by Lee Graves
Turning a hobby into a business can be tricky. Emotions can obscure judgment, and many a sound management principle has been sacrificed on the altar of misguided
hopes. “It’s easy to keep on the road of passion and spend exorbitant amounts of money because you’re blind about your dreams,” says Jerry Bias.
A founding partner of Cyrus Capital Partners in New York, Bias and his wife, Lauren, have turned a passion for fine wine into a successful business, Sugarleaf Vineyards in Albemarle County. They started small, by growing grapes for other vintners, then built the business step by step, never losing sight of their goal to establish a high-quality
Sugarleaf has exceeded expectations since the first vines were planted in 2002. The Biases expect to sell about 1,100 cases of wine this year — nearly twice their original goal — and medals keep coming in. Recently, Sugarleaf’s 2006 Petit Verdot won a silver medal in judging involving 3,500 wines at the international Dallas Morning News Wine
Competition. “It’s overwhelming,” Jerry says of the business.
Sugarleaf occupies a four-acre block in a 126-acre tract in the foothills south of Charlottesville. Massive oaks and maples climb the slopes of what began as a country getaway from New York, where the Biases live and where Lauren was born. (Jerry’s connections to the Charlottesville area are through the University of Virginia. He is a 1990 graduate.)
A vineyard wasn’t in the plans until a friend issued Jerry a challenge. “He said, ‘You like drinking great wine — why not make great wine?’” Before embarking on the venture, the couple consulted wine guru Gabriele Rausse, scientists and others to analyze soil characteristics, elevation, drainage and other qualities.
They started by supplying grapes to other vintners. In 2004, the Biases broke ground for a winery designed to blend modern technology with a welcoming, rustic character. A tasting room provides space for leisurely sampling.
In addition to the Petit Verdot, Sugarleaf’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2006 Viognier have garnered medals in competitions.
Much of the credit for the wine’s quality goes to Daniel Neumeister, Sugarleaf’s winemaker and vineyard manager. Lauren, a former model and mortgage banker, also plays a key role as chief operating officer.
The winery’s location on the Monticello Wine Trail is fortunate, she adds, because fellow vintners understand the passion behind dreams such as Sugarleaf. “Obviously, you follow your head as well as your heart,” Lauren says, “and we’ve been very fortunate to be in a supportive environment.”
The dream of creating a thriving wine industry in Virginia dates to Thomas Jefferson’s time, but that centuries-old vision has reached fruition only recently.
In 1979, only six wineries operated in the state, which traces its wine-making tradition to 1608. The number grew to 40 by 1995, when the scene exploded. Over the next decade, the acreage devoted to viticulture in Virginia doubled, according to the Virginia Wine Board.
The state now is home to 130 wineries and is fifth in the nation for the number of wine producers, according to the Virginia Tourism Corp. The July issue of Travel and Leisure magazine rated Virginia one of the top five new wine travel destinations in the world.
Beyond the pleasure and satisfaction of producing fine wine, the vineyards fuel local economies. For every dollar spent at a winery, says Virginia Tourism, seven additional dollars are spent elsewhere locally.
Wine trails now lace the state and link the vineyards, and October is designated Virginia Wine Month by state officials.
Barboursville Vineyards: The estate has ties to Thomas Jefferson, and the vineyard, established in 1976, is among Virginia’s most venerable. On state Route 678 in Orange County. http://www.barboursvillewine.net.
Afton Mountain Vineyards: Nestled in a scenic setting, Afton pioneered modern viticulture with plantings dating to 1978. At 234 Vineyard Lane in Nelson County. http://www.aftonmountainvineyards.com.
Williamsburg Winery: With more than 50 acres producing some 60,000 cases annually, Williamsburg boasts the state’s largest winery. On Lake Powell Road in Williamsburg. http://www.williamsburgwinery.com.
Gray Ghost Vineyards and Winery: The name evokes the memory of one of the Civil War’s legendary figures, Confederate Col. John S. Mosby, and the wines have won awards galore. On state Route 211 in Rappahannock County. http://www.grayghostvineyards.com.
June 14: Summer Celebration Wine Festival in Newport News. (757) 888-3371. http://www.VirginiaWineTour.com.
Aug. 9: Wine-making workshop with Gabriele Rausse, at Monticello in Albemarle County. (434) 984-9822. http://www.monticello.org.
Aug. 22-24: Virginia Wine Showcase, Dulles Expo & Conference Center. (703) 823-1868. http://www.vawineshowcase.org.
Aug. 30-31: Discover Virginia Food and Wine Festival in Greene County. (800) 985-6663. http://www.discovervirginia.net.
Oct: 25: Pick of the Piedmont Fall Wine Festival in Orange County. (540) 672-5216. http://www.visitorangevirginia.com.
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