by Rebecca Jackson
When he first met his wife Wendy, Donald Furrow-Scott hated wine, but he was more than happy to help her and her parents, vintners Roger and Judy Furrow, plant Cabernet grapes in 1984 in the family vineyard near Smith Mountain Lake, VA.
“She grew on me – the wine came later,” laughed a bespectacled Furrow-Scott. Today, more than three decades later, he helps preside over Hickory Hill Vineyards and Winery, over the years becoming a producer and connoisseur of their award-winning beverages. In March of this year, Hickory Hill earned six medals in the 2018 Virginia Wineries Association Governor’s Cup Virginia Wine Competition.
“We are proud to bring this recognition to our area as an excellent location for growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and other grapes that create great wine,” said Wendy Furrow-Scott. “Every part of our process happens right here at Smith Mountain Lake.”
Wendy’s parents, Roanoke natives and founders of the winery and vineyard, developed many of the wine varieties. Roger’s passion for wine began in the 1960s when, as an Air Force officer, he was put in charge of inventorying wines in an officers’ club. After he left the military, his job as an engineer took him to Europe, where his fascination for wine grew.
“Basically, it was a self-taught hobby that got out of control,” said Wendy.
In the early 1980s, the Furrows planted an experimental 250-vine vineyard, branching out in 1991 to purchase a neighboring farm and expanding the vineyard. The Furrows’ hobby became a five-acre commercial vineyard supplying grapes to a winemaker in Appomattox. In 2001, Hickory Hill became the 75th commercial farm winery in Virginia, with their first vintage under the Hickory Hill Vineyards label. In 2002, Wendy left the corporate world to learn grape growing and wine making. Five years later, her husband joined her. The couple has a daughter, Tura Furrow-Scott, a high school freshman.
The family, which works the vineyard on its own without outside hired labor, has learned the science and nuances of wine-making as well as stayed abreast of changes in the industry by training with enologists at nearby Virginia Tech as well as with viticulturist Tony Wolf of Winchester, VA.
“These experts helped establish the wine industry in Virginia through weekend seminars and outreach education for winemakers,” said Wendy, who helps oversee five acres of 2,400 plants (Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon).
According to the Virginia Wine Council, there are now 230 wineries in the state producing more than 510,000 cases annually and tying with Texas for fifth place as the largest wine-producing state in the U.S. Hickory Hill Winery produces 1,200 cases of wine a year.
Today, a solid web presence and social media are essential marketing tools, in addition to special touches such as the winery’s “Sunset Saturdays” events offering wine, food vendors and live music, plus picnic baskets filled with wines, sandwiches and other edibles customers can enjoy on premises or on board a boat on Smith Mountain Lake. The business also opened a tasting room that encourages sampling and purchase of wines in 2002. Hickory Hill is an active participant in the Bedford, VA, Wine Trail, a marketing program managed by the Bedford County Department of Tourism and benefits from marketing efforts by the Virginia Wine Council.
“We get a lot of day trippers who like to nibble in our picnic area, or take the picnic with them,” noted Wendy.
The winery also orchestrates small private events. It’s a nice place to gather, in the scenic countryside, for club meetings, business retreats, even baby showers, she said.
“What is unique to our history at the lake is my grandfather helped build the dam” that created the 20,000-acre impoundment and tourist mecca in the 1960s, Wendy added. With 500 miles of shoreline, the lake reached full pond in 1966 and became a big draw for retirees from Washington, D.C., Greensboro, NC, and other metropolitan areas. It too has an active Chamber of Commerce that helps market wineries and other businesses.
Sensoring devices placed in strategic places in the vineyards, as well as drones, help today’s vintners keep an eye on environmental factors affecting production and harvest. On-site labs monitor fermentation, composition and other factors. The Furrow-Scotts perform all these tasks themselves, also sending out soil and leaf samples for analysis.
While larger operations use drone monitoring and sensoring devices, Hickory Hill’s owners use their eyes and knowledge to determine what’s going on in the vineyard, said Wendy.
An abundance of wildlife in their part of Virginia and the damage animals can inflict poses a significant challenge. The vineyard is fenced and screened overhead to protect the crop from deer, raccoons, birds, squirrels and skunks (and even an occasional bear or coyote). Hailstorms can also pose a threat to the crop.
“When I was a little girl, there were far fewer deer here than there are now,” Wendy said. “Now, we see herds of 15 or more. They’ve been a real issue here this year.”
Weather extremes have Wendy and other wine producers concerned.
“Wine producers are looking at more heat-tolerant grape varieties. What worries me is that so many people like wines, like Pinot Noir and Riesling, made from cool weather varieties. Weather extremes are becoming a worldwide issue that the wine industry is facing, more so than ever before,” she said.
For grape growing, climate is crucial. When temperatures and levels of CO2 increase, grapes ripen more quickly, resulting in fruit with higher concentrations of sugars, lower acidity and higher pH levels. What the wine industry is facing is not only a change in temperature, but a change to the very ingredients of the terroir. Resulting wines end up being less delicate with higher alcohol contents. A recent paper published by the National Academy of Sciences pointed out that if climate change patterns play out as expected, with hotter temperatures, extreme heat waves and droughts, viable wine-growing regions will shrink worldwide by nearly 80 percent by 2100.
Growing seasons have already changed. Over the last 50 years, seasonal temperatures have increased by an average of 3.6 degrees. While that may harm growing conditions for traditional favorite wines, the effects of climate change are also opening up new territories to grape varieties. Additionally, wine producers are adjusting to earlier bud break and harvest times than they were accustomed to.
“The last five years have posed weather challenges,” Wendy said. “We’re looking into irrigation. I don’t know if anyone truly knows what the future holds. Scientists are already gathering data and gleaning information from that data.”
Chardonnay is the dominant grape variety used in Hickory Hill’s wines and the basis for the winery’s blends, aged in both stainless steel and oak.
The nation’s booming farm-to-table movement has benefited the business, bringing customers from throughout the nation and the world – people who cherish local products and are eager to learn more about wines.
“We’re on the cusp of what people think they could do themselves – a family winery,” said Donald, who proposed to his wife in the vineyard. “That’s part of the charm…they could see themselves doing it. They don’t see all of the work that goes into it.”
For him, though, it is a labor of love he prefers to the frenetic pace of corporate life.
“I haven’t ‘worked’ a day since 2005,” he laughed.