Early this spring, Afton Mountain Vineyards introduced 120 cases of Albariño, a crisp white wine best paired with seafood.
Less than two months later, it was sold out.
It was the same story with many of its other summer wines. Rosé? Gone in three months. Gewürztraminer? Gone in four.
Employees at the vineyard, nestled near the Blue Ridge Mountains, have been busy planting new grapes. The winery has 25 acres of vines, more than double what it did four years ago.
But it’s not enough.
“We have increased prices deliberately to slow sales down, in hopes that wines will last throughout the year,” said Elizabeth Smith, the winery’s general manager. “But that hasn’t slowed sales, either.”
It’s a similar story throughout Virginia, which last year sold a record 556,500 cases of homegrown wine, a 6 percent increase from the year before and up 34 percent from 2010. Business is booming, driven in part by an influx of younger drinkers, and the commonwealth’s 285 wineries say they’re scrambling to keep up.
Some, like Afton Mountain, are buying up land and planting new vines that will bear fruit in another three to five years. Others, like Chateau Morrisette Winery in Floyd and Williamsburg Winery, are looking to outside growers to help supplement their supply.
“One of the perennial problems for the industry is that the demand for Virginia wine outstrips growers’ ability to deliver grapes,” said Patrick Duffeler II, president and chief executive of Williamsburg Winery. “Some people will tell me it’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem.”
The Trump Winery in Charlottesville, which until last year sold 50 tons of grapes to nearby wineries, has begun keeping its fruit for itself. Demand is simply too high to do otherwise, its general manager, Kerry Woolard, says. Sales are up 60 percent this year, and the number of employees is growing.
“We’re hiring constantly,” Woolard said. “This whole year, every single week I swear I’m posting a new job.”
In the late 1980s, when it first opened, Williamsburg Winery was one of about a dozen wineries in the state.
“Dad would mention he was opening a winery in Williamsburg and the response was invariably, ‘Oh, how . . . interesting,’” Duffeler recalled. “Let’s just say nobody expected it to be any good.”
That first year, the winery produced roughly 3,000 cases of wine. Many of its visitors were tourists from nearby colonial Williamsburg and empty nesters who lived in the area.
Today, the winery is on track to produce 43,000 cases of wine. More than 60,000 guests visited the property last year, bringing in roughly $7 million in revenue.
“It’s a good time to be a Virginia winery,” Duffeler said. “We’ve been planting as quickly as our pocketbook will allow.”
Indeed, the number of new plantings in Virginia has grown 58 percent to 672 acres, up from 425 acres a year ago. In all, Virginia has 3,173 acres of wine grapes, making it the nation’s fifth-largest producer of wine grapes. (By comparison, California, which produces 85 percent of the country’s wine, grows roughly 608,000 acres of wine grapes, according to the Wine Institute.)
More than 2.3 million people visited Virginia wineries last year, helping bring in more than $750 million for the state’s economy.
“Virginia wines and ciders are continuing to increase their robust sales and contributing to a more diversified Virginia agricultural sector,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in a statement. “These vineyards and orchards are providing jobs, revenue and expanded tourism opportunities, especially in many of our more rural areas across the commonwealth.”
But despite burgeoning demand, most Virginia wine is sold — and consumed — locally. Most wineries still make the bulk of their sales in their tasting rooms, not from selling to grocery chains or restaurants.
At Afton Mountain, for example, 98 percent of sales come from the tasting room. Down the street at Veritas Vineyard & Winery, that figure is closer to 85 percent.
“Right now we’re just focusing on the folks we have showing up at our door, and trying to meet that demand,” said George Hodson, general manager of Veritas. “In order for Virginia wine to really be known, we need to be producing enough for it to be leaving the state and leaving our tasting rooms.”
Veritas, which produces about 23,000 cases of wine a year, is one of the region’s larger wineries. It sells its wine at about 100 local restaurants and ships a small amount to England, where it is sold at wine bars and the department stores Selfridges. But Hodson says it could be years, if not decades, before widespread distribution is possible.
Rapid growth is difficult, he says. Land costs are high on the densely populated East Coast, making expansion much costlier than it is in states like California. And wineries often require years of investment before they turn a profit.
“This is an expensive business,” said Smith of Afton Mountain, where annual revenue is in the high six figures. “If an oak barrel costs $1,000, and you’ve got 15 barrels for cabernet sauvignon, that’s a lot of investment.”
She added that it costs about $20,000 per acre to plant new vines (not including the cost of land). Add in equipment, salaries and maintenance, and Smith says it’s difficult to turn a profit. When she does have extra money, it goes right back into the business.
“This past month, we made enough money to replace our AC unit and buy a used forklift,” she said. “That was a very good season.”
A few years ago, Keith Toler began to notice that visitors to Chateau Morrisette Winery in Floyd were getting younger and younger. They were also more willing to try the winery’s less conventional varieties, made of apples, cherries and blackberries.
“Whereas your baby boomers, who have been drinking merlot and chardonnay for all these years, look down their nose at certain wines, we’re seeing more and more millennials who are willing to try new kinds of wine,” said Toler, the winery’s marketing director. “They’re interested in the process — how it’s made, where it comes from.”
“Millennials are the first generation to have embraced the culture of wine immediately upon coming of age,” said Duffeler of Williamsburg winery. “Wine used to be for 50- and 60-year-olds. Now we’re seeing many visitors in their 20s and 30s.”
That rise in younger consumers — coupled with increased tourism and interest in Virginia wines — has led to an influx of visitors at Afton Mountain. Some weekends, 600 people stop by the winery to taste and buy wines. To make sure there’s enough wine to go around, Smith has capped the wine club at 500 members and has limited the tasting menu to 10 wines.
One day, she says, she hopes to produce enough wine to keep up with demand. The winery produces 2,300 cases a year, but she expects to double that number in coming years, as new plants begin to bear fruit.
Until then, she continues to adjust prices every few months, doing her best to balance demand with supply. Bottles of the winery’s red blend, it’s most popular, have been marked up to $35 from $28 (although they have sold for as high as $42). The Gewürztraminer is selling for $30, up from $20 four years ago.
“People might gripe,” she said. “They might say, ‘Wow, $35 for a bottle of Virginia wine?’ But then they’ll buy two.”