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By SHAINA STOCKTON, Staff
Five years ago, a seed was planted that started the process of turning Noel and Peggy Belcher’s dream of owning a winery into a reality. Three years ago, the foundation was put down and the walls went up, creating a home for that dream. Two years ago, Mt. Vale Vineyard’s doors finally opened.
Today, the founders’ dream continues to grow and thrive. After Peggy Belcher’s passing in 2012, each success becomes a fitting tribute to her memory.
This year marks yet another milestone for the business, as two wines from the vineyard — “Misty Morning” and “Cellar Door” — have earned the Silver Award in the 2013 Virginia Governor’s Cup competition.
“Misty Morning” also won the Silver Award last year, making this its second consecutive win.
To make the taste of victory even sweeter, these awards have established an official winning streak with the business, as they have yet to submit a wine to the competition without it winning a medal.
A big reason for the Grayson County winery’s tremendous success so far, Belcher said, is the hard work put forth by winemaker Mary Simmons, who uses her knowledge to create quality wines from Mt. Vale’s crops, as well as grapes from her own personal vineyard.
Simmons said that her experience with wine began when she made a career change.
She received her degree in enology and viticulture at Surry Community College in Dobson, N.C. There, she learned the intricate process involved with making quality, hand-crafted wines.
To those without experience, it might be surprising just how much planning goes into each step. From planting and harvesting to fermenting, everything needs to be “just so” in order to get the correct result.
To expand the wine selection to please a wider range of palates, Simmons shares crops from her own vineyard with Mt. Vale’s harvest. Some types are even mixed together to create blends, like “Misty Morning.”
Because Simmons’ grapes are grown at a lower elevation and warmer climate, the combinations result in a unique mix of flavors, even between two of the same kinds of grapes.
“Cellar Door,” the vineyard’s other prize-winner, is a combination of chardonel grapes from both Simmons’ and Mt. Vale’s vineyards. “You can hold the two grapes side to side, and they will look similar, but there will be some differences, like a variance in hue,” said Belcher.
Since Mt. Vale is situated at an elevation of about 2,800 feet, it opts for a French hybrid grape, because they tend to be more adaptable in cold weather. Since Simmons was not as familiar with hybrids, this added a learning curve with her job.
“I think that, over the past year, Mary has gained a lot more experience, and she’s still studying the process of that,” said Belcher.
Belcher and Simmons extended credit for quality harvests to Chris Sayers, who spends many hours hard at work in the vineyard.
Barring unexpected bad weather, there is also a set time for harvest, depending on the chemistry of the grapes. “We sample once a week, then more frequently as the fruit gets riper.”
Once the grapes are harvested, crushed and contained, it takes two to three years before the finished product is ready to bottle.
This is a testament to how much planning goes into any winery. “You are looking at three years minimum to put a winery in place,” he said. “You need time to plant a viable crop, and more time to make a quality product.”
On a typical day, these tasks rest on the shoulders of Belcher, Simmons and Sayers, as they are the only ones who work full-time at the vineyard.
When it’s time to bottle, however, they rely on part-time help. On those days, Belcher says, it’s a full house.
With Mt. Vale’s finished product, the staff works just as hard to ensure that everyone who walks through the door walks out with the product that is best suited for them. “Everyone has a different palate,” Belcher says. Also, the taste can be vastly improved simply by pairing the right wine with the right food.
Belcher showed The Gazette a wine menu, detailing what meals are best to serve them with. In addition, the vineyard keeps an inventory of cheeses that go well with their wine selections.
Mt. Vale takes these opportunities to promote other local businesses. They often stock cheese from Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, and point tourists who stay at the vineyard’s guest house to restaurants in the city.
Mt. Vale’s wines can also be found in local businesses, including Macado’s, Bogey’s and the Wine Cellar at Chapters; and outside the area in places like Abingdon, Roanoke, Blacksburg and Radford.
Now that the business is established, Belcher sees even more growth ahead for them. This year, one of his goals is to increase production from 1,000 to 1,200 cases to anywhere between 2,000 and 2,500.
He is also looking to contract a statewide distributor to find and ship inventory to other locations. “We’ve been our own distributors, going on the road, but it’s just become too time-consuming,” he said.
And, of course, Mt. Vale will continue to submit wines in competitions to keep the winning streak going.
“We’re excited about winning the awards, and excited about what’s possible in the future,” Belcher said.
Foggy Ridge Cider earns silver medals
DUGSPUR — Foggy Ridge Cider, a local farm winery focusing solely on growing heirloom apples and making hard cider located in Carroll County, has been recognized in the Virginia Governor’s Cup Competition.
Cidermaker Diane Flynt called the Virginia Governor’s Cup “one of the most stringent wine and cider competitions in the U.S.”
The 38 judges from throughout the country include such wine professionals as David McIntyre, wine writer for the Washington Post; Jay Youmans, owner of the Capital Wine School; and Bartholomew Broadbent, a wine importer and author. Judges evaluated more than 400 entries in the three-day competition to select gold, silver and bronze medal winners. Two of Foggy Ridge’s cider blends won silver medals — Foggy Ridge Sweet Stayman and Foggy Ridge Serious Cider.
They were the only Virginia ciders to receive silver medals in the 2012 competition.
“The Virginia Governor’s Cup has grown into a well regarded wine and cider competition. We’re thrilled to be recognized by these talented beverage professionals and I look forward to seeing their tasting notes,” Flynt said in a news release. “At Foggy Ridge we always seek to improve the apples we grow and the cider we make, and entering top competitions is one way to get feedback on what we do.”
Foggy Ridge Cider, located near the Blue Ridge Parkway, makes artisan hard cider using cider and heirloom apples.
Flynt described Serious Cider as a dry cider made with the English cider apples Yarlington Mill, Dabinet and Stoke Red; and Sweet Stayman as an off-dry cider made with 60 percent Stayman apples, along with Grimes Golden, Gold Rush and Ashmead’s Kernel.
Other nearby wineries also took medals in the Governor’s Cup.
Southwest Virginia winners included AmRhein’s Wine Cellars (three silver medals), Attimo Winery (one silver) and Chateau Morrisette Winery (two silver, three bronze).
• Foggy Ridge Cider is open weekends April through December, Friday 1-5 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to
5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Foggy Ridge Cider is sold at many restaurants and shops in six states and throughout Virginia. Visit www.foggyridgecider.com for special events and information on apples and cider.