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Virginia’s First Urban Winery – Mermaid Winery – Everything But The Vines

Approximately 13.8 miles northeast of my home in the Wysteria Lane-like suburbs of western Chesapeake, VA, sits a non-descript one-story building — the type of space one would normally associate with housing a shoe shop or a doctors office or a boutique clothing shop — in the area of Norfolk known as Ghent. In the rear corner of this non-descript one-story building, in suite #106, more than 50 miles from the nearest vineyard, Virginia wine history is being made.  Well, will be made when Virginia’s first urban winery, Mermaid Winery, officially opens on May 1.   (UPDATE – Please see Editorial Note at bottom of this post.)

Unlike a traditional winery — usually set amongst vineyard-covered rolling hills, complete with barrel room, the requisite forklift, lugs, maybe even a lab, and a tasting room with scenic views — an urban winery is a winemaking facility, based in a downtown or industrial area, where wine is made.  The grapes are brought in from wine country, pressed, fermented and bottled at this urban-located facility.   Basically an urban winery is everything but the vineyard (loosely defined).

The urban winery is a relatively recent phenomenon in the U.S. and seems to be working well in other cities like San Francisco, New York City, Portland, Albuquerque, NM, and Denver, Colorado.  I’ve visited urban wineries in three areas — the Portland Wine Project (home to Grochau Cellars and Boedecker Cellars) located on the edge of Portland’s northwest industrial district; New Mexico sparkling wine producer, Gruet Winery in Albuquerque, about 150 miles south of their vineyards; and also Bonacquisti Winery located in the Sunnyside neighborhood of northwest Denver. (Ed. Note — Bonacquisiti served as host for our two Virginia-Colorado comparative tastings.)

Because Mermaid’s first wines were made at Horton Vineyards, 160 miles northwest in Gordonsville, VA, I don’t believe Mermaid can officially be considered an urban winery until they actually squish and ferment some grapes at their winery.  For some reason, I thought there were a couple other urban wineries in western Virginia, but have not found any others that meet the definition.

Since Mermaid is so close I’ve had the chance to visit the winery-in-progress several times to watch it all come together (and take a few pics), and recently caught up with the founder of Mermaid Winery, Jennifer Doumar, to learn more about our state’s first urban winery.

Exterior View of Mermaid Winery - Newly planted vines surrounding what will be the patio area.

Jennifer is a long-time resident of the Tidewater area, but took a respite from residency here and moved to Northern Virginia to work the sales beat for Prince Michel Vineyard & Winery for eighteen months. I asked Jennifer if this year-and-half in the business served as the foundation for the idea of an urban winery and how she came to the decision to start Mermaid Winery; ‘I came up with the idea in August 2009 and remembers it like it was yesterday — wrote the business plan and began the search for the location, which was absolutely the most time consuming part.‘  Jennifer also noted that she spoke to ‘several people in the wine business to learn from others’ missteps. Since this urban winery concept hasn’t been done before, there is an unknown factor of how business will be.’

Jennifer came up with the name Mermaid Winery to align with the nautical theme of the Hampton Roads area.   Mermaid’s first vintage consists of three dry wines and three sweet wines — a 2011 white blend of Viognier, Petit Manseng and Roussane; a 2011 Chardonnay; a 2010 Cabernet Franc; a 2010 red blend of Pinotage, Syrah and Mourvedre; a raspberry wine, and a peach wine.

Beginning with the 2012 vintage, wine will be at Mermaid Winery with the help of a winemaking consultant, though Jennifer was not ready to disclose who the consultant will be (but I’m persistent and will keep working on her for that information. :) ).  Aside from the 50 vines planted around the outdoor seating area, Jennifer has no plans to establish a vineyard and will continue to source fruit from Virginia vineyards to produce Mermaid wines.

One of 50 newly planted vines surrounding what will be outdoor patio seating at Mermaid Winery.

Local zoning and ABC challenges notwithstanding, overcoming the average wine consumer’s latent perceptions of an urban winery (remember, new to this area) may prove to be Jennifer’s biggest challenge.  Paul Bonacquisti, founder and winemaker at Denver’s first urban winery, told me that one of the initial challenges he faced after opening Bonacquisti Wine Company, was ‘consumer’s not understanding the difference between a vineyard and urban winery, and questioning whether the quality of wine made in an urban winery is as good as wine made at a winery surrounded by vineyards’ (ah, those subconscious biases), and noted that urban wineries have to ‘consistently produce excellent wines to overcome these consumer perceptions.’

Jacob Harkins, editor of Denver-based Local Winos Magazine (on Twitter: @LocalWinos), says of his experiences with wine quality of Colorado’s urban wineries, there’s something romantic about the estate vineyard, but in Colorado the most consistent and high quality wines are being produced in urban wineries. There’s a reason: they have to. In wine country, it’s easy to sweeten a wine and capture tasting room sales from passing tourists. In a place like Denver, customers expect classically good wine. Make plonk and they won’t buy it.’

Though I only have a few experiences with urban wineries, I feel the concept will be well received here in the Tidewater area, especially considering Norfolk and the surrounding cities are in need of more wine-centric restaurants/bars.  One notable benefit for local wine enthusiasts is that Mermaid Winery will be open until 12am, which provides those of us with day jobs an opportunity to visit a local winery after work.  And, of course, Mermaid will provide an opportunity for locals to try a local wine that they may not have otherwise tasted.

The Mermaid Winery space will double as a wine bar offering small plates along with 30 – 50 different wines from small, artisan producers from around the world, as well as local beers. Jennifer says, ‘the vision of Mermaid Winery is to create a remarkable wine experience for our guests no matter where they are on their wine journey.

I wish Jennifer and the team at Mermaid Winery all the best with their grand opening and hope local consumers will support this new local endeavor.

Wine consumers, entrepreneurs looking to get in to the wine business, winemakers — what say you about the urban winery concept?

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Editorial Note:  UPDATE, 5:21pm ET — I should have titled this post, The Great Virginia Urban Winery Kerfuffle.  Within an hour of posting this piece, I received one email and one comment about other urban wineries in Virginia.  Since Mermaid Winery uses the tagline ‘Virginia’s First Urban Winery‘ on their website header and a couple of news outlets have also reported Mermaid as Virginia’s first urban winery, it must be true. :)  I do consider Mermaid to be the first as I define urban winery.

The email I received suggested that Ox-Eye Winery was the first urban winery in Virginia, which is what I thought too.  I checked with a Virginia wine friend and this person noted that the Ox-Eye facility in Staunton was a ‘tasting room‘ and no wine was actually made there.  I have not independently verified this, but if no wine is produced at the tasting room in Staunton then this would not constitute an urban winery.  I have emailed Ox-Eye to ask them to verify either way, and to comment here if they are inclined.

The comment came by way of Allan from CellarBlog noting that Above Ground Winery (formerly 29 Vines) may be Virginia’s first urban winery.  I had not even thought of Above Ground Winery so they may indeed be the first.   I have emailed ABW as well.

I have a good friend in the corporate marketing and branding profession that told me the first winery to successfully brand their winery as Virginia’s First Urban Winery in the eyes of the consumer ‘is’ the first urban winery.  Not sure if I fully agree with this but, at the end of the day I don’t think being the first really matters.  It’s the wine and experience that counts.  And, of course this too depends on the definition of urban winery, which like statistics, is squishy at best.

Clearly the only way to settle this is to suit up the owners in Sumo Wrestling suits and have them settle this like adults.

Photo credit: BannerMarquees.ie/games.htm

I wish them all much success, urban or not!

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