Tasting Room: A chat with Chris Pearmund

Occasionally John Hagerty, who works at Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly and writes The Tasting Room column for Times Community Newspapers, will catch up with owners of Piedmont-area wineries and get their take on the world of Virginia wine. His first chat is with Chris Pearmund, managing partner of the eponymous Pearmund Cellars located in Broad Run, the Winery at La Grange and the Vint Hill Craft Winery, which among them produce 20,000 cases annually.

The Tasting Room (TTR): What led to your career in wine?

Chris Pearmund (CP): I worked at Clyde’s in Tysons Corner in the ’80s as their wine specialist and managed both the front and back operations of many other restaurants. I loved the concept of creating food with quality ingredients. The same concept applies to winemaking. I wanted to make myself more marketable by earning stripes in both the food and wine business. However, the restaurant industry is a daily repetitive grind while winemaking revolves around an annual production cycle. It’s hard to get burned out in the wine industry. There’s simply more variety, longer vision and less repetition. Once I entered the wine industry, I never looked back.

TTR: What’s the major challenge your wineries face today?

CP: Cash flow, retaining quality staff, acceptance in the market place and antiquated distribution laws. Only 4 percent of all wine sold in the state is Virginian even as the industry has expanded. It should be around 7 percent or more. All of these obstacles are limiting the continuing growth and long-term viability of the industry.

TTR: So why has Virginia wine grown in popularity?

CP: It’s produced locally, and the quality-to-value ratio is good. We also benefit from an established tourism industry that attracts wine drinkers who want to drink local wine. Plus, it provides a fun day trip for our heavily populated and over- stressed work force seeking a relaxing environment with family and friends.

TTR: What is the biggest challenge facing Virginia wine?

CP: Maintaining and increasing quality. There are tens of thousands of wineries worldwide. To be successful each of them have to be good enough to attract a distributor, survive on thin margins, be sold by committed sales reps, attractive to restaurant lists, and consistently purchased by the public. It’s an enormous set of hurdles to clear to earn shelf space at wine shops and grocery stores. If you’re not producing quality wine, you won’t succeed in this competitive market past the mom and pop stage.

TTR: Can Virginia achieve national wine recognition?

CP: Yes. And we have. But we need more wineries producing consistently higher quantity and quality-to-price ratio wines for distribution outside of Virginia. These wines need to fulfill consumer needs in major markets like New York, California, and Florida. What we don’t need is more wineries producing smaller volumes with variable quality. This sends the wrong message to the marketplace and hinders national recognition.

TTR: Any personal sacrifices you’ve made to achieve success?

CP: As with many owner-operated businesses, marriage, family relationships, and time off are often sacrificed in running the show. I work seven days week, 10 to 12 hours a day. That kind of commitment creates success. But it also creates stress in personal relationships. I admit much of my work schedule is self-induced but creating a successful business takes an enormous amount of time and emotional commitment. Often, there is not much energy left at the end of the day. Keeping focused on both sides of your life is a challenge.

TTR: Any missteps in developing your businesses?

CP: Not many because I opened all of my wineries with a small group of smart investors who helped me think through big ticket items and were committed to long-term involvement. Some things could have been better thought out, such as more functionally designed parking areas, larger septic fields, more professional electronic infrastructure for computing needs, and restrooms designed to handle peak weekend traffic. However, these are problems many in our industry face. You learn as you grow.

TTR: Biggest surprise you encountered after opening your wineries?

CP: I was pleased how open and supportive other winery owners were with each other. This camaraderie helps eliminate repetitive mistakes and moves the industry forward. An exchange of ideas and plans is important. The flip side of that coin is owners who take shared ideas but offer little in return. That’s disappointing. In the past, I did not see much of that behavior. Unfortunately, I think it’s an attitude that is growing as the industry expands.

TTP: Your favorite non-Virginia wine and region?

CP: I love the wines of South Africa, Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley of France. These regions produce wines that offer distinctive styles that are tied to the earth and climate of the area. Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are wonderfully complex and reflect what the French called terroir, or the place where the fruit is grown. You often hear criticism that today’s wines are increasingly homogenized in aroma and taste. This may be driving the overall growth in sales but it’s not what I prefer to drink.

TTR: Pet peeve?

CP: Burned out light bulbs. It’s my litmus test for a winery staff that may not be focused on quality in all aspects of their job. If a bulb goes dim and is not replaced immediately, it tells me other aspects of their job may also be slipping. If you start by checking the lights you’ll also make sure the floors are clean, the trash is emptied, and the flowers are watered. Creating a quality customer experience is critical to success. The public picks up on mistakes quickly and that translates into reduced reputation and sales. The solution? Change the light bulbs!

TTR: Closing thoughts?

CP: I am hugely disappointed in the lack of support from commercial banks. Bankers fail to view wineries as long-term investments. Because of this attitude capital in the industry is largely self-funded. It’s a problem that’s impeding growth, especially for expansion past our state borders.
Anyone considering opening a winery needs to have expertise in five areas: agricultural, winemaking, customer service, small business disciplines and knowledge of local, state and federal law. If you lack any of these skills, hire a professional. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
And finally, Virginia needs to work harder on creating a definitive wine style. Buyers everywhere should be able to discern our state’s wines as having a distinct regional character and style. We are making progress but we have a ways to go in achieving this important goal.

John Hagarty works for Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly. Visit him at Hagarty-on-Wine.com.

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