Fruit wines offer something for everyone

The sales floor at Peaks of Otter Winery in Bedford County, Virginia, offers customers wine, fruit, jams, jellies, relishes, apple cider and wine accessories.

Peaks of Otter Winery owner Danny Johnson knows his customers have different preferences when it comes to wine. Some people like it tart; others like it sweet. Some prefer it fruity, while others prefer it plain. Some like wine to awaken their taste buds with a few chili peppers. No matter their taste, Johnson has a wine for everyone.

Johnson and his wife, Nancy, have operated the winery in Bedford County, Virginia, since the mid-1990s. They make more than 25 wines with the fruit they grow and buy from others. Johnson noted that he grows about 70 to 80 percent of the fruit that’s used to make the wine. That percentage may drop if there’s a freeze. When necessary, he uses flavorings blended by Virginia Dare, an extract company in Brooklyn, New York.

Building on a dream

Johnson is carrying on the fruit business that his grandfather started, but in a more commercial way.

In 1918, his grandfather, Robert Lee Johnson, and his father, James Elmo Johnson, purchased the property, which is nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They planted the first apple trees in 1919.

Today, there are about 25 planted acres, including apple, peach, pear, plum, cherry, nectarine and crab apple trees, as well as grapes, blackberries, pumpkins and chili peppers.

There weren’t any grapes planted on the farm when Johnson started making wines. When wine tasters asked him where the grapevines were, he responded: “I do fruit wines. I’ve got [apple] orchards out here, so I don’t have any vineyards.”

Finally, Johnson planted a few grapevines. “When people ask me now about the grapes, I say there’s a vineyard right out yonder,” he said.

So why start a winery? “First off, I already had fruit,” he said. “I had talked about making fruit wines since back in the ’80s.”

Johnson sought the advice of Bruce Zoecklein, an extension wine specialist with Virginia Tech at the time. Johnson asked if he could make an apple wine and have it taste like Blue Nun, a wine established in 1921. Zoecklein thought he could.

Johnson began the application process to manufacture wine in the early 1990s, but was denied. At the time, state law stipulated that if a person had already been issued an Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) license, they could not receive a manufacturer’s license.

Johnson’s ABC license was for the retail store he operated on nearby Route 460. When Johnson asked what he could do, an agent from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control suggested he sell the store or talk to his state representative. Selling the store wasn’t an option. Johnson talked with his local delegate, who worked with Johnson to get the law changed. It took several years, but the “Johnson winery clause,” as he called it, was passed so a person could apply for a winery license while already possessing an ABC license. Johnson received his winery license in 1995 and made his first wine in 1996.

Since then, Johnson has expanded his facilities about six times and added several wines. His total selection includes: Virginia Apple Lovers Dry Apple, Mojo, Blackberry Cobbler, Light Pear, Sweet Heart, Peach Delite, Café Vino, Pure Passion, Apple Pumpkin Pie, The Mango Tango, Vino Colada, Strawberry Shortcake, Puff, Blue Ridge Mountain Grape, Hunter’s Raid – The Bedford Boys, Sangria, Blueberry Muffin, Chili Dawg, Grandma’s Apple Elderberry, Cherry Cheese Cake, Cinfulicious, Apple Truffle, Ras Ma Tas Raspberry, Chocolate Cherry, Frosty Morn, Salty Frog Margarita, Light Sweet Peach, Blackberry Jammed, Apple-Strawberry Reserve, and Kiss the Devil Chili Pepper.

Johnson said the No. 1 seller is Chili Dawg, a unique wine made from 97 percent apple blended with 3 percent chili pepper. “It’s something that people can’t get anywhere else,” he explained.

Kiss the Devil, which uses 30 varieties of chili peppers, is the most difficult to make. Johnson said he can barely stay in the room when this is being made because of the heat. “Once it’s ready to go, bottle it,” he said.

Danny Johnson checks his apple trees at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Johnson’s grandfather and father grew and sold apples at the farm. In the mid-1990s, Johnson and his wife, Nancy, started Peaks of Otter Winery, which has grown to bottle more than 25 different fruit wines.

“When we go to a festival, these people would flock to us because of that Devil,” Johnson noted. “We tell people to wait until they taste the other wines before they taste the chili pepper. It takes a while to get that out of you.”

Not all wines have been as marketable as Chili Dawg and Kiss the Devil. Johnson recalled when one wine went through malolactic fermentation; it was fermenting in the bottle and becoming champagne.

“It was boiling my corks out and busting my bottles,” Johnson said. “I had this wine, and it was excellent. I mean it was a sparkling wine, but legally we can’t sell a sparkling wine, I don’t have a license for it. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, so I turned it all upside down, put it in the cooler and put weight on it.

He took it to a festival, and people were buying it. When they wanted to purchase it to take home, he told them, “I can sell it to you open, but I can’t sell it to you with the cork in it because it’s going to blow that cork going home.” Johnson sold all of it open at the festival.

He sells some wine wholesale in Virginia. The wine is sold in small wine shops, a few convenience stores, independent grocery stores and Kroger grocery stores. In addition, wine can be shipped to customers in other states through VinoShipper and some retailers.

On the sales floor at the winery, items include (aside from wine, of course) jams, jellies, relishes, wine accessories, apple cider and fruit.

Peaks of Otter Winery also has a presence at local and state festivals, and even put on an event, the Horse & Hound Wine Festival, which was held on July 12 this year. Johnson said 60 percent of the funds from the festival go to Commonwealth Search and Rescue in Roanoke, Virginia, which uses horses and dogs to help with rescues. In addition, the Johnsons contribute to two Bedford County charities, All-American Mutt Rescue and Brook Hill Farm, a retirement center for horses.

Pour versus sell

Johnson said that when they opened for business, Peaks of Otter Winery became the No. 50 winery in the state. It established itself as the first fruit winery in Virginia, and was the first winery in Bedford County.

“When we first opened, we were a destination,” Johnson said, noting that they were at least an hour away from the closest winery. Now, he said, there are six wineries in the county.

The first year, Johnson produced less than 200 gallons. Currently, he produces between 6,000 and 8,000 gallons a year. He pours about a fifth of that during tastings at the winery, festivals and other events. For instance, during a festival this spring, representatives of the winery went through nine cases of wine for tastings. He believes too many tastings can backfire.

“I have poured more bottles than I have sold,” Johnson said. His son, Shannon, recalled one festival where he poured 109 bottles and only sold 108.

Dave Ratliff (left) and his wife, Sandy, of Bedford, Virginia, taste the many wines that Danny Johnson (right) serves at Peaks of Otter Winery.

Johnson said that in the past, most festivals were worth the trip, but that has diminished somewhat for several reasons:

Festival promoters invite too many wineries, increasing competition and creating a situation where none of the wineries sell as many bottles as they could have if just two to three were there.

While he said the feds don’t ask for a pouring tax, the state does on every bottle poured, driving up his costs.

Too many regulations.

The crystal ball

Johnson foresees making more types of wine. After all, he can’t seem to pass up a challenge.

Johnson said if he were 20 years younger, he would build a distillery to capture part of the profits from the popular craft beer market. He believes a distillery would pull in more customers who might also buy wine.

He’ll leave that decision up to Shannon and his two grandchildren, Josh and Jordan, who all work at the winery. Shannon’s wife, Donna, works at festivals when she can.

Johnson would like to see his wholesale business increase, with more stops closer together along a similar route. In addition, he would like to ship more wine and perhaps establish a wine club where people sign up to receive a certain number of bottles a month or per quarter.

Over the years, the winery has been a lot of fun for Johnson. However, when he started doing it part-time, he didn’t intend to operate a large winery. His original plan was to decrease the apple orchard to about 6 acres and run a pick-your-own operation. He envisioned sitting on the porch, greeting customers, and just collecting money for the apples they picked.

“It hasn’t worked out like that at all,” Johnson said. “I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life.”

Rocky Womack has written about agriculture and business for more than 25 years and currently serves as a contributing writer and correspondent for agriculture and business magazines, domestically and internationally.