The sunlit tasting room at Winery 32 smelled of peaches and new wood on a warm August afternoon, just one month after the Leesburg business opened its doors as the newest winery in a county that has fast become the thriving heart of Virginia wine country.
Since its opening in July, owner Michael Moosher, 59, has seen scores of visitors flock to his tasting bar on weekends, sipping chardonnay or chambourcin on the deck overlooking a lake and rolling hills. On this quiet, late-summer weekday, he arrived early to work in the chilled basement downstairs, tending to thousands of pounds of pitted peaches that would be used to create a signature wine.
“We’ve worked our whole lives to make this happen,” Moosher said of the business he launched with his wife, Roxanne. The winery is named for its 32 acres, the 32 Gloria peach trees lining the long driveway and the 32 years that the couple had been married when their vineyard was planted.
With the addition of Winery 32 to Loudoun County’s “Potomac Cluster” of vineyards, the Mooshers became the latest on a growing list of entrepreneurs who have flocked to the county, transforming the scenic Washington suburban area into a premier wine tourist destination.
“The wine industry has exploded,” Moosher said. “We’ve always been involved with wine, as home winemakers, going to wineries. . . . We wanted to get out of the city, and we just love the country out here.”
A decade ago, Loudoun had only a handful of vineyards and wineries scattered across the foothills of the county’s western countryside and on the outskirts of small, historic towns. Visitors welcomed the opportunity to escape the city and sip locally made wines in a beautiful setting; tourism and economic development officials welcomed the opportunity to create a flourishing local industry.
Virginia’s farm winery act helped pave the way decades ago, allowing winemakers to sell their products directly to retailers and consumers.
Five years ago, the Loudoun Convention & Visitors Association, or Visit Loudoun, rebranded the county “DC’s Wine Country.” And Loudoun’s leaders have increasingly focused on boosting the area’s rural economy and offering educational resources to help new businesses take root.
The result was major growth.
Successes and challenges
Today, the county is home to more than 40 wineries, the most of any jurisdiction in the commonwealth. Several more are slated to open next year.
Loudoun’s wines are showcased through wine clubs, in tasting rooms, on local menus and at hundreds of weddings hosted at picturesque vineyards every year. They also have been a highlight of Epicurience Virginia, a posh food-and-wine festival that drew star chefs, top winemakers and more than 2,000 visitors to Loudoun for its second annual Labor Day weekend.
“There is a huge commitment to growing [wineries] as a business sector and as something that is important to Loudoun’s future,” said Buddy Rizer, Loudoun’s economic development director. “That commitment can’t be overstated.”
Loudoun’s farm wineries bring in more than $5 million in annual revenue for the county. They bring in awards and recognition, too: Wine Enthusiast magazine named the county one of the top 10 best wine travel destinations of 2012. Four Loudoun wines were among the 12 winners of the 2014 Virginia Governor’s Cup awards.
But the popularity and success of Loudoun’s vineyards — and the serene beauty of their landscapes — belie the trials of growing grapes and making wine in an environment that is generally far less predictable than its California counterparts (havoc-wreaking earthquakes aside).
“It’s a very challenging area,” Moosher said. “This year, with the especially cold winter, we lost a lot of vines. And we have the challenge of late-season frosts. The challenge of humidity.”
Moosher pointed to the fences lining his rows of grapevines and shook his head: “The challenge of deer.”
There are also stink bugs, fruit flies, Japanese beetles — and the reality that even a profitable winery will probably not make its owners rich, he added.
Mentoring the future
But Moosher knew what he was getting into, thanks to the guidance of Doug Fabbioli, 51, a veteran Loudoun winemaker and owner of Fabbioli Cellars, just a mile down Limestone School Road from Winery 32.
“None of this would be here if not for Doug,” said Moosher, sweeping his hand toward the vineyard’s rows of grapevines. “He’s our consultant, he helped us with our plantings. . . . He’s a mentor to everybody.”
Fabbioli made that title official in recent months, joining a new educational outreach program offered by Virginia Tech, the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Loudoun Office and the Loudoun Department of Economic Development. The program pairs aspiring farmers, many of whom are exploring second careers, with experienced members of the agricultural community.
About two dozen Loudoun landowners have signed up for the mentorship program since it was launched this summer, said Kellie Boles, Loudoun’s agricultural development officer.
“We want to make sure there are people in the county who are educated and who can manage a vineyard,” Boles said. “We want to make sure not only that we have a critical mass of wineries, but that those wineries are making great wine.”
Fabbioli also wants to make sure that those wineries are growing plenty of grapes. He planted his own vines in 2001 and has seen how the rising number of wineries has heightened demand for Virginia’s fruit, stretching the existing inventory thin.
“There is a distinction between growing grapes and making wine and opening a tasting room,” Fabbioli said. “I am a farmer, but there are a number of wineries that have started that never really planned on putting grapes in the ground — they were relying on these other sources of people who have planted grapes to feed them. We are at a point now where there are not as many grapes available.”
But, with luck, new growers will change that: Boles pointed to Loudoun’s number of non-fruit-bearing vines — new plants that have not yet matured and begun to produce grapes — as evidence of the county’s continued investment in its wine industry.
“How many acres are we putting in of newly planted grapes?” she said. “In 2012, we had 97 acres of non-fruit-bearing grapes planted. . . . We are investing more in the future of our wine industry than any other jurisdiction.”
Contrary to business-school lessons espousing competition over collaboration, the influx of new vineyards is a win for everyone, Fabbioli said.
“By having more folks in the area, we become more of a magnet and a draw,” he said. “The [number of] customers will continue to grow as the industry gains in reputation and quality, so we haven’t lost business by any means. The only way we’re going to do better is together.”
At Winery 32, Michael Moosher echoed that sentiment, pointing to a young tree that Fabbioli had helped plant on the property the day before.
“We help each other,” he said. “And there’s always something to do, but it’s worth it when you see the final product.”
He smiled and tapped his finger against a bottle of cabernet franc perched atop the granite tasting bar.
“We love what we do. You have to love it,” he said. “It takes a lot of work to make this.”