Virginia’s wine industry in need of grapes

In both reputation and in demand, Virginia wine is growing. However, industry experts, researchers and professionals all seem to agree: grape growth is lagging.

On Wednesday, the governor’s office announced the findings of the latest of the Virginia Commercial Grape Report from the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office.

As a whole, the state harvested 8,039 grapes in 2014, which is the highest total since the 8,600-ton harvest of 2013. The harvest is also 17 percent higher than the 6,863 harvested in 2013.

Bill Tonkins, the vineyard manager at Veritas Vineyard and Winery in Afton and a member of the Virginia Wine Board, has observed this problem for years.

“Yes, [the harvest is] up, but we still have a very serious problem in that we just don’t have enough grapevines in the ground to consistently have the high yields like this,” Tonkins explained.

Gustavo Ferreira, assistant professor of agriculture and applied economics at Virginia Tech and Virginia Cooperative Extension Economist, agrees.

“The number of wineries and wine sales have increased dramatically in recent years. However, the number of grapes has increased very slowly,” Ferreira added. “It’s been almost flat.”

In between the 2009 and 2014, the harvests have taken an up-and-down trend from year to year. In 2010, for instance, the state produced around 6,556 tons.

The following year, harvest numbers statewide spiked to 7,728 tons.

In that time, harvest for Shenandoah County saw a similar trend, with 336 and 354 tons of grapes produced in 2010 and 2011, respectively. In 2014, the county harvested 268 tons of grapes.

Meanwhile, sales in that same time frame reached an all-time high of 485,000 cases of wine sold in 2012, according to data from Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverage Control.

Tonkins explained that sales in tasting rooms are increasing, along with the number of wineries within the state. “The actual sales through distribution are going down.”

“What that tells me is that the wineries are naturally selling the limited amount of wine they have,” Tonkins added.

Todd Haymore, Virginia secretary of agriculture and forestry, said part of this issue is that “because Virginia is gathering such a reputation, [owners] want to be 100 percent growing Virginia fruit as much as possible.”

He explained,  “Federal law says that, if you’re going to classify yourself as a Virginia wine, you have to have at least 75 percent of your fruit … utilized in the bottle.”

Ferreira said, “Some people really want to get that recognition, so they struggle.” At the same time, Ferreira said, other owners “could care less” about that label.

These owners, Ferreira explained, will import grapes from states such as California and Washington. He noted that this method “tends to be cheaper and more efficient” for winery owners.

Tony Wolf, professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech and the director of viticulture at the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Winchester, noted that the overall problem of grape production has “no easy solution.”

“The basic problem is that it is very expensive to grow grapes here,” Wolf said, explaining that, in some cases, a new vineyard can be a $15,000-$20,000 investment as well as a “$4,000 per-acre operational cost.”

“Your profit margins are very low to begin with,” Wolf added. “One solution could be for the industry to accept higher prices for grapes.”

According to Wolf, a spike in grape prices would “improve the profit margin” and could work as “an incentive for people to get into the industry.”

Ferreira said he thinks that there’s not a good market coordination between grape growers and winemakers, which he said is common for emerging markets such as Virginia.

Reaching a level of good coordination, Ferreira noted, would require winemakers talking to grape growers and discussing what is needed in terms of price, variety and production within the five-year period it can take for grapes for mature.

For Tonkins, part of the good news is that there is more acreage of grapes being planted by some owners for the coming season.

“People are planting grapes, but we need more people to do it, without a doubt,” Tonkins added. “I think it’s a great opportunity for diversification for people that have apple orchards.”

Wolf said that, at the educational level, they are simply trying to “educate people on the opportunity” to grow grapes and the risks involved so that people can “make an informed decision.”

Despite the hurdles facing the industry, Ferreira said the outlook for Virginia wines still “looks good.” And industry experts, such as Haymore, from various standpoints seem to agree with that assessment.

“You gotta take a little bit of a caution,” Ferreira said, “Being such a small producer, we can only grow at this point … we’re playing the catch-up game, to be honest.”

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