Outside of my wife's arms and my daughter's eyes, there is no place on God's green earth I'd rather be than in the vineyard.
In 1991, the Furrows started a second, larger vineyard on a farm one lot off the shore of Smith Mountain Lake and began commercial grape production on 5 acres with 2500 plants of three grape varieties- Cabernet Sauvignon, Vidal Blanc and Chardonnay. In the beginning, the vineyard was tended on weekends and the grapes sold to nearby Stonewall Vineyards. At 21 years the vines are just starting to mature, and it is now the oldest producing wine vineyard around the lake.
We have traced the roots of the farm land the vineyard is on back to the 1700s. Read the section "History of Radford Ford" if you are interested. We know in the last century it became a cattle farm predominantly. The rich quartzy soil is technically Cecil Sandy Loam, but there's nice horizon layers of clay to punch through. Many things grown here seem to do well: roses, asparagus, eggplant, and grapes.
Roger and Judy knew from the first 1980s vineyard 50' off the 25,000 acre lake that humidity was the biggest challenge. At 600' off the lake the meso-climate of the second vineyard is still dominated by being downwind of the lake humidity bubble. We routinely register 10-15 points higher in humidity than any airport reportings or weather channel projections. This in turn makes fungus and disease a huge challenge. For orientation, Roger established the vineyard east-west (actually about 10° south-west to north-east) to take advantage of a nearby coves regular winds. The top of the vineyard gets wonderful morning sun to help dry off dew, and he left a generous cold air ponding area below the vines to avoid frosts. Along with aggressive shoot thinning and leaf pulling we keep a devoted weekly spray schedule. On the other hand, the thermal mass of the lake itself provides significant protection from spring frosts.
Pesticide is used as necessary, mainly because we don't like Japanese beetles in bad years and ticks in any year. Climbing cutworms are effectively harvested at night by flashlight. We've put the generator and shop vacs on a trailer behind the tractor and vacumed bugs off the vines (hey, it works). We mow the clover flowers off before using pesticides to avoid bee kills. Grape Berry Moths have proven to be a real damaging plague requiring traps and lepidoptera specific pesticides sprayed after dark. We've consulted with Extension agents and VT entomologists and will keep on tweaking our GBM program.
For fertilizer we use a mixed bag as best suggested by soil and petiole sample results. Some years we use a weak compost tea and some years a straight Southern States mix spread by hand or truck. I swear by fish emulsion. We also use red clover and fescue as a cover crop to add competition to the vigorous mature vines. Our soil incline of ~8° down row makes tillage a runoff problem so we stopped that.
We've used bio-dynamics a bit. It's not for us. We have studied it, the owners have met with Jole himself in France, seen and tasted his results. We've consulted with friends well trained in it's usage, and yes, I've read poetry while stirring nettle and oak bark into cow manure. Laugh if you like, even we do ourselves a bit, but there is something to the notion that our ancestors, for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, were in tune to natural farming tidal rhythms that we lost when we moved indoors into air conditioning and watching TV.
To be a true bio-dynamic vineyard here in southern Virginia would require us to get rid of the established Vitus Vinefra and grow native varieties of grapes in a whole-farm circle-of-life kinda environment. Even Organics on vitus vinefra in Virginia is beyond the price point most of us local folks can pay for everyday wine, despite what some affluent folks might afford to part with for organic wine.
We compromised by trying to make a reasonable living growing popular wine grapes as sustainable as possible, and having the creek below the vineyard monitored by a neutral organization. We're actually proud of our results, on an environmentalist scale on 1 to 12 we have routinely gotten 10s & 11s on our creek run-off monitoring for 8 years, and occasionally 12s if they actually find male crayfish. Bee hives half a mile away are thriving. We talk to and watch other vineyards to see what successes they have, and we adjust when someone shows us a better way.
Roger liked the results of the Vidal Blanc in the 1980's vineyard, and bet that Vidal would become the "Virginia White" wine. 25 years later is appears Viogneir has won that title handily, but we still remain enamored of the golden rope that is Vidal Blanc at harvest. We have recently doubled our planted vines of Vidal. Vidal suffers from a hens & chicks type of cluster fault, the result of nematodes as best we can determine.
Both our Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon began suffering from an unusual problem in 2006. Failing plants would die in brief series down rows, but not across rows as if spread by insect or sprayer malfunction. It was easy to see one plant beginning to have a problem followed by an obvious sicker plant then by a dying one. By 2008 we had lost 15% of the Cab Sauv alone. Other vineyardists observed it and suggested it was "Black Goo", a potent mix of Cylndrocarpon and Phaeoacremonium, a well documented disease by the Villa Appalachia winery. We tried super-nitrogen response trials on selected plants to no avail. Eventually a plant pathologist was able to narrow down the cause to Eutypa Latta, and spread by our own pruning techniques. We had favored December rough pruning and I worked alone, going down rows in the exact same pattern. The pathologist warned us to stop thinking of clippers as garden tools and start thinking of them as surgical instruments. We began rotating pruners with Lysol dips in between and cleaning EVERY pruning cut with a dyed Dreft mixture. Infected cordon's were removed to 20cm beyond any internal dead "pie wedges" and restarted from the renewal zone. Our new infections stopped immediately and we arrested the spread in a single season, very much to our surprise.
In 2003 we lost half our crop to one 15 minute hail-storm. In 2006, after a wonderful dry season and at the peak of ripening, the remnants of Hurricane Ernesto parked over us in early September and dumped 10" of rain over 20 hours, causing us to lose over half our Cab and not have enough quality to make '06 white varietals.
Hickory Hill supports three vineyards, all 100% local. Besides the family farm at the lake, Shady Grove vineyard is 10 miles away, and Poertner Vineyards is just across the lake near the Hardy Bridge. We buy their grapes, even helping harvest in some cases.
Phyllis & Melissa of Shady Grove have been growing grapes since the late 1990s, and we have had a wonderful business relationship with them for over a decade. They grow our Cab Franc and Merlot, as well as supply occasional additional batches of Chard, Vidal and Cab Sauv as needs warrant.
Robert Poertner supplies us with additional Vidal Blanc, and we have known this devoted grower for a dozen years as well. We know these other vineyardists plants first hand & well, and appreciate all the hard work they put into them.
Over the years we have bought small single batches of grapes from some other vineyards, but we prefer the steady relationship with and outstanding grapes from these two vineyards. Hickory Hill processes the grapes and 100% of the wine is made right here at the Lake winery by us, keeping us 100% local. We never buy bottled wine and relabel it.
Wineries are 30% farming, 30% dish-washing, 30% marketing and 10% glamorous Hollywood wine tasting. Maybe 5%.
The Furrows enjoyed wine-making from the first 1980s vineyard and decided to renovate the old farmhouse at the second vineyard into a full-fledged winery, a task that took far longer than they expected. Roger retired in 1996 and devoted the next few years into the remodeling. The old sleeping porch was torn off and a new tank room made, and the entire house had to be braced on stilts as the foundation was replaced to allow water, septic and level floors for the winery. The Furrows also built a new home on the farm to live in.
In 2001 Hickory Hill became the 75th winery licensed in Virginia, and the Furrows began commercial wine production. The farmhouse dining room was renovated and used as the tasting room. Simple beginnings turned out to be the best for them as the winery business slowly grew, as did their wine making skills. Their first wine competition medal was a bronze for their 2001 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
In 2002 their daughter Wendy joined them, learning wine making from her parents. After a long apprenticeship Wendy's husband Donald joined them in 2005 as full time vineyardist.
In 2006 they built a new winery building beside the farmhouse and moved operations there, eventually converting the old tank room into an attractive new tasting room with a view of the vineyard. In 2009 they began to expand the vineyard, planting additional Vidal Blanc.
Currently Hickory Hill grows ~11 tons of it's own fruit, leases a nearby vineyard for an additional 10 tons of fruit and bottles ~18000 bottles of wine per year. Besides the tasting room, their wine is carried in local stores and restaurants.