Tending the Vines An alumni couple’s adventures in viniculture
by Elizabeth Roberts Smith (Col ’84)
TOPICS: Alumni, Alumnae, Career
Tending the Vines
Elizabeth Smith and her husband own and operate the Afton Mountain Vineyards.
“Living the dream.” I laugh every time I hear that phrase. I hear it pretty often now that my husband and I own a vineyard and winery.
On April 1, 2009, we acquired one of Virginia’s oldest wineries, Afton Mountain Vineyards, located about 25 minutes west of Charlottesville. My husband Tony (GSBA ’87) and I both grew up in the Charlottesville area; I went straight on to U.Va., Tony went to Davidson College in North Carolina and returned to the area to attend graduate business school. From Charlottesville we moved to Tidewater, Va., where we lived for more than 22 years, working and raising our two kids.
We owned property in southwestern Albemarle County, though, and began to spend longer periods of time there while our daughter attended the Curry school of Education and Tony taught an elective course every fall at the Darden School.
Like many “weekenders,” Tony and I visited local wineries and tasted some nice Virginia wines. We took classes in Viticulture (grape-growing) and Oenology (wine-making) at the local community college, with hopes of planting some vines on our property. We soon learned that one of the mistakes people frequently make is to assume that, since you own property in grape country, you can grow grapes.
Our property wasn’t suitable for grapes—there are many factors that determine the best site for a vineyard— so we started looking at other properties in the area with the help of a local vineyard consultant. The best site of raw land that we found was not a deal that could be made, but we had the bug.
Our consultant and the realtor to whom he introduced us suggested that we look at Afton Mountain Vineyards, one of the best vineyard sites in the area. Though it was not on the market at the time, one visit to this beautiful property and we began to revise our plan. We had intended to slowly re-locate to the area full-time as our newly-planted vines grew to maturity, a process that takes three to five years.
But once we saw Afton Mountain Vineyards, we were hooked. We struck a deal on the property, put our house in Suffolk on the market and in a matter of months we headed “home.”
We jumped head-first into our new venture, taking on an existing business we had little knowledge of, excepting years of wine consumption. For a while, our lives were insane. In addition to the new business, selling our family home and moving, our son got married, our daughter graduated from U.Va., and my in-laws celebrated their 50th anniversary—all over the course of 45 days.
Now we are farmers with 15 acres of grapes to manage, working six days a week selling 85 to 90 percent of our wines in our tasting room (everyone else’s weekends are our busiest work days), promoting and selling alcohol and enjoying all the adventures that that entails.
Fall is our busiest season—it’s harvest season and we’re constantly covered in grape “schmutz,” lifting 30-pound boxes of grapes, fighting off bees and stink bugs, and hand-sorting the grapes before they go into the winery. Then we wash our sticky hands, stomp off our boots and head in to the tasting room to pour wine.
Winter winds howl in Afton. Our first winter here, we had 40 inches of snow in one storm; I plowed for five days to get to the end of our driveway only to find that the main road still hadn’t been cleared.
When spring arrives, we gear up to plant new vines. Retail sales pick up again and wine festival season kicks off. Tony and I spend those festival weekends on our feet—through rain, through freezing winds and sweltering heat—pouring our wines, hoping that all those repeat tasters will remember our wines and pay Afton Mountain Vineyards a visit.
Summer is hot as heck as we walk the vineyards, monitoring the vines for disease, watching the grapes develop and praying that we don’t have hail, too much rain, too little sun, or—God forbid—a hurricane that might force us to harvest the grapes before they’re fully ready. Then it’s August and the fun starts all over again!
That’s why I laugh every time someone says we’re “living the dream.” They picture us as vineyard owners, walking around our beautiful property with a glass of wine in hand. And you know what? Sometimes we get to do that and it’s pretty darn awesome. We are living our dream.
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