Fans of Virginia wine and wineries surely must remember when they began to take an active interest in the industry, and what their first Virginia winery experience was. For the Notebook, 2001 was the big year.
For months, we had noticed those state-issued grape cluster signs directing traffic to (usually) remote spots off the main highways, primarily U.S., state, and county highways. At the time, those signs were brown, but eventually the signs were enlarged and changed to blue (some older wineries still have the brown signs announcing their presence). Driving back from the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville at the end of October 2001, we finally decided to follow one of those brown signs, which we assumed would lead us to an extremely rural location. We really didn't know what to expect. (Note about that Film Festival: That year the festival spotlighted late filmmaker John Cassavetes, and we had the pleasure of meeting his muse Gena Rowlands in person. Ms. Rowlands had wine glass in hand when we met her around 10 AM on a Sunday morning, and the constant drinking in Cassavetes' films may have whetted our desire to finally explore the Virginia vineyard scene).
The brown sign led us to what we later found out was one of the pioneers of the Virginia wine industry: Oakencroft. Since we were green about the industry, we cannot remember if Felicia Rogan herself was present, but pulling up to that beautiful location, with the pond in front home to ducks, geese, and swans, is something we won't forget. Then we tried the wine. "This is incredible! What a find!" That led us to try four more wineries on the drive back from C'ville that weekend. Two are still open (Burnley Vineyards near Barboursville, and Sharp Rock Vineyards near Sperryville), and two are not (Farfelu Vineyards and Unicorn Vineyards, both of which were outside Warrenton). Suffice it to say, we were hooked.
Delfosse Vineyard, near Lovingston, VA:
From 2002 to 2009, we kept a spreadsheet of every winery visited and scored them based on a variety of criteria. During that time, the annual Virginia winery guides had evolved from a small leaflet, to a regular-size brochure, to a small booklet. For at least two years, one could have his or her Virginia winery "passport" stamped by a participating winery and collect enough stamps to be entered into drawings for a variety of gifts (ranging from corkscrews to bottles of wine to winery weekend getaways).
As the number of Virginia wineries grew, the annual guide grew (and the "passport stamping," alas, was eliminated, although some regional and county-wide winery trails in Virginia still do this).
In 2006 and 2007, laws in Virginia changed. Virginia winery owners are probably very familiar with HB1435, which stated that farm wineries can produce and manufacture their product without a special use permit. Passed in 2006, HB1435 allowed for the wineries to conduct tastings, serve meals, and hold musical performances to promote their product. Prior to 2006, wineries still conducted tastings, but the regulations were a bit stricter regarding sale and distribution.
Around the same period, the Commonwealth of Virginia realized the value of agritourism. Combine this with more relaxed laws, and the proximity to a major seemingly recession-proof metropolitan area (Washington DC/Northern Virginia), and you have a recipe for incredible industry growth.
First Colony Winery, south of Charlottesville:
And grow they did; the number of Virginia wineries doubled and in some cases tripled from one year to another between 2008 and 2014. Some of the original Virginia wineries, such as Piedmont Vineyards (which was located near Middleburg), didn't take too kindly to the boom. We remember talking to the owner, Gerhard von Finck, who complained about the "numerous calls asking if limos and buses are welcome." They were NOT welcome: "I send them to Chrysalis." The formerly sedate days of Virginia wine and wineries were over. It was RIP for wineries owned by Virginians whose children did not want to continue the business: The aforementioned Farfelu, Christensen Ridge, Deer Meadow, Smokehouse (ask the owners of Sharp Rock about Smokehouse and be prepared for a very amusing story). Other wineries closed for other reasons (by choice, in the cases of Oakencroft and Piedmont, or due to highly publicized scandals, in the case of Oasis).
In 2010, our Virginia winery spreadsheet was traded in for the launch of Virginia Wine Notebook. Flash forward to 2018, and the Virginia wine market is firmly in place. Its success has spurred a current booming craft brewery industry, and up-and-coming cidery and distillery industries.
There have been some updates to the laws regarding serving of food and allowing of dogs in tasting rooms. As of 2018, wineries can offer food without the need for a food license as long as food prepared in a kitchen is not being sold to customers. And dogs are allowed back in the winery tasting rooms after an uproar (from winery owners and visitors) stemming from a short-lived rule that outlawed them. We presume the winery owners' cats are allowed in the tasting rooms too (shout out to Flint at Willowcroft and Warren and Goldie at Fabbioli Cellars).
2001 to 2018: What a long, strange, delicious trip it's been. There are currently approximately 275 wineries in the Commonwealth. We have a long way to go to catch up to Oregon and Washington state, and will never catch up to California. But we're nipping at New York's heels. We hope you write a few lines to share your first Virginia winery experience. Cheers!
Glen Manor Vineyards, near Skyline Drive and Front Royal: