- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — It can be pretty challenging to get a room full of adults of all ages and from all walks of life to agree on much of anything. But getting them to agree enthusiastically is the stuff of which dreams are fulfilled.

On a recent afternoon, winemakers and distillery producers in the western part of West Virginia met to discuss the creation of a trail that would link wineries and distilleries located within close proximity to each other for the benefit of them all.

There was so much excitement in the air, it was practically tangible.

“We have a gold mine right here,” said Bryan George, who owns Vu ja de Vineyards in Roane County.

It’s not exactly a new idea. Winery trails have long been established in nearly every state in the country.

There are 277 such trails nationwide, according to America’s Wine Trails, which compiles a comprehensive list.

There just aren’t any in West Virginia.

“Don’t worry; you can make your own wine trail by taking a day to visit a few of this state’s magnificent wineries,” suggests the website.

That, say many vineyard owners here, isn’t good enough.

With 27 farm wineries (and 10 distilleries) listed in the various branches of state government that track such things, somehow there’s just never been enough momentum to get a wine and distilleries trail going.

Until now.

After reading the first two articles in the Gazette-Mail series about West Virginia farm wineries, Mark Whitley, executive director of the Jackson County Development Authority, met with winery and distillery owners in the western part of the state on Sept. 16 to begin discussions.

“This is our first wine and distillery trail meeting, but it’s something we hope we’ll be able to build on from there,” Whitley said.

The meeting led to the formation of the Country Roads Wine and Distillery Trail on Sept. 26.

Whitley has developed a mock-up of a “passport” for the trail, which he believes will be beneficial to many other businesses in the Jackson County area, including restaurants, historical attractions, inns and hotels.

“The passport idea is similar to the VIP state park and national park passports, as well as the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky,” Whitley said.

By offering passports, wine and distillery trails encourage guests to visit more than one vineyard or distillery to compare samples at each and learn the different techniques used by winemakers and distillers.

“The scenic routes are just beautiful this time of year and we have a lot of visitors from out of state. We felt it was time to get involved to do something about this great opportunity and decided to have a strategy meeting. I’ve toured most of the vineyards and the distilleries, and their facilities are beautiful. We have so much to offer people. I’m excited about this,” Whitley said.

“The Jackson, Roane and Wirt county development authorities are pledging to get it done,” Whitley said.

Representatives of the state Division of Tourism and Department of Agriculture attended the meeting and expressed support for the group’s efforts.

Whitley also has been developing a proposal for a central retail facility for the wineries in the area.

Owners from Chestnut Ridge Winery, Roane Vineyards, Stone Road Vineyards and Vu ja de Vineyards, as well as Appalachian Mountain Distillery, Hatfield and McCoy Distillery and Herot Hall Farm attended.

“The more of us, the merrier. We’re not competitors. We want to help each other,” Mark Hatfield, of Hatfield and McCoy Distillery, said.

Phil Holcomb, of Chestnut Ridge Winery, even said he has plans to get a small bus service started.

“I’m purchasing a 10 to 15 passenger vans and will start at one of the bed-and-breakfasts and plan to visit the vineyards,” Holcomb said. He plans to develop food and wine packages for the tours.

Holcomb’s neighbor and Vu ja de Vineyards winemaker Bryan George has described the region of the state as a “mini Napa Valley,” due to the close proximity of three vineyards - Vu ja de, Chestnut Ridge and Roane Vineyards - and with Hatfield’s farm winery and distillery soon to open nearby.

There are plenty of concerns to be addressed still - including the lack of road signs for the vineyards.

“North Carolina and Virginia have really nice road signs with a standard logo and the name of the winery closest to the exit,” said Anna-Neale Taylor. She and her husband, Paul Taylor, own Roane Vineyards.

Teresa Halloran, a marketing specialist with the Department of Agriculture, has visited several winery, distillery and brewery trails in surrounding states.

“Keeping everyone unique is the key to this trail’s success, and I think that everyone can offer a unique experience at each location,” Halloran said.

She also pointed out that U.S. wine production and consumption is at an all-time high. According to the Beverage Information and Insights Group’s 2014 Wine Handbook, the wine category increased 1.9 percent to 325.4 million 9-liter cases of wine consumed in the U.S. last year.

John Brown, former commerce commissioner under Gov. Gaston Caperton and writer of the Gazette-Mail’s “Vines & Vittles” column, said the formation of wine trails in the state is a winner for West Virginia in multiple ways. “When I was commerce commissioner, we worked hard to develop hiking and mountain-biking trails throughout the state, as well as other trails.

“Linking those with wineries would be an excellent idea. It will help the whole tourism experience,” Brown said.

He said his involvement with the state’s farm wineries began long ago. Brown helped plant the first farm vineyard in 1977 at Fisher Ridge Wine Co. in Putnam County with Wilson Ward and Andy McQueen.

“With the trail systems and state parks we have right now, we could link these so easily. The state basically sells itself when people drive through it and they are looking for tourism opportunities. I think a wine trail would be wonderful,” he said.

Brown described visiting Italy and how that country’s entire economy is helped by wine tours.

“Wine is such a great thing to pull people together. I view wine as a food. It enhances the meal and the overall experience, as well as the ambiance of civilization, something that is sometimes missing in our modern life,” Brown said.

While efforts in the western region of the state are well underway, vineyard owners and distillers elsewhere in West Virginia are also eager to establish trails in their areas. Many are hoping by the time their grapes are ready to harvest next season, there will be a new crop of tourists to fill their tasting rooms.

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette, http://www.wvgazette.com

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