Loving Cup Vineyard and Winery, Virginia’s first organic vineyard, opened this month in North Garden under the hand of Karl Hambsch and Deena Morris Hambsch.
The vineyard has four acres of vines under cultivation on the 150-acre Hambsch family farm and is growing three varieties of white grapes and two types of reds.
“We’re planted for organic production,” said Hambsch. “We choose varieties that fit our system. They’re all hybrids with greater grape disease resistance. We want varieties that have a fighting chance in our system. Organic sprays don’t work that well.
“We’re the first certified organic vineyard in the state,” said Hambsch, noting that Albemarle’s Blenheim Vineyards is in the process of getting certified.
“Hybridization’s emphasis has been on cold hardiness and disease resistance. So we have cold-resistant varieties. One will survive down to 40 below. This has been the perfect winter for grapes and keeping the vines dormant. The cold kills lots of pests and bacteria and fungi.
“All our wines are blends. I don’t care for one-dimensional wines. We opened with two wines and we’ll soon go to four, a rose, a dry white, a sweet white and a red.
A history major at JMU, Hambsch learned viticulture by working at Prince Michel and Veritas vineyards.
“I asked a lot of questions and I had good people around who tolerated me. They were generous to me and very candid. To learn, you need to find someone who knows what he is doing and be a sponge.”
Karl and his father Werner, the former owner of The Crossroads Store in North Garden, began making wines from crab apples and other fruit several years ago. From that start they took on grape wines. “It’s harder to make a good fruit wine than a grape wine,” said Hambsch.
“We want to be proud of every aspect of what we do. We investigated whether we could even grow grapes. I read everything I could and I made a proposal of how we would do it to [local vineyard guru/consultant] Chris Hill. It’s like reading a fourth grade essay in terms of appreciating complexity. Chris Hill said he would go down the road with us. With his background he has seen everything about grapes. So many people have been generous and critical to us.”
To be certified as organic, farming must be done without synthetic sprays, pesticides, or fungicides. “We can’t use any of those,” explained Hambsch. “We use botanicals or things that are mined; for instance a bacteria that makes a caterpillar sick. We can’t use the effective poisons.
“We’re cognizant of the biology of the soil and we test a lot. We make compost tea ourselves. Composting will undo mistakes.
“It’s a common misconception that organic farming is standing back and doing nothing, but that’s not true. We have to do with our hands what a spray cannot do. The sprays tend to be effective for only a short time. We try to keep nature’s equilibrium where it is. Nature will do things for you if you don’t kick it around. You want to keep predator insects around. They tend to be eliminated with other pest insects.”
The National Organic Plan is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so Loving Cup Winery is certified by the USDA, but farm inspections are done by private agencies and Loving Cup worked with Quality Certification Services, a Florida company.
“It’s so complicated to get certified,” said Hambsch. “We had conversations for four years. They helped us a lot. You have to follow NOP regulations for three years before you can be certified. There are annual inspections. About five percent of places also get surprise inspections. It needs to be challenging in order to mean something. It gives customers assurance that we do what we say we do.
“There are no studies on the lack of spray residues in wines. So there’s nothing for or against organic wines. For us it’s about being good stewards of our land and to our neighbors. In Charlottesville we have enough like-minded people around us that we thought we could put our principles first and let the business follow.
“The vineyard is certified organic and now we have to get the wine certified. They want to make sure anything the wine comes in contact with is not contaminated. The winery has to be inspected. They want to know how you will make the wine before you grow the grapes. That doesn’t make sense to winemakers because every year the grapes will be different and have to handled differently. So that’s the challenge for us. We’ll be certified before the 2014 vintages.
“In organic wines you are allowed to add very little sulfites, no more than 100 parts per million. Sulfites keep wines microbially stable. Most organic wine is not made for long-term aging, but to be drunk within five years. But every wine is different. An organic grower has fewer tools in the tool box. We are constrained in our ability to manipulate it. Most wine makers are trying to be true to the vintage and also to be consistent so people will come back to their brands.”
The winery’s name was taken from a Rolling Stones song, Hambsch said. “We struggled over the name. I wanted something to reference the organic side. To me what we do is grow with a lot of purpose and love.”
The label image of a white heart on a blue shield is derived from the symbol of Hambsch’s father’s home town, Weisental, Germany. “The heart represents our guiding principles of social and environmental responsibility,” said Hambsch.
The winery will produce cases annually in the hundreds. The 2012 vintage was 200 cases and the 2013 vintage was 400 cases. They will plant as many vines as they can properly manage, Hambsch said.
The winery is at 3340 Sutherland Road. Tasting room hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from April through December. For more information, visit their website, lovingcupwines.com.