When James King was appointed to the Virginia Wine Board last month, he thought of his father, David, who served on the board from 2007 to 2009, and again from 2013 to 2018. When David died in 2019, members of the close-knit wine community spoke out about the significant impact he’d had on the course of the industry.
It’s true, James said. After the family winery, King Family Vineyards, had a few years of experience in wine production, they decided to build the carriage house for community events. “We found out the law allowed no more than 12 events per year,” James remembered, “and we couldn’t find out the reasoning.” It turned out to be embedded in the state code, with no evident basis. The Kings—as well as other wineries in the state—could not justify the expense of an event space that was used only few times each season.
“No matter what it looks like from the outside, this is farming, and it’s hard,” James said. “We’re subject to all the risks farmers take and no matter how the year’s crop turns out, we still have to buy the barrels, and the tractors, the new vines and the bottles.” Having a related source of income allows a little more stability in an uncertain business.
His dad, an attorney, spent years talking with his colleagues, lobbying the General Assembly and finally, helping to draft and pass a bill that essentially allowed events at the wineries’ discretion, so long as they have the appropriate space and location. Regulations governing impact on the health, safety or welfare of the public still apply. “This is something we should all be concerned with,” James said.
“The new Virginia law allowed someone contemplating getting into the wine business in Virginia to think, ‘I may have a shot,’” James said. “Its importance shows in the numbers.” From 2015 to 2019, the number of Virginia state wineries grew by more than a third. David King also worked hard to create the Virginia Winery Distribution Company, which gave Virginia wineries and farm wineries an alternative to using independent wine wholesalers.
James King said that as a member of the wine board, he’s committed to promoting all Virginia wines, and he welcomes those who drive innovation using hired winemakers and grapes from a number of growers to explore new blends and techniques. At the same time, he believes the public is better served by some regulation governing who is entitled to hold onsite wine events. The Albemarle Board of Supervisors consulted with the Virginia Wine Board to hammer out guidelines that stipulate a minimum of five acres of grapes, an on-site tasting room and an assortment of other stipulations for the right to hold events, limits intended to prevent any possible bad actors.
“Even planting one acre of grapes is a huge financial responsibility,” he said. “The requirements present a low barrier, but a meaningful one. This helps keep the quality high and acknowledges the investment that farm wineries have in the community.”
Covid was definitely a challenge for all Virginia wineries, but it also gave the community a reason to be thankful for the beautiful scenic places where they could remain outside and still get a sense of being with people and enjoying a glass of wine. “The direct-to-consumer and online sales really saved the industry,” James said.
Inflation has been another factor that’s made 2022 a little slower so far, he said. “People continue to come, but they spend a little less money. We all feel lucky to still be here.”
On the horizon is another threat to the industry, a major one. “The lantern fly is here in the county,” he said. “If we see them, we’ll stomp ‘em, but we’re expecting big damage as we learn how to control them.” He takes some comfort in the fact that some of the state’s best minds are working on prevention and damage control. He’s very conscious that in his new role, he has multiple wineries to be concerned about.
“We’re expecting the need to do 40% more spraying,” he said. “That’s terrible for all of us, but I can’t help but think about Loving Cup Winery [in North Garden]. They’re totally organic, and the lantern fly could cause them to shut down completely.”
James said he is also mindful of the concern of rural neighbors about traffic, congestion and noise. “We had VDOT do a study of the traffic on Half-Mile Branch,” he said. “The study found that vehicle traffic to the winery was about half of what it would be if the property had been developed into a 28-home subdivision.”
Keeping the area rural is important to him and his family. “This is an amazing place,” he said. “I grew up here, getting movies from Maupin’s, jumping the fence to fish in a neighboring pond, working in the vines in the summer and fall.” It’s a wonderful place to grow fruit, he said, pointing out that tree and vine fruits have been grown here for centuries.
It wasn’t the possibility of an orchard or winery that caused his father to choose Crozet years ago. He wanted property with enough flat land for a polo field, James said. He was approached by a would-be grape grower asking to lease some land, so he added wine production to his goals for the farm. After David died, James toyed with learning to play polo, “just so I could understand him a little better.” He decided it would take him years to be as comfortable on a horse as his father, so chose to stick with vineyard management.
James King left Crozet for a while, studied history and played lacrosse at U.Va., joined the Marine Corps, was deployed twice—once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan—and lived in several states. “There are a lot of great places, but in the end, I asked my family if there was space for me in the business. I am so glad to be able to raise my own children here.”