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Cultivating a passion: Wine trail pulls back the curtain on farm winery

Robert Muse, founder and owner of Muse Vineyards, talks about the importance of pruning vines for the best grape harvest during a tour of a trail on his land Saturday. (Max Thornberry/Daily)

WOODSTOCK– The founder and owner of Muse Vineyards led a group of about 20 people on a new wine trail looping through his property Saturday afternoon, hoping to give them an appreciation for the hard work that goes into producing a bottle of wine from bud to glass.

Robert Muse explained how the sprawling 60 acres of fields where he produces dozens of grape varieties grew out of a chance ad for a small winery that his wife saw in 2003 and a subsequent walk with their dog to see the land.

“We bought the little toy vineyard…with exactly what in mind, isn’t clear to me,” Muse said. “Because we took on an enormous responsibility. Because we were committed to a domain winery.”

Twelve years later, they found themselves with a Virginia Governor’s Cup award for the best wine in the state.

Farm wineries such as Muse Vineyards are harder and harder to find,  Muse said.

Farm wineries differ from commercial wineries by growing grapes for their own wine and selling the wine on the same site  where it was produced.

The 1.8-mile tour gives a sense of the massive endeavor Muse and his wife embarked on when they got into the vineyard business. Before dealing with the sheer amount of space he has to cover, or the expense involved in starting, Muse said the hardest thing is knowing where to begin.

“I think the inhibition many people have when starting a vineyard winery,” Muse said, “is how would they do the agriculture. They think the winemaking is the hardest part. It requires finesse, but, it’s a truism — great wine is made in vineyards, not in wineries.”

Muse didn’t have any exposure to agriculture when he started. He spent a couple of years on a ranch in Arizona when he was younger but that was livestock, not agriculture, he said. The world of farming and wineries was something new.

Going out on a limb for his vines has produced in Muse a passion for viticulture and an acidic bite for the myths that permeate the industry.

“One of the stupidest things you can do is starve a vine of nutrients, thinking you are stressing it,” Muse said about one of the more common ideas about what makes good grapes. “Because a sick vine is not going to ripen fruit very well and is less likely to survive the winter.”

Over and over again throughout the hour and a half tour, Muse seemed to enjoy picking on the idea that grapes need to grow on slopes. Slopes, Muse said, are not the important thing — pointing to one of his large lower vineyards on flat land. Instead, drainage is the key to high-quality grapes.

Muse told the crowd a story about one winemaker who said he spent years looking for the perfect vineyard. Eventually, he finds it. The perfect vineyard, so the story goes, is perfect because of its location on a slope.

“I liken this to the man who is looking for the perfect wife, but has never met a woman,” Muse said. “How would you know what the perfect vineyard is if you’ve never planted a grapevine?”

Drainage and slopes aside, finding the right land to plant a vineyard on is difficult and a bit of a shot in the dark, Muse said.

In the greatest regions for wine in the world, he said, quality can differ from one plot to the next. Where one acre will grow grapes that sell for $80,000 a ton, one plot over can’t compare.

“There’s something in soil microclimate,” Muse said, “because they all have the same macroclimate in small zones. One slope can differ to another when every objective factor seems to be the same.”

“That’s why I mistrust these creation stories,” Muse continued. “You cannot know that.”

Muse didn’t know how his vineyard was going to turn out when he got started, but a passion for viticulture and farming grew in him along with the vines he was tending.

For all the love he has for his vineyard, it was dampened by the torrential rains this summer. Muse, like most other vineyards, lost plenty of his crop this year — somewhere around 40 percent, he said.

“There’s a saying,” Muse said, “that climate is what you have and weather is what you get… so weather is what you get, and you get a lot of it here.”

The rough climate and wet weather aren’t deterring Muse from pressing ahead, though. The wine trail is an opportunity to show people what goes into an award-winning wine. And offers a glimpse into the soul of a practicing attorney with no agricultural experience who decided to invest in a budding passion.

“There’s no agriculture remotely comparable to viticulture,” Muse said. “There’s nothing like it.”