When Lori and Kirk Thibault decided to tap in to the state and local wine market, they did just that — tapped in, literally.
The Thibaults own Ashton Creek Vineyard, a 5,000-case-a-year operation conveniently located between Richmond and Chester on Jefferson Davis Highway.
Open for two years, Ashton Creek offers something few other wineries in the state do: wine on tap. Eight wines are available for tasting on tap (or through bottle sales), including a steel-fermented, oaked-aged and delicious chardonnay; a semi-dry riesling; a spicy chambourcin; and a malbec dominated by black cherry flavors.
The decision to use taps was logical, Lori Thibault said.
“We were doing research on wineries across the country and read that West Coast wineries were adopting wines on tap,” she said. “We thought it was a great idea. It just makes perfect sense.
“Wine from a tap tastes so fresh because the wine never touches air or gas until it’s about to be served. It serves easily, and the wine stores well in the stainless-steel kegs. Wine on tap is eco-friendly — no bottles, labels or corks — and cost-effective.”
How have tasting-room visitors responded?
“We’ve had much positive feedback on the wine on tap,” said Marie Wright, a wine steward at Ashton Creek as well as Fifty Third Winery in Louisa. “People are loving the fact it’s environmentally friendly, always fresh, never corked or tainted and has zero waste.
“It’s a tad bit fizzy at first from the tap, due to the CO2 in the tank, but quickly settles. On tap gives the wine its liveliness and enhances the aromatic bouquet.”
Getting into the winery business also was a logical decision for Lori, who previously owned and operated a flooring store in Colonial Heights, and Kirk, a pilot for Delta Airlines. (Lori: “He is the one who has had the drive and vision for this operation.”)
“We both love wine and were experimenting with home wine-making,” Lori said. “Virginia does a great job at promoting its wineries, and we always wanted a business that we could help our children with.
“We already had the land on Jefferson Davis Highway and thought it would make a great location — easy to access — for a winery and wedding venue. When we presented the idea to the kids, they were excited to be a part of it.”
That was 2010, and today, an inviting 2,400-square-foot tasting room and a 4,800-square-foot event building sit on part of the 9-acre parcel that has 5 acres of chardonnay, chambourcin, pinot grigio, malbec, merlot and petit manseng vines growing adjacent to the buildings. Oh, yes, a 7,000-square-foot winery runs beneath the two buildings.
What was the Thibaults’ reaction when the doors of the tasting room finally opened in 2016?
“We had worked some long, hard hours, planting and building, and we would often go home saying, ‘I’ll be so glad when the work is finished and we can open the doors,’” Lori said.
“Then we opened the doors and went home saying, ‘Wow, this is a lot of work!’ But I say that with a smile on my face. It’s been a labor of love, and being able to do it with our kids is icing on the cake. It’s been a real joy hearing people say that they love our wines, and that they think it’s great to have such a place in Chester.”
The winery operation has been a family affair. Daughter Janie, an architect-construction manager in Salt Lake City, “had a lot of input” in the design and building of Ashton Creek. Daughter Rachel is a graduate of VCU, with a major in merchandising and a minor in marketing. She has sommelier certification and is director of operations.
Son Alan took on the responsibility of winemaker at the age of 23 when he was just out of college at Virginia Tech. At Tech, he switched majors several times, then when the family venture was proposed, he majored in geography and minored in viticulture and geology. He later took enology classes through UC-Davis.
Now, two years later, what’s his take?
“I think the biggest challenge is my age and experience,” he said. “You can only know so much at 25, right? There are so many little tweaks that can be made throughout the process that will affect the end result. I’m learning new ones every year, and sometimes the tweaks don’t go the way you want, and sometimes they work out really great.
“Then it just becomes keeping track of everything that has worked well and everything that I will not try again. I have a few notebooks filled with good and bad experiments that will keep growing as time goes on, which have become great references. I was worried about how my first wines would be accepted, but they actually turned out well, and the visitors to our tasting room have been very complimentary. That’s been a big confidence boost.”
Those wines come from Virginia grapes — their own or purchased — and from Washington state.
“When we were first ready to make wine, there was no fruit available to purchase in Virginia, so we had to outsource,” Lori said. “We made some great wine from them and would entertain bringing some in again if the opportunity presents itself.”
But, she said, “for all practical purposes, we are focusing on Virginia-grown fruit.”