In less than a decade, Loudoun County has soared to the top of Virginia’s rapidly growing wine industry, and it is home to more than 40 wineries that bring in millions annually and produce scores of award-winning blends.
But if the local wine industry wants to rise further — and be perceived as a serious competitor among highly reputed wine countries in California, Europe and across the world — it needs help, according to a recent study by researchers at Virginia Tech.
The study offered a potential solution: the creation of a workforce education center based in Loudoun to help boost the county’s wine industry onto a global stage.
Within days of the study’s release, officials from Loudoun and Purcellville moved to make the suggestion a reality. This fall, three viticulture courses will be added to the horticulture technology program at Northern Virginia Community College, offering would-be winemakers the opportunity to learn about the science of grape cultivation, said Kellie Boles, Loudoun’s agricultural development officer.
“Loudoun wines are at the top of the wines in Virginia, but we want Loudoun wines and Virginia wines to be on top on a global scale,” Boles said. “And we feel like the only way to get there is to grow better grapes, which make better wine, which means we need a better-educated workforce working in the vineyards and wineries.” [Winemaking takes root in Loudoun County]
Virginia Tech’s research team surveyed owners and managers of more than 100 wineries and vineyards in Northern Virginia, and they identified two priorities to elevate the local wine industry: better marketing and better grapes.
The new viticulture and enology education center, the first of its kind in Virginia, will be modeled after two similar programs, one in New York and one in North Carolina, both based at community colleges.
In response to the exponential growth of Loudoun’s wine country, industry leaders and economic development officials have increasingly focused on offering support and guidance to those who are interested in launching new businesses. Last year, a new mentorship program offered by Virginia Tech, the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Loudoun Office and the Loudoun Department of Economic Development began pairing aspiring winemakers with experienced members of the agricultural community.
Like the mentorship program, the workforce education center will aim to ensure that winemakers and growers are answering both the demand for a greater quantity of locally grown grapes and the need for high-quality fruit to create top-flight wines.
The program will start small, and it still faces a few challenges, Boles said. The three new courses will focus on viticulture — the study of grapevines — because state law currently prohibits the community college from using alcohol on campus as part of the program’s course work.
“There are still hurdles that we need to jump over in order to fully implement a viticulture and enology program on the community college campus,” she said. “The absolute end goal would be to have legislation changed in Richmond, so that the entire curriculum could be taught at NVCC.”
But for now, she said, the enology component of the curriculum — including wine tasting, blending and production — will probably be hosted off-site at local vineyards.
Depending on the level of interest in the new courses, the hope is that it might grow into a substantial and comprehensive program, similar to the one offered at Surry Community College in North Carolina, which serves as a key model, Boles said.
“This will grow organically, and we’re taking small steps,” she said. “So what we would hope is that three courses turns into six courses turns into an actual degree in viticulture and enology.”