Va. grapes start their journey from vine to wine

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ROANOKE, Va. (AP) -- Small, black audio speakers blared the screech of predatory birds.

In theory, the recorded sounds discourage loitering by birds with an appetite for grapes. One speaker was attached to a tree and another mounted on the back porch of an old house gone to ruin.

But birds still score. They dine on a variety of grapes meant to become red wines or white. Grapes that yield a petit verdot. Or a merlot. Perhaps a Touriga nacional, a chardonnay or a cabernet sauvignon.

The green-skinned chardonnay grapes were ripe for picking earlier this month at one of AmRhein's Wine Cellars' three vineyards. The one in Botetourt County occupies about 15 verdant acres tucked away off U.S. 460. It includes grapes that grow better at an elevation lower than the winery's Bent Mountain headquarters.

Yellow jackets swarmed as three men worked the orderly rows, snipping clusters of grapes off vines and filling yellow plastic bins.

"It's been a really good growing year," said Seth McCombs, 33, AmRhein's Wine Cellars' winemaker.

Rebecca Spaid, AmRhein's director of marketing, agreed. "Spring rains and scorching temperatures in July wound up evening out," she said. "Except for the recent rain, things have been perfect."

Vines supported by trellises spread across the sloping Botetourt site in orderly rows. Gilberto Espinoza of Bassett picked clusters of grapes along one row. He tossed them into a bin. He said he likes wine.

"Whiskey, too. And beer," Espinoza said, smiling.

Teodolto Santiago, also from Bassett, picked steadily with a pair of snippers. Neither he nor Espinoza treated the chardonnay grapes especially gently.

Picking grapes is a labor-intensive activity. Arms grow weary from reaching all day, McCombs said.

The chardonnay grapes will go through a "whole cluster press" at the Bent Mountain winery, which processes the grapes from the Botetourt County vineyard, the one in Franklin County and the grapes from the mountain's higher elevation. The vineyards total about 40 acres. The chardonnay then will ferment in stainless steel tanks.

AmRhein's grows enough grapes each year to make about 10,000 cases of wine.

, but makes only about 3,500 cases. It sells grapes to other wineries.

AmRhein is a German name meaning "on the Rhein" -- referring to the Rhine River. And AmRhein's Wine Cellars specializes in wines with a German influence.

McCombs' career in the wine business began when he landed a job nearly a dozen years ago with Chateau Morrissette in Floyd County.

"I lucked into it," he said. "I didn't even drink wine. I was doing yard work. On my second day of work, I was sent home with two bottles of wine."

He later enrolled in the viticulture and enology associate degree program at Surry Community College in Dobson, N.C. He became AmRhein's winemaker in June 2011.

Winchester-based Tony Wolf is a Virginia Tech professor of viticulture, the study of grape cultivation. Enology is the study of winemaking.

Wolf said a warm March led to early "bud break" at many wineries in Virginia. That, combined with a hot summer, has caused many vineyards to harvest grapes earlier than usual, he said.

Wineries in the Winchester area have harvested about 10 days sooner than normal and wineries in the area of Albemarle County have advanced their harvests by as much as two weeks, Wolf said. He said the fruit harvested has been of good quality.

Wolf said chardonnay grapes are the No. 1 variety in terms of acreage in the state.

"It's adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions and does well in Virginia," he said.

AmRhein's Wine Cellars is one of three divisions under the AmRhein's company umbrella. The other two are AmRhein's Fine Jewelry, with stores in Roanoke and in Salem, and AmRhein's Brides and Formals, with a salon in Roanoke. The company began in 1921 with a jewelry store owned by Fred Amrhein. Russ Amrhein and his wife, Paula, now own the company.

AmRhein's first planted vineyards in 1995. Its first crush of grapes occurred in 1999.

Every growing year presents challenges and opportunities.

Good growing conditions combined with sound practices of viticulture make McCombs' job easier.

"If you get good grapes it's easy to be a winemaker. You can just sort of sit back and watch how awesome it is," McCombs said.

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