"We're just wine drinkers like everybody else," says Virginia Hamlet.
Unlike most wine drinkers, the spring of 2010 found Virginia and her husband, Butch, planting vines on the grounds of their home, Eltham Manor.
In a way, the new turn in their lives surprised Virginia, an architect, and Butch, a businessman and racecar driver.
It began when Virginia read a story in the newspaper about a subject that piqued her interest: winemaking. She signed up for classes taught by Robert Wurz, a winemaker in nearby North Carolina who began making wine in his parents' basement in California's Napa Valley and later earned a PhD in wine chemistry from the University of California-Davis. Inspired, Virginia began thinking about growing grapes herself.
There were some 300-plus acres outside her back door. And the Hamlets live in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where the soils and warm climate have proved hospitable to growing grapes. In the 1970s, vineyards began to blossom around the state, echoing earlier efforts by native sons George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. These days, there are some 285 Virginia wineries and more than 300 plus vineyards.
To Virginia and Butch, it began to make sense to put their own land to a natural, productive use. There was even a red-roofed barn capped by a weathervane, with plenty of space inside for farming equipment.
And there was Butch. As a race car driver and pilot, he had an affinity for all things mechanical. He was a natural with the heavy equipment they would need. Consequently, mornings found him on the seat of a tractor, preparing the soil or spraying to keep the fledgling vines free from pests and fungi.
The Hamlets planted three traditional Bordeaux varietals: Merlot, with its hints of berry, plum and currant, Petit Verdot, a rich red grape used principally in classic Bordeaux blends and Cabernet Sauvignon. They planted Pinot Gris, with its crisp acidic taste. Finally, the Hamlets planted Viognier, a white grape from the Rhone regions of France characterized by a fruity floral aroma, and a wine for which the state of Virginia has become a respected producer. The couple nurtured their new tender charges. They trained the vines, pruned, pulled leaves. Some days, they worked from sunup to sundown, and then some more. In the process, they gained abiding respect for those who make things grow, and they experienced deep satisfaction from the work - despite heat, insects, and new aches and pains.
The boys joined in the effort. The twins, Lee and Mitchell, have just about done it all, from laying out rows to "harvesting" rocks that popped up when the soil was turned. After the family cleared an extra parcel of land to plant more vines, Lee and Mitchell sat vigil most of the night as their father burned the debris left from the clearing.
Their big brother, Harrison, helps when he can with pruning, shoot-positioning, mowing, installing bird netting and many other tasks. Kevin and Yesid, who moved in with the Hamlet clan in 2012, and Kaleb, who moved in in 2014, have also learned about the vineyard and its many tasks and are welcome additions to the crew.
Before and after they planted, Virginia and Butch studied, and asked lots and lots and lots of questions. They attended conferences and visited other vineyards. They wanted to adopt the best industry practices so they could grow the highest quality, old-world grapes. They wanted to pay careful attention to detail while trying to minimize human interference in order to let nature work its magic.
The family had established Hamlet Vineyards, a truly Virginia vineyard. One day, plump grapes will hang from branches on vines that now crisscross the gently rolling hillside leading up to Eltham Manor.
After the grapes have been carefully tended from early pruning to the last harvest, the berries make a quick trip to Charlottesville where the winemaking takes place. Michael Shaps, owner and winemaker at Michael Shaps Wineworks, finds the full potential in the fruit and crafts wines that reflect the essence of southern Virginia. Michael has been making wine in Virginia since 1995 with previous experience at both Jefferson Vineyards and King Family. He works as a consultant to the industry and has been involved in the startup of more than 10 wineries. He was the winner of the Virginia Governor's Cup in 2004 and is often mentioned in wine publications such as Wine Spectator, Saveur, and Wine Enthusiast. Michael is also a partner in Maison Shaps Winery in Meursault, France. He received his BPA (Brevet Professionnel Agricole) in Enology and Viticulture from Lycee Viticole de Beaune, France and a B.S from Skidmore College.