NORFOLK -- State agriculture officials are looking at ways to encourage farmers to grow grapes instead of more traditional cash crops, buoyed in large part by French plans to build a new winery in Williamsburg.

"Grape growing can be a tremendous cash crop for the state," Annette Ringwood of the state agriculture department told yesterday's Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star.

The catch is it takes a lot of money to get into grapes -- about $10,000 an acre -- and new vineyards produce "no cash flow return for three or four years," agricultural economist Berkwood Farmer said.

Mature Virginia vineyards produce about three tons of grapes per acre, with each ton selling for $1,200.

"Virginia grapes command twice the price because of the factors of supply and demand. It's that simple," Ringwood said. "There are new vineyards planted each year, but by the time the grapes are ready, more wineries have been built to absorb them."

The consortium of unnamed French investors -- represented by JSB Investment Group of Washington -- plans a winery capable of making 150,000 cases each year.

Virginia's largest current winery makes 20,000 cases a year.

The group plans 1,000 acres of vineyards on the Eastern Shore -- almost doubling Virginia's current 1,350 acres.

Virginia currently ranks third in the country in terms of wine production, behind California and New York. To be called a Virginia wine, it must be made with a minimum of 75 percent Virginia fruit.endqua