‘Take care of the vines, and the vines will work with you’
By Daphne Hutchinson and Sallie Haynes
Special to the Rappahannock News
“It really was a passion for wine that started everything,” explained Al Kellert, looking back over a half century as a vintner. “It was a hobby that got out of control!”
Al and Cheryl Kellert are owners, winemakers and vineyard managers of Gray Ghost, Rappahannock County’s most venerable winery, and leaders in the push to respectability for the Commonwealth’s wine industry. Established in 1993, Gray Ghost has collected more than 2,500 medals for outstanding wines and Adieu, its late harvest vidal blanc, was the most awarded wine in the country (outside of California) for four consecutive years, helping earn “Best of the East” honors for Gray Ghost from Vineyard and Winery Management Magazine.
It didn’t take long for that wine glass to runneth over.
Al started off as a wine drinker with a degree in chemistry. It might have stopped there but for a college professor who helped him with his first try at fermentation. That was in 1969. Soon thereafter, he met and married Cheryl, another wine lover. They moved to northern Virginia, and made wine from dandelions, plums, pears and eventually grapes, which they grew in their suburban backyard. Al’s job as national marketing manager for the United States Postal Service required regular travel, and on planes and in hotels, he studied wine making.
Meanwhile, they visited California’s Napa Valley, learning from commercial producers who were happy to share secrets with the Eastern neophytes. “They didn’t see Virginia as a threat,” Al noted.
The wine making hobby only strengthened their passion for wine, sparking the leap of faith that took them from avocation to vocation. Finding the right spot for their dream to bear fruit took another two years. They needed to be close to a market, and here was the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, the second or third largest wine consuming region in the country. They found land suitable for grape production right on the highway in Amissville, just an hour away from that market. Then came the big question — was Rappahannock County a comfortable place to raise a family?
“We visited the schools, got to know the community and just loved it,” Cheryl said. “We couldn’t believe the friendliness here.”
They bought the land in 1986 and planted grapes the next year. Al commuted to D.C. to his job at the U.S. Postal Service’s headquarters. Cheryl — whose degree is in journalism, not oenology — worked at Linden Vineyards in neighboring Fauquier County, getting an insider’s look at the particular challenges of grape growing and wine making in Virginia’s Piedmont. “All of this between taking the kids to the bus and picking them up!” she added with a laugh.
Weekends and holidays belonged to the Gray Ghost.
“It’s been a challenge. We are a family working together, trying to pull a dream together,” said Al. “Everything we had, we poured into the winery.”
“We were 30 years younger then, too,” Cheryl joked.
Gray Ghost is the quintessential family business.
Cheryl personally prunes every grape vine. “Take care of the vines, and the vines will work with you,” she advised.
Every bottle has been touched by Al in the winemaking and bottling process.
Daughter Amy Payette is the director of marketing, son Al is the assistant manager of production, and daughter-in-law Rebecca is the administrative assistant. Fifteen-year-old granddaughter Andrea and thirteen-year-old grandson Thomas work in the vineyard and bottling. Six-year-old Kaitlyn and three-year-old Albert help in the tasting room and with set-up for special events and tours.
It’s also a quintessential local business. Gray Ghost has been a sponsor of Little League teams since 1989. The winery is on Rappahannock County’s Artisan Trail and is a charter participant in The Taste of Rappahannock, the annual fund raiser for Headwaters, the public school foundation. Gray Ghost’s food drives contribute 3,000 pounds of food annually to pantries in Rappahannock and Culpeper. Most important of all in an area with few employment opportunities, the winery hires local high schoolers and college students for summer jobs, over 150 youth over the last 30 years. “It’s been fun watching them blossom into young adults, achieve their career goals, marry, have kids of their own,” said Amy. “We always enjoy their return visits.”
From 1990 to 1993, the Kellerts sold their harvest to other producers. Licensed as a winery in 1993, Gray Ghost opened in 1994, and the medal collection began. In the upstairs barrel room, the “library” holds bottle after bottle, draped with its awards, every vintage since that first year. It’s a mass of medals — the honors list for the last year alone runs six pages. The adjacent tasting room, recently expanded and overlooking the vineyards and a vine-side picnic area, has the quiet gentility of a gentleman’s club in Olde England. It invites sitting and sipping.
All semblance to the 13-stall stable of the original structure is gone, remodeled by the Kellert family, on their own, with no direction from an architect.
Everywhere are portraits of John Singleton Mosby, the Gray Ghost of the winery and the Civil War. His image on the wine label is an original painting by Al Kellert, and the lettering for “Gray Ghost” is a composite of Mosby’s handwriting. One of Al’s forbearers rode with Mosby’s Rangers, and Amissville marks the southern end of the area once known as Mosby’s Confederacy. He’s almost local — after the war, he practiced law in Warrenton, his daughter was postmaster there, and the Gray Ghost is buried in the town cemetery.
“It’s likely that he and his men camped at the rear of this property,” Cheryl said, adding that relic hunters had long prospected in the area. And Al noted that a Civil War bullet, never fired and apparently picked up with the harvest, was recovered recently when a lug filled with 25 pounds of grapes for de-stemming started rattling.
With the winery expanded, the medal count climbing and accolades pouring in as the wine pours out, what’s next? The Kellerts are replanting, of course, and continually refining, balancing and improving Gray Ghost wines. “Our objective every year is to raise the bar,” said Al. “Virginia has the potential to be a great wine-producing state. The Napa Valley of the East . . . and we’ll be there, making wine.”