Wine grape industry began to take root in Va. in late 1970s
The growth of wineries in Virginia continues to propel the growth of grape farming in the Commonwealth. Though modest in size as compared to other segments of the agricultural industry, grape farming has evolved into an important part of the ag market in Virginia.
With diverse geographical features, Virginia farmers grow multiple varieties of grapes to fill the needs of the local wineries.
“Though the attempts to produce wine in Virginia can be traced back to the first settlers, and even a few founding fathers, it wasn’t until the late 1970s when the industry began to take root,” according to a statement from the Virginia Vineyards Association. Today, the association indicated that there are about 300 wineries in Virginia.
Local farmers provide the needed grapes to keep the wineries in operation.
A total of 4,233 acres were planted with grape vines (including bearing and non-bearing) throughout the Commonwealth, according to the association.
The harvest in 2019 included an estimated 8,459 tons of grapes with an approximate value of $18.6 million (using an estimated pricing of $2,200 per ton).
The association indicated that 71 percent of wine sales were done through wineries. Three percent through the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, and 26 percent done through distribution.
The USDA reported that grape acreage in the Commonwealth of Virginia increased from 2,400 acres in 2007 to 4,200 acres in 2017.
The yields have varied during that time period.
The highest yield during those ten years was 2.97 tons of grapes per bearing acre, while the lowest yield was in 2.1 tons of grapes per bearing acre in 2017.
The yield per acre was estimated to have increased to 2.99 tons of grapes per bearing acre, according to the 2019 Virginia Commercial Grape Report issued in April 2020.
The same report indicated that for the five years ending in 2019, approximately 80 percent of all grapes grown in Virginia were of the Vinifera varieties; the amounts ranged from 78 percent in 2015 and 2016 up to 82 percent in 2018.
Hybrid grape varieties accounted for about 14-15 percent of all vineyard acreage from 2015-19, while American vines accounted for the remainder of the acreage.
The Eastern Shore counties of Accomack and Northampton form a distinct American Viticultural Area in Virginia.
According to the association, the AVA in the Virginia section of the Delmarva “is a grape-growing region that is defined by its geographic features which affect the type and style of the wine it produces. Wineries in the area can identify themselves as being in the AVA if their wines are made from a minimum of 85 percent of grapes grown in the area. … The area is defined by the Chesapeake Bay on one side and the ocean on the other. It benefits from breezes from the bay and the sandy soil of the area.”
One of the grape farmers in this AVA in the Delmarva is Chatham Vineyards on Church Creek. It includes 21 acres of French Vinifera grapes in Northampton County, Va.
According to owner Jon Wehner, 80 tons of grapes are produced annually at this farm; the value of the grape harvest is about $250,000 annually.
He said that 75 percent of the grapes were used at the winery, with 25 percent sold to others.
“Retail sales [have been] 85% direct to consumer, 15-percent wholesale,” said Wehner. “2020 sales were up 25 percent, we continue to see strong sales for 2021.”
“Weather, labor and operating costs emerged as key themes/challenges in the 2017 assessment,” according to the 2019 Virginia Commercial Grape Report. Wehner concurred that “weather is the number one factor in grape production.”
The report last year indicated that those challenges are expected to persist into 2020, although “labor appears to quickly be taking priority over climate.”
Growth, while limited in Virginia’s Eastern Shore of the Delmarva, is likely to continue throughout the Commonwealth.
“Overall, many producers perceive the Virginia Wine market as still relatively young/developing and have a largely optimistic outlook regarding its future, according to the Market Outlook section of the 2019 Virginia Commercial Grape Report. “Two in three respondents indicated that the industry’s ‘best days’ are still ahead of it/are in the future, largely citing perceived gains in grape quality and development of more efficient production practices. However, that’s not to say that it will be one without challenges. Whereas technology and viticulture are seen as the keys to driving growth, growers’ business acumen, most notably in marketing efforts, are seen as critical in the market’s ability to sustain that growth.”
(The Delmarva Jordbruk Chronicles is a news column that details agriculture in Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia. “Jordbruk” is Swedish for “Agriculture.” Please contact Richard McDonough at email@example.com. © 2021 Richard McDonough.)