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PART II – Continuing yesterday’s interview with Virginia’s 2011 Grape Grower of the Year, Rock Stephens…

DWYL:  In your opinion what varietals show the most promise here in Virginia?  Is there one varietal that tends to perform better on the Eastern Shore?
RS:   I have been very happy with the way Chardonnay and Merlot have done on the Eastern Shore.  I always worry a bit whether the Merlot will get enough cool nights before we harvest it.  Syrah does well, but really takes a lot more work and does not naturally get very ripe (brix wise) before we need to harvest it.  However, my 2010 Syrah maybe the best I have ever made.

I planted my first Petit Verdot back in 2004.  I am extremely happy the way it has performed.  You definitely need to cluster thin it, but it routinely comes in over 24 brix and makes an exceptional wine with a little Merlot blended in. It does ripen later than Chardonnay and Merlot, so it is a little riskier to plant.  I just planted an early ripening clone of Cabernet Sauvignon and 2010 was the first year I had enough to make a barrel of wine.  I am encouraged by what I have seen and tasted so far.

Virginia has such a variety of terroir that I am not sure it would be appropriate to narrow Virginia’s focus to only one or two varietals. This “Branding” issue is something that we have discussed at recent Wine Board meetings and hope to resolve in the near future. In the last three years at the state Fair of Virginia Wine Competition I have been very impressed with Petit Verdot as a varietal and I think it has a very promising future in Virginia.

DWYL:  It must be gratifying when wines made with your fruit wine awards – any plans to start your own brand?
RS:  It is always great to see our wines do well in competition.  A lot of our grape sales go to larger wineries that end up blending our grapes in with their grapes or other purchased grapes.  Right now, I think the one exception is Holly Grove Vineyards, which is just down the road from us.  They did not plant Chardonnay or Merlot, so those varietals are solely made from our fruit and have done very well in competitions.  We also enter our wines in the Indy International Wine Competition and they have consistently won Gold and Silver medals.  Last year out Petit Verdot actually won a Double-Gold!

No plans to start our own brand, although I do mull it over every now and then.

DWYL:  Describe your role in the winemaking process, if any, and your client’s role in harvest schedule.
RS:   We always talk with the winemakers throughout the season.  The harvesting decision is always a joint decision based on the ripeness of the grapes and the scheduling needs of the winery.  Sometimes we participate in blending trials with clients.

DWYL:  Twelve acres is quite a lot of vines, where do you find the help during harvest?
RS:  We have friends who always like to help with harvest.  We generally try not to abuse their friendship, so we also have harvest crews, which come in and do the actually picking of the grapes.  I have found that I could not make a living by picking grapes.  The pickers just pick the grapes and place them in lugs.  We do everything else, like transport them to the palletizing area, palletize them, and load the refrigerated truck.  Sometimes this includes dumping the 30 lb lugs into a half-ton bin and then transporting the bin to the truck.  We generally will lift about 60 tons (120, 000 lbs) of grapes during harvest.  Definitely no need to go to the gym and lift weights for a few months!

DWYL:  How do you feel the Virginia wine industry will evolve over the next five to 10 years (in terms of growth, varietal focus, etc.)?
RS:  I see nothing but great things for the Virginia Wine Industry in the future.  Annette Boyd and the Virginia Wine Marketing Office have been doing a truly superb job in getting the word out both nationally and internationally about how GREAT Virginia Wine is and have hosted a number of internationally attended conferences here in Virginia (your correspondent very much agrees!).  The annual Wine Blogger’s Conference will be held in Charlottesville next summer.  We have an exceptionally supportive Governor and legislature at the moment.  Both of which walk the talk and have backed up their words with additional funding for the Wine Board and the industry.  As an Industry we are still extremely young and vineyards and wineries are actively experimenting with what varieties do the best in what locations.  We will only get better. Nobody ever heard of a varietal Petit Verdot ten years ago and now more and more wineries are trying to get their hands on some.

Rock Stephens announcing Governor's Cup winners at Virginia Wine Expo.

DWYL:  Share something about grape growing that the average wine consumer likely doesn’t know, but would be interested to know?
RS:  One bottle of wine contains 2.5 lbs of grapes.  One case of wine contains 30 lbs of grapes.  One barrel of wine contains 740 lbs of grapes and 59 gallons.  One acre of land in Virginia (2010) averaged 2.41 tons, which is 4,820 lbs or 1928 bottles of wine, and it takes a lot more hard work and luck (weather) than you could ever imagine!

DWYL:  When you’re not enjoying Virginia wine, what are your favorite wines /regions?
RS:  I’m not sure we have a single favorite region outside of Virginia.  We generally prefer more fruit forward wines and are always trying out good value wines.  Whether it is a Malbec from Argentina to a Shafer Blend from Napa to a Merlot from Washington State.  We recently got hooked on Jefferson Vineyards 2009 Pinot Gris and have tried various others, but none come close.  We really do try and buy local.

Thank you Rock for taking time to share your knowledge!

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