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WV Wineries bottle up a variety of vino

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For The State Journal

West Virginia wine producers bottle some of the most delicious wines in the country that range from red Pinot Noir to white Seyval Blanc and even a sweet Catava grape called "Bad Cat."

The West Virginia Department of Agriculture lists 20 wineries located all across the state.

Lambert's Vintage Wines is located in the center of the state in Lewis County. Owners James and Debbie Lambert produce 100,000 bottles of wine annually. The winery was licensed in 1992.

"We spent three years picking up handcut stone from the 1800s to build the winery," Debbie Lambert said.

She said one building led to another as wine orders increased.

Both the Lambert children have graduated from college and now are a part of the family business. "J.B., my son, and husband are the wine makers," she said. "My daughter, Tracey Willett, runs the catering part of our business."

The winery produces 24 different varieties of wine with a good portion of the grapes grown by the Lamberts. Other grapes are purchased from growers in the area. "Our best seller is one of our own blends," Debbie Lambert said. "It's called ‘Blackberry Merlot.'"

Lambert said they have learned a lot by attending the state's wine festivals. "We've learned what kind of wines to take," she said. "Some prefer sweeter wines, while another drier wines."

The winery is reminiscent of a stone, Gothic-looking structure and comes complete with a tasting room, racking room, storage area and cooling room.

In the Potomac highlands area of the state in Hardy County is the West-Whitehill Winery. Stephen West is the owner.

"I've been in business since 1980," West said. "I was the second winery licensed in the state."

West said his winery produces 10 different kinds of wines. "We have dry red, semi-dry, semi-sweet, sweets, reds and white wine," West said.

The grapes used are grown in Hardy County, and fruit is imported for West's raspberry and currant wines.

The winery produces 3,300 cases or nearly 40,000 bottles of wine annually.

"Our business is growing," West said. "We've added to our winery and taken on a full-time staff."

West-Whitehill Winery has a large direct shipping program. West said his winery is the only in the West Virginia that is licensed in other states, including Virginia and Maryland and in Washington, D.C.

"They are high-population states," he said. "We have 30 retailers in the state we work with including three or four in Charleston."

West said he operates his winery under the Farm Winery Act, which states that a certain percentage of grapes used be grown on vineyards in West Virginia.

And according to West, the soil is the defining factor when beginning a vineyard. "One should select the type of grape most appropriate to grow in a specific soil," he said. "We grow what is called French American hybrids, which is grown in most of West Virginia vineyards."

French American hybrids are Chabourcin, Vidal, Seyval and Aurore, to name a few.

West said some of the hybrids are crossed with California Vinifera varieties. "These can survive in West Virginia climate," he said.

West said his winery does everything from crushing the grapes, then pressing them, to filtering and bottling.

Red wine is aged from two to three years. White is put on the market within a year, and all wine is filtered before bottling.

"That's why wine is so crystal clear," he said. "Filtering takes out all the particulates."

Potomac Highland Winery is located in Mineral County.

Owned by Charles D. Whitehill, the winery has been open for 21 years.

"We make nine different wines," Rebecca Whitehill said. PHW recently won the Fund for the Arts best dry wine in the state award presented in Charleston.

The winery produces 5,000 bottles a year and grows their own grapes.

"We buy apple juice from Hampshire County," she said.

Whitehill said she and her husband, a retired college professor, began wine making after purchasing an amateur wine-making kit.

With a staff of 10 employees, Forks of Cheat Winery in Morgantown produces between 15,000 and 20,000 bottles of wine annually. Owner Jerry Deal said he has been in business for 23 years and grows 16 acres of grapes.

"Our best seller is a Catava grape sweet wine called ‘Bad Cat,'" Deal said.

The winery has received more than 200 awards from regional, national and international competitions.

Forks of Cheat is complete with a tasting room and retail shop, and it gives tours of the facility.

Wine made from honey is the specialty of Kenco Farms Meadery in Sutton. The meadery is located nearly in the middle of West Virginia in Braxton County.

John Kennen and his wife, Barbara, are semi-retired but are still making 7,500 bottles of wines made from honey each year.

"We make five kinds: Honey Mead, Honey Raspberry, Honey Blackberry, Apple Cyster and honey blueberry, called Blue Mead," Kennen said.

Mead is produced by fermenting a solution of honey and water. Kennen said cyster is an Old English name he came across and thought it appropriate for his honey apple wine.

"Not very many people make honey wine any more," he said. "I used to make 12,000 bottles a year and had more than 30 hives." Now, Kennen operates his meadery with just 10 hives.

"I sell our wine most at fairs and festivals and I do some wholesaling," Kennen said.

Many wineries in West Virginia serve as tourist destinations. The West Virginia Department of Agriculture keeps an index of the state's wineries on its website at www.wvagriculture.org.