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January 2012 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Community-Based Direct Marketing

Virginia's Barrel Oak Winery reaches $2.5 million in sales during its first two years

 
by Linda Jones McKee
 
 
    HIGHLIGHTS
     

     
  • While looking for a site to start Barrel Oak Winery, Brian and Sharon Roeder focused on properties in northern Virginia, noting that the proximity to Washington, D.C., would be good for business.
     
  • The Delaplane, Va., winery had $2.5 million in sales and 100,000 visitors during its first two years.
     
  • Today the couple grows nine grape varieties and recently purchased land to expand their vineyard acreage.
When Brian and Sharon Roeder opened Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane, Va., in time for Memorial Day 2008, the winery attracted more than 500 people and tallied sales of $38,000 that first weekend. During the ensuing three years, Barrel Oak continued to bring in large numbers of visitors. It sold 2,800 cases of wine in the first year and approximately 6,500 cases in 2011—a retail value of almost $2 million. During the 2011 harvest, Barrel Oak Winery produced the equivalent of nearly 10,000 cases.

Initially the Roeders borrowed 75% of their start-up capital of $3.8 million, but by the winery’s second anniversary in 2010, Barrel Oak was operating in the black. During its first 24 months, the winery welcomed 100,000 visitors and had $2.5 million in sales from their tasting room.

How did they accomplish this in an economy that has been teetering between recession and depression? According to Roeder, Virginia is a great place to open a winery. The governor supports the wine and grape industry, millions of people live within a two-hour drive of many Virginia wineries, and many of those customers have plenty of disposable income for wine purchases. In addition, he credits the success of Barrel Oak Winery to three “big pillars”: finding an excellent location, creating a place where the community can gather and utilizing social media to share the couple’s dream and give people a reason to visit the winery.

Location, location, location
The Roeders’ first priority was to find a site with good winery potential. Although Sharon Roeder’s dream was to plant a vineyard she could stroll through with her morning cup of coffee, the Roeders wanted to be able to grow quality grapes and have a winery location where they could attract visitors.

When the Roeders started their vineyard project, they were living in Arlington, Va., and began their search in northern Virginia. Working with Chris Hill, a Virginia-based vineyard consultant, they superimposed a soils map onto a topographic map to help find an appropriate hillside. They looked as far south as Charlottesville and westward into the foothills of the Appalachians, but preferred a location closer to Washington, D.C.

It took several months of searching and some compromises to find a home for Barrel Oak Winery. In 2006 they purchased 70 acres of land with a view onto Route 66, a major four-lane highway that heads west from Washington, an hour away. In 2006, 48,000 cars per day drove past that farm on Route 66. The winery building, high on the hillside, is a landmark visible to passers-by between exits 23 and 27. While the land was attractive from an access point of view, at 650 feet it was not as high in altitude as the Roeders would have preferred, and they have had some problems with late spring frosts.

The first grapes at Barrel Oak Winery were planted in April 2007, and today the Roeders have 22 acres of vineyard with nine varieties in production including Traminette, Vidal Blanc, Seyval, Chambourcin, Chardonnay, Viognier, Petit Manseng, Merlot and Petit Verdot.

Before the winery opened, Sharon Roeder worked at both Pearmund Cellars in Broad Run, Va., and The Winery at La Grange in Haymarket, Va., essentially interning for free in order to learn how to make wine. She also attends every Virginia Tech seminar and winemakers roundtable to hone her craft. Today she makes wine at Barrel Oak Winery with co-winemaker Rick Tagg, and their wines have won three best-in-show awards at state and national competitions.
Reaching out with social media
 

 
According to Brian Roeder, he and wife Sharon want to share their dream—and even the occasional setback—as the seasons pass and the winery continues to grow. Most of the sharing occurs at the winery, but the Roeders recognize the potential power of an online presence. They use their website to reflect the welcoming nature of the winery experience and to feature the people- and dog-friendly aspects of Barrel Oak Winery.

Every week Brian sends an email to more than 10,000 friends of the winery  fans in order to keep people involved with the activities going on with the Roeders and Barrel Oak. Occasionally, even their dogs participate in expressing their points of view about vineyard and winery life. Brian, who writes an occasional blog himself, recognizes the influence that bloggers can have, and while the winery was still under construction, he invited a group of bloggers to come visit, taste the wines and walk through the unfinished winery.


L.J.M.
Gathering place
Delaplane, Va., is a small town that doesn’t have much going on during evenings or weekends. The Roeders set out to create a place where local residents could gather and feel a sense of community. According to Brian Roeder, “We wanted our tasting room to be a place where people come together and enjoy wine with friends, and then we would give them reasons to come back again and again.”

Roeder designed the 13,500-square-foot winery to meet two needs: to produce the wine and to be a destination for both tourists and local visitors, while at the same time being as “green” as possible. The winery production facility is built into a hill so that it is primarily underground; geothermal heating, cooling and hot water are provided by a geo-exchange loop that is buried deep undergroun d. Low-energy lighting and engineered insulating panels also help reduce energy use.

The tasting room on the first floor above the winery features hand-hewn timbers, a large stone fireplace and a tasting bar that can handle simultaneous tastings for 125 people. The tasting room also offers seating for up to 150 people. Outside, tables and chairs are set up on a stone patio for wine tasting and picnics while guests enjoy views of Little Cobbler Mountain and the Blue Ridge mountains.

On weekends, the winery often hires live entertainment, and the Roeders encourage families to attend with children and pets. The winery hosts both guided and self-guided tours, and it took only a short time for the tasting room to become a gathering point for the local community. No outside alcohol or wine is permitted, but potluck dinners and picnics are welcome.

The winery is open every day from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m., and on Friday night (and some Saturday nights) it stays open until 9 p.m. Roeder estimates that in the summer, Friday night sales add $3,000 to the bottom line, while during winter that amount is about $1,500. The wines are priced between $25 and $39 per bottle, and visitors are encouraged to start a tab and pay for tastings and wine purchases at the end of the visit. 

“We sell our wine all at retail prices,” Brian Roeder told Wine East. “We don’t want to be in other stores, we don’t want to distribute, and we have no restaurant sales.” They do participate in local wine festivals, however. There is a charge for tasting, although wine club members receive discounts on both tastings and purchases. Weekend winery events are free and often benefit charities.

In the past year, Barrel Oak Winery added a store in Middleburg, Va., that is both a tasting room and an art gallery. “It seemed logical to extend the footprint of the winery, and we found a great location in downtown Middleburg. Sales have been good, and the shop helps send people to Barrel Oak Winery for the winery experience,” Brian Roeder said.

This past year, the Roeders acquired the 100-acre John Marshall estate next to the winery. They plan to open a tasting room in the historic Marshall house next spring and will plant three acres of Norton at the front of the property. Ultimately, they would like to have a bed and breakfast there—and possibly construct an additional production facility.

Most recently, the couple signed an agreement to purchase another 100 acres on the other side of the winery. Roeder thinks that buying out the properties surrounding the winery will protect against issues with neighbors as well as provide the space for the winery to expand both its vineyard acreage and production capabilities.

 
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