Mountain Rose Vineyard

On Saturday Chris and I drove to Wise, Virginia, to the Mountain Rose Vineyard. We were part of the entertainment at a small festival, Mines to Wines; we joined Ron Short to play a set of coal mining songs. What made it apropos is that the vineyard was created on the remains of a strip mining operation. Folks thought the idea was crazy, but owner David Lawson knew that grapes would love the acid ground and thrive in the relatively dry weather. Five years later, the wines David produces are now winning awards.

We arrived in mid-afternoon because the group that sponsors our Music of Coal shows, the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth, had arranged for a photographer to take some publicity stills. He hiked with us up to a particularly scenic section of the vineyard, picked out a spot for us to stand, and proceeded to do what photographers do. The day was intermittently cloudy, so there were stretches of waiting for the right light punctuated by hurried sessions of picture-taking. The fellow seemed to know his craft, so we’re curious to see the results.

The winery grounds really are lovely, in a polished industrial way. I don’t intend that as an insult, but only to note that much of what made it picturesque had been done exactly for that purpose. Rose bushes were planted at the end of every row of grapes. The rows of grapes were weed free, probably from liberal application of Roundup, and the paths between the rows were wide and well-mowed.

The operation had the manicured look of an agritourist attraction, which in fact it is, a very well-thought out one. Just outside the winery building is a lawn suited for holding outdoor dinners, which is just what they held before our performance, for $20 per head, serving chicken breasts with mashed potatoes and green beans and salad and rolls and cobbler with ice cream for dessert, accompanied by a glass of wine if you liked. Just inside the building was a large room with more tables, a fireplace, and a counter, where wines could be tasted and purchased.

After the show the owner gave us a quick tour behind the scenes, taking us into the rest of the building which was filled with the equipment they use these days to produce wine: a machine to de-stem the grapes, another to crush and squeeze them, maybe twelve 1000-gallon temperature controlled stainless steel vats where the juice is fermented, and a bottling station. David told us that each of the vats cost him around $6000 a couple of years ago; now they sell for over $10,000.

Thinking about our own efforts to farm, I was vaguely uneasy about the whole operation. On the one hand, I had been reacting positively to the place all day long. But as I heard these numbers and added my own silent estimates of what it must have cost to acquire the other equipment, build the building, prepare the grounds, plant and maintain the grapes, market the product, and plan and execute the different events hosted there, I understood that it was a significant business venture that required investors, employees, profit and loss statements—a different universe than the one we operate in, a universe fraught with dangers that had driven us to choose another path.

As we were leaving, Ron was telling David that he thought Mountain Rose Vineyard was a wonderful thing, a blessing to Wise County, and I wondered: is it? After all, I spend a lot of time pointing out the dangers of the modern industrial approach to not only agriculture but life in general, and in some ways this operation exemplifies that.

I think that it is a blessing, and maybe even a wonderful thing. The operation is small, and run by the Lawson family, the folks who were setting up beforehand and serving in the midst of and cleaning up afterwards. There is a house on the property where I think David lives with his family. They are making a fine and wholesome product, with the attention to detail and quality that a small operation can provide. They draw visitors to the county. They have become a local gathering place for the community through the events they stage (music, dinners, grape harvests, and so on). And even though their business is capital intensive beyond what the average family could manage, it is ends up being a home-based family business, and I imagine the Lawson family experiences many of the same blessings that other rural farming families experience.

Which brings me to my point. For awhile now I’ve been reluctant to speak too bluntly about certain aspects of our own journey, because I haven’t known how to do so without seeming to criticize folks who have chosen to pursue simplicity in their lives in ways different than ours. But I think it’s time for all of us to get past this, either by choosing a niche in the matrix or coming to understand that we’ve already chosen one, and then getting comfortable with it. We need to be equally comfortable saying two different things: (a) I think what you’re doing is great, and here’s why; and, (b) I wouldn’t do it that way, and here’s why. Put another way, there are choices that are great in one context and not so great in another. Put yet another way, what works very well for you might not work at all for me, because we have decided to follow different paths to the same (or at least similar) goals, and so my rejection of some specific choices you’ve made is not necessarily a criticism of your overall project.

Let me offer a specific example. My friend Scott Terry has written a number of important posts (here, here, and here are examples) pointing out ways in which a home-based economy is at odds with the cash-centeredness of modern life, and that the form of the good life he advocates is fairly spare when it comes to material blessings (at least as the modern world counts such things). For folks who are on the path we ourselves are following, this is critical wisdom; we need to know that there is no panacea, pastured poultry or anything else, that will result in the sort of life we seek while still yielding comfortable amounts of cash. But we also need to acknowledge that there are other sorts of lives that can center around cash crops and still be dramatically superior to the average modern industrial existence.

I want to get past the abovementioned reluctance for two reasons. First, I think that anyone who reads what I write benefits most when I am clear and detailed about what we do and why we do it. So I want to be able to do just that without giving unnecessary offense and without being called to defend our choices by folks who object to them. And second, I think that folks who are largely in agreement on what constitutes the good life need to do everything possible to help one another in their efforts to live such a life. So I want to get to a place where those who largely share our assumptions about the good life can exchange opinions and information freely, in full confidence that any arguments or questions or objections come from like-minded people of good will who are trying to get at what’s best and are just as open to being persuaded as they are to persuading.

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7 thoughts on “Mountain Rose Vineyard

  1. Hooray! Does this mean you are going to share specifics on *how* you decide how much to sell chickens for…and how you get to certain convictions with regards to your homesteading ventures?

    We have soo much to learn, and the more we do, the more we discover we have to learn… it is good to be able to share with others! And I do enjoy, and benefit from, the specific posts and applications!

  2. And not only in pursuit of the simple life in our families but also in our churches and in our communities. It is OK for us to be different.

    Look forward to what you have to say.

  3. Rick,
    Good thoughts. In my “philosophical agrarian” state (as Cindy would have said) I have gone from one side of the spectrum to the other in preparing ourselves for the future. I started with dreams of Salatin-inspired pastured poultry bounty. We would find our niche market and show the world that small farms CAN bring great profit.

    In running some realistic numbers, however, my optimism has waned. Now I am at the point where it seems more important to lessen the amount of money the family needs to survive than to try and obtain large amounts of it. Frugality is a state of being that needs to be learned and practiced.

    The hope for me is that we are able to plant ourselves firmly in the middle (as with most things). I hope I don’t offend you by calling you a “moderate”, but your fair and balanced “moderatism” on most topics you discuss is always a breath of fresh air.

    PS – my wife has started a blog and is discussing coal mining in the Appalachian Region – http://everybodygetsprizes.blogspot.com/

  4. As you know, our life is a far cry from yours (very cash intensive because of where we live), but I always enjoy everything you have to say and don’t get offended in the least. So, write on in as much detail as possible!

    On a more humorous note, my husband sometimes says we should cash out of Manhattan and start a winery. Now, I’m all for the rural life, but when I think of the amount of knowledge (not to mention cash and sheer number of years) required to make a success of that sort of thing, I laugh heartily (and he joins me). Running a winery doesn’t strike me as a simple endeavor at all. But I think I’ll show him this post nonetheless ;-).

  5. I hope I don’t offend you by calling you a “moderate”, but your fair and balanced “moderatism” on most topics you discuss is always a breath of fresh air.

    Christo,

    I think that I come across as moderate not because of the moderate nature of my views (some of them are pretty radical, I think) but because I write so as to encourage civil and mutually edifying discussion of the topics I present. Sometimes it requires me to choose my words very carefully, sometimes I need to downplay or even ignore certain aspects of what I think about the topic, and occasionally I have to forego writing about a topic altogether—not because I don’t have strong views, but because I can’t find a way to present them that will be helpful to my readers.

    That is part of the reason that I am thinking about ways to fine-tune my audience. If I can give potential readers a clearer preview of the point of view they’ll find in my writing, I’ll be able to write more freely about what I think, in confidence that those who have chosen to continue reading won’t be unpleasantly surprised by what I say.

    As you know, our life is a far cry from yours (very cash intensive because of where we live), but I always enjoy everything you have to say and don’t get offended in the least. So, write on in as much detail as possible!

    Laura,

    The differences between your life and ours are a large part of what make the conversation worthwhile. I learn some things from pondering our circumstances on my own, but not as much as I do from pondering the circumstances of others, and from trying to explain why we’ve chosen differently. Much more productive than arguing with others about their choices, and much more pleasant.

  6. Laura,

    Running a winery doesn’t strike me as a simple endeavor at all.

    Actually, aside from the large amount of capital required the operation struck me as being pretty straightforward, no more complicated than running an apple orchard or some other farm-centered business. Now, whether you can stay simple and end up financially successful (i.e. justify the investment), I have no idea. But the folks at Mountain Rose Vineyard are brewing tens of thousands of bottles of wine annually and apparently selling them—at least, I didn’t see cases of wine stacked in any corners. And I don’t think they’ve invested huge amounts of money in their marketing.

  7. Oh, I was thinking simply that I don’t know that much about what makes a wine really good. And isn’t there some kind of premium in old vines? And certain soils? So I’m thinking we simply don’t know enough, or at least that I don’t see my husband researching the difference between steel vats and oak barrels.

    Then again, I started a portrait painting business on my feet. I had a lifetime of practice in representational drawing, and a college degree that was of some use, though most of it was not directly applicable to the enterprise at hand. I had to wait tables in the meantime, but what an incentive to paint better and sell my work! It took about five years to get word of mouth business going.

    I’ve been printing out some of your sidebar articles today and reading them.

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