Deon Abrams - Winemaker at Grayhaven Winery
Dezel: Was there one special bottle that initially got you into wine? If so, what was this serendipitous find?
Max: I was 9 years old the first time I assisted in making wine. My parents drove me and my sister out 30 miles to a large pasture in the country and dropped us off with a couple of plastic trash bags. Our mission was to pick all the dandelions we could fit into the bags so that my folks could try their hand at making dandelion wine. Six months later we popped open a bottle and I got to taste the fruits of my labor. It was horrible. And I don’t just mean that because my 9 year old pallet was not yet ready to appreciate wine-it was just bad. My parents had neglected to read the line in the directions that said to remove the stems – this snafu resulted in a bitter taste one might expect from turpentine. Several years later (1978) my family moved out to Goochland County where we would begin our adventures in grape-growing and winemaking. As we were packing up, we found a case of that dandelion wine long relegated to the back of a closet in the basement. We were all feeling brave so we popped a bottle and tried it. The mystery and magic of time had worked wonders and the wine had actually developed into something quite drinkable. I remember the sense of amazement and wonder that something bitter and unpalatable could so transform. That for me will always be my most memorable wine. It serves as a reminder to me to focus on producing good fruit, be reserved in cellar tinkering, and let time do its part.
Dezel: Tell us a little bit about Grayhaven Winery; I know I was surprised to find out that you have been on the Virginia wine scene since the late 70’s.
Max: Grayhaven is a family owned and operated vineyard and winery in Gum Spring – about 30 minutes west of Richmond. My parents, Lyn & Chuck Peple purchased the property in 1978, moved here from Richmond with me and my sister Mallory. Chuck was a longtime Recreation and Parks administrator (first in Richmond, then 30 years in Henrico) with a master’s degree in urban and regional planning. Before retiring in 2006, he was responsible for publishing and illustrating some of Henrico’s historical books such as the Henrico County Field of Honor, which focused on the Civil War era. Lyn was a teacher, now retired, for the Richmond Public School systems and coach of many sports, including field hockey and tennis. As a family, we cleared land and planted grapevines originally with the thought that they would focus on the market for Virginia-tolerant rootstocks. At the time, there were no commercial wine grape nurseries focusing on Virginia. As the vineyard grew, they sold their grapes to existing Virginia wineries (there were six at the time.)
Eventually, as their interest, knowledge, and passion for winemaking developed, they planned and built the winery, which opened its doors in 1995. Since that time, the winery has grown as a family endeavor. After 9/11, my husband Deon and I moved to Virginia from Manhattan and took over the day to day operations of the winery. My sister Mallory and her family are also involved in the vineyard and winery, from harvest and bottling to festivals and events. Dad is still our chief winemaker and vineyard specialist, and my mom is, among other things, our procurement maven.
A lot of people ask us about where the name Grayhaven comes from so here’s the story. In the J. R. R. Tolkien “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy, the “Grey Havens” is a seaside port where the elves leave Middle Earth for a better life. It is a town of craftsman known for their skills in ship building. When my parents purchased the Goochland county farm in 1978, my sister and I insisted the farm needed a name. Both being Tolkien fans, we scoured the books for an appropriate name. The Grey Havens struck a chord, as our new home was an adventurous point of departure from Richmond life, our father Chuck was a skilled craftsman himself, and our mother Lyn had grown up sailing and loved nothing more than being on the water (especially with a fishing rod in her hand.)
Dezel: I have heard many times over the challenges growers faced in the late 70’s and early to mid 80’s with growing quality wine grapes here in Virginia – especially the favorable European (vitis vinifera) varieties. Since you were growing wine grapes during that period, what have been some of the major changes and advances that now allow you to produce better fruit and successfully grow a number of popular and unique wine grapes (such as Pinotage, Rkatsiteli, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah)?
Chuck: Over 40 years ago, my friend Dino started a small backyard vineyard experimenting with many grape varieties. Through his efforts I could see the potential. Over the years he learned what he could grow and from him I learned much. We can grow anything here, but only a few varieties will produce a consistent crop. After some thirty years we are still experimenting. Much of what I have learned was known for hundreds of years but in the long run it comes down to the micro-climates that we all have to deal with. Soils, climate, elevation, exposure, rain, and a dozen other variables all play their parts, and to make things worse, much of this is driven by the changing seasons. God help the farmers wherever they may be. Vineyard management, good planning, and research are the key to success. For us the French-hybrids seem to do better, but we are not limited to them. It would take several lifetimes to maximize the potential of the industry. We should live so long.
Dezel: Speaking of popular and unique, let’s talk about Pinotage. Some people find this South African wine popular, others unique, and some both. I’m guessing this is one of your most popular wines, hence the South African Food & Wine Festival that you host. It is also very rare here in Virginia and somewhat rare outside of South Africa. Tell us a little about how Pinotage came to Grayhaven and how it has been received in your tasting room. Most people probably have never heard of Pinotage until they pay you a visit.
Deon: Most of our tasters love to try new varietals. The Pinot in Pinotage is known to most, and our customers have been greatly supportive in both purchasing as well as spreading the word. Being born and bred in South Africa, our vineyard here would not be complete without Pinotage. It's a varietal that I have always loved, and growing it in Virginia makes me feel like I'm at home.
Dezel: How does your Pinotage differ from the rustic (and inexpensive) South African examples most people are used to?
Deon: The terrior of our vineyards tends to accentuate the Pinot noirs' fruitiness. Our 2007 Pinotage has never seen oak, so it is less tannic, and this, along with gentle pressing after fermentation, ensures a bold red that is also smooth. Pinotage is a great example of how the same grape grown in different parts of the world will show multiple facets of personality. You will find Pinotage grown all over South Africa. In the US, we can’t even buy the vine stock. The best we can do is to continue grafting from the vines in our own vineyards and purchase cuttings from the handful of other growers in the U.S. The demand combined with the short supply account for the higher price tag of our Pinotage – the cost of labor is another factor.
Dezel: When I last visited, Deon told me that that winemaking at Grayhaven is a true family affair, stating that, “a lot of our winemaking takes place at the dinner table where we'll try the new vintages and make group decisions as to how to proceed.” Overall, does Grayhaven aim for more of an Old World or New World style, or somewhere in between?
Max: I’d say we definitely bend toward Old World style. Our tannins are usually much softer than what you’d find in New World wines, esp. California. Our grapes are hand-harvested and our de-stemmers and presses are very gentle. We also tend to use oak moderately and sometimes not at all. We would rather have people taste what the grape has to offer than to be overwhelmed by a tree in their glass. The end result is wines that are well suited for pairing with food. As a family, we decided long ago not to cater to the mass market or follow the path paved by New World wine marketers. It is more of a challenge to introduce wine drinkers here to varieties like Pinotage, Touriga, Rkatsiteli, Frontenac, etc., but we have been quite successful at it and we’ve gotten tremendous support from our customers.
Meet Mona the Winery Dog
Dezel: What is your favorite food and Grayhaven wine pairing?
Max: It’s very hard to pick just one – it depends on what mood I’m in. For summer –Our Cabernet Franc claret served chilled with a catfish ceviche is great, or our Sauvignon Blanc served with Malpecques & Kumamoto oysters. I just served our Sojourn (Touriga/Cab Franc blend) with tarragon roasted pork loin drizzled with a Pinotage & pomegranate reduction and roasted chestnut mashed potatoes – that was an awesome fall meal! The Pinotage itself is perfect with a nice steak but can also be served with dessert – my favorite pair there would be dark chocolate truffles.
Dezel: We experienced a hot and humid summer this year - what are some of your favorite summer wines – both local and globally?
Max: Springfield Estates (South Africa) Firefinch Sauvignon Blanc, Cape Point Vineyards (South Africa) Isliedh - Sauvignon Blanc/Chenin Blanc blend, Delfosse Vineyards & Winery (Virginia) Sauvignon Blanc, Pouilly Fumé by the late Didier Dagueneau (France)
Dezel: In your opinion what do you think will be the breakout grape variety for Virginia?
Max: You can see the influence Virginia Tech has had on our industry here – I credit them for the abundance of Cabernet Franc in our state and expect that they will continue to guide us through their vineyard, winemaking, and marketing research. This work is particularly important for independent commercial vineyards and larger wineries that need to have a strong market in order to support their investment. It’s a toss-up as to whether the popularity of Norton will continue to rise; it’s most notable champion being Chrysalis Vineyards. I think Viognier will continue to gain momentum - not a fan of it myself, but it’s very popular with wine drinkers who like super fruit-forward whites. I also think Petit Verdot and Traminette are ones to watch.
Enjoy wine, cheese, and warm french baguettes
Dezel: Which one of your wines are you most proud of and why?
Deon: Every growing season in Virginia brings out different tastes and flavors in our wines, and Old World winemaking style enhances the subtle differences of our vintages. I love all of our wines, from our spicy Seyval Blanc and our old-vine Marechal Foch, to our bold and fruity Pinotage and our citrus / earthy Touriga and all the others.
Dezel: Besides your own wines filling your glass, tell us at least three other Virginia producers whose wines you thoroughly enjoy?
Max: We are very proud to be associated with the wineries on our wine trail, Cooper Vineyards, Lake Anna Winery and James River Cellars. They all make award-winning wines (including Governor’s Cup to JRC) and I never fail to find a wine I really like when we gather for meetings - new releases in tow. There are so many wineries in Virginia that I respect and whose wines I enjoy, – Delfosse, Pearmund Cellars, Lovingston, and Rosemont are just a few.
Dezel: Any new fall time releases or winery news that you would like to share with readers?
Max: We are really looking forward to the release of our 2007 Chambourcin. We’ve been doing barrel tastings for the past six months and if we don’t get it in the bottle soon our customers will shoot us. It’s got amazing body and color and that fantastic peppery aroma and finish.
Dezel: Thanks for your time and appearing on Virginia Vine Spot Q&A, Max, Deon, and Chuck. I enjoyed learning more about your wonderful winery and I know readers will too. To learn more about Grayhaven Winery click on the link below.
When you visit Deon, Max, Chuck, Mona, and family, let them know you saw them here on Dezel’s Virginia Vine Spot.
Winery Info: Grayhaven Winery, 4675 E. Gray Fox Circle, Gum Spring, VA 23065, Phone: 804.556.3917
- Stay tuned friends ... More to come !!!
Also, for more on Pinotage, visit my pal Peter May at The Pinotage Club.
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