By Margaret Morton Leesburg Today
The announcement that Loudoun would be the first-ever East Coast host for the 2015 Wine Tourism Conference coincides with an initiative that could see the county become home to a first in the commonwealth—the Viticulture & Enology Education Center.
Only two other such programs are in existence, one in North Carolina and the other in New York’s Finger Lakes region. The primary mission of the proposed center would be to provide viticulture and enology/wine studies education and training to the Northern Virginia grape and wine industry.
The goal of the center would be to improve the overall quality of wine produced in the county by providing a more highly trained workforce.
The County of Loudoun, the Town of Purcellville and the state Department of Agriculture jointly funded the feasibility study earlier this year. The Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development conducted the study. A committee, including area winery owners, government representatives, business representatives and educators, was set up to oversee the process.
The first draft of the business plan is scheduled to come before the Purcellville Town Council Dec. 9. Loudoun Agricultural Development Officer Kellie Boles said the Board of Supervisors would be invited to attend the presentation. If not enough can attend, the department would give a separate presentation, she said.
The county’s wineries have an estimated $136 million economic impact each year, according to the Department of Economic Development. The Virginia Wine Board’s most recent commercial grape report showed the county produced more than 1,000 tons of grapes on over 500 acres last year, 95 percent in wine grapes.
Initial reaction to the draft presentation circulated to the committee has been mostly positive.
Committee member Bob Rupy, of Bluemont Vineyard, said there is a need for specialized training throughout the region. “We’re always looking for competent, trained staff to help us maintain the growth,” he said. He liked the study’s recommendation to take a phased approach.
Doug Fabbioli, of Fabbioli Cellars, also serves on the committee. He strongly supports the need for an increased workforce, but doesn’t want to see the program become too academic. “We need to get [our] hands dirty to make things happen,” he said, predicting a needed focus will be to see how best to do that.
Although not a committee member, Ben Renshaw, owner of 8 Chains North Winery, was enthusiastic about the concept. “We have the demographics. Why not? I think it’s of the utmost importance,” he said. A key challenge, he said, was growing more grapes in the area and growing the right grapes from which to produce the best wine.
Renshaw approves of the academic component as a way to help new or inexperienced vineyard owners avoid pitfalls. “A program that focuses on vineyards that want to go about it the right way is good,” he said. “If we want to be taken seriously, the number one issue is quality of the wine.”
Committee member Jim Bowman, of John Marshall Bank, also liked the pragmatic, phased approach that would start with offering classes first, including the outdoor component at local vineyards, and developing a bricks and mortar training center in the future.
Former Purcellville Mayor Bob Lazaro, who was an early supporter of the project, said the choice of Loudoun as the wine conference site next November is a testament to the growth of the county’s wine industry over the past decade. Both Lazaro and Boles support the concept of the new program offering a two-year associate’s degree before coming under Virginia Tech’s umbrella for a bachelor’s degree. Lazaro noted the curriculum is already approved by the state and could be taught by Northern Virginia Community College academics.
Boles was pleased with the initial plan. “It’s saying what we all know,” she said. “We need more grapes so we can focus on the vineyard, then grow the enology piece, plus we can grow better grapes for good winemaking.”
Both Boles and Purcellville Assistant Town Manager Patrick Childs emphasized the proposal is in the initial stages and much could change as the committee and Virginia Tech continue working.