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 said. "There's a lot of money in grapes."
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.
"There are not that many farmers out there that can afford to do that without some kind of financial help," he 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 of wine each year.
Virginia's largest existing winery makes 20,000 cases a year.
The French group plans 1,000 acres of vineyards on the Eastern Shore -- which will almost doubling Virginia's current 1,350 acres.
The owner of the only current winery on the Eastern Shore, Jim Keyes of Accomac Vineyards, said the French plans are "a terrific idea and I hope they are successful.
"There aren't nearly enough grapes grown in Virginia, and anything that will encourage growth in the grape industry seems like a good idea to me," Keyes added.
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.