Innkeepers, artists, musicians and others have sunk roots in Rappahannock County, and now so has Jonathan Hickox — literally, in his case, as he’s recently planted grapevines on part of a 115-acre parcel of land he bought along Rock Mills Road.
By late next year he expects the vines to bear fruit to supply his Winery at Bull Run, just inside the Fairfax County border adjacent to Manassas National Battlefield Park.
Travelers passing his field of grapes-in-the-making have seen the vines grow to a current height of 4.5 to 5 feet, and may have wondered what gives, since the land was pasture for cattle before he took over, and the standard four-foot livestock fence has been replaced with a high deer fence. Hickox figures he has 40 to 45 acres — about 40 percent of the whole parcel — planted with vines. Some of the parcel is still leased out for cattle grazing.
It is the single largest all-at-once vineyard planting in the county, said John McCarthy, Rappahannock’s county administrator. Wine industry experts say it’s probably among the largest single plantings in the state, though such statistics are hard to come by — grapes being among the unregulated crops covered by Virginia’s right-to-farm rules.
“I’m not going to plant the entire 115,” Hickox said. “It’s like slaughtering a cow. You’re lucky to get a third of the dead weight,” in return for the effort. “It’s the same with land,” he said during an interview last week at an outside table on the grounds of Bull Run winery, with visitors sipping wine at other tables.
Hickox opened the winery two years ago, and said he’s worked to be a good neighbor to the Civil War battlefield, which abuts his property. Hickox has a love of history — he and his wife, Kim, met when they were history majors at George Mason University — and has a desire to see land preserved and enjoyed.
He said he and his wife have enjoyed going to vineyards and wineries. He was, and still is, the owner of a construction company, but started to study the wine business and decided he “could do it better.” He bought the 21 acres the Winery at Bull Run occupies in 2008. But he needed a supply of grapes.
“As soon as I opened this winery I knew the challenge would be getting it supplied with Virginia fruit,” Hickox said. “Most vineyards aren’t wineries and most wineries aren’t vineyards.”
For every three wineries that have opened in the state, one vineyard has been planted, Hickox said, meaning there is competition for grapes to be turned into wine. He added that the cost of chardonnay grapes (per ton) has doubled from $1,200 to $2,400 in the last five years.
Vineyard growers stand to lose 3 to 5 percent of their crop every year, whether to insects (including Japanese beetles and the brown marmorated stink bug) or disease. While Hickox has the high fence around the Rappahannock property to keep out larger nuisances like deer, the weather is something he can’t control.
He bought “second-year vines from California” and planted them last year, “so this is the second year they’ve been in the ground, but now they are three-year-old vines.”
Hickox journeys out to the vineyard around once a month, and has hired Wade Sampson of Sperryville and other local workers to oversee things in his absence and tend to the vines. Last time he was out here, Hickox said he and Kim brought along their daughters Delaney and Lilly (each of whom has a wine named after her).
Hickox is putting up a barn as a place to store equipment, but if some in Rappahannock are wondering if a winery will follow, with tastings and traffic, Hickox said that isn’t in the cards for the near future.
Compared to closer-in wineries, including the one at Bull Run, the traffic in Rappahannock is not there yet, he said. A winery could come “probably sometime in the future when the county becomes ‘more found’ ” as a travel destination and there’s an economic justification for building a winery, providing parking and hiring a staff.
“If I do it, it will be done in a tasteful way. You have to respect the board and the people so that they don’t have an issue,” Hickox said. Everybody in Rappahannock County officialdom he has dealt with, mostly in the zoning and health departments, has been “very, very helpful,” he added.
“The purpose of that vineyard is to feed this winery,” he said. He leases seven different vineyards in addition to growing grapes on a 3-acre parcel on the grounds of the Winery at Bull Run. But he chose to buy the land in Rappahannock rather than lease it.
Land in Loudoun County was “way too expensive” and not as ideal as Fauquier County, which he noted is the home of many old Virginia vineyards.
Thus he turned his search to Rappahannock, and the 115 acres he settled on had the right elevation for a vineyard. At 720 feet, it is “the highest for miles.” A height of 650 to 1,200 feet above sea level allows vineyard growers to avoid frost settling on the vines. The fact that Rappahannock County is home to many apple orchards makes it hospitable for growing grapes as well.
“I love Rappahannock County. My best friend was from Loudoun and [Rappahannock] reminds me of what Loudoun used to be like,” Hickox said. In fact, he sees more vineyards in Rappahannock’s future. “Rappahannock is underutilized for growing grapes. I predict it will see more and more vineyards.”
The wine industry is growing in Virginia. “It’s probably the single largest growing agricultural sector,” said Tom Kelly, president of the Virginia Vineyards Association, which provides educational resources to growers and advocates on their behalf with government. Kelly was vineyard manager at Rappahannock Cellars for 10 years until 2013.
The growth is a response to the rise in consumption of wine; wineries have also become “a destination and a source of recreation,” Kelly said. The wine business in Rappahannock “is the not fastest growing, but it is growing,” he said. The county is “a little remote from Washington and Northern Virginia.”
Rappahannock County has other vineyards, including Gray Ghost in Amissville and Gadino Cellars in Washington. The latter is “within eyeshot” of his vineyard, Hickox noted.
The fruit the vines grow will be ready for picking in the fall of 2015, but that’s not soon enough for Hickox. “I need that fruit tomorrow.”