Wine making education programs (UC-Davis, Virginia Tech, etc.) can provide a fantastic understanding of the science of wine but the best way to learn how to grow wine is experience. Chatham Vineyards Winemaker Jon Wehner is a second-generation winegrower on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. He first learned about grape growing from his parents who operated Great Falls Vineyard in Great Falls, Virginia for thirty years.
Virginia wine has changed a great deal in that time and continues to evolve. Since 1999, Jon and his wife Mills have been on the forefront of the development of the Eastern Shore as a wine region. Mill even serves on the Virginia Wine Board, the organization tasked with the advancement of the Commonwealth’s wines.
Located on the Eastern side of the Eastern shore in Marchipongo, Chatham has more than 20 acres under vine. Focusing on Vitis Vinifera varietals, the high density plantings (1,740 vines per acre) include Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Such high density planting, and aggressive winter pruning is designed to produce lower yields (4 tons per acre) and more concentrated flavor (see vincabulary).
The land at Chatham, which overlooks Church Creek, was patented in 1640. The Federal-period brick house, Chatham, was built in 1818 by Major Scarborough Pitts and named for William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham and friend of the American Revolution. The historic outbuildings, barns and two early 1900s homes on the property have been renovated in recent years. Chatham Farm has been a working farm for four centuries.
The vineyards benefit from well-drained sandy loam soils, a maritime climate allowing for a long growing season, a nearly constant breeze and favorable temperatures during the grape harvest season in September and October. With such advantageous environmental benefits there is also a fair amount of risk. The Eastern Shore vineyards are positioned directly in the path of many historic harvest hurricanes that can easily erase the efforts of an entire growing season.
The National Weather Service records show August with 5.52 inches of rain as the Eastern shore’s wettest month on average. This can hinder ripening and push harvest further back into October when tropical storms are prevalent. Since its founding, Chatham has been impacted by late summer storms but they have not lost an entire vintage.
The winery was constructed in 2005 and currently has a production capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 cases annually.
While the tasting room in the winery is quite nice, the Wehner family plans to renovate and restore an 1890s farmhouse adjoining the winery to serve as a tasting room and special events facility.
As a second generation wine growing family, the Wehner’s are making a proud name for Chatham Vineyards one wine at a time.