New viticulture program aims to boost wine industry

A new viticulture and enology program through Northern Virginia Community College in Springfield is set to give the Virginia wine industry a big boost.

Very few involved in the Virginia wine industry would dispute its growth. However, there is growing concern over the state’s grape production.

The program will begin this fall and will offer three three-credit courses concerning the history, uses and various aspects of grape production.

In fact, the initial focus of the program will be to “educate people on growing grapes,” said Kellie Boles, of the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development.

According to a Virginia Tech news release, a recent study concluded that industry owners and leaders see the need for improved grape quality.

Sara Lyon-Hill, specialist with the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development, explained that Virginia Tech, along with industry representatives, surveyed more than 100 wineries and vineyards in the state.

From this survey data, Lyon-Hill and the researchers recommended the construction of a workforce development center “that would start out small, helping vineyards within a 30-60 mile radius.”

The center would be the first of its kind for the state. Lyon-Hill said that similar programs in the states of California, North Carolina and New York were researched as reference.

She noted that the hope with this center is that it would expand beyond that range and aid the vineyard efforts in areas like the Shenandoah Valley.

“[Participants said] there is a greater need for knowledge in vineyard creation maintenance as well as vineyard creation,” said Lyon-Hill.

She noted the workforce program would be able to offer associate’s degrees as well as “the opportunity to move on to other bachelor’s degrees.”

The reason the program will start with grape production, Boles said, is to allow the planting of grapes to catch up with the bottling of wine.

“In 2008, we had more grapes on the market than what we knew what to do with,” Boles said, adding, “in 2013, all of a sudden we did not have enough grapes.”

In that time, the number of wineries in the state grew from around 106 in 2008 to over 200, according to a 2013 article on FarmFlavor.com

Boles noted that the growth of wineries has been a great addition to the economic impact of the agricultural industry.

According to a 2010 study of the industry commissioned by the Virginia Wine Board, the economic impact of wine was as much as $747 million on the state, an increase from $362 million in 2005.

Although the acreage does not compare to corn production, Boles said, “It’s critically important because it actually is agriculture that people are talking about.”

Boles added, “[People] go … and are sampling and buying products from that agricultural crop. It puts a face on agriculture.”

In general, Boles said winery owners typically prefer for grape varieties “within an hour” of their particular winery or operation.

She noted that aspect has become a challenge with the growing number of wineries.

“In order to support the industry and increase the quality of the wine that’s made, we want to keep that distance that the grape travels … as short as possible,” Boles said.

With this program just beginning, Boles said she is excited about what it could provide the industry. “It will have impacts far outside of Loudoun County,” Boles said.

Boles added that the idea is to eventually “add a focus on actually making wine.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com