Posted: July 16, 2020 | 10:00 a.m.
By Terry Harris
Hampton Roads Winery looks more like a place you might find pictured on a postcard touting the California Coast than anything you would expect to see in Eastern Virginia. But Dave Sheldon, who owns the Surry County grapes-to-glass operation with his wife Diane, was quick to explain that it is because Hampton Roads Winery is not like any other place in the area.
“We are not a pop-up winery,” Sheldon stated during a break from bottling wine made from their own, site-grown grapes. “We are an actual farm where we raise goats and cattle along with the two vineyards which we use to produce wine grapes in our winery. That’s what sets us apart from most other wineries.”
Sheldon related that he sold his plastics company and Diane left her career as a research chemist in 2007 to start the winery in Surry County because they do not enjoy the snow and they wanted a longer growing season. Thirteen years later Hampton Roads Winery is an impressive full-scale establishment complete with 75 acres devoted to grapes – 16 of those under vine – plus their own on-site bottling facility. They also have another 25 acres currently in reserve but at a cost of $22,000 per acre “before you pick your first grapes” Sheldon said that expansion is on hold for now.
However, he added, they are continually expanding in other ways. For instance, they recently established a walking tour complete with a colorful brochure, and a great deal of thought went into how to do it.
“People come here and want a tour,” he began, “and my answer was always the same. We’d normally be happy to give you a tour but there’s only three people here that can answer every question you can ask. We’re not one of those places that hire a kid and make them memorize three paragraphs and they can’t even tell you what kind of grapes they’re looking at – and I think that’s a sin. The three people who can answer questions are all working. So we put up signs explaining what you’re seeing, and direct folks to put their questions down on space we left on the pamphlet and when you get back to the winery, we can answer those questions. Because we want people to enjoy the farm, relax, and associate themselves with the farm – not just come and do a hit and run.”
As for what they have done in response to challenges COVID 19 has brought to the business, Sheldon said, “Well, the first thing we didn’t do is get all excited about it. A lot of people get very paranoid and up tight. For us it was just a change in business climate we had to adjust to. We had to put on our thinking caps because of two things that happened. The first was a decrease in foot traffic, which is still somewhat true, although some are starting to venture out. People coming here know it’s a lot of room and a lot of fresh air, so they feel safe here. Second – every festival and wedding has been postponed, and that is a major point of revenue for us. But we’re starting to see weddings come back for the fall – everyone crossing their fingers that it will be better then.”
Seldon explained that they host weddings, birthday parties, baby showers, and organizational meetings.
“We can put quite a few people in our function room for all kinds of big personal events,” he said. “And we still have tastings, though they’re redefined to accommodate the Phase Three. And obviously the walking tour is perfect for people who want to safely get out and enjoy some fresh air with interesting surroundings. We have a really big lawn, so we just don’t care if people want to bring a picnic and just enjoy their food, plus we also have spacious indoor seating that’s air conditioned.”
Their indoor space includes a bar, a tasting room, and a gift shop where they sell their wines and wine accessories, their own beef, and there’s a consignment section for local businesses as well as knick knacks. There is also a large room for big events like a Murder Mystery Event that drew many revelers dressed in Wild West gear last year.
Sheldon said that when people come inside now, whether for an event or a tour or just to visit the gift shop, one of the most popular options is their wine slushy.
“At least 500 people participated in formulating that recipe,” he said. “We have a slushy machine, so I put together a recipe and every day I would make some variations and when people came into the bar I would give them a taste of two kinds and ask ‘Which do you like better, A or B?’ The next week it might be B or C. After a month of everybody starting to pick the same one, I figured we had our recipe. People ask what flavor it is, and I tell them, ‘It’s pink.’ It’s a great summer drink – a refreshing combination of sweet and sour. And we sell the slushy mix right in the shop. You don’t even need a machine – just grab a gallon zip lock bag, put in the mix, a bottle of dry white wine, and a bottle of water. If you throw it in the freezer at breakfast it’s ready for dinner, if you throw it in the freezer at dinnertime it’s ready for breakfast. People are buying them like crazy. It provides a whole different perspective for working at home!”
“We look at ourselves as being innovative,” Sheldon said in response to a question about the variety of interesting things the Winery offers. “We look for things to entertain ourselves. We just did ourselves a port. A lady came in, proclaimed herself a port snob, tried it, and bought a bottle on the spot. We have Goat Tower wines – a chardonnay and a merlot. And we are experimenting with wine seltzers. Diane also did her very first in-the-bottle fermentation this past year, and it was a fairly good success, so she’s looking at that a year or two down the road. These are the things that keep us entertained – that and the fact that this is an industry where whether one wants to accept it or not, the industry is changing. It used to be that the typical wine drinker would be older and wanted to find a nice, quiet place to sit and sip a traditional-style wine. The new typical wine drinker wants to try different stuff. That’s where the value-priced Goat Tower wines come in. We have to also think, ‘What does this Millennial crowd like to drink?”
Sheldon said their newest project, craft brews, fits right into that way of thinking, and that their son, Rich, is the perfect person to bring that on board.
“I figure if you don’t drink wine, you drink beer,” he said, “So we’re starting a brewery here! We’ve been growing our own hops and brewing experimental batches, and the next step is to bring in commercial equipment and start making bigger batches. My son likes his wine and he loves his beer and we’re looking at this business going into the second generation. It’s something that Rich has always wanted to do, so I figure that is where he’ll make his mark. He’s probably going to make a lager, a pilsner, maybe an IPA and probably mix it up until he finds what the locals want to drink. What kinds he makes will be his decision.”
Dave paused for a moment, reflecting on a question about what he most likes about Hampton Roads Winery. Finally, he said, “I like to make stuff. I enjoy making stuff from scratch that’s something that people appreciate. There’s nothing better than going to a farmer’s market and talking to people that say, ‘This is pretty good!’ And you say, ‘Yeah, we made this from growing grapes.’ Knowing people appreciate what you’ve done after you spend the time doing it? Too many people have 9 to 5 jobs and they don’t know if people appreciate it or not. I’m in the fortunate position of being able to watch from beginning to end.”
“Our feeling about the winery,” he added, “is we want people to come here and not be uptight, but feel absolutely relaxed, enjoy themselves, breathe in the fresh air. Bring your wife, your kids, the dog, and just enjoy the afternoon.”
Hampton Roads Winery is open Thursday through Monday, 11:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. at 6074 New Design Road, Elberon, VA 23846. For further information call 757-899-0203, write to email@example.com or visit hamptonroadswinery.com.