A few months ago, winemaker David Pagan Castaño was harvesting grapes in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, a landscape swept by hot Saharan winds. In the fall, Castaño will once again be consumed with gathering ripe fruit — this time among the green hillsides of Purcellville at Breaux Vineyards.
Castaño, 30, was named head winemaker last month of what is widely considered one of Virginia’s premier wineries. Although the climate of the Spanish archipelago is vastly different from the foothills of western Loudoun County, Castaño, who is originally from Spain, said he thrives on change — and a challenge.
He started out at his family’s 1,000-acre vineyard and winery and then learned how to grow, harvest and blend grapes working in Spain, Northern California, New Zealand and France.
“I wanted to experience different things,” Castaño said. “I had a very specific purpose in every vineyard. There was always something I wanted to learn about. I was very interested in different conditions, different grapes, different traditions.”
He joins Breaux at a time when Loudoun has become a focal point in Virginia’s burgeoning wine industry. The county, which has 28 vineyards and tasting rooms, launched a marketing campaign in 2009 to brand itself as “D.C.’s Wine Country,” said Patrick Kaler, president of the Loudoun Convention and Visitors Association. Four more wineries are expected to open in Loudoun this year, Kaler said.
“Loudoun County has more wineries than any other destination in the state of Virginia, and it has a huge impact on our economic development as a growing industry,” he said.
As a result, an increasing number of competitive winemakers from around the world have arrived in the area, representing a shift from longtime area winemakers from the region.
Castaño takes over at Breaux, which has been voted Virginia’s “favorite winery” in the Farm Winery Council’s annual public poll for three years, from former head winemaker David Collins, who is from Virginia.
Castaño came into the position at Breaux by accident.
He arrived in Northern Virginia in February to settle with his wife, Nicole, who landed a job in Washington in the fall. The couple settled in Arlington, and Castaño set out to learn about the Virginia wine scene — a search that led him to Breaux.
“I called and asked if I could set up a time to come taste the wines and talk to their winemaker, to learn more about how things are done here,” Castaño recalled. When general manager Chris Blosser told Castaño that Breaux was in the process of searching for a new winemaker, Castaño joined the more than 80 people from across the world who applied for the job.
“In a way, we just ran into each other,” Blosser said. “He hadn’t even seen our ads.”
In the Canary Islands, Castaño worked on the island of Lanzarote at a destination winery called Bodegas Rubicón. There, he grew grapes in a particularly dramatic climate: The vines sat in individual pits deep enough for the roots to reach beneath layers of volcanic ash, and the grapes were surrounded by stone walls to shield them from the harsh Saharan winds.
Virginia is not without its challenges, among them an unpredictable climate that requires constant flexibility. Summer temperatures and rainfall amounts can vary dramatically from year to year, and pest problems also cause headaches. This year, wineries are anxiously anticipating the impact of a surging stink bug population.
Castaño said Virginia’s climate appealed to him.
Breaux manager Blosser and his wife, Jennifer Breaux Blosser, director of sales and hospitality at Breaux, said Castaño’s adventurous outlook and wide-ranging experience are a perfect fit.
“The influx of winemakers from across the world definitely makes Virginia’s winemaking stronger,” Chris Blosser said.
The Blossers were impressed by Castaño’s wines — particularly the dry white wines that he had crafted in Lanzarote, which Castaño describes as “the most complicated region” of the many places he has worked. Blosser said that he had never tried a wine from that region and that he was surprised by the delicate and finely balanced wine.
“It spoke a lot about [Castaño’s] understanding of how to work with that environment,” Blosser said.
As head winemaker, Castaño will oversee the entire grape-growing and harvesting operation. Turning the fruit into wine is like doing a delicate dance with ever-changing music, Castaño said.
The constant monitoring in the months between spring planting and fall harvest includes tasting the fruit to get a sense of its sugar and flavor, watching to see how it is affected by weather and knowing the exact moment when it has reached maturity and is ready to be plucked from the vines.
Then there is the fermenting, clarifying and aging of the grapes, as well as knowing the right ratio of yeast to sugar, flavor and alcohol.
“The right moment to harvest is crucial,” Castaño said. “You have to use chemical analysis, and taste the grapes, and know what you’re working with. Then you know what the wine can be.”
Castaño said that he will continue to make many of Breaux’s most successful wines but that he looks forward to experimenting with new variations, as well. The vineyard's Viognier, an aromatic white wine that he describes as having a “very bright and beautiful tropical bouquet,” particularly compels him.
The transition will be gradual, Chris Blosser said. Castaño is working with the assistant winemaker at Breaux to familiarize himself with the vineyard’s 404-acre estate, including 105 acres of vines and 18 grape varieties.
By the time harvest arrives, he’ll be ready to jump in, Castaño said.
“You don’t ever know what’s going to happen. You just have to work with it and try to always make the best wine you can,” he said. “I’m never 100 percent happy with what I do. I always think I can improve.”