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Saturday, September 01, 2012

SML Wine Festival Preview

What it takes for wineries to accommodate thousands of visitors to the Smith Mountain Lake Wine Festival

It’s the time of year when lake residents and visitors gear up for one of the area’s most popular events, the Smith Mountain Lake Wine Festival. Those who have attended in the past know the festival is a great opportunity to spend a relaxing day sampling a variety of wines, talking with winemakers, enjoying live music and discovering new and unusual items offered by assorted vendors. ... However, those tents don’t pitch themselves.
    The SML Wine Festival is the largest event of its type in Southwest Virginia, and while it provides an outstanding opportunity for wineries to promote and sell their wines to a large number of people, there’s also much time, effort and cost that goes into participating.
    This year’s event is slated for Sept. 29-30 at LakeWatch Plantation in Moneta. David Sawyer, owner of Fincastle Winery & Vineyards, said he’ll arrive a day in advance to set up his operation. Sawyer pitches a tent, places tables and hangs banners displaying the winery logo. Vessels filled with ice are needed to keep the white wine (and red if it is a hot day) cool. Corkscrews and price lists with descriptions of wine are needed as well as point-of-sale equipment for credit card transactions. (Most vendors now rely on wireless technology.)     
    “The folks running the festival really step up to the plate as far as taking care of the vendors,” Sawyer said.  “And if it rains, they are out there putting out hay so the grounds don’t get muddy.”
    Wineries bring in a stock of wine in hopes of selling it all – but without running out too soon, which can result in frustrated customers. Sawyer said he factors in the previous year’s sales and the weather forecast when calculating how much wine to bring. Last year, it was toasty hot on Saturday but rained on Sunday.  
    Sawyer said patron tastes sometimes vary depending on the day.  Often, the Saturday crowd is younger with a proclivity for lighter and sweeter wines. Sunday tasters tend to be older and more experienced, ones who appreciate a more serious wine such as Cabernet Franc, he said.  
    In addition to the wine, there are other costs involved in participating in the festival. Sawyer uses volunteers to help pour wine, but larger operations often bring paid employees. The wineries are required to obtain permits from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) to ensure wine is served in a controlled environment.      Wineries also pay a fee to participate in the event, although they are reimbursed for the wine given out as samples.
    Russ Amrhein, owner of AmRhein’s Wine Cellars near Roanoke, said he begins the festival preparation process by analyzing the type of customers he expects to see. He noted that younger wine tasters prefer products such as Ruby (a raspberry chocolate wine), Vin de Peche (a peach wine) and Traminette (a hybrid variety made in a sweet style with crisp acidity). More serious wine drinkers prefer his Petite Verdot, a substantial, dry red wine made from a variety that originated in Bordeaux, France, he said.
    Amrhein said he then narrows the wine he plans to take down to no more than 10 selections (out of the 21 types the winery produces). A call to the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event, reveals how many tickets are pre-sold so he can estimate the amount of wine to take.
    “For every case of wine that we sample out, we like to see $1,000 in sales,” said Amrhein, whose final task is to complete a detailed checklist of necessities to pack such as tables, chairs and tablecloths.  
    So why do wineries go through all of the effort to participate in festivals?
    “It’s all about making contact for future sales,” said H.T. Page, co-owner of Brooks Mill Winery in Wirtz. While Brooks Mill is only about a 10-minute drive from the SML festival site, it’s a bit off the beaten path. “Some people tend to taste more and buy less,” said Page, whose wines are made from a variety of fruit, including blackberries, blueberries, peaches, pears, apples and cherries.
    Virginia law requires all wine be sold to retailers by a distributor. Geoff Garcia, who manages Savoy-Lee Winery in Huddleston, said the company is in the process of obtaining a distribution license so he can expand his sales beyond the winery’s tasting room and festivals.
    “Festivals are a substantial portion of our income,” he said.

Want to Go?
24th Annual Smith Mountain Lake Wine Festival

What: Fundraiser for the Smith Mountain Lake  Regional Chamber of Commerce featuring 26 Virginia wineries, 85 craft and food vendors and live music

When: Saturday, Sept. 29 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday,
Sept. 30 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: LakeWatch Plantation, Moneta (Virginia 122 south of Hales Ford Bridge)

What You’ll Hear: Polychrome and Dragonfly will play Saturday. Sunday’s scheduled bands are Blue Mule and Fat Daddy.

Tickets: Tasters are $20 in advance and $25 at the gate. Non-tasters are $12 in advance and $15 at the gate. Children under the age of 12 are admitted free. Purchase tickets online or find a list of 24 local sales outlets at smlwinefestival.com. Advance ticket deadline is 5 p.m. on Sept. 28. Tickets may be used either day.

More info: The event takes place rain or shine (no refunds). Free parking is provided. No pets or coolers are permitted.

Contact: 540.721.1203, smlwinefestival.com

Participating Wineries

AmRhein’s Wine Cellars
Barboursville Vineyards
Bright Meadows Farm
Brooks Mill Winery
Byrd Cellars Winery
Chateau Morrisette
Cooper Vineyards
Davis Valley Winery
Delfosse Vineyard & Winery
Fincastle Vineyard & Winery
First Colony Winery
Hickory Hill Vineyards
Horton Cellars Winery
Lake Anna Winery
Peaks of Otter Winery
Piedmont Vineyards & Winery
Rebec Vineyards
Rockbridge Vineyards
Rural Retreat Winery
Sans Soucy Vineyards & Winery
Savoy-Lee Winery
Tomahawk Mill Winery
Veritas Vineyard & Winery
Virginia Mountain Vineyards
Wintergreen Winery
Williamsburg Winery