Meet the New Owners: Barrel Oak, Fox Meadow, and Sunset Hills
By Matthew Fitzsimmons
Chris Pearmund once said, “The sale of a winery is the fulfillment of two dreams. The dream of the new owner, and the dream of the seller.”
This statement holds more truth than people realize. Operating a winery is fraught with financial risks, ranging from swings in the economy to Virginia’s capricious weather. At any given time there are around a dozen wineries on the market, many of which take years before they find the right buyer.
While some prospective vintners prefer to start their dream winery from scratch, others opt to purchase an existing property. The new owners of Barrel Oak Winery, Fox Meadow Winery, and Sunset Hills Vineyard (with its sister property, 50 West Vineyards) decided to take this second route, all with an eye of how they can elevate Virginia wine.
Barrel Oak Winery: Kavelle and Ken Bajaj
Kavelle and Ken Bajaj already possess a long roster of titles including President, Founder, and CEO. With their July purchase of Barrel Oak they have a new title; ‘Winery Owners.’
The Bajajs emigrated from India in the 1970s and made their fortune in the IT world. Despite this, their joining the Virginia wine community is hardly surprising considering their interest in both wine and farming.
“I’m a farm girl at heart,” laughed Kavelle. “His dream is to make the best wine in America. I’ve been drinking wine forever!”
The couple looked at several local wineries before choosing Barrel Oak as their latest venture, in no small part because it possessed an established brand and experienced staff. The family-oriented nature of the Virginia wine industry, and Barrel Oak in particular, was also a draw.
“That’s what was appealing about Barrel Oak,” said Ken about founder Brian Roeder. “The families of these places were doing the work.”
Making ‘the best wine in America’ is a lofty goal, but the Bajajs are undeterred. As soon as the purchase was finalized they shared a bottle of Caymus Special Select (a high-priced Napa brand) with winemaker Jeremy Lingon and told him, “This is the benchmark of quality we are aiming for.”
Fortunately, Jeremy is rising to the challenge. This December, the San Francisco International Wine Competition awarded his 2021 Pinot Gris Double Gold.
Various upgrades have since been implemented to achieve their vision of a more premium experience. While some favorites including the Bowhaus Red & White will be retained, Jeremy is reducing his roster of 25 different wines to a more manageable 15 or so labels, focusing on drier styles.
The wine list isn’t the only thing changing; the Bajajs are giving the entire business a facelift. Director of Relations Bob Grouge ran through the various upgrades Barrel Oak received in the last few months, ranging from new furniture, lighting, and winemaking equipment, planting new vines (look forward to sauvignon blanc and pinot gris), and introducing cans for the brewery.
Fortunately, Kavelle and Ken understand Virginia isn’t Napa. This doesn’t deter them either.
“I have a PhD in persistence,” Kavelle explained. “I believe in the future of Virginia wine. California is in trouble, France is in trouble, but in Virginia we’re at the point we can make a huge impact. It’s a challenge to make great wine in Virginia, but we are going to do it.”
Fox Meadow Winery: Amanda and Whiticar Darvill
Amanda and Whiticar Darvill have a very personal connection with Virginia wine; their first date was at the 2011 Virginia wine festival.
The couple took ownership of Fox Meadow in March 2022. While they don’t have a degree in viticulture, the Darvills understand what it means to be farmers.
“We both grew up on tractors, and I definitely enjoy having dirt on my hands and being part of nature more than being in an office,” Amanda explained while pouring a sample of Darvill’s favorite wine, their Le Renard Rouge red blend. But wine was part of her background as well; Amanda previously attended Le Cordon Bleu, a culinary school in Paris which gave her an appreciation of pairing cheese and wine.
The Darvills also know how to run a business; she’s a communications executive while his background is in finance. They immediately saw the advantages of retaining Fox Meadow’s key staff, asking winemaker Tom Payette and vineyard manager Bob Mortland (the son of the previous owner) to stay.
The quality of Tom’s wines was part of what sold them on the purchase; his 2021 Pinot Grigio was recently awarded Best in Class at the 2022 Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association competition. “Our winemaking style is inspired by Burgundy, but we aren’t trying to make a Napa Cabernet. We want to highlight the difference in terroir. I want people to say that ‘I want a Virginia wine tonight.’”
Fortunately their vineyard’s 1800 foot elevation gives them different options than other Virginia wineries; the Darvills plan on planting more petit verdot and cabernet sauvignon, and perhaps some sauvignon blanc in the future.
The Darvills are also adding their own touches. Future changes include a remodeling of the tasting room and eventually a rebrand of the website. Amanda also wants to host more events.
Their biggest surprise didn’t come from the vineyard. Jim Law is just down the street and is happy to share advice, and he’s not alone. “We aren’t in competition with other wineries. Our biggest surprise is the camaraderie in the industry”.
Sunset Hills Vineyard: Chris and Katie Key
Chris and Katie met at a wine tasting in Mendocino, but eventually Chris’ Virginia roots took him home.
Katie’s background is in corporate and public relations, while he grew up in Sterling and was a ‘serial entrepreneur’, having bought & sold three companies. After Chris sold his last company in 2019, they seriously began thinking of buying a winery.
Being drawn to Sunset Hills is hardly surprising; this was the first Virginia winery they visited together.
Chris further explained, “It’s been a special place for us because we’ve consistently had a great experience and great wine. I really like how Sunset highlights Virginia wine and doesn’t try to be California”.
Like their fellow new winery owners, the idea of building upon an established brand was appealing.
“It was important to come into a business with a solid team who wanted to stay. When the old owners announced their sale, the first thing we did was tell everyone we wanted them to stay.” The purchase included both Sunset Hills and its sister winery 50 West, as well as over 75 acres under vine spread between 4 vineyards (those at Sunset and 50 West, plus two larger parcels in the Shenandoah Valley).
Their immediate changes are fairly limited, with a focus on remodeling of 50 West to give it more indoor seating. But additional changes are in the pipeline, including plans to produce a series of vineyard-specific wines, such as their 100% petit verdot from their Shenandoah Springs vineyard.
Winemaker Jason Burris detailed another initiative; their ‘wine to vines’ tours of the Sunset Hills vineyard.
“One of our wine educators will take the group to the vineyard and different parts of the farm, talking about the winemaking process while sipping wine along the way. Guests will actually be able to cut some clusters as they explain why dropping fruit is important to improve quality.”
Chris was understandably excited over what Sunset Hills can contribute to the Virginia wine scene.
“A big thing for us is to elevate the region. We came into this in June so we got to experience our first harvest. At the same time there is a comforting part of this that you get to control your quality. At the end of the day it’s appealing to control everything end-to-end.
We in Virginia have to set ourselves apart. When we first started sampling Virginia wines we were given a chardonnay and a cab sauv. I think the region has evolved.”
Author: Matthew Fitzsimmons is a blogger who has visited nearly every winery in Virginia – most of them twice. Track his progress at https://winetrailsandwanderlust.com/.