpress.com.

The battle against moisture, mold, rot and hungry woodland creatures is never-ending, Mr. Reagan said. Plus, in years like this one, winemakers have to get creative, sometimes drying overly plump grapes, experimenting with different yeasts to bring out subtle flavors and blending mediocre wines with better vintages, he said.

“It’s a different challenge every year,” Mr. Reagan said.

Working in their favor, however, is Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has declared October “Virginia Wine Month” and has racked up frequent-flier miles promoting Virginia wine in the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea and China. Meanwhile, the Virginia legislature has established a tax credit for wine farmers and pumped funds into wine promotion. Virginia wine boosters also have attracted some big-name investors, most notably Donald Trump, who bought a winery near Charlottesville this month and promptly named it after himself.

“Wherever The Donald goes, lots of people follow,” said Nancy Bauer, co-author of the iPhone app “Virginia Wine in My Pocket,” which describes all of the state’s wineries.

Virginia’s vigorous wine promotion, however, may be getting ahead of the state’s modest production. Sixth in the nation for wine-grape growing, Virginia falls behind Texas, New York, Oregon, Washington and California.

“We can barely feed our own state, let alone the entire world,” Mr. Reagan said.

As a result, Virginia wineries sell most of their wine in-state, rather than going through national distributors. That is why the Bellagio doesn’t stock any Virginia wines, though it’s as good as similarly priced vino from California, said Jason Smith, a master sommelier and wine director at the Las Vegas hotel and casino.

“You people in Virginia aren’t sharing,” Mr. Smith said.

Virginia wines also are relatively unknown in Europe. The notable exception is the United Kingdom, said Frank Morgan, who recently counted 15 Virginia wines on sale at the Whole Foods in Kensington, England.

While major wine distributors may prefer larger farms, wine tourists lean toward intimate operations, said Ms. Bauer. “People want to go to family-run wineries, and that’s what Virginia has,” she said. “A lot of the time, you’ll be standing at the tasting bar with the winemaker.”

You also can harvest grapes alongside the vineyard’s owners, I discovered at Gray Ghost, when Amy Payette caught me popping grapes into my mouth rather than the harvest bins. But while that level of participation may deter grape moochers, it’s what keeps tourists such as George McHale coming back to Gray Ghost year after year.

“We become like a part of the extended family,” he said.

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