Beyond the romantic notions of life amongst the vines, what compels someone to buy a winery?
Significant financial risk, complex regulations, endless paperwork, intensely competitive marketplace, year-round vineyard work, oh, and being at the whims of Mother Nature are the realities of life amongst the vines.
“It was a dream come true the day we signed the papers for this place,” a winery owner told me, brimming with pride, earlier this summer during a lunch over looking his new vineyards.
Just weeks before, another winery owner, who is actively trying to sell his winery and vineyard told me, “I can’t wait to sell this place and finally have a life and relax.”
The transfer of ownership of vineyards often marks a dream come true for the seller and buyer.
The Virginia wine industry has been buoyed by new vineyard owners like Elizabeth and Tony Smith who purchased Afton Mountain Vineyards ten years ago.
Both Elizabeth and Tony were raised in the Charlottesville area; their careers took them to Suffolk, VA, for several years but moved back to central Virginia just over a decade ago.
Once back in Charlottesville the couple began taking viticulture and enology classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Learning about grape growing coupled with the social aspect of wine hooked them on becoming part of the industry.
Situated on rolling hills at the foot of the Blueridge Mountains in the town of Afton, about 25 miles west of Charlottesville, the vineyards at Afton Mountain are some of the oldest in the region.
The original 12 acres of vineyards on the 53-acre Afton Mountain property (then called Bacchanal Vineyard) were planted in 1978 and 1979 by David Mefford, a Richmond-based Chemist.
Mefford sold the 53-acre property in 1988 to Shinko and Tom Corpora, who were stewards of the land for two decades before selling to the Smith’s in March 2009.
Two years after purchasing Afton Mountain Vineyards, the Smiths hired winemaker Damien Blanchon, who hails from the Beaujolais region of France. Blanchon brought old world sensibilities to Afton Mountain, elevating wine quality.
In just a decade, the Smith’s have more than doubled the acreage under vine (to 26 acres), invested in winery improvements (like cement tanks and equipment) and constructed a covered pavilion for events and tastings.
Today, Elizabeth and Tony Smith are among the most respected couples in the Virginia wine industry and Afton Mountain Vineyards’ wines are considered some of the best in the region.
On April 5, I attended the celebration of the Smith’s 10 years as stewards of Afton Mountain Vineyards to learn more about their decision to join the Virginia wine family:
Congratulations on 10 years. Describe the moment you signed the papers to take ownership of the Afton Mountain Vineyards property.
We signed the papers March 31 and opened under our ownership April 1. April Fools! And as you may know, our original intent was to take the slow road by planting grapes on land that we already owned but learned that our land wasn’t suitable. But that 5-year plan of planting and working our way into opening a tasting room got turned on its ear when we acquired Afton as an ongoing business. Five year plan turned into six months from contract to closing. So we were exhilarated and excited and scared to death!
What skill(s) from your past professional lives have you used the most in operating Afton Mountain vineyards?
Tony is in finance in the commercial real estate industry, so his eye for detail, ability to negotiate contracts and read all the fine print got us through the extensive acquisition, start-up process of paperwork with TTB, ABC, etc. He still handles the paper details that make my eyes spin.
My background is in investment and tax work (years ago) and before we acquired AMV I spent most of my time in real estate rental & property management. I know from experience the crazy things that people can do that you would NEVER imagine/expect, so being open to the public and serving alcohol means that you better have a good sense of humor and resilience.
With both of us coming from real estate backgrounds, understanding the importance of ambience, aesthetics and maintenance are very helpful. We appreciate creating a sense of place — a space where people want to stay and enjoy wine.
We’re “project” people: together Tony and I have built and remodeled many homes – it’s one of our favorite things to do. We currently have one under renovation now. Grape-growing is like renovation: every year is a new project, a fresh start and different from the previous one.
Mentoring is important to navigating the wine (and life) learning curve — what role have mentors played in your wine career over the past 10 years?
We were fortunate to start our AMV wine lives through the local community college (PVCC) programs in viticulture and oenology. Through those programs we worked with Chris Hill and Gabriele Rausse in our early days in the vineyard and still count ourselves fortunate to know them. Tony was our winemaker here for the first six months under the guidance of Michael Shaps, and there’s nothing that beats doing things for yourself to feel comfortable in your knowledge.
The most credit for our early years goes to Robbie Corpora. Robbie is the son of the previous owners and he stayed on with us as vineyard manager at AMV for four years. His knowledge of grape-growing in general and all the particulars of the land and the equipment here were so important. Robbie was so patient and giving to us as we started out fresh in this industry.
He’s more of a really knowledgeable partner than a mentor, but in the last few years our work with our winemaker Damien Blanchon has created a sense of teamwork in our daily lives in the wines and vines here at Afton. He has come to understand every acre of our vineyards and how best to handle each vintage, and does extensive research all the time for better ways to be responsible farmers making quality wines. He shares his experiences and knowledge with Tony and me frequently, and we learn together all the time.
I also have to mention David King. Not only was David an instrumental leader for the Va wine industry, but when I first took on the leadership of the Monticello Wine Trail years ago David offered a lot of his time, experience and guidance to help me understand the history of our trail and what opportunities lay ahead of us.
From your perspective as winery owners, what are the most notable opportunities and challenges ahead for the Virginia wine industry in the next 10-20 years?
The opportunities for the industry as a whole to make quality wine and raise the bar for Virginia wine are enormous. The Winemakers Research Exchange that started here in the Monticello AVA has now become a state-wide group focused on trials and tastings to share best practices.
Virginia’s central location on the East Coast offers access to so many visitors within a five-hour drive. As Virginia’s reputation for quality wine increases, along with the natural beauty of our area, we have great opportunities to expand our wine tourism industry.
Climate change — As the wine regions of the world are warming, grape growing will have to adapt. As well, the more frequent rains and severe storms that we’ve experienced in recent years are an additional challenge in an already damp and humid environment.
Sustainable and authentic business models — I hear that there is starting to be a winnowing of the trade that focused solely on the event business under the aegis of a Farm Winery license. Which leads to another challenge — governmental regulation.
Our Virginia wine industry is working hard to find cooperative means of working with local authorities on what it means to be a Farm Winery. The growing of grapes and production of wine on our beautiful agricultural lands offers preservation from development, tax revenue without municipal services and tourism dollars in the community. Striking the balance of being financially viable and also good farmers and neighbors will continue to be a source of conversations.
Another challenge is the change in consumption habits of younger alcohol consumers. Craft beer and craft spirits are increasingly attractive to millennials.
What would readers/customers be surprised to know about you?
Hah I asked my friends and family about this one. In college I intended to go into the FBI. My major at UVa was American Government and an (almost) minor in French and I met with people in that service along the way who advised me to go to law school. Obviously that didn’t happen. I enjoy painting in my spare time. I am a certified level two Reikki healer.
What has most surprised you about the wine industry in the last 10 years?
I think more than surprised, I would say “pleased” at the level of professionalism in the leadership of individual wineries and group associations. The number of Virginia wineries consisting of mom and pop (or in our case, Mimi and Pop) riding the grandkids around the farm is being complemented by the growing number of either second-generation business professionals returning to the family business or well-funded operations that can hire the necessary specialists to have a successful and sustainable business. This rise in professionalism attracts employees and winemakers who have the ability to make quality wine and market it successfully, raising the profile of Virginia wine as a whole.
Surprised: I would not have foreseen 10 years ago the fairly sudden boom in craft beverage production. The opportunities to visit alcohol producers whether in a tap room or a tasting room have increased exponentially. And most recently, the trend of combining beer/wine/spirits production and sales in one site. It makes for a wider opportunity to please the visitors’ palates and keep the bills paid, but I’m really on the fence as to whether it’s a great business model or a dilution of the focus on making a product that stands the test of time and is the true expression of a place or terroir. Obviously with our son owning a brewery we could choose to offer beer here at AMV. We have discussed this option and so far have chosen to stick with wine only.
Many people hold romanticized notions of owning a vineyard and winery. What advice would you give to someone looking to enter the Virginia wine industry (either buying an existing winery or starting from scratch)?
Very few are the number of times we’ve actually just walked the property with a glass of wine in our hands and been “winery owners”. It’s a lot of hard physical work with uncontrollable variables like the weather. The potential for a complete crop loss from frost or rain exists every year. It can take years to understand and manifest the potential for producing high-quality wine. I think the thing that’s most undervalued in having a successful winery is that you have to be able to sell your product. The vineyard and winery work are rewarding and delicious but marketing and sales are what provide the ability to do it all again next year.
On the plus side, this is the most fun I’ve ever had at work. The Virginia wine industry is collegial and supportive and we enjoy the opportunities we have to be with our colleagues. The commute to work is short and the office views are pretty sweet. Watching the fruit progress from flower to bottle is simply amazing.
Oh, and learn to spit. It’s an important skill.
What plans are you putting in place now/changes in the vineyards are you making for climate change, if any?
Whether its from climate change or other factors such as age, we have removed the majority of our Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon. Our newer block with a different clone and different vine spacing produces better quality fruit, but even so we use the Cab Sauv more now as a blending grape and not a varietal wine. Cab Sauv is thin-skinned and can’t stand up to excessive rain or heat. The same holds true for Pinot Noir. It’s always been a tough grape to grow in humid Virginia and the amount of rain certainly increased last year, so we use the Pinot in Rosé and Sparkling wine, not a varietal Pinot.
We will be increasing our planting of Albariño, a grape from the humid coast of Spain that can better take the heat and humidity of our region.
Lastly, and most importantly, we are changing our philosophies of vineyard management. We are doing our part to be better farmers and stewards of the land and removing as much chemical use as possible in the vineyard. We only spray as little as possible depending on what the vines need, not on some rote schedule that says what to spray and how often. We are using herbal teas and decoctions in lieu of some chemicals, and we are seeing the vines strengthen and resist disease pressure better when they rely on their own systems and not external chemical applications.
We hope that the renewal of some of our older vineyard blocks with better rootstocks and planting patterns, along with supporting the vines’ own natural systems, will allow them to adapt to changing conditions as needed.
Congratulations Elizabeth and Tony on your first decade of stewardship at Afton Mountain Vineyards! Wishing you both and your entire team another prosperous decade.