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2017-11-22 / Featured / Front Page

Chester’s Ashton Creek Vineyard amps up production

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER


A year ago, Ashton Creek Vineyard made an unlikely debut on Jefferson Davis Highway, bottling wine by hand in small batches. Earlier this month, the growing winery held its first large-scale bottling, yielding 500 cases and a bigger tasting lineup. 
ASH DANIEL A year ago, Ashton Creek Vineyard made an unlikely debut on Jefferson Davis Highway, bottling wine by hand in small batches. Earlier this month, the growing winery held its first large-scale bottling, yielding 500 cases and a bigger tasting lineup. ASH DANIEL Driving south on Jefferson Davis Highway, past the self-storage complexes and mobile home parks, the sudden glimpse of a winery might seem foreign enough to make you do a double take.

Could those really be grapevines sprouting from the ground next to Highway 1? Does that imposing structure house a tasting room? And, most importantly, is it open to the public? The answer to all three is yes.

Ashton Creek Vineyard is a 7-acre, family owned winery that generated buzz when it set up shop in Chester last fall. Though its tasting room opened just a year ago, it’s already become a popular spot for locals. And earlier this month, the winery marked its anniversary with a milestone: its first large-scale bottling. It’s a significant moment in the vineyard’s maturation process, explained manager and vintner Alan Thibault, the 24-year-old son of owners Lori and Kirk Thibault. Up to now, all of Ashton Creek’s bottling has been done by hand, in small batches.

The Thibaults assisted Ashland Wine and Beer Supply employees with their mobile bottling operation on a recent Friday morning. PHOTOS BY ASH DANIEL The Thibaults assisted Ashland Wine and Beer Supply employees with their mobile bottling operation on a recent Friday morning. PHOTOS BY ASH DANIEL “This is the first time we’ve had six of our own wines come right out into the tasting room all at once,” Alan said, noting that previously they sampled pours of a few of their own wines alongside some purchased from other wineries. Now, visitors to the tasting room will be met with a full flight of Ashton Creek wines, available for tasting on tap and for sale by the glass, bottle, carafe or reusable growler.

Alan, Lori, Rachel and Kirk Thibault, pictured left to right with dogs Bailey and Willie Nelson.ASH DANIEL Alan, Lori, Rachel and Kirk Thibault, pictured left to right with dogs Bailey and Willie Nelson.ASH DANIEL To achieve this level of production, on a bright Friday morning this month, the winery brought in a mobile bottling assembly from Ashland’s Wine and Beer Supply. Using equipment aboard an 18-wheeler, Wine and Beer Supply employees transferred wine from vats in Ashton Creek’s cellar, filling, labeling and capping roughly 6,000 bottles within hours. If the winery were to attempt the same task by hand, it would take days.

The result is roughly 500 cases of wine, including a malbec, a merlot, a chardonnay, a riesling and a red blend, all made from grapes imported from Washington state. This, too, marks a turning point for the Thibaults: next year’s wine, which is aging now, was made from grapes they grew themselves.

“It’s been a long process,” Alan said, reflecting on the winery’s path to this point. Sitting in his open lab space in the cellar, six years after the Thibaults began construction and planted their first vines, he noted, “We did all the construction here ourselves.”

For the first time, tasting room visitors will be met with a full flight of Ashton Creek wines. ASH DANIEL For the first time, tasting room visitors will be met with a full flight of Ashton Creek wines. ASH DANIEL Lori and Kirk Thibault’s journey to opening a winery began in 2005 when they purchased a parcel of land on Jefferson Davis Highway with the intention of creating a commercial park. After they decided to hold off on development plans until the economy improved, their eldest daughter asked if she could hold her wedding on the property. That’s when they realized the land’s potential as a winery and event space.

“It’s a nice place for people to enjoy some food and a glass of wine. Just sit back and relax,” said co-owner Lori Thibault, standing in the entrance of the tasting room. “The people in the area have been very excited about it, having something unique without having to drive to Charlottesville.

“We started out by making some wine at home,” she recalled. “We’ve always liked to drink wine. I guess that’s where it started.”

Ashton Creek’s 30 acres of vines – including 4.5 acres on premises and the remainder in Danville and Loudoun County – aren’t up to full-scale production yet, but Alan hopes to harvest between 40 and 60 tons of grapes next season. The goal is to produce 6,000 cases of wine annually from their grapes in five years’ time.

As for the wine, Alan says his product will taste familiar to those who love the classics, but he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed by varietal. His chardonnay, for instance, isn’t as buttery and overpowering in flavor as some, he says. The wine is aged in stainless steel barrels for four months before spending four months in oak.

“You get a little bit of butter in the mid-palate, but it still has a crisp, refreshing finish,” said Alan, who has a degree in viticulture from Virginia Tech.

As the winery is a family affair, even the Thibaults’ dogs are in on the action. Willie’s White, a blend, is named after Willie Nelson, their large white mutt. Bailey, their golden retriever, is the namesake of Bailey’s Blend, a traditional Meritage of Malbec, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.

“It kind of reminds us of Christmastime,” said Alan of the red blend.

You won’t find these wines in stores; all their wines, whether bottled or kegged, are only available for consumption or purchase on premises. Beyond wine, Ashton Creek will continue to carry Potter’s Craft Cider, as well as an assortment of small plates.

Wineries often double as event spaces, and Ashton Creek is no exception, hosting 58 weddings in 2017 alone. The Thibaults’ younger daughter, Rachel, 26, handles marketing and event coordination. In addition to the tasting room, the venue has an indoor event space that holds 250, an outdoor event space and patios.

The charms of the Chester winery weren’t lost on a quartet of women finishing lunch in the tasting room recently as the bottling operation wrapped up downstairs.

“Absolutely love it,” said Colonial Heights’ Kay Francis, there on her third visit. “The atmosphere, the food, the wine, everything.” ¦

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