At this week’s fourth annual Taste of Monticello Wine Trail Festival, local winemakers will be celebrating their best creations and the growing industry in Albemarle County.
Central Virginia produced more wine grapes than any other region in Virginia last year, and the three-day festival, which starts Thursday, will be a chance for local growers to showcase that success.
“I think the best quality of wines really come out of this area,” said Al Schornberg, owner of Keswick Vineyards. “[Making wine] preserves the countryside yet it’s a revenue generator for the county.”
Virginia is the fifth-largest wine grape producer in the United States. In 2014, 8,039 tons of grapes were produced — 1,316 tons from Albemarle — a 17 percent increase in statewide grape production, according to the 2014 grape report.
The festival will include the Monticello Cup Awards at the Jefferson Theater on Thursday, individual winery events and restaurants hosting winemaker dinners on Friday and the tasting event Saturday at the nTelos Wireless Pavilion on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.
The festival’s keynote speaker will be Washington Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre, who has been named one of the country’s most influential wine writers.
Twenty-five wineries from the Monticello Wine Trail will participate in the festival, the majority from Albemarle County.
Jake Busching, vice president of the nonprofit Monticello Wine Trail, said success is measured in growth, and everyone has been experiencing growth in sales across the state.
“We are focused on being a destination winery [location] and the agriculture theme is important to us,” said Busching. “The success is bringing in tourism dollars every year.”
To be included on the Monticello Wine Trail, an operation has to have both a vineyard and winery. The trail is centered in Charlottesville and Albemarle and crosses into Nelson, Orange and Greene counties.
“The ‘wine trail’ heading is really a marketing tool,” Busching said. “If you have a winery in this area, it’s really positive to be included in it.”
According to a 2011 economic impact study cited in a recent news release from Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Virginia wine industry employs more than 4,700 people and contributes almost $750 million to the state’s economy on an annual basis.
In addition, more than 1.6 million tourists visited Virginia wineries in 2013 for tastings and events.
Schornberg said the wine business is a great use of rural land in Albemarle County. Keswick Vineyards is on a 400-acre property that features 42 acres on the vine and 40 more acres ready for planting.
Many vineyards have space to accommodate large events such as weddings, but Albemarle zoning rules limit attendance to no more than 200 persons at a winery event.
“You can’t hold big events in Albemarle County without obtaining a special-use permit,” said Busching, who is also the general manager and winemaker at Grace Estate Winery in Crozet.
That has turned a few prospective renters away but both Schornberg and Busching say their venues are not set up to handle more than that number at this time anyway.
Other vineyards, such as Stinson Vineyards in Crozet, keep the focus on winemaking.
Rachel Stinson Vrooman moved to Albemarle from New York to help her parents, who purchased the property and restored the diseased vineyard with new plants.
“Our largest event is Tailgate Thursdays in the summer,” said Vrooman. “We like to keep it an intimate setting for tasting wine.”
Stinson Vineyards has a local-farm store in its tasting room. Producers include the Rock Barn from Arrington, Free Union Grass Farm and Goodwin Creek Farm and Bakery from Afton.
“We want to make all the good things about the area available to everyone,” Vrooman said.
Busching said that because of the success of the local food movement, the wine trail is trying to market Albemarle as being both a food and wine destination.
As food and wine attract people to the area, Schornberg said more people see winemaking as a profitable business.
“When we started in 2000, it was maybe 40 to 50 wineries in Virginia,” said Schornberg. “Now there are 250, and I’ve seen a tremendous improvement of quality of wines.”
For more information on the Taste of Monticello Wine Trail Festival or to purchase tickets, visit www.monticellowinetrailfestival.com.