Experience Molds Va.’s Grape Grower of the Year

6/21/2014 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

FRONT ROYAL, Va. — Technically speaking, Jeff White is the winemaker at his family’s Glen Manor Vineyards just south of Front Royal, Va., but he’d rather be thought of as the grape grower.

“The real winemaking happens on that hillside up there. If I can do up there what I love to do, the winemaking is easy,” he said, on a bright, sunny June day as he set out for a tour of the vines just starting to flower on steep Blue Ridge slopes up to 1,300 feet above sea level.

His approach, much of which he learned while working for and with Jim Law at Linden Vineyards for 12 years, seems to be working — his 2009 Hodder Hill red blend won the Governor’s Cup in 2012. That was the first time he had entered any competition, and he generally stays away from them. He came back in 2013 with a 2010 wine that took a gold medal, and in January of this year, the Virginia Vineyards Association named him its 2014 Grape Grower of the Year.

Tom Kelly, association president, said: “Jeff met and exceeded the criteria for this award. He has always gone the extra mile in promoting wine grape growing and the Virginia wine industry.”

White didn’t start out as a grape grower or winemaker. He grew up in Fairfax, Va., where both of his parents were educators, and pursued a degree in business — with some courses in forestry — at West Virginia University. He was in the midst of a successful career as a financial analyst and program manager for federal contractor TRW when he started thinking about spending more time on his grandfather’s farm, Glen Way.

“I only had one set of grandparents,” he recalled, “and we came up here as a family for all the holidays and every other weekend. I fell in love with the farm at an early age.”

By 1991, the farm was calling and he moved back part time. It became full time in 1993 and he then started brainstorming how to use the land — pasture, forest and some very steep slopes reaching almost to Skyline Drive on the west side of the Blue Ridge.

He asked his grandfather if he could plant some vines on six acres.

“You’re going to lose your shirt, but go for it,” was the answer.

The first step was a summer job in 1993 with Virginia Tech enologist Dr. Tony Wolf — at $6.05 an hour and a cut in pay from TRW.

He met Jim Law at Linden and tried, unsuccessfully, to get hired there. But he persisted and Law finally relented in the fall of 1993, hiring him at $6 an hour — another pay cut — for the harvest.

“As soon as I stated working for Tony, I loved the work,” White said. “I loved being outside doing canopy work. Then at Linden that fall, we went through all the work that’s involved in harvesting. It’s grueling and exhausting, but inspiring.”

He also absorbed Law’s philosophy: “Our job is to express the forces of earth, weather and vine in the bottle we are primarily interested in how each vineyard site is expressed in the glass.”

Law remembers that White was nervous when he decided to establish his own winery. He had worked in the cellar, Law said, but always with others who made decisions. Now he would be on his own.

“Don’t worry about it,” Law remembers telling him. “You already know the hard part, that’s growing the grapes.”

White started clearing his grandfather’s six acres, and in 1995, put in sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot.

The wine making came later — from the 1996 harvest through 2006, his entire crop went to Linden. Immediately after the 2006 harvest, White decided to start bottling as well as growing, and in February 2008, he bottled his first Glen Manor vintages: sauvignon blanc and petit verdot, both varietals, not blends.

In 2006, he started on the winery building and started clearing another 8 1/2 acres of even higher, steeper slopes, and in 2008 planted petit manseng, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc on four of those acres. In 2009, he added cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc on a south-facing, 4 1/2-acre slope.

The two plantings differ in more than soil and age. The original Hodder Hill site slopes at about 10-15 percent. The 2008 site slopes at up to 40 percent — White had to invest in a crawler tractor to be able spray, mow and harvest.

But steep slopes with thin, poor soil are perfect for growing really good grapes.

“Those steep, rocky soils are south and west facing,” White said. “They have very good drainage. All of those factors combine to produce very concentrated, very ripe red Bordeaux varieties.”

A gaping gully between the two plantings carries away both water and cold air.

In the 13 years between plantings, White said he learned that making a vine feel a little deprived — making it work harder for moisture and food — encourages it to put its energy into reproduction rather than making more leaves and shoots. If it feels threatened, it gets busy with the task of carrying on the species by fruiting.

He planted the original six acres with 12 feet between rows and 8 feet between rootstocks, which equates to 454 vines per acre. Those vines grow on a French double-lyre trellis.

But the newer planting is spaced 8 feet between rows, 4 feet between vines, with 1,361 plants per acre, and they grow on a double-guyot trellis.

On his first planting in 1995, White said: “What we failed to take into consideration when we spread them out is that you’re giving each plant more room and they find additional resources. We used to burn out the grasses between the rows. Now, we plant it to compete with the vines for water and nutrients.”

Another eight acres is partially cleared and will be planted in 2016. The original plantings are 19 years old, almost the age at which, according to his mentor Jim Law, a vine starts to truly express its individuality.

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