Mount Juliet Farm in White Hall has been raising grapes for local and state winemakers for years and has now opened Grace Estate Winery, selling wines with its own label, under the leadership of Jake Busching.
Grace Estate held its grand opening in early June and is offering tastings of its eight wines in a converted former hay barn.
Busching was raised on a beef cattle farm in northern Minnesota, but “it’s too cold and too dark there,” he said, and in the 1990s he found his way to Charlottesville and through chance became the farm manager at Jefferson Vineyards in 1997. There he got introduced to winemaking under Chris Hill, the Virginia’s noted vineyard consultant.
“They say that Chris Hill is the godfather of Virginia vineyards and Gabriele Rausse is the godfather of Virginia wine,” Busching said, recalling his first mentors. “It dawned on me when I was talking to [local wine expert] Michael Shaps that the future of Virginia wine was happening then. We realized we can make really good red and white wines here. I could see it agriculturally. This works for me and speaks to my spirit. I get it and I’m lucky to have found it.”
Busching worked for several area wineries and in 2003 started with the then-new Pollak Vineyard in Greenwood.
“That was my first real brainchild. They wanted to do something that made sense to me and that’s where I really learned winemaking, under the guidance of Michael Shaps.”
John Grace, of W.R. Grace & Company, the chemical manufacturing corporation, is the owner of Mount Juliet Farm and hence the name of the winery. “He wants it to be sustainable as a long-term business,” said Busching. “Sustainability, to me, is a farm that can keep going. We’re very soft agriculturally—in terms of chemical use.”
Previously, the farm raised 52 acres of grapes and in the last two years it has added more vines to reach 63 acres. It raises 14 varieties and sells grapes to wineries across the state.
Mount Juliet encompasses 550 acres, some of it mountainside, and inside the eight-foot-high woven wire deer fence there are 250 acres protected for grape growing.
“Before the deer fence, 20 percent of our grapes were lost to deer. They did a massive amount of damage. They take a bite from a cluster and then the cluster rots. Plus, they just eat a lot of grapes. The fence paid for itself in two years. Raccoons are also a lot of trouble and we hunt them hard in season. We also have trouble with groundhogs, foxes and turkeys eating grapes.”
Busching is now on the board of the Monticello Wine Trail, which is trying to define and promote local wines. “We’re where Napa Valley [California] was. We have good soils. We need to keep good wine here and promote it.”
Busching is most pleased with the success of area Viognier and Chardonnary vines –“They have an amazing track record”—and among the reds, the Merlot, Petit Verdot and Tannat, a grape used to make port.
The farm is producing about four tons of grapes per acre, or about 220 to 250 tons per year total, depending on rainfall. That translates into about 16,000 cases of wine. In 2012, Grace Estate produced 2,800 cases, he said.
“Virginia is 20 percent short of the grapes it needs to meet Virginia state demand for Virginia wines,” Busching said. “So we’re all planting like crazy and we won’t catch up for 15 years.
“From our vineyard’s perspective, I don’t want to plant more for a couple of years. I’ve got to get my vines established. I’m not going to ramp up wine production. I want to sell 95 percent of my wine at the winery.”
The wines he’s most pleased with are the Viognier, Chardonnay, Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon. He also likes a wine he calls “3,” a three-way collaboration he has made in the last two years with Matthieu Finot at King Family Vineyards in Crozet and Emily Pelton at Veritas Vineyard and Winery in Afton. Each brings two barrels of grapes to the project and takes home four cases of wine.
“It’s a cult wine that sells out fast,” Busching said. “We’re working collectively and sharing information as friends and trying to do things for our growing region.
“I didn’t understand wine until I started growing grapes. I’m not a grand connoisseur of wine, but I love all of it now. And that has led me into food. Now I’m starting to understand cooking and we have a large garden going here.
“My push on it is to get people to understand that it’s farming. It’s part of the whole local food movement.”
Busching said the tasting room will move to the estate’s main house soon and that a new tasting room will be built among a cluster of old barns where an old dairy barn once stood. “I want to maintain the farm appearance of the vineyard. Tractors will be in view. I don’t want it to look like a resort.”
The tasting room is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tastings are $5.