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2017-09-13 / Featured / Taste

In Chesterfield, a small winery ages toward maturity

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER


Matt and Wendy Houck turned their grapevine hobby into an award-winning winery on Spring Run Road. 
ASH DANIEL Matt and Wendy Houck turned their grapevine hobby into an award-winning winery on Spring Run Road. ASH DANIEL A rural stretch of road lined with 1960s-style brick ranchers might not look like wine country to most people. But Wendy and Matt Houck thought differently. Now, 15 years after the first grapevine took root on their 11-acre parcel in the heart of Chesterfield, the Houcks’ Spring Run Vineyards is flourishing.

The Houcks live in a single-story house with an above-ground pool in an old, blue-collar suburb next to Pocahontas State Park. They make their award-winning wine in the basement, with their backyard vines producing about 100 cases of wine a year.

Both are from Chesterfield – Matt graduated from Manchester High, Wendy from Monacan – and prior to planting a couple of vines as a hobby in 2002, they didn’t really drink wine, other than the occasional glass with family or friends. Matt, admittedly, was more of a beer guy. He preferred Miller Lite. “I’m floored every time we have a tasting,” Matt says of the crowds that show up, the last one in late August drawing more than 300 people. “I was just trying to make some homemade wine.”

Spring Run Vineyards in Chesterfield is small, with just over an acre of vines. ASH DANIEL Spring Run Vineyards in Chesterfield is small, with just over an acre of vines. ASH DANIEL “People just love it,” Wendy says.

After a decade of trial and error, Spring Run Vineyards officially opened in 2012, holding its first tasting in 2014. Along with Ashton Creek Vineyard on Jefferson Davis Highway, it is now one of just two commercial vineyards in Chesterfield, and it has the distinction of being one of the state’s smallest.

“We’re really small,” says Wendy of their acre or so of vines. “The most that we’ve been able to stay open in a year is three or four days total before we sell out of wine.” After visiting a family friend’s vineyard in Tennessee in 2002, Wendy and Matt decided they wanted to give it a try. They bought their first grape plant, a Catawba vine, from Lowe’s. Matt had long harbored a desire to try farming, and he discovered he had a knack for it. He took classes and received an online certification in viticulture and winemaking from the University of California, Davis, in 2009, and began entering his wines in State Fair competitions.

Wendy and Matt Houck built a barn for wine tastings and other events in January of 2016. ASH DANIEL Wendy and Matt Houck built a barn for wine tastings and other events in January of 2016. ASH DANIEL “It’s more or less a hobby gone wild,” says Matt, who works as a contract manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation by day. After winning Best of Show for his 2009 Chambourcin during the State Fair of Virginia’s wine competition in 2010, he figured it was more than just a hobby. “I won Best of Show and thought, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”

Since 2014, the Houcks have held occasional public tastings as production allows, with the next one scheduled for Sept. 30. Though small, they’ve already established a following; Wendy expects the September event to draw well over 300 people.

“Each time it just grows and grows,” says Wendy, who produces marketing and instructional videos as her full-time job. The Houcks pursue winemaking on evenings and weekends, and just finished a harvest this past Saturday, netting about 1,000 pounds of grapes. Their hope is to eventually turn the winery into their full-time occupation.

The Houcks built a barn for tastings in January of 2016, boasting an outdoor covered deck and seating for about 60. They plan to convert an upstairs loft, with a patio overlooking the vineyard, and rent the space out for corporate events. The winery usually brings in a food truck for events, and also sells handcrafted Amish cheese and crackers. The tasting fee is $2, but patrons can pay half price if they bring in a canned good for a local food bank ministry.

The vineyard offers seven wines in its catalog, but availability is limited by production. Currently, Spring Run has an Autumn White that blends Traminette and Vidal blanc grapes; a dry red blend of Chambourcin and Norton varietals called Abyss; and Harvest Moon, a pumpkin table wine. Spring Run’s most popular wine is Blackberry Rouge, a mix of blackberries and red wine grapes grown on premises.

With the region’s abundance of molds and pests – thanks to its high humidity – Virginia offers a number of challenges to grape growers. These problems have led the Houcks to grow hybrids that are more resistant to the elements. Now, they must contend with a different problem.

“Wildlife [has] ended up being my biggest nemesis,” Matt says. “Deer and raccoons love grapes as much as we do. You have to fight really hard to keep those [animals] away from the fruit, [or] they will find a way in there.” The couple brought in some vineyard watchdogs, Rocco and Rosie, two energetic black labs, and built them a dog house next to the vines. They’ve kept the animals at bay, and netting helps keep the birds out.

Richard Leahy, an author and industry consultant who specializes in Virginian wines, says the Houcks’ model is a smart way to grow their business.

“That’s a pretty sound, conservative plan for people who have day jobs and are trying to ease into this on a gradual basis,” Leahy says. “It’s a neat model for people who want to do this.”

Much like breweries, Leahy says many wineries fall into the problem of becoming so popular that they aren’t able to meet demand. To help, he says it’s common for wineries to purchase grapes from other vineyards to supplement production. But this, too, has pitfalls.

“The industry as a whole has a problem where we have more wineries than Virginia grapes,” Leahy says. “Everyone is competing for a dwindling supply of fruit.”

Leahy points out that Virginia vineyards are also affected by problems that accompany growing any crop. Last spring, for instance, a frost caused the loss of 30 percent of the state’s chardonnay crop, one of Virginia’s most popular grapes.

Though conservative in their strategy, the Houcks do have expansion plans. This year, they’ll produce 300 gallons of wine, up from 200 last year. They plan to add another two acres of grapes and expand their blackberry production, and may open their winery on Wednesdays in October, as inventory allows.

Lifelong Chesterfield residents, the Houcks say that their winery is a throwback to a time when the county was less developed and populous.

“You get that farm feel in the area that we’re in,” Matt says. “We try to grow what does well here, what belongs here.” ¦

Spring Run Vineyards will hold its next tasting on Sept. 30, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., at 10700 Spring Run Road. For more information, visit springrunvineyards.com.

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