From the Vine to the Vat
Exploring VA Wines
By Doug Fabbioli
From the Vine to the Vat
The harvest season in the wine industry consumes time, energy and focus of the winemaker and the team in a way that is difficult to describe adequately. This process of crop preservation has happened since the beginning of agriculture and civilization. In a very short time, all the effort of the growing season is transferred from the vine to the vat. Hot days, rain storms, equipment malfunctions, exhausted staff, long days and nights, and critical decisions all add up to an opportunity to give the job everything you have and to set the bar for the quality of the vintage. I am deep in the middle of this annual event as I write this so you may see a different side of my thoughts.
The weather this season has been inconsistent: hot, cool, wet, dry. This means more challenges and transitions in the vineyard. I could have done better this year: being a little overextended kept me and the team a little behind this year, mainly when the weather shifted and I didn’t react quickly enough. With challenge comes opportunity, though, and I am very proud of how my staff has been working this year. We incorporated some of our Ag School students in with the regular team, which has worked out well. My regulars got a chance to teach and lead more as a result, and to work with people they were not used to working with. I also have had more opportunity to teach and nurture some fresh folks, as well as encourage seasoned team members stretching out of their comfort zone.
In addition to the harvest season, this is normally our busiest time in the tasting room. September and October have traditionally been filled with families, new visitors, tasting groups, and wine club members coming out for a fall experience in the countryside and October is Virginia Wine Month. Wine sales have always been very strong during these months as well. I have become concerned over the past few months as our customer counts and sales numbers have been down substantially compared to previous years. I know there are a number of factors influencing this situation, but identifying and reacting to these factors is not always quick and easy.
As a farm winery, when sales are down, I can’t just send a memo to the vines not to produce grapes. The grapes grow regardless. We sell the surplus to others as we can or shift gears to make other products that may sell better. Another challenge is that our business model is built not only on customers coming out and tasting wine and enjoying an afternoon, but on buying wine to take home with them. Many of the new wineries and breweries make their income on the experience at the venue and anything the customer takes home is gravy. And many of them don’t really farm, so if sales are down they simply order less material and make fewer products. But the grapes are ripe and waiting, so my challenge is to build a strategic plan that balances production and sales and still has flexibility to be adjustable when needed, both long term and short.
My hope is that people recognize that the romance and tradition of this industry are a part of what keeps it from changing on a dime, and that some things (rain, freezes) are beyond our control. All businesses have been affected by our changing climate as well as our changing social cultures, and wineries are no exception. We are, like everyone else, doing the best we can.
So what can you do? Visit wineries, both old favorites and ones that are new to you. Buy wine to enjoy at home and to share at a friend’s. Be an advocate for Virginia wines, for your favorite wineries, and for the industry in general. As our social circles have shrunk over the last 18 months, folks have not consumed wine like in the past. We all benefit from the wineries and their agricultural efforts, though. We—the wineries and vineyards—hope that we can sustain what we are doing well into the future. Some years it is easier than others. For my part, I’ll continue to work hard, and hopefully smart, to continue being a good steward of the land we love.