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Virginia winegrowers face a challenging harvest season. 

Virginia Vintage 2000

The annual grape harvest is underway in Virginia, an event which extends into mid-October in some places and marks the busiest time of year for Virginia's grape growers and winemakers. Not only is it do-or-die time for the wine, it's also the time of year when wineries get the most visitors and schedule some of their more ambitious events, like harvest dinners, barrel tastings and music festivals.

"This is the one time of year people can see things happening," says Jim Law, owner and winemaker at Linden Vineyards just east of Front Royal. "It's a great way for people to really understand what's going on."

Across the state, whether by volunteer, machine or migrant worker, the fall harvest scene is being repeated at more than 125 vineyards, about 60 of which also make wine. Those 60 wineries are to the wine industry what microbreweries are to beer; what small batch is to bourbon.

But amid the harvest of festivities, it bears remembering that before there is wine to enjoy, there are grapes to fret over. Winemakers, after all, are farmers who stake their livelihoods on a gamble with nature, and by all counts, this has been a high-stakes summer in the vineyard.

"Anybody who says this is going to be a great year — forget it," says Williamsburg Winery's President and Winemaker Patrick Duffeler in the weeks just before harvest.

For the most part, excessive rain has been the culprit. Water seeps into the soil, up the vine and into the grapes, watering down the chemistry. But water-bloat is just one consequence of too much rain, and a minor one at that. Increased potential for mildew and rot pose greater threats.

When Bob Harper, owner of Naked Mountain Vineyards, is asked what he thought of the summer he replies, "What summer? There's been no summer. The grapes are all out of whack." Harper says he hopes for an average year, explaining that the problem as he sees it was less the rain and more a lack of sunshine.

"Without sun there's no photosynthesis," he explains. Without photosynthesis there's no sugar being created in the grapes. While he holds out hope for his chardonnay, which accounts for about 70 percent of his production, and Riesling, he has had to scrap sauvignon blanc for the year. "It's got such a thin skin and it's just falling apart," he says.

In addition, the excessive rain promoted weed growth and extra vine and leaf growth, creating a denser canopy which tends to shade the grapes and divert critical nutrients away from the clusters. The heavy canopy growth also has meant more work in the vineyard than usual.

"It's been a rough one," says Jim Law, whose Linden Vineyards rests on an eastern-facing slope just across Rattlesnake Mountain from Harper's Naked Mountain site. "The vines want to grow too much."

Law says he has had to pull leaves around the clusters and hedge the canopy three times instead of the usual once or twice. Substantial investment of time and energy in the vineyard is critical. "You've got to do everything up front," he says. "Once it becomes juice it's on its own."

But since grapes don't all ripen at the same time — whites like seyval, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay go first — the end-of-season break in the weather just prior to and since harvest began may rescue vintage 2000 reds from sip and spit mediocrity.

Sunshine, warm days and cool nights over the last month have helped cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc grapes ripen and boost the acid levels crucial to creating firm tannic structure and aging potential.

"The early [ripening] varieties had some problems," says Gabriele Rausse, a winemaker and consultant to the Virginia wine industry since 1976, "but the later varieties have tougher skin and looser clusters. … For the red it was a good harvest."

Brad McCarthy, winemaker at White Hall Vineyards outside Charlottesville, agrees. "I'm really stoked," he says. While the growing season was challenging, it's a challenge McCarthy, an award-winning winemaker, relishes.

"We really had to jam this year," he says. "That's the challenge of making wine on the East Coast. Sometimes you have to relearn things. That's why I gave up California."



Tasting Notes
Recently Released (Prices are those charged at the winery)
Jefferson Vineyards Cabernet Franc 1999 ($17) Aged in French and American oak, raspberry and black cherry flavors.
Jefferson Vineyards Meritage 1998 ($27) Bordeaux-style blend, currant and raspberry; good aging potential.
Gray Ghost Reserve Chardonnay 1999 ($18) Barrel fermented, toasted oak, vanilla and pear flavors. (Oct. 14)

Tastings
White Hall will be tasting out its wines at the Tobacco Company Restaurant, 1201 E. Cary St., on Oct. 18 from 7 to 10 p.m. ($5) and at Wine and Beer Westpark, 9631 W. Broad St., on Oct. 21 from 1 to 6 p.m. Call the Tobacco Company at 782-9555 and Wine and Beer at 965-9100 for more details.

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