A golden light glows through the vertical rows of grapes as the sun begins to set on the Blue Ridge Mountains. The fruit is almost near peak in the cooling breeze that blows through the 800-foot elevation along the Monticello Wine Trail. Harvest time at Sugarleaf Vineyards renews a powerful bond between the grapes and the people who turn them into handcrafted American wines.
“It’s very intense. There’s a real hardworking passion to the actual day of harvesting, processing and throwing grapes around and getting sweaty,” says Lauren Maillian Bias, Sugarleaf''s Chief Operating Officer and Proprieter, shown here holding a glass of wine. “It’s a very, very heartfelt, passionate day and I love partaking in it.”
In the early years, Lauren and Sugarleaf's founder and co-owner, Jerry Bias, hauled in the grapes with family and friends including his now teenaged sons, Samuel and Jackson. Neighboring wineries won awards with the exceptional grapes bought from the vineyard until Sugarleaf started bottling its own wine in 2006.
Jerry bought the 126-acre Horseshoe Estate as a private retreat in 2001 and planted the first 300 vines by hand. A fellow rare vintage collector, Mike Taylor, suggested he use some of the land to make wine. After Taylor died in the 9/11 tragedy, Bias pushed forward with the idea to honor his friend.
It blossomed into something greater than either man ever imagined. Hired crews now harvest the tons of fruit made into exclusive varieties at Sugarleaf. As co-owner, Lauren savors the days she spends at the vineyard.
“I love everything. I take part in everything,” she emphasizes while describing one of the processes involved in making reds. “We do what they call bin fermentation for four to six weeks. The bins are punched down numerous times a day by hand and I love doing that. That’s what helps in part a lot of the color of the wines eventually.”
The opening of the winery’s tasting room in 2007 gave Lauren the opportunity to market the vineyards wines and expand public awareness of the Sugarleaf brand. She helped turn what started as a hobby into a thriving, state-of-the-art attraction located 12 miles south of Charlottesville, Virginia.
“When I put my mind to something, I generally make it happen,” Lauren explains. “I’ve always been one to say if I can think it, I can be it.”
Lauren followed a step-by-step process starting out as a novice in the wine business. She negotiated her way through a maze of state and federal regulations to clear the way for the opening of Sugarleaf. For her, there is a sense of pride that comes from being a trailblazer in the Monticello Viticultural Area. After all, this is the region where Thomas Jefferson envisioned making wine as fine as the best in Europe.
“By trailblazing I mean starting, opening, running and owning the first and currently, the only African American vineyard or winery on the East Coast," says the COO.
Bias, a mother of two, travels from New York City to North Garden often to oversee the work of winery’s staff in Virginia. Although the vineyard produces fewer than 2,500 cases a year, the complex flavors and aromas of several Sugarleaf vintages have earned recognition at prestigious national and international competitions.
“Whatever we receive and it’s almost always silver and gold, I’m extremely proud of because we’re up against big players in the business,” Lauren says.
Sugarleaf could never have become the success it is today without the careful cultivation of the boutique winery’s 2,075 vines and refinement of its winemaking process. The late Daniel Neumeister, winemaker and vineyard manager, poured his heart into the winery's management and production until his untimely death last year. His devotion lives on in the premier vintages sold by Sugarleaf.
The 2008 Vidal Blanc captured a Gold Medal at the 2011 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the 2009 Viognier received a Silver Medal. When President and First Lady Obama hosted the 2010 Governors’ Ball, Sugarleaf Vineyards 2008 Petit Manseng was offered on the White House menu.
The dozen or so African American vintners in the U.S. get most of their customers from tasting rooms, vineyard tours, wine festivals and online sales. Sugarleaf also distributes through a select group of retailers and restaurants in Virginia, New York and the District of Columbia.
Lauren credits the winery’s awards and attractions for achieving brand growth during one of the worst economic upheavals in U.S. history. Cars, SUVs, limousines and buses roll up to Sugarleaf for family outings, wedding celebrations, corporate luncheons and special events.
“We actually ended up seeing more people because you have a lot·of families taking local trips. We ended up getting much more acquainted with people from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and so forth,” she adds. "North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia Beach--all those people started coming out and visiting."
Many of those tourists bring children with them, so changes were made to accommodate young visitors. Sugarleaf’s proprietors learned early on how important it was to goodwill. They delayed giving the public full access to the winery when it first opened because of concerns about the traffic. Lauren considers the ability to communicate with people and understand their needs a critical part of any formula for success.
There’s an art to it. I think a lot of businesses in many different sectors fail because they don’t understand that art. You sometimes have to weigh whether·it is·the instant gratification or·the longevity that you want. I wanted longevity,” she says.
Getting respect and recognition are vital to the owners’ vision of the vineyard as a lasting legacy. It is an achievement they hope will be passed on to the four Bias children, Samuel, Jackson, Chloe and Jayden. Warm, bright notes linger in Lauren’s voice when she talks of their 3-year-old son, Jayden, and his understanding of what Sugarleaf represents.
“He’s very proud. Even when we go out for dinner he says, ‘This is my wine. We’re going to have my wine with dinner. This is my red wine. This is my white wine,’” Lauren explains. “Hopefully, I have two wine connoisseurs on my hands.”
More information about Sugarleaf wines, tasting room and tours is available online. You can also see the winery featured in a segment of Bravo TV’s Real Housewives of DC.
The photo of Lauren Maillian Bias was taken by Chris D. Scott