by Sally Colby
The Pagan family started Wilderness Run Winery as a vineyard, growing grapes for wineries in the Spotsylvania County, VA area. But the family decided to start making wine themselves, especially since their picturesque farm would be suitable for attracting visitors.
“Everything was going fallow, and we started taking the fields back,” said David Pagan’s son Harry. “The farm is about 170 acres, and we have about 12 acres of grapes now. We’ll probably get up to about 30 acres of grapes. We’re holding it at that because what was going to be a 20-acre vineyard is now set aside to grow hops.”
Harry says that the family has been growing grapes for about seven years, and it’s been mostly his father’s project to establish the vineyards. “We started out growing Petite Verdot, Malbec and Vignoles, but we replanted a lot of vines in recent years,” he said. “Some of the new plantings include Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera and Chambourcin.” Harry added that this is the first year grapes from the new planting are being used for wine, and that the juice from the 2017 harvest is currently in fermentation.
Deciding which new varieties to plant was a matter of referencing varieties that had already been grown successfully in Virginia. “We had to stop growing Vignoles because it doesn’t do well at our elevation,” said Harry, adding that the vineyard elevation is about 350 feet. “The French-American hybrids we planted to replace some of the original plantings are doing well.” The 12-acre vineyard is situated on a well-drained hillside, the highest point in Spotsylvania County, with plains on each side of the vineyard.
Harry, who is the winemaker, says that his involvement with the business is the result of a long-time love of the fermentation process. “This year we made a Rosso Toscana style; a blend of the Italian varietals Sangiovese and Barbera, with Petite Verdot and Merlot,” he said. “We’re making about 400 cases of that, and it’s fermenting in French oak right now.”
To ensure a good variety for guests, Wilderness Run has several white blends. One is a Vidal/Chardonnay blend that will be dry, and the other is a sweeter white that’s made with Aromella and currently in vintage. The family also leases about 10 acres of Concord grapes and makes a rosé with grapes from that vineyard.
Harry’s love of the fermentation process is also what led him to developing the 1781 Brewing Company on the same property. “We are the first licensed farmhouse brewery in the state,” he said. “When SB 430 was passed, it allowed breweries to be on agriculturally zoned land in Virginia. Before we were licensed, all the breweries in the state were in office parks or industrial parks, not on farms.” The 1781 Brewing Company was named for the rich history of the American Revolution that took place on the farm.
A unique feature of the beer produced in the brewery is the water with which it’s made. Harry explains that most craft beer in the United States in made with city water, but 1781 beer is made with the farm’s deep well water. “The water we’re turning into beer has never seen the light of day,” said Harry. “A water filtration system allows us to start out with the same water every time in the winery and brewery.”
The brewery itself has an interesting travel history: The original brewery was manufactured in Germany, then used in Tokyo, Japan for 15 years, then shipped to Takoma, WA. “We bought it two years ago,” said Harry. “Right now, there’s nothing available in the used brewing equipment market because breweries aren’t going out of business as fast as they were 10 years ago. It’s very hard to find equipment, and my buddy and I just got out of college so we didn’t have a lot of money to invest in new equipment.”
Harry says that the brewery features several flagship brews, which he describes as European farmhouse brews. “We have a saison, which is different from most saison,” he said. “It’s a cold ferment and we do some different things with it. Most people are turned off by the barn-like flavors of a saison, but we used our wine knowledge and made it with more of a white wine flavor.”
The brewery has a 120-member Mug Club, and Harry says their favorite is the porter, which is a standard, English-style classic beer. “It’s our top seller,” he said. “We have a pale ale that we don’t go too hoppy with, and we’re also doing a couple different lagers including a pilsner.” Harry believes it’s important to keep a variety of beers to attract customers, so they also make double IPAs and some barrel-aged beers. “The beers that we’re brewing — the porter, pilsners, saison, Maerzen and pale ales — are timeless.”
After working the kinks out with a test batch, the brewery makes 240 gallons at a time to put into 480 gallon tanks. Since the brewery is geared for small batches, the goal is to sell out every week. Beer is bottled and also put into crowlers. “What we sell the most of is the crowlers,” said Harry. “They’re easy.”
The tasting rooms for the winery and brewery are separate, only because of the regulations that were in place when the winery was built. “It was important until last year when we built the brewery out and the state decided we could have the tasting rooms together,” said Harry. “Once we invested in building two separate ones, it didn’t matter any more.”
Harry’s project of developing a hop yard on the farm will likely attract even more guests to the farm. The hopyard will be established near the vineyard, where guests who visit the winery and brewery will be able to see the crop growing. Harry already has the requisite 18’ posts and is currently on a waiting list for some hops rhizomes from Japan and France. “I think their microclimates are similar to ours,” he said. “Not many people are growing hops, and those who are [grow] Cascade.”
Virginia Tech is starting to conduct research on hops, and Harry is working with Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to develop a hops research project. Although Harry probably won’t grow enough hops to fully supply the brewery, he believes it will be a great marketing tool.
On any given afternoon, a variety of guests arrive to visit Wilderness Run and the 1781 Brewing Company. The onsite music events are popular, and often draw as many as 600 guests at a time. “Our customers’ age range is about 35 to 65; especially families who want to go somewhere with their kids,” said Harry. “We have chickens, donkeys, goats and horses for people to see. We make serious wines, but it’s about having fun.”
Visit Wilderness Run Vineyards online at