JMU faculty satisfy ‘mid-life desire’ to creative vineyard in Quicksburg
Story by Sydney Jaxtheimer
Photos by Sarah Brown
The rows of vines at M and R Vineyard have not always been as luscious and fruitful as they are in the prime of growing season. The first year that Juan Mansilla and David Rourke planted on their newly bought pasture of 10 acres could have been the end. The beginning of the first growing season, the vineyard hit a low of negative seventeen degrees. M and R Vineyard lost about three-fourths of their newly planted vines in the winter of 2013 to 2014.
“We pretty much annihilated our young babies and we pretty much had to start over,” Rourke explained.
That could have been the end, but they planted again and hoped for a better season the next year. Even while paying attention to all the details of location, elevation and rainfall for their vineyard, Mansilla and Rourke had to consider the biggest unpredictable challenge — mother nature. She could make or break a season at the vineyard, and that first season, she brought the vines to their breaking point.
“She’s not a happy camper,” Rourke said. “She will throw anything and everything at you at any given time.”
A typical weekend for Mansilla and Rourke used to be visiting wineries and vineyards to enjoy time off from their office jobs. Wine has played a role in their lives, both since they’ve been together and before. Mansilla is from generations of Sonoma Valley wine growers. Rourke has worked in the hospitality business for the past 20 years and has worked in wineries.
The pair have always had in the back of their mind to maybe open a vineyard or winery once they reached retirement age and stopped working their nine to five jobs.
“It was originally more like a retirement thought, and then once we got to the mid-life age,” Rourke chuckled. “It became a mid-life desire.”
Mansilla and Rourke fell upon the Shenandoah Valley when they went to visit friends who lived outside the Washington D.C. area. Their friends told Mansilla and Rourke about the growing number of wineries and vineyards that were in Virginia.
This put Virginia “on their radar,” according to Rourke, when it became time to start looking for a pasture to turn into a vineyard. They started doing research and educating themselves by watching vineyard and winery documentaries based on the Virginia growing season. They also hired a vineyard consultant, Jeanette Smith. Smith runs VineSmith, her own vineyard consulting company. She taught them what specifics they should be taking into consideration when looking for their land.
“Compared to other regions in the state, the Shenandoah Valley has advantages and disadvantages,” said Smith. “There is less rain during the period that grapes are ripening, which a huge advantage. However, we are colder than other winegrowing regions.”
A hillside property is best so when there’s a frost, the frost just slopes off the grapes. An ideal elevation is 1,100 feet— so the frost doesn’t t settle on the ground and freezes the vines. The sun facing south or southwest is the best for sun exposure. These specifics are even more crucial in a location like the Shenandoah Valley because of the shorter growing season compared to other vineyard locations. A typical growing season here is about 185 days, whereas a vineyard in California has about a 250 days growing season.
The Shenandoah Valley makes a vineyard location “ideal,” according to Rourke, because of the dryness. Shenandoah County specifically is the driest county east of the Mississippi River. This is because the valley is between two mountain ranges, the Alleghany and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Rourke uses the term “happy medium” for the Shenandoah Valley because the conditions are not too extreme, but just tough enough that the grapes like it.
“Grapes like to be stressed out,” Rourke said. “They want to have to struggle to find water. They want their roots to go down as far as they can to hit the water table. The best wines are made in the worst, dry conditions from rocky soil.”
The Shenandoah Valley also has special, nutrient dense soil because of the amount of limestone in the soil. This is because the location is close to the Shenandoah Caverns and the many caves in the area. Caves formation is caused by the dissolution of limestone, which then deposits more limestone into the regions soil.
Mansilla and Rourke both knew they wanted a hillside property and something that was not already built on or had vines planted. In 2012, they settled on an untouched pasture with a clear view of the Allegheny Mountains in Quicksburg, Virginia.
“We really hoped to find something more open and that we could find something to mold our own way,” Rourke said.
Mansilla and Rourke soon joined the Shenandoah Valley Wine Growers Association, which Rourke is now the treasurer of. The Wine Growers Association gives a sense of community for the area of vineyard owners and winery owners. The number of vineyards and wineries in the area are often referred to as “clusters.” These clusters are nice for customers because they’re able to travel from one location to the next without having a long drive. The clusters also create competition.
“Competition is good,” Mansilla said. “And not one wine is exactly the same. People prefer different wines over others.”
“There is no ‘Virginian wine,’” Rourke added. “They are all different, everyone has something unique, everyone has a ‘hook.’”
M and R Vineyard is no exception. They grow a unique hybrid grape called Chardonel. It’s similar to Chardonnay, hence the name, but it has other heightened qualities for growing more productively. It’s better for its cold hardiness, meaning the grapes can survive colder environments than its parent, Chardonnay. It also produces bigger, green clusters.
The Chardonel grapes are sold to a buyer, Third Hill Winery, which is just down the road from M and R Vineyard. Seeing what comes of the fruit that Mansilla and Rourke spend so much time tending to is the biggest reward.
“It’s a labor of love,” Mansilla said. “It makes you appreciate the wine that much more.”
The future for M and R Vineyard is simple. They want to start making their own wine with their grapes. Mansilla and Rourke plan to build a facility to make wine on site. They’ve left space open on their land where there will also be a tasting room where visitors can look out the windows to see the blue-ish glow of fog rolling down the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“When people go, they want to see the vineyard and they want to know they are in the Shenandoah valley,” Rourke said.
Their hope is to begin building a facility in the next three to four years. The next step in bringing their vision to life is another component out of their control— waiting on financing from a bank. Factors out of their control have been Mansilla and Rourke’s biggest challenge for M and R Vineyard. After all, mother nature was their first challenge and they continue to overcome her.
Contact Sydney at firstname.lastname@example.org.