Oakencroft Farm: The Juice Vintners

Adam Ewing
by Natalie Ermann Russell - Virginia - October/November 2012

Virginia’s Oakencroft Farm puts a grown-up spin on grape juice

Standing in a former wine-tasting room in the middle of Virginia’s thriving wine country, Phillip Ponton lifts a glass of Seyval Blanc, while his colleague Warren McClellan inspects a glass of Traminette. It looks a lot like they’re sampling fine wines—except that what they’re tasting has an alcohol content of exactly zero. This is grape juice, but if you’re thinking Welch’s, think again. Each of Oakencroft Farm’s artisanal juices is made from one particular variety of wine grape, resulting in a complex flavor worthy of any over-the-top adjective in a wine writer’s arsenal.

Using high-quality wine grapes for juice might seem like using Kobe beef to make sloppy joes, but like wine, juice shows off a grape’s inherent character—whether it’s earthy, spicy, citrusy, or robust. This is something Ponton and McClellan know well, having thirty-six years of combined wine-making experience. “When Oakencroft first started with juice, Warren and I were the only ones here,” says Ponton, who, like McClellan, stayed on when the Charlottesville-based vineyard changed hands in 2008 and the new owners wanted their small children to partake. “I miss some aspects of wine-making, but it’s nice to be doing something that very few others are.”

Indeed, there are only a handful of similar operations in the United States, including vineyards in Oklahoma, Oregon, and California. What sets Oakencroft apart is Ponton’s and McClellan’s experience making wine—and now juice—specific to the terroir of the Southeast.

Relying on an encyclopedic knowledge of grapes, they’ve chosen to focus on just three varieties—Seyval Blanc, Tram-inette, and Chambourcin—which are resistant to fungal pathogens and well suited for Virginia’s grape-unfriendly hu-
midity. The Seyval Blanc is crisp, with hints of grapefruit, honeysuckle, and melon. The Tram-
inette, also a white, is slightly floral, with notes of pear and lemon. The lone red is the subtly spicy Chambourcin, which has undertones of plum and dark berries.

Each is a satisfying balance of tart and sweet, a favorite not just with thirsty Virginians who sample it at specialty shops (bottles sell for about $9), but also with area chefs. “It works very well in marinades and vinaigrettes,” says  Eric Kang, chef de cuisine at Charlottesville’s C&O restaurant, who has been known to employ an entire bottle of Traminette to pickle a batch of local shiitake mushrooms. “It’s also great for adding a touch of sweetness to dishes, and as a deglazing liquid for pan sauces.”

This year’s crop is looking particularly good, Ponton and McClellan say, but the finished product depends on more than just the fruit. Harvest starts around the third week of August and lasts through September. After just twenty-four hours in cold storage, each batch of fruit is pressed and the juice pumped into the immense stainless-steel refrigerated tanks that once held Oakencroft’s wines, where it remains until it’s pasteurized and bottled. “If something bad is going to happen, it’s going to happen at this point,” McClellan says. “This is a critical time.” Indeed, theirs is a delicate business. “Now that we’re doing juices,” Ponton says, “we have
to let the grapes ripen enough to have the characteristics of the varietal but without developing too much sugar. It’s a small window.”

By Thanksgiving, Oakencroft plans to expand with a line of sparkling juices, a measure its vintners hope will both push the envelope on artisanal juice making and raise the profile of their products. “We feel like we’re getting better at this,” Ponton says. “It reminds me of the early days of the Virginia wine industry. We have to get out there and let people taste our juice so they know how good it is.”

For more information, go to oakencroft.com