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West Virginia vineyard offers tours, tastes

By Julie Robinson
Kenny Kemp
Craig Bandy swirls red wine in a glass before inhaling, then sipping the wine while his wife, Candy, watches his technique. The Bandys conduct tastings in their wine shop, where they sell WineTree wines and an extensive line of wine-related products.

WANT TO GO?

WineTree Vineyard Farm

Emerson Avenue exit of I-77, north of Parkersburg

Call 304-865-0507 or visit winetreevineyards.com

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Hours vary slightly with seasons.VIENNA, W.Va. -- WineTree Vineyards owners Craig and Candy Bandy know grapes don't grow on trees. They named the vineyard they planted five years ago after a childhood comment from their son, who saw a tree bearing exceptionally small red plums and called it a Wine Tree.

The vineyard and winery just north of Parkersburg represent a long-held dream for Craig, who's been making wine since he was 16 years old. The Bandys grow their own grapes on the farm winery, process them in a winery filled with gleaming stainless steel barrels and operate a cozy wine shop in an old home on the 25-acre farm.

"I entertained the idea of looking for a farm in France or Italy, but we decided to do it here," Craig said. "We discovered that the Ohio Valley is considered one of the 17 best grape growing regions in the world, based on climate, rain, sun and soil."

WineTree Vineyards' 2008 Noiret and Riesling both won bronze medals in the 2010 American Wine Society National Wine Competition. "I won't bottle wine until it's absolutely right," Craig said.

Vineyard guests sample wines without charge and either request specific wines or rely on the Bandys' recommendations. All four reds and six of the white wines are dry or semi-dry and made from European grapes. The four sweet wines are made from North American, or labrusca, grapes.

"What sets us apart is that we make a very authentic wine. I don't add flavoring or coloring," Craig said. "We just make the best wines we can with this harvest."

The vineyard holds 900 grape plants. Craig plans to clear space in the next few years to double the vineyard's size. The plants produce mature grapes about a year after planting.

Grapevines include European, or vinifera, grapes, which are more difficult to grow in West Virginia than indigenous North American stock. The European grapes produce the dry wines Craig favors. Labrusca grapes produce sweeter wines.

Not that there's anything wrong with sweet wines.

"Fifty percent of people like sweet wines, but won't admit it," he said. "We want people to realize that if you like sweet wines, you're not from another planet."

As they congenially host tastings of the wines made from the eight varieties of grape grown at WineTree, their guests don't guess at the rocky road they've traveled to wine production in the 10 years since they purchased the farm. They cleared wooded land along a ridge for the grape plants and planted and replanted the vineyard three times.

They researched farming and the specifics of larger-scale wine production for five years before their first planting. Despite the research, the Bandys say they lacked basic farm experience.

"Farmers are smart people. It takes awhile to get up to speed," he said. "There's a big learning curve, especially for people who didn't grow up on a farm."

Birds and deer recently ruined their 2011 grape harvest. The loss happened just after the death of their dog Gracie, a St. Bernard who policed the vineyard and deterred voracious animals. Two weeks after her death in August, the deer and birds stripped the grapevines. They recently brought a Great Dane to the vineyard that they hope will assume Gracie's duties.

To qualify as a West Virginia farm winery, wines produced there must contain at least 25 percent of grapes grown on the vineyard. The remaining ingredients may be from purchased grapes or juice. The Bandys should receive a waiver from the 25 percent rule because of their devastating crop loss this year.

They'll process the wine in a newly constructed winery. The sturdy crafted wooden doors are constructed from poplar wood Craig and his son cleared for the vineyard. Scrawled formulas and equations cover dry erase boards inside.

"There's lots of chemistry in making wine," Craig said. "It's a costly raw product. You learn to become a chemist." A friend who is a professional chemist adds his expertise when needed.

Wines made from one grape variety, like chardonnay, Riesling and cabernet sauvignon, simply bear the grape's name on the label. They give blended wines more inventive names like MainSail, Black Tie, Red Satin and Hummingbird.

A print of colorful watercolor painted by the Bandy's 4-year-old granddaughter graces the label on Hummingbird, the WineTree's sweetest wine. "When we were thinking of a name for the wine, we came up with Hummingbird because it looks like the color of the sweet red water in hummingbird feeders," Candy said.

The Bandys own a printing business in Vienna, but are on the farm seven days a week and live nearby. Candy runs the wine shop.

Craig and Candy lead visitors up the steep hill to the vineyards for tours, or just invite them to taste sips of wine at the gift shop, which is open every day except Monday.

"You don't have to be an expert," Chuck said. "It's like trying on shoes. You're not an expert, but you know what fits."

WineTree wines are available in Charleston at The Wine Shop in Capitol Market. Visit the farm winery at 772 Jesterville Road in Vienna. Call 304-865-0507 or visit winetreevineyards.com. Fall hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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