Chester’s Ashton Creek Vineyards was busy Friday with customers in the tasting room, folks enjoying lunch with a glass of wine on the patio, and the setup for a wedding. But before the vineyard had opened, the staff had formed an assembly line at the back of a 48-foot truck housed with state-of-the- art bottling machinery parked below the tasting room to bottle up 5,400 bottles of five different wines to be tasted and sold by the winery.
This was not the first time the six-year-old vineyard had bottled wines. The previous year, when they opened the tasting room and event center at the winery, they purchased grapes from vineyards within a two-hour distance of their winery and bottled by hand. Even though the bottling was not part of the celebration of the opening of their anniversary of the opening of their tasting room and event center, the bottling did play a part in the excitement of the family-owned operation. Owners Lori and Kirk Thibault, their daughter Rachel, who is the event coordinator and director of marketing, and their son, Alan, who graduated last year from Virginia Tech, where he studied the science of viticulture, and who serves as vintner for the winery, introduced three of the varietals during Sunday’s celebration.
“We made it,” said Lori Thibault after working three hours on the assembly line. “It is exciting just knowing that you have enough wine to have a truck to come and bottle it up.”
The grapes used for the winery were not from their vineyard or anywhere in Virginia. “Last year was a bad year for growing grapes in Virginia,” said Kirk. “The grapes grown in 2016 are from Washington state. The varietals we are bottling today are
Malbec, Merlot, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Bailey’s Bold.”
Bailey’s Bold is named after their Golden Retriever, Bailey, a regular at the winery. Another regular member of their family hanging out is Willie Nelson, a tall, wirily terrier. He had a bottle named after him last year, a varietal named Willie’s White. Lori said, “We donate $4 for every bottle we sell of Willie White, and now Bailey’s Bold, to a local animal shelter.”
Six years ago, the Thibault family planted their first grapevine on Jefferson Davis Highway. Theirs is considered a small-batch winery, planting half an acre to a full acre of each varietal. They are growing whites including Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Petit Manseng, as well as reds including Malbec and Merlot. These grapes are still in the growing stage. The vineyard has added another seven acres in Dinwiddie that will be planted with vines next spring.
Dave Robertson, owner of Wine and Beer Supply, a supplier for everything a winery or brewery may need for its business, is the new owner of the bottling truck. He said, “Purchasing the bottling truck last month was a natural service to add to their business.”
East Coast Bottling is under the umbrella of Wine and Beer Supply, which is located in Ashland. Robertson bought the mobile wine bottling business from Landwirt Bottling, based in Harrisonburg
“The availability of a mobile bottling service should be a major consideration in winery planning. Too often, great emphasis is placed on producing wine with little thought given to its preservation. Historically, bottling techniques for the smaller winery have been rudimentary, yet today’s highly competitive market necessitates quality bottling capability at all levels of production. For many wineries, a mobile bottling service has been the answer to this dilemma for numerous reasons,” said Robertson. “Mobile wine bottling is a cost-effective, streamlined solution to an issue so many wineries face: how do we bottle all this wine? We are able to bottle 3,200 bottles per hour, 54 bottles per minute.”
Gary Simmers, owner of Landwirt Bottling, designed the mobile wine bottling truck 20 years ago to offer flexibility in meeting the bottling challenges of various wineries not only in Virginia but u[ and down the East Coast. “The mobile wine bottling put into a truck saves the winery a three, four, five hundred thousand dollar investment, plus space in the winery and maintaining it and the need to update technology,” said Simmers. “We bottle every day except September and October, when the wineries are harvesting. We overhaul our machinery during those two months. This is our second day bottling since the overhaul, and we will run through August next year.” Simmers was on hand at Ashton Creek to train the new owner and his staff.
“We have the quantity now,” said Alan Thibault. “We have 500 cases ready with everything in-house. It should last us a full year until next harvest.”
The winery has already booked 58 weddings this year. Plans are to add six more stainless steel tanks. “Our grapes are still young,” said Kurt. “But we are still growing. The cold injuries the grapes received this year will take two years to recover.”
He said that overall, the state did really well with its grapes this season. Ashton Creek Vineyards and Event Center is located about three miles south of West Hundred Road at 14501 Jefferson Davis Highway. The event facility, called the Barn, is a 5,000 square foot post-and-beam construction with an occupancy of 280. The tasting room has two floors, each with a capacity of a 120 and the second floor is used for smaller parties. The winery is in the lower level of the entire center, and its area is 8,000 square feet. Hours of the tasting room are noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, visit www.ashtoncreekvineyard.com or call (804) 896-1586.