Artisans shift their creative focus to the wineglass.
Teresa and Phil Holcomb were making a living with their hands long before they started Chestnut Ridge Winery in Spencer. For years they traveled to craft shows all over, selling Phil’s woodworking and Teresa’s handmade jewelry. They struck up friendships with other vendors, including a band of bikers who made leather crafts. “These are real bikers. Piercings, long beards, big stomachs—ugly guys just like me,” Holcomb says.
One day the bikers approached Phil at a show: “They came up and said ‘Hey it’s been nice knowing you. We probably won’t be seeing you.’” They explained they were starting, of all things, a winery—and even offered Holcomb a taste of their product in a Styrofoam cup. “It was spectacular. It was some of the best stuff I’d ever drank,” he remembers. “I drove back here, threw open the door and said ‘Hey, we’re starting a winery.’”
Holcomb was already making wine at home, having learned the craft from friends, and often gave away extra bottles to customers. “Eventually people were coming in to buy stuff just to get the wine,” he says. Still, it would be a challenge scaling up this small hobby into a moneymaking enterprise. The couple spent the next few years researching recipes, equipment, and regulations, and applying for the myriad government licenses required to make alcohol. They also built a two-story winery, making their business a tourist destination instead of just a factory. “Spencer is in the middle of nowhere. There’s no reason to come to Spencer. We had to have a reason for people to come here,” he says.
The pair opened Chestnut Ridge Winery in 2013, and business is booming. Holcomb says fruit wines are the most popular with customers—“You don’t have to be a wine snob to enjoy it”—but his favorites are the traditional dry wines. Whereas fruit wines are straightforward, dry wines allow vintners to tweak the end products’ alcohol content and complexities of taste. Critics have taken note. Chestnut Ridge has won multiple awards for its products at wine festivals all over the state.
The Holcombs buy some of their grapes from vineyards in California, New York, and West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, where the climate is better suited to grow this somewhat finicky crop. They also grow four French hybrid grape varieties, which have been bred to grow well in central Appalachia’s muggy summers.
The Holcombs are looking for ways to expand their business beyond wine. They pressed their first batch of apple cider in fall 2015, and it’s currently aging in barrels and will be ready by mid-summer 2016. They hope to ramp up production this year, using West Virginia-grown apples from around the state to make the hard cider.
Also, the Holcombs got a license in 2015 to sell imported, hand-rolled cigars at their winery. “You can’t find that but just a few places in West Virginia,” Holcomb says. “All of a sudden we have people traveling to Spencer to buy cigars.”
While the business expands, the Holcombs’ primary focus is still on wine. Last year Chestnut Ridge produced about 12,000 bottles. In the next three years the Holcombs expect to be making 24,000 to 30,000 bottles per year. It seems Holcomb’s biker buddies were onto something. “It was the best decision we ever made. I wish we’d done it 20 years ago.”
photographed by Nikki Bowman