A June Wedding at Hunting Creek Vineyards.

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June weddings.  Why are so many weddings held in June?  We recall reading someplace that the tradition dates from Roman times, when June 1 was dedicated to the Juno and Jupiter, Jupiter being the goddess of marriage and childbirth.  Also back then there was probably pent-up demand, because May is the month the Romans performed rites of exorcism to rid their homes of malevolent ghosts.

As noted in the all-knowing Wikipedia, “Because of this annual exorcism of the noxious spirits of the dead, the whole month of May was rendered unlucky for marriages, whence the proverb Mense Maio malae nubent (“They wed ill who wed in May”).

But June it is, and last weekend we had the pleasure of attending a wedding at the winery of our neighbor and good friends at Hunting Creek Vineyards in Halifax County, Virginia.  For others a destination wedding, but for us just a trip down the road.  Beautifully arranged, perfectly catered and attended to, we had a great time.

 

A Fine Spring Afternoon at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Mt Vernon

Our Northern Virginia residence is on land that was once part of George Washington’s River Farm, and neighbors of Mount Vernon are offered membership to Neighborhood Friends of Mount Vernon groups.  Its a way of connecting to the community, and keeping the neighbors excited about what goes on there.  And lots goes on there — we are constantly being invited to various talks, events, dinners, parties — so how could we resist?  Membership gives a number of perks, one of which is early access to tickets to the Spring Wine Festival and Sunset Tour at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

It has been a very long time since we’ve been on the customer’s side of the table at a wine festival.  Frankly, after working far too many festivals, we never imagined going again — ever.  See, for example, a couple of rants: “Those Blasted Wine Festivals” (19 October 2011) and “Taming the Festival Beast” (1 May 2013).  Our displeasure with them when we were selling wine was no secret.  With the proverbial “shoe on the other foot,” how would it feel?

So we rounded up a group of friends to go.  Everyone assembled at our place for drinks, then we headed over to the festival.  We contemplated joining the crowds and tormenting the pourers with some of the ridiculous questions we’ve heard over the years, such as “Do you have Orvieto?“, or a favorite howler, “Which forests in France do your barrels come from?”  But rather than sample, and lacking the energy to be jostled by crowds, we found a spot on the lawn below the mansion, bought a few bottles and enjoyed the warmth, the stunning view of the Potomac, and the company.

One visit to the tent was enough.  We ordered cheese boxes (which were waiting for us on arrival) that came with the best baguettes, assorted cheeses, sliced fruit and vegetables, a dip to accompany, charcuterie, and little pecan, chocolate and lemon tarts.  Precious?  Yes, but the box was well worth it.

For the wine, we picked two producers: neighbors of ours from Southern Virginia, Rosemont of Virginia and Veritas Winery.  We chatted with our friends Justin and Aubrey Rose of Rosemont for a minute; they’re great people and it’s always fun to catch up, but they were quite busy dealing with the crush of humanity.  Justin is the winemaker at Rosemont — quite accomplished and passionate about his work — it shows in the wine, which is stellar.

Afterwards, back to our place for a little more wine, homemade pizzas and Fior di Latte gelato.  Also homemade — our first attempt.  Gelato is so much easier to make than ice cream; making that custard for ice cream is far more labor intensive, while gelato is thickened with tapioca starch (or, in a pinch, cornstarch).  You just need to be careful to cook it long enough; its like adding corn starch to gravy.  The starch gives you that incomparable smooth, silky mouth-feel.

On a second attempt a few days later, we made cherry gelato — essentially the Fior di Latte but with chopped cherries added immediately after cooking the base.  This wasn’t as successful, and here’s what we learned: we had only two percent milk in the fridge and used that, but on churning the volume was twice what it should have been, and when frozen and served, there were lots of ice crystals.  Still delicious, but the mouth-feel wasn’t right.  So — don’t even think about being calorie conscious when making gelato and use whole milk.  Yesterday we tried our hand at chocolate, which called for the addition of a couple of egg yolks.  We’ll report on that and other experiments, another time, and perhaps share a recipe or two.

Forgive that aside … we had so much fun, we just may participate in Mount Vernon’s Fall Wine Festival & Sunset Tour, which this year is October 7 through 9, 2016.  Member pre-sale begins October 15, and sales open to the public August 22.

Tent

Tiffany

Gelato

A Derby Day Lunch — and a Disaster.

Philippa & Mike

With a friend coming to Annefield for the weekend from Washington, we decided to host a very small gathering for a decadent lunch.  With the non-stop rain all week, we were lucky to get into the vineyards to get out a much needed fungicide spray.  And happy to get it done, because we had a lot planned for Saturday.

We hadn’t seen one of our travel companions in a while, so with just four of us it was — manageable.  Still more work than dinner at home, what with selecting the china, glassware, silver, linens, and so on.  We started with an amuse called Carrot-Ginger Elixir, which called for a simple syrup infused with fresh ginger, lime juice and fresh carrot juice.  Very simple, unexpected and refreshing (we finished it at breakfast the next morning).  The first course was a Pasta Primavera, followed by Creole Chicken Fricassée over steamed rice, and in the end a Rhubarb Tart with Vanilla Ice Cream.  We paired these with Kistler Vineyards Kistler Vineyard Chardonnay 2009 and Kistler Vineyards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2010.  There was supposed to be another salad course but we ran out of time, and appetite.  No one missed it.

After lunch and (and for some, a nap) before leaving for the Derby Party, we had to partake of at least one Mint Julep, “The Very Dream of Drinks.”

Pasta Primavera

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Rhubarb Tart

Julep

The main event of the day, though, was a Derby Party at a friend’s house over in Halifax, Virginia with about 20 other people.  This house overlooks the Banister River; it really is a lovely setting.  The plan was to gather for drinks, watch the race, then head over to Molasses Grill for dinner.  Before heading to dinner, though, “selfie culture” raised its sodden, ugly head and there was a call for a group photo out on the deck.

Those with a sense of foreboding know what comes next.

The deck collapsed under the weight of about a dozen people, falling about 12 feet to the ground — one corner dropping to the ground seemingly in slow motion with a pause halfway down, with potted plants and patio furniture hurling down the surface.  But thankfully — miraculously — no one was seriously injured — a few bruises, a couple of people had cuts, but nothing requiring hospitalization or anything other than a bandage (yours truly landed on one of the hosts and emerged unscathed).  The potted plants did the most damage, covering most of us with mud as they came tumbling down.  Fortunately they were in lightweight plastic pots, not terra cotta.

So we cleaned up as best we could, and headed out to a lovely dinner.  Those dining at the restaurant didn’t quite know what to make of this large group of people coming in covered with mud.  In a thank you note, our guest wrote “The deck disaster was the highlight of the weekend.”  What a good sport.

Deck

David & Mike

A Memory of Paris.

Dining Room, Tour d'Argent. Image courtesy Tour d'Argent
Dining Room, Tour d’Argent. Image courtesy of Tour d’Argent.

A recent item in The Wine Spectator caught our eye: “A piece of French Dining and Wine History Up for Sale,” by Samantha Falewée (May 2, 2016).  The article described the impending sale of numerous articles from the legendary Paris restaurant, Tour d’Argent.  The owners insists this is a happy occasion.  As André Terraill, the grandson of the founder and the present owner of the place noted, “We’re going to be under great scrutiny in the beginning of May,” said Terrail, 35. “But this is an evolution rather than a revolution. We have collections of silverware, China, even furniture, that simply do not belong to the future of La Tour d’Argent.”  The sale includes spirits and some wine, but it consists mostly of decorative items and tableware.  One duck press is available.

This story brought back a flood of memories, for we dined there on our second visit to Paris.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

We were traveling with two other couples; four of us had arrived the night before, the other couple arriving that morning.  We had made arrangements to meet at a place that would be impossible to miss: Le Jules Verne Restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, 125 meters above the ground in the heart of the city.

Unfortunately it did not work exactly as planned, for our friend’s flight had a slight delay so they were a bit late for lunch, but we had a fabulous time just the same.  Our late arriving friend frequently had business in Paris, and associates had made dinner arrangements for us.  Unfortunately, our friend Sandy did not speak French and could not pronounce the name of the restaurant we were headed to; with assurances that all would be fine, we all dressed a bit casually, but to our horror the taxi took us to a spot overlooking Notre Dame and the Seine, to the entrance of Tour d’Argent.

But being accustomed to dealing with vulgar foreigners, and being consummate hosts, the staff quickly and expertly showed us to a dressing room that rivaled a small boutique and had us dressed in coats and ties in no time.  Suitably attired (truthfully, we all looked fabulous), we were ushered through a lobby lined with photographs of the likes of Queen Elizabeth II and the King of Thailand, and long-gone American “royalty” like Cary Grant and Rock Hudson.  Then it was up an elevator to the dining room, with its impossibly Romantic view of the city while Claude Terrail (André Terrail’s father) presided over the room.  He was particularly taken with a gorgeous woman seated in the corner window overlooking Notre Dame, and just doted on her — you can spy the table in the photograph above.  The restaurant website quotes a favorite maxim of his: “There is nothing more serious than pleasure.”   Claude took over the restaurant in 1947 on the death of his father; Claude died in 2006, which tells you how long ago this was.

We were seated in the middle of the room, right next to the famous duck press (each duck is given an individual number when its served).  We were given menus, which did not feature prices; and our host received the only menu with prices, “Well, Sandy, I guess dinner is on you tonight.”  And with that, poor Sandy broke into a cold sweat.  We all paid our fair share, by the way.

The meal and service were remarkable — absolutely seamless; its as if we were being waited on by ghosts, because dishes would appear and plates disappear without being seen.  It was an astounding performance, like none we’ve had before or since.

10555722tn The sale is being brokered by Artcurial on May 9 and 10, 2016.  It’s tempting, but anyone who has been to Annefield knows we do not lack in tableware (we could easily host a sit-down dinner for 150), so we will have to pass on this one while contemplating a return trip to Paris, which will be sooner than you think.

But those silver-plated beakers sure are tempting.


If by chance you bid on — and win — the duck press, we have the recipe for you.  This is from an old cook book in our collection, which notes that “Tour d’Argent is as expensive as any restaurant in Europe.  A meal with duck specialty and wines costs about $16.”  Today, the pressed duck will set you back €160.

From Picture Cook Book (New York: Time, Inc., 1958), Mary Hamman, ed.

Pressed Duck: Tour d’Argent

  • 3 four-pound oven-ready ducks
  • 1 1/2 cups duck consommé
  • 1 1/2 cups port wine
  • 1 1/2 cups cognac
  • Juice of 3 lemons
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Directions

  1. First prepare a consommé from the duck wings, necks, gizzards and hearts.  Put them in a saucepan with 2 cups of water, 1 onion, 1 tablespoon chopped parsley and 1 teaspoon salt.  Bring to a boil, educe the heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.  Strain and save the stock.
  2. Roast the ducks in a hot oven (425°F) for 30 minutes.  Crush the duck livers and put them in a chafing dish with port and cognac.  Cut the duck breasts into thin slices and put them in the chafing dish.   Cut off the legs and set them aside.
  3. Crush the carcasses in a duck press to extract the juices.  Pour duck consommé through the press.  Pour the juices and consommé over the duck slices, livers and the wine and cognac. Add the lemon juice.
  4. Cook in the chafing dish over a high flame for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring briskly until the sauce becomes thick and chocolate colored.
  5. Salt and pepper pressed duck to taste.  Serve hot.
  6. Broil the legs under medium heat for 10 minutes.  Serve them separately as a second course.

Serves six.

IN THE WORDS OF THE CHEF

For this recipe, it is necessary to have a very young duck, 6 to 8 weeks old, fattened particularly for the last 15 days.  The duck must be killed by suffocation so that it will keep its blood.  A carefully seasoned consommé is prepared in advance with the carcass of another duck.  The chef first roasts the duck for about 20 minutes.  When this first operation is finished, the duck is handed by the chef to the waiter who carries it into the restaurant and presents it to the client.  One places the chopped liver in a plate and adds to it a glass of port and a glass of cognac.  The ducks legs are grilled during the rest of the preparation.  The duck is cut into slices.  These slices are put into the sauce which has been prepared with the liver.  The carcass is then put into a special press in order to extract the blood to which is added a glass of consommé.  This juice coming from the press will be poured over the slices, the crushed liver, the mixture of port and cognac and the juice of a lemon.  All this culinary “sacrifice” takes place on a silver platte which is heated by two alcohol lamps, until the sauce, beaten without interruption for 20 to 25 minutes, thickens and begins to look like melted chocolate.  The filets are arranged on a hot platter, covered with the sauce and served, very hot, with souffléed potatoes.  The grilled legs are served with tender lettuce.  This dish is accompanied with one of our good Burgundy wines.

 

Frosted Out, Again.

Pruning Boxwoods

While it has faded into memory for most people, the successive frosts that struck the middle Atlantic a couple of weeks ago are still on the minds of the winegrowers who took a beating.  Those of us in the Southern region were particularly hit hard.  Our vines start growing about two weeks ahead of Northern and Central Virginia.  Those up north fared just fine, while those of us near the North Carolina line had shoots bearing three or more leaves already.  These got seriously whacked.

The media barely noticed, though the gravity of the situation was well-reported by wine consultant Richard Leahy on his blog.  See “April freezes and frosts hit Virginia early budding varieties hard” (24 April 2016).

This was a near repeat of what we experienced in 2012, when a similar frost event took the crop.  The last to emerge from winter’s sleep is our Cabernet Sauvignon, and that appears to be unscathed.  But everything else?  Toast — or rather, burned toast, because some plants, like the shrubs close to the house, came out looking like a blowtorch was applied to the new growth.  You see above the boxwoods behind the house being pruned to remove the burned bits.  The gentleman pruning the boxwoods told me he had planted his garden too early and it was totally gone.

Discouraging?  Yes.  We could wax rhapsodic about the joys of nature, or curse the heavens for the vagaries of climate.  Cursing is definitely appropriate right now.

Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Franc

Just Three Drops …

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A couple of weeks ago we had an informal dinner to commemorate our new beginning.  Well, it started with a request for fried chicken and morphed from there to a causal dinner for nine people.  If you’re going to the trouble and making all that mess, share the love, right?

One guest has issues with dairy, so we decided to try a Vegan Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Ice Cream.   The main components are coconut milk and cashew milk.  You can buy canned coconut milk in most markets in the Asian food section, but cashew milk you will need to make.  But don’t fret, its surprisingly easy.  It just takes a little time.

Cashew Milk

Ten ounces of raw, unsalted cashews will yield about a quart of cashew milk.  Place the cashews in a bowl and add water to cover a couple o inches.  Soak the cashews overnight.  The next day when ready to use drain them.  Weigh them in grams.  For every 100 grams of raw unsalted soaked cashews, use 125 grams water.  The easy way to figure it is to figure the weight of the soaked cashews, then multiply it by 1.25 to get the amount of water you need.  Transfer the soaked cashews to a blender, add the appropriate amount of water, then puree until smooth.  Strain with a fine mesh strainer.  The milk will keep covered and refrigerated for about four days.

Vegan Peanut Butter & Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

The original recipe is courtesy of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, by Laura O’Neill, Ben Van Leeuwen and Peter Van Leeuwen with Olga Massov (New York: Harper Collins, 2015).  We had to make some adjustments — the original recipe calls for using an immersion blender (we used a wire whisk),and we did not have cocoa butter in the pantry, so we substituted milk chocolate chips.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons coconut milk
  • 1 cup cashew milk
  • 2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup milk chocolate chips
  • 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons coconut oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons smooth all-natural peanut butter
  • 3 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 22 grams finely chopped bittersweet chocolate

Directions

  1. Pour the coconut and cashew milks into a large bowl and set aside.  In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and 2 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons water, and stir over low heat until the sugar is melted.  Stir in the milk chocolate and coconut oil until melted.  Add the salt, stir until dissolved.
  2. Gently pour the sugar mixture into the milk mixture.  Whisk until emulsified.  Add the peanut butter and peanut oil and whisk until emulsified.  Cover and refrigerate until chilled, 1 to 2 hours.  Do not refrigerate overnight; it needs to be a liquid when churned.
  3. Pour the chilled ice cream into an ice cream maker and freeze.  Churn until the ice cream resembles “soft serve.”  In the last minute of churning, add the chocolate chips.  Transfer to a container and freeze until hardened to the desired consistency.  Or serve immediately – it will have the consistency of gelato.

The ice cream will keep frozen for up to 7 days

Just Three Drops …

Dinner, like we said, was a casual affair, featuring fried chicken and sparkling wine.  Champagne is a fun accompaniment with fried chicken, but we chose a domestic sparkler — Gruet Brut NV from New Mexico. We served an assortment of salads brought by guests, and for dessert the Peanut Butter & Chocolate Chip Ice Cream served on almond flavored pound cake with just three drops of this lovely 60-year old Balsamic vinegar we picked up on a trip to Italy a few years ago (“An Italian Idyll“).  We had visited Tenuta Casanova in Tuscany and on our visit dessert was simple vanilla ice cream with a few drops of this wonderful vinegar.  The proprietor said over and over, “use just three drops!” because you don’t want to waste it.  It seemed just the thing to put a little depth to our dessert, and it succeeded admirably.  We’re particularly gratified that the Balsamic vinegar came with such history, lending greater depth and complexity to such a simple offering.

 

 

A New Direction for Annefield Vineyards.

Oprah

The tasting room at Annefield Vineyards is closed effective 31 March 2016. We thank you for your support.

There are several pithy sayings about the wine business.  One of our favorites has a punchline.

Question: “How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?”  (Pause for effect).  “You start with a large one.”  Everybody laughs, refills their glasses, then you change the subject because it’s a slightly uncomfortable truth.

But the fact of the matter is it does take an awful lot of money to be in the wine business, whether successful or not.  You can’t measure success by profit, but we’ve looked at other things to justify it: the reception of the wines (generally positive), the reviews in trade publications like Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate, mentions in national magazines like Southern Living, features in newspapers like The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and the numerous awards from wine competitions, validating our self worth. A casual glance at the medal-festooned bottles resting on the fireplace mantel in the tasting room offers tangible proof of how good the wines are.

We worked to broaden our market  with entreaties to distributors, who for the most part ignored us; those that bothered to respond were not interested in adding Virginia wine to their books, but but one came to us unsolicited, and placed us in stores in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.  One vintage was favored, the next not so much, surely because of “vintage variability, ” driving home the point that in this business, like in Hollywood, you are only as good as your last movie (or bottle of wine).  It isn’t entirely their fault; they have to please their customers, who in turn are reliant on a very fickle public.  Remember “locally produced” being such an important watchword?  Now, no one seems to care much about that.

You can’t really blame the public, given that there is literally an entire world of wine out there to choose from.  Think of the possibilities!  Crazy little producers from, say, Croatia or Tasmania may produce a wine that tickles the fancy of sommeliers and wine shop owners for a minute because its an accessible grape from a little known region.  Take, for example, a Pinot Noir from Tasmania which is now touted as a cool climate region (for Australia); this could be followed by perhaps a frisson caused by little known grapes vinified with unusual production methods, like a Poulsard from the Jura region of France.  So much wine, so many choices, and available for so little money.

Which in the end, is the crux of the problem.  Money.  Making wine in Virginia is expensive, what with the fungicides and the labor (rather, the lack of skilled labor), the equipment, the buildings, the utilities.  You practically need a self-sufficient facility to produce a couple of thousand cases, which in Virginia is typical, whereas in California (for example), a “small” winery produces in the range of 8,000 to 50,000 cases each year.  How do you compete with that?  Walk into any Trader Joe’s, Kroger or Wegman’s (any supermarket, for that matter), and you can find wines for less than $10/bottle from France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Austria, California, Oregon — you name it.  That retail price is awfully close to our cost of production.  When purchase decisions are based in part on price, how can we compete with that?

We’ve explored the issues surrounding the cost of wine production in Virginia in other posts.  See, for example, “The Grey Lady Takes Notice of the Virginia Wine Business” (17 July 2013) and “Some Thoughts on the Vineyard Shortage in Virginia” (2 April 2014).

Winery Business Plans: Five Themes

We can’t speak for other winery business plans, but we see that they can be grouped into five different themes.

The Chronic Festival Attendee.  There are those that seem to send a team to each and every wine festival they can find.  In our experience you don’t make money, but you move a lot of product.  We picked up a handful of wine club members at festivals, but these can be counted on one hand.  Festivals do not lead to repeat sales, but you do become familiar among chronic festival goers who will buy a bottle or two at a festival.  Do these buyers patronize wine shops?  We don’t know.  We do know that we would pour just as many bottles as we sold; more often than not, the net result was we actually lost money when you take into account the value of the wine poured — and that would be at cost, not retail.  When we did festivals, more often than not several attendees would lean in and say conspiratorially, “Your wine is the best wine here!”  Then they don’t buy anything.

Primarily Wholesale.  Others have tried to go it alone with just wholesale with no tasting room, of if there is one, only by appointment.  That’s a “tough row to hoe” that requires putting a lot of mileage on your car (if self distributed); you are essentially selling one bottle at a time, by hand.  There might be an effort to have a wine club or promote sales online, but that remains moribund absent spectacular publicity, because for some reason the public won’t bite unless they can sample the goods first (yet are happy to take home an offering from a European producer without that first sip).  Eventually one succumbs to the pressure of having to move product, and the winery adapts and opens to the public.

The Urban Tasting Room.  Still others have tried to vertically integrate and open tasting rooms in metropolitan areas, taking charge of their distribution.  This isn’t a bad approach, but the tasting room eventually must meet consumer expectation and devolves into a wine bar with some form of food service, which opens up a whole host of other things to worry about, what with visits from the health inspector and the like.  Plus, to keep people coming, there’s the need for a little variety, which means having to stock and sell wine other than your own.

Diversified Operations.  Survival calls for a diverse sources of income.  Sure you’re a winery, but have other ways to make money — open a restaurant (if zoning allows it; some counties forbid it), open a bed and breakfast on the grounds, host weddings and wedding receptions in a facility built just for them — all are fair game — and increasingly expected by the public, which has grown to view wineries as entertainment venues and not as working farms.

On-site Sales.  Those wineries with staying power had the good sense (or good fortune) to build their facility close to large urban areas and convenient to interstates.  Wineries in Northern Virginia and in Albemarle County near Charlottesville draw day-trippers from Washington, DC and its suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.  Loudoun County even markets itself as “DC’s Wine Country.”  These lucky souls don’t need to worry about distribution or selling things close to cost in order to get on a distributor’s list — in this instance, the mountain comes to Mohammed.  But even then, the winery needs to stage “events” to keep attracting people and to remain in the public’s eye.  Gluttons for punishment stage small things weekly; others do a couple over the course of the season, which is probably the smarter way to go.

In our own case, we originally planned just to grow fruit, but then Virginia changed its laws, making custom crush operations legal, so we entered into the wine business.  We did not acquire Annefield with the intention of opening a winery; the business evolved that way.  And knowing our region was lightly traveled, our plan was to concentrate on wholesale sales (a rarity in Virginia), and on the retail side promote wine club.  We rarely signed up wine club members at festivals, and if we did, invariably their credit card was bad or they dropped out immediately.  The most loyal wine club members are those who visited the tasting room and usually spent a good hour or more on the premises, and return to purchase fairly often.  Unfortunately, these are rare birds indeed.


 

Mahomet made the people believe that he would call a hill to him, and from the top of it offer up his prayers, for the observers of his law. The people assembled; Mahomet called the hill to come to him, again and again; and when the hill stood still, he was never a whit abashed, but said, If the hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill.

— Francis Bacon, Essays (1625)

Francis Bacon’s retelling of this fable is the first English language use of a phrase we now know as “If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad then Muhammad must go to the mountain.”  As you can see, the meaning has shifted; originally, the story counsels accepting the inevitable, whereas today’s usage is interpreted slightly differently — taking action, one supposes, in the face of the inevitable.

That is where we are now.  It is time for us to accept the inevitable, which in this instance is the fact that the only Virginia wineries that are financially sustainable are those conveniently located near urban areas, and that put on numerous events to attract the public.  The business model that involves attending festivals nearly every weekend, while not profitable, generates cash flow that allows the business to continue.  We’ve considered the other models — the remote urban tasting room or diversifying with other income streams, and decided they were not for us.  The one business plan definitely not for the faint of heart is “all wholesale,” which calls for either lots of footwork and fast talking, or a very large checking account to cover expenses while you build your brand and distribution network.

We suspect that many smaller wineries do not take into account the value of their own labor when pricing their products, and may even be delusional as to the cost of production.  You’ve seen it in print (mostly blogs) time and again — a wine aficionado rhapsodizing about the time they spent with the owner/winemaker in the tasting room of this little winery out in the country, and what a special experience it was.  If that owner/winemaker wasn’t in the tasting room, a salaried employee would be (and I can tell you that is what they would prefer).  That owner/winemaker not only makes the wine, he or she prunes and sprays the vineyard, works the tasting room, and makes deliveries to customers.  If they were to put a value to their own labor and include that in their production costs, the cost of that bottle of wine would rise exponentially.  There are hidden costs not accounted for in this business.  The winery that buys fruit is quite sensitive to the cost of that input, and their need to meet certain margins keeps the price of grapes low, making it difficult for growers to ever make a profit.

As the Virginia industry matures, it may be possible for a winery to survive in strictly through wholesale sales.  But not now.  Today if you go to a mass market grocery store, wine shop or Virginia ABC store, you see the same small handful of Virginia wines.  They are “safe” choices, and handled by large distributors.  You’ll also notice that the bottles are a bit dusty, compared to their brethren from other places.  Distributors can’t get excited about adding Virginia labels to their books because their customers don’t want it.  It’s a self-reinforcing loop.  So that leaves sales from the tasting room as the lifeblood of the business.

In the end, no matter the approach, it’s a tough business.  Sure, when customers make it to the door and sample it, the wine sells itself.  People have signed up for wine club almost every week, but the majority take only their bi-annual allocation with no additional purchases.  Most seem to sign up based on the prospect of free tickets to our fall harvest party, one of those dreaded “events” that seem to be required to draw people in.  We had committed to doing just two events each year — our Spring Bacchanalia in May, and our fall harvest party in October, but apparently that wasn’t enough.


 

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.

— John Wanamaker (1838-1922)

Did we advertise enough?  We tried all manner of advertising — traditional print, Google ads, Twitter ads, Facebook ads, online newsletters, direct mail postcards — all to little measurable effect.  As John Wanamaker noted, its difficult, if not impossible, to gauge which approach is effective.  Road signage has helped, but it has not been enough.  We are bombarded with requests for donations to various causes, each with the same entreaty: “This will provide you with great exposure!”  Uh, no, it doesn’t.   We’ve poured at assorted fundraisers for worthy causes, again with the promise of “good exposure,” only to be seen as and treated as “the help,” while the organizers benefit from having a free bartender for their event.  The attendees at these events have little interest in what they are drinking, and likely leave not knowing  — or caring — what they drank.

Our website analytics show that there’s great interest from Russia, some days nearly all of the traffic came from there.  This was puzzling until we came across a trade news item in the blog SVB on Wine (“250,000 Credit Cards Stolen in Wine Industry Hack,” 5 July 2015), reporting that Russian hackers have been targeting the wine business and making off with credit card data for hundreds of thousands of customers from eCellar Systems, a web-based, single vendor sales and marketing software solution company that was used to handle online orders (the wineries themselves were not hacked).

Our greatest disadvantage is being located in an area that is terra incognita to many.  Sure, its unspoiled country with a fascinating history and we love it, the grape growing conditions are phenomenal (the soil and the season), and compared to Northern and Central Virginia, the land is affordable, but none of these attributes sell wine.

We do have a large number of loyal supporters who we count as friends; we would not have met them were it not for this business, and for that we are very thankful.  Also for the wine shops and restaurants that have carried our wine, particularly the first to give us a chance, Charley’s Waterfront Cafe in Farmville.  Other local restaurants have been particularly loyal — Bistro 1888 in South Boston, and Molasses Grill in Halifax.  One shop has been a tremendous supporter — Galleria on the Lake in Clarksville.

We thought we could buck the conventional, but the fact remains that in order to survive as a Virginia winery, most of your sales must be from your tasting room.  One winemaker put that figure at 85 percent, and that is from the perspective of selling in Northern and Central Virginia, where traffic is not so much an issue, but here in Southern Virginia, it is a big problem.  If there is a lesson here for someone thinking of opening a winery, as far as sales are concerned, location matters.

Since we don’t see our wine sales prospects improving in the near term — at least not to the level that would support the continued commitment of time and money in promoting that part of the business — we have decided to cease producing and selling wine.  This decision is easier for us than most because we never made the commitment to developing a full-blown winery, since we relied on a custom crush winery and chose to pay cash for everything rather than get into debt.  Had we developed the very expensive infrastructure a winery requires (and had we done that, most likely we would have had to borrow from banks and bring in investors that we would then have to answer to), we probably would not be making this decision now, and would be forced to find a way to muddle through.  Without that burden, we are free to cut ties, and we are doing so now.  We are closing our tasting room on 31 March 2016.  We will “go back to our roots” with the original plan from ten years ago, and concentrate on growing and selling fruit.

If you wish to order wine, please do so by March 15.  We particularly recommend the Annefield Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, which we feel is the best wine we have ever produced, and likely rivals our Annefield Vineyards Viognier 2013 in quality and depth.  The remainder of our inventory is being donated to charity (and being picked up March 19), so the window to complete purchases is very brief.

Will this blog continue?  Yes, but expect occasional reports.  We remain part of the industry, but will occupy a quieter corner of it, for now.  The original intention of the blog was to raise the profile of the region and encourage tourism; that goal remains, especially if we ever elect to make wine again.

It’s been fun, it’s been real, and we will miss you — à bientôt.