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Friday, September 28, 2012

How it all started

The Smith Mountain Lake Wine Festival began at a local bed-and-breakfast as a laid-back gathering with 10 wineries.

The SML Wine Festival has grown from a one-day affair with 10 wineries to a two-day event with numerous vendors and 27 wineries.

Photo courtesy of Mary Lynn Tucker

The SML Wine Festival has grown from a one-day affair with 10 wineries to a two-day event with numerous vendors and 27 wineries.

Two types of letters arrived from around the county. Some denounced the festival as the work of Satan, others admonished the couple for neglecting Franklin County's heritage.

"'This is moonshine country, we should be having a moonshine festival,'" recalled Dr. Lee Tucker, an organizer of Smith Mountain Lake's first wine festival.

In its 24th year, the festival is a two-day event that will feature 27 Virginia wineries and 85 vendors. In 1989, the first year it was held, the festival was a more modest affair.

Tucker's interest in winemaking began early.

When growing up in Alexandria, Tucker used the sizable crop from two mulberry trees in his family's yard, and a turn-of-the-century recipe to produce "the best mulberry wine vinegars." Classmates at his strict parochial school "got a big laugh out of me trying to make wine."

Through his college years to his medical residency at the University of Virginia, Tucker's passion for wine-making continued. Later moving to Roanoke, he and his wife, Mary Lynn, eventually purchased a partially restored historic home in Burnt Chimney, The Manor at Taylor's Store, which they operated as a bed-and-breakfast until 2001, when the house was sold. In lieu of mulberry trees, this time chardonnay and gewurztraminer grapes provided the ingredients for his endeavors.

It was during a business call, a walk-through inspection of the property in 1989 by local insurer Phil Hager that the idea for the wine festival took root.

"We were in the sitting area at the bed-and-breakfast," said Hager. "And were overlooking the backyard and [discussed] how nice it would be to have a small festival with several wineries and some music."

Hager was himself a wine enthusiast. In addition to serving as a board member of the Smith Mountain Lake Partnership, a tourism promotion group, he and his future wife, Margaret, often traveled to Virginia wineries over long weekends. The festival would be a fundraising project for that organization.

In a process that lasted about six months and a collaboration effort that Tucker described as "real teamwork," the Tuckers, Hager and Margaret set out to make the plan reality.

Legal issues such as requiring participating wineries to obtain a remote liquor license had to be addressed, and the festival was limited to 10 wineries.

Vintners "were almost always enthusiastic about participating," Tucker recalled. "We had just a very nominal fee for wineries to come, and the other expenses was born by us."

The first Smith Mountain Lake Wine Festival was a one-day event held in September 1989.

Volunteers, mostly members of the Smith Mountain Lake Lions Club, assisted with parking, and for the first two years were the sole food vendors, Hager said. A friend of the Tuckers owned a hot air balloon business and provided tethered rides. Lee Tucker's brother and an uncle, both musicians, provided entertainment from the Manor's back porch. Hager's son, Gavin, and his friend, Chad Setliff, were tasked with garbage pickup duty.

The four principals had their own functions.

Arriving before daybreak, Hager would help with setup, while Margaret was stationed at the front gate, collecting tickets and putting on armbands. Mary Lynn Tucker refers to herself as a stagehand, "doing the behind the scenes work."

Tickets were $10 for tasters, and the rate was lower for those not sampling wine. Wineries such as Chateau Morrisette and Rebec Vineyards were on hand, and there were activities for children: face painting and grape stomping.

The festival had no sponsors, and in the three years the event was held at the Manor, made no profit, said Mary Lynn Tucker.

"It was just very laid-back, we thought sophisticated," said Hager.

By 1991, the attendance grew from 800 to 1,200 festival-goers, and the size of the crowd was outgrowing the property; arrangements had been made for a neighbor's hay field to be used as satellite parking.

It was during that time that a manager of Bernard's Landing, who was also a Partnership board member, expressed interest in hosting the event.

"We knew that we were done, and it was time." said Mary Lynn Tucker.

In addition to his medical duties, Tucker continued his wine pursuits, operating the Roanoke-based Lee and Edwards Wine Merchants for 10 years. The Hagers would assist in organizing the wine festival at Bernard's Landing for an additional three years. After being held there for more than a decade, it moved to LakeWatch Plantation in 2008.

Tucker said he still attends the wine festival, slipping in "every now and then, incognito."

"We knew the direction that it was growing, that the interest was going to grow exponentially," said Tucker. "The Virginia wine industry is growing and deserves recognition."