Team Winery: Rappahannock Cellars assembles critical disciplines

By John Hagarty
Visit most Virginia wineries and your first impression is one of peaceful relaxation.

Meticulously pruned vineyards undulate softly across fields of green. The soft tinkle of wine glasses and murmured conversation fill the tasting room. During warmer months, couples and family groups are seen picnicking on landscaped lawns, or patios and decks.

The atmosphere and the wine exude a sense of well-being and offer visitors a brief respite from the stress-filled environment of modern society.

But creating such a relaxed and enjoyable setting requires focus and commitment. Let any aspect of the experience falter and soon customers will be driving past the establishment to the winery down the road.

Fortunately, most Virginia wineries work hard to assure guests a good time. One such local establishment is Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly. The winery is located at the corner of Hume Road and U.S. 522, seven miles south of Front Royal.

Let’s listen in as the five individuals responsible for the success of this business briefly describe their wine world.

The proprietor

John Delmare is a native Californian who relocated his family and winery to Virginia in 1996. He previously owned a winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He was drawn to Virginia as an inviting place to raise his growing family, and by its burgeoning wine industry.

“I was impressed with what was unfolding in Virginia. Both the state and the industry itself were supportive of newcomers. Yes, growing grapes and making wine here is more difficult than out West, but the challenge has been justified by the rewards. We’ve built a good life here,” states Delmare.

“I view my job as the general manager, or more specifically the ‘rudder’ that navigates our business; as such, I continually monitor all activity in the winery. This includes keeping my finger on the pulse of sales and production, including which wines are selling best and tracking inventory. I make decisions today that will impact our business three years or more into the future. Growing fruit and making wine is not a short-term endeavor. Misjudging the type or volume of wine needed can lead to serious supply problems down the road,” he underscores.

Delmare’s other duties include producing checks for up to 30 vendors a week, processing payroll, submitting monthly reports to federal and state authorities on the amount of wine produced, sold and warehoused; participating in tasting and blending trials of his new wines, holding regular staff meetings, hiring part-time staff to cover busy weekend traffic, and acting as his own bookkeeper.

The winemaker

Jason Burrus is a professional winemaker with a master of science degree in viticulture and enology from the University of California, Davis, the nation’s most prestigious wine university. His resume includes stints at Robert Mondavi as well as other California and foreign wineries. He has been with Rappahannock Cellars for four years.

Burrus is responsible for all winemaking activities. Each year he oversees the purchase of off-site fruit and the harvesting of estate grapes, determining the styles of wine to be produced, converting the fruit to wine through fermentation, and aging and blending the final bottlings.

“The public’s perception is that winemaking is a romantic occupation. And it does have its creative moments. But the day-to-day managing of a cellar containing up to 35 different lots of wine is a demanding job with ample opportunities for error. A sensitive palate and the ability to concentrate and work error free — coupled with being in good physical condition — is the mark of a successful winemaker,” says Burrus.

In addition to creating wine, Burrus evaluates and purchases barrels, tanks and all winemaking supplies, attends local and regional winemaking seminars, spends countless hours creating potential blends with associated spreadsheets, and manages the bottling operations of the final wines.

Managing the vineyard

Tom Kelly has managed commercial vineyards for more than a decade, seven of those years with Rappahannock Cellars.
“Quality wine springs from quality fruit, so attention to horticultural details has me spending much of my time in the vineyard. In the spring, I perform soil analysis and amendments, and then oversee the pruning and spraying operations throughout the summer. Canopy management, or controlling the amount of light and air the fruit is exposed to, is also a critical concern of mine. It’s gratifying at harvest time to see Jason working with prime Virginia fruit,” says Kelly.

Outside the eight-foot vineyard fence, Kelly’s other duties range from managing the wine warehouse, performing maintenance and repair on a host of farming equipment and cellar infrastructure, and attending meetings of Virginia grape growers.

The tasting room

Anita Raiford oversees tasting room operations. Raiford, a former Capitol Hill staffer, brings enthusiasm and attention to detail to creating an environment conducive to sipping wine. Her job is analogous to a cruise ship director but with a wine glass as backdrop rather than a life preserver.

No amount of vineyard or cellar magic will keep the financial books from turning red, if the setting for enjoying the wine is not welcoming. Tasting wine in an uninviting room with indifferent staff is a sure route to slow business. The wine industry is much more than just the wine.

Raiford’s challenges are similar to many businesses today, training and keeping qualified employees. “Our busiest times are the weekends and having sufficient tasting bar coverage keeps our guests in a contented state.

“We are fortunate to have loyal and committed employees who are eager to make each tasting a fun and educational experience. We encourage them to continually increase their wine knowledge and share it with guests,” emphasizes Raiford.

Beyond staffing and scheduling, keeping the winery gift shop shelves stocked and making certain the club tasting room is in pristine condition is also her focus.

An additional full-time position is the wine club manager. Many wineries in Virginia do not have a wine club. Allan Delmare manages the club, which provides two bottles of wine each month to its several hundred members. “The club is our way of building a closer relationship with a vitally important group of customers. Our members enjoy the privileges the club offers while helping us build our brand,” says Delmare.

Most of these disciplines are employed throughout our state’s wineries. In smaller operations, the owners are often performing all the duties themselves. Inattention in any of these areas — regardless of the size of the business — is a setup for declining business. An important benefit for wine lovers is that Virginia’s rapid winery growth is fueling enhancements in both settings and wines. Failure to “keep up with the Joneses” has real and negative consequences for inattentive owners.

So next time you leave a local winery, reflect for a moment on whether the experience was enjoyable. If it was, it’s likely these “five horsemen of wine hospitality” achieved their goals of attracting a steady stream of customers.

After all, enjoying wine is a social experience. And the more tasters involved the merrier the experience becomes.

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

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