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Grape Grower Interview – Rock Stephens, 2011 Grower of the Year

Since suffering a bite from the oenophile bug in early 2005, I have been a student of the infinite subject of wine – devouring wine related books, magazines, blogs and attending too many to count tastings and seminars, as well as visiting wineries all over the world.  Wine is an ideal subject for the insatiably curious.

Though I have mad respect for winery owners and grape growers, I sometimes question their sanity given the (insane) laws and regulations they must operate under.  I have no desire to own a winery, but I have recently had visions of planting and managing (suburban word for farming) a small vineyard of my own.

To that end, I’ve spent a good deal of what little free time I have learning about grape growing.  As with the general subject of wine, the more I learn about viticulture the less I know.  In addition to reading books and blogs on the subject, my learning process has included talking to grape growers and winemakers about the basics of Virginia viticulture, one of which is Virginia’s 2011 Grape Grower of the Year, Rock Stephens.  (Editorial Note:  2011 will be my first Virginia Viognier, with purchased fruit.)

Great wine begins in the vineyard‘… or, with grape growers with a lot of hard earned experience.

Below is part one of a two part interview with Virginia’s 2011 Grower of the Year:

Background:

John H. “Rock” Stephens, along with his wife Kris, own The Vineyard at Point Breeze, a twelve-acre vinifera vineyard, located on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  A graduate of Purdue University, Rock also has a Masters in Business Administration from Michigan State University. He is a graduate of The Executive Program, Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, at The University of Virginia.

After serving his country for 27 years in the United States Navy, he retired a Captain.  He has been an active member of the Virginia Vineyards Association since 1997 and served two terms as President.   In 2005 he was appointed by then Governor, Mark Warner, as a member of the Virginia Wine Board and was elected as Vice Chairman in 2007.  In 2009 he was elected as Chairman and is currently serving in that position.  In February 2011, the Virginia Vineyards Association awarded Rock the 2011 Grower of the Year. His passion for wine began to grow when taking wine related courses while working on his Masters Degree at Michigan State University.

Rock has been making wine for over twelve years and has won numerous amateur winemaking awards in international competitions. For the last three years he has served as a judge for the State Fair of Virginia Wine Competition.

Kris and Rock Stephens in their vineyard – The Vineyard at Point Breeze on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

DWYL:  How/why did you get started as a grape grower?
RS:  I first got interested in wine in the late 1970’s, when the Navy sent me to Michigan State University to get an MBA in Hotel, Restaurant, & Institutional Management.  I did not have an undergraduate degree in HRI, so I needed to take 20 credit hours of senior level courses.  One of those was Beverage Evaluation, a 4 credit hour course – two hours every Wednesday and Friday.  The first hour was lecture on wine regions of the world, what were the top grapes planted, leading wines, etc.  The second hour was devoted to tasting those wines.  It was perhaps the best and most useful course I have ever taken and it started my passion for wine.  As I was nearing the end of my Naval career, my wife Kris and I had many discussions about what we thought we might like to do.  Over a 27-year naval career, we moved 14 times, including a tour on a ship in Guam and another on a ship in Japan.  We spent many birthdays and anniversaries apart and did not want to do that in our second careers! I had been going to Virginia Vineyard Association meetings for the last three years of my navy career and we decided that we would like to start a vineyard together, sell the grapes to wineries, and make some wine on the side for ourselves.  Since the sea was in my blood, it was only logical to establish our vineyard near salt water.  After spending years looking for the perfect property, we started to establish the vineyard in 1999 on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

DWYL:  Why did you choose to focus on growing grapes as opposed to making wine commercially?
RS:   Two reasons.  First, you don’t get rich in the armed forces, especially with fourteen moves in twenty-seven years…and we did not win the lottery.

Secondly, this was a second career for both Kris and I.  Her first was as a teacher for over twenty years.  We wanted to have some time to ourselves and maybe do a little traveling.  We realized early on that to establish a vineyard took a lot of effort, time, and money.  To establish a winery, it would take even more money and a lot more of our time would be needed to market the wine.  The result would be no time for us.  We decided to make our own wine to enjoy the fruits of our labor and to see the impact of different vintages on our wines.

DWYL:  Of your 12 acres under vine, what vinifera are planted, and which grapes seem to be working the best in your vineyards?
RS: We primarily grow Chardonnay and Merlot, two different clones of each.  Over the years we have added Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chambourcin (which we pulled out in 2005).  I found over the years that 100% varietal wines were never as good as a blended wine.  In the beginning, we started with one 60-gallon barrel of Chardonnay and one of Merlot that made good wines, but not great wines.  We have migrated to 30 gallon barrels of differing woods and different yeasts to gain more complexity, and we started adding smaller planting of red grapes to blend.

If you are going to grow commercially, it is much better to plant larger plantings of a few varieties.  It makes it easier to achieve a solid reputation for growing great grapes.  Not all grapes do well everywhere in the state.  It also makes it easier to manage the spray schedules and selling the grapes.  On the other hand, if you plan to start a winery, you want to plan the vineyard to support the wines that you plan to sell.  This will most likely cause you to plant more varieties.

I am happy with how the Chardonnay and Merlot do here in my AVA (the Eastern Shore AVA – home to three wineries, Chatham, Holly Grove, and Bloxom).  The Chardonnay is more prone to disease and takes a little more tending than the Merlot.  Fortunately, they are both early-to-mid season ripeners, making it a bit less stressful given September and October are in the peak of the hurricane season.

DWYL:  By many accounts 2007 was one of the best vintages in years here in Virginia.  2010 was excellent for several areas as well.  From your perspective as a grape grower, how would you contrast 2007 to the 2010 growing season?
RS:  Looking at my weather station data for the nine years that I have complete data for 2002 – 2010, I can scientifically say that 2010 was the warmest year with 4,595.4 growing degree days (GDD), versus 2007’s 4240.0 GDD.  2010 was also the driest year with 31.69 inches of rain versus 2007’s 33.33 inches.  Our average annual rainfall of record here is 40.44 inches.  Yields were also down throughout the state in 2010, due to the excessive heat.

We finished harvest 28 days earlier in 2010 than we did in 2007 and had less crop.  So from an economic standpoint, 2007 was the far better year and because of the early harvest and lack of cooler nighttime temperatures, I think that 2007 will win out over 2010.  We’ll know much more when we get around to blending and bottling the 2010 wines.   (Editorial Note:  This is a question that will be debated throughout the industry for some time to come.  I look forward to trying more 2010′s.)

Please check back tomorrow for Part II of this interview with Virginia’s 2011 Grape Grower of the Year, Rock Stephens.

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