By Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor and Publisher
Be Inkandescent magazine
Vint Hill Craft Winery is a winemaking production facility just outside of Warrenton, VA, that teaches husbands and wives, groups of friends and restaurant owners and chefs how to make their own barrel of wine. With 300 bottles of vino coming from each barrel — at the bargain price of $6,000 for classes plus all that wine — it’s a pretty good deal.
Vint Hill’s owners include Chris Pearmund, one of Virginia’s most prolific and popular winemakers, and Ray Summerell, a businessman and wine aficionado who knows a good business model when he sees it. Also on their team is Vint Hill’s chief winemaker, DJ Leffin.
Below you’ll find a Q&A with Chris and Ray, who explain what is a craft winery, why they strayed from the traditional Virginia vineyard model to open this new kind of company — and you’ll find out how you can get in on the fun.
Be Inkandescent magazine: What exactly is a craft winery?
Chris Pearmund: It’s a place where the focus isn’t just on drinking the wine the winemaker at a particular vineyard has grown — it’s on teaching anyone who has a passion for wine how the process works. It’s about gaining knowledge, skill, art and passion for how wine is made. I simply love being able to educate people about my favorite topic.
Ray Summerell: That’s right. Vint Hill Craft Winery is for the wine geek like me. Our students learn about how different barrels, tannins, grapes and different amounts of yeast affect the taste of the “juice.”
So when you do a tasting at Vint Hill, it’s not simply about tasting wine. You are analyzing every element and ingredient that goes into the bottle. To do that, you need to learn about the grapes. You see how the same grape has been treated differently, because maybe there are four from the same region versus four of the same grape from another region, and each delivers a different flavor.
The best part of the classes is the time we spend discussing the details and nuances. That’s where the real learning and understanding comes in. And that’s how you learn how to make a great wine.
Be Inkandescent magazine: So the grapes you use come from different regions, which is different from the wines you make at your other wineries — such as Pearmund Cellars and La Grange — which are made from grapes grown on the premises.
Chris Pearmund: That’s right. In fact, this spring there will be 25 barrels bottled, and the grapes came from Virginia, California, and Washington State.
In the coming year we are bringing in grapes from around the world. So students who are just starting the class, and will be creating a 2011 vintage, can select grapes from Chili, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Australia.
Be Inkandescent magazine: Tell us how the process works in terms of a financial and time commitment.
Ray Summerell: Most wineries take at least three years until they bottle their first wine, thus, it takes at least three years to begin a revenue stream. At Vint Hill we charge our customers $6,000 for the barrel and one-year education session, so we get the money up front. That means we turn a profit within the year.
Chris Pearmund: And what is really cool is that each winemaker gets to make a wine that is crafted to their specifications — in their own style, with their name on the bottle, and a label of their own design.
Be Inkandescent magazine: We understand that the public is also invited in to taste this large selection of privately made wines.
Chris Pearmund: That’s right. We have a unique tasting experience for the public. People can come in and taste all the wines that our students have made throughout the year. We encourage people to stop by with friends and spend some time comparing a single varietal from California, Washington State and Virginia and learn the nuances and differences based on the differences in the geography, yeast, aging and much more.
The public is also invited to come to one of our seminars. Visit and learn, even if you don’t have a barrel in the game. We have plenty for you to taste from Friday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Currently you can taste Vint Hill’s own wines: Petit Manseng, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and a Cabernet Sauvignon.
Winemaker DJ Leffin: I have been here for about a year and I must say I’m proud of the wines we are teaching the community to make, as well as the wine we are making ourselves. For instance, our Petit Manseng (a white wine), exudes all the goodness of the coming Spring and Summer months. It is a fruity, aromatic, dry white wine that has a delicate perception of sweetness. As we release our Vintner’s wines throughout the season, we will have more wines to taste than any other regional winery.
Be Inkandescent magazine: Do you have plans to franchise the concept?
Ray Summerell: Absolutely. We hope to start franchising it in 2011 and then add at least one craft winery a year.
Urban areas are the preferred location for the franchises, as you don’t need farm land, just the production facility. They will be looking for locations in Richmond, Annapolis, Atlanta, and Tampa.
Be Inkandescent magazine: Are there any other wineries around the country doing what Vint Hill Craft Winery is doing?
Ray Summerell: The only other place like it is Crush Pad in San Francisco. We are eager to build this as a national business.
WHAT THE NEW WINEMAKERS ARE SAYING
Be Inkandescent magazine: Can you tell us about the reaction you’ve had from your customers during the first year you have been in business?
Chris Pearmund: Quite honestly, this is the best part of the whole story. We knew we had a great concept, but when we started working with people in the community, it became crystal clear that we were on to something terrific.
For instance, Bruno and Tiffany Silva are the owners of The Landing in Bernard’s Landing Resort and Conference Center in Lynchburg VA. As we speak, they are in the process of making two barrels with us this year — a Chardonnay and a Cabernet (Sauvignon). These will become their restaurant’s featured wines.
They found us when Silva’s friend Holly Falk, who also works as a wine consultant for their restaurant, approached them with the idea of making a private label wine.
“The excitement of the staff at Vint Hill about the whole process appealed to us most,” says Sylva. “When you see that people truly care about the whole process, you know that they are going to put out a great product. The attention to detail and the process is exactly what we strive for here at our restaurant, and we really felt it would be a great match.”
She admitted that she relied on us to make the best decisions for the direction of the wines.
“Due to our busy schedule we have not been there as much as we had wished, but we plan on coming up to taste soon,” Sylva added. “The updates and pictures have been enjoyable, but the best part for me has been the label design. This whole process of working with a local winery, talented winemakers and great friends to create something that has an impact on our local economy is a great thing.”
Husband and wife Rick and Cathy Fields are also happy customers.
“We have always enjoyed wine and have been interested in learning how it is made without the burden of having to worry about all of the icky stuff like picking grapes, maintaining and cleaning the equipment and picking up our mess,” says Cathy, who is making a Rombauer chardonnay. “When this opportunity came along we thought it would be fun and somebody else would do the bad stuff for us. Not only that, we had met many of the people associated with Pearmund Cellars and the Winery at La Grange and we enjoyed their company. Those two facts convinced us to get in the game as soon as we heard about it.”
Virginia resident Robert Brown is also a good student with a knack for making wine.
“My wife and I enjoy wine and we decided it would be fun to experience the process first-hand,” says Robert, who is making a Virginia Cabernet Sauvignon using grapes from the Crown Orchard in Charlottesville. “I will be retiring sometime in the next decade, and am interested in possibly working at a winery as a second career, so the education now will help toward that goal. Plus, it’s just fun to do and the satisfaction of drinking something you helped make will be most rewarding.”
“This process has been fantastic,” he shares. “With the modular state-of-the-art processing equipment that Vint Hill Craft Winery has invested in, and the full lab resources, we have everything we need at our disposal to make great wine. With the expertise that Chris and DJ bring, we can achieve the results we are after. DJ is very personable and is a good teacher. He takes the time to make sure we know why we are doing each step in the process. He’s also been very flexible in meeting with us based on our schedules.”
After the wine is bottled next year, Robert says he and his wife plan to drink it, of course. “And we should have enough to trade some with our fellow vintners. Then we’ll put some away so it can further develop the tannins. Once this barrel is gone, we will start over.”
Stop by for a visit:
Friday to Sunday: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
7150 Lineweaver Road, Vint Hill, Virginia 20187