Forget high tech. If Jeanette Smith has her way, Loudoun County soon will be the next Napa--not Silicon--Valley.
Smith, who runs Pig Hill Vineyards in Lovettsville with her husband, Peter Cooper, has organized the Loudoun Wine Growers Association. The group, whose members are grape growers and winemakers, has held two meetings and hopes to continue meeting twice a month to discuss ideas on production, sharing equipment and labor, and marketing.
In addition, the group is moving to petition for a "viticultural area" whose name Loudoun wineries could then use as their "appellation." In wine labeling, the appellation refers to the region of origin, and the group's members say they hope the Loudoun appellation would become as well known as Napa or Sonoma.
There are six such regions in Virginia, a state that as recently as 10 years ago had a tiny wine industry. To the wine connoisseur, the names of particular regions resonate immediately. For wine drinkers, the Bordeaux region of France conjures up the smooth merlot, the complex cabernet sauvignon, and the fragrant cabernet franc.
Although Smith and others said Loudoun is not likely to compete seriously with French or even California wines in the $2.7 billion U.S. wine market, they hope that an appellation would set Loudoun wine apart and give it brand-name identity. They say they think it could help establish Loudoun wine as a respectable alternative for consumers seeking a more home-grown experience.
"The identity . . . that you provide with an appellation is of great benefit in the competitive marketplace," said Andrew Gerachis, horticultural agent for the Loudoun County office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension.
It also could boost the agricultural tourism business in Loudoun by giving outsiders a connection to the region and an initial reason to visit.
Smith, 38, a native of Virginia, developed a taste for the grape when she was a junior at Virginia Tech. A professor suggested that she fine-tune her horticulture degree by focusing on viticulture. At the time, there were only a handful of wineries in the state, she said, but the field was growing. There are now 53 in Virginia, six of them in Loudoun.
She spent a summer working at Oasis Winery in Fauquier County, "and then I was kind of hooked," she said. Since that summer, Smith--who admits that she occasionally kisses her vines and often talks to them--has spent her adult life working at vineyards or for universities with viticultural programs.
Before moving to Lovettsville, she worked for North Carolina State University to be with her husband, who was doing a post-doctorate fellowship nearby. When Cooper finished his academic work, the couple came home to raise their two children. For the first time, Smith is running her own vineyard, rather than someone else's, although she is still a consultant to other growers.
Standing in her field--the Short Hill Mountains in the background, son, husband and dog nearby, scented fabric-softener sheets flapping in the cool, dry wind (tying them to the vines helps deter deer)--Smith took a break to talk about the group she has formed.
"We were just amazed," she said of the turnout at the first two meetings. Thirty-five people attended the second meeting, far more than Smith and Cooper expected. About 10 of those were prospective growers, hoping to gather more information about the industry. But the others represented almost every winery and vineyard in Loudoun.
For the most part, the attendees talked about character. "When people say, 'What's so special about Loudoun County wines?' I don't want my answer to be, 'Well, they're grown in Loudoun County,' " explained group member Doug Fabbioli, winemaker and vineyard manager for Tarara Winery.
Instead, he said he hopes to answer, "Well, the chardonnay tends to be a little more citrusy, or have an apple character, or pear," he said. For now, he said, "I'm not going to say that" because there is no such distinguishing characteristic.
To achieve that, he said, there must be constant communication among grape growers and winemakers. Fabbioli, who is in his second year at Tarara, hired Smith as a consultant earlier this year, and when she mentioned forming the group, he thought it was a good idea to organize the somewhat fragmented local industry.
To apply for an official viticultural area--in other words, to have it recognized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms--boundaries must be established. The boundaries do not have to be political--they can be mountain ranges, waterways, drainage systems or other markers. At the association's second meeting, several growers and producers discussed the possibilities.
"They were grappling with how to define the area," Gerachis said. One suggestion was to name the region "Northern Piedmont," which was rejected because it would not encompass the mountain area. Another discussion centered on whether to include parts of neighboring counties, such as Clarke and Fauquier, he said.
Smith said she doesn't want to exclude anyone yet but for practical reasons hopes to confine membership to a relatively small geographic region. She said her goal is to rotate between vineyards and wineries for every meeting, without ever having to spend half a day in the car.
By examining each other's operations and tasting the wines, Smith said, "the idea is we will all develop our own palates."
Also, she said, "we want to make sure our appellation will stand for quality. . . . If you know that 55 other growers are showing up, you're going to make sure you're doing a great job."
CAPTION: Jeanette Smith has organized the Loudoun Wine Growers Association to market local wine.