Updated: Jul 31
Winemaker Bruce Deal recommendation for amateurs: ‘just get started’
With the climate of Champaign, France; the soil of Rioja, Spain; and the latitude of California’s Central Coast, Virginia offers a wide variety of wines for any palate.
The Commonwealth has a tradition of wine making that dates back to the original colony settlers and continues to thrive today among dozens of wineries producing bottles of great quality that rival any around the world.
Among those producers is Cunningham Creek Winery, a relative newcomer located in the town of Palmyra, just 12 miles from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello original vineyard. The family-owned enterprise transformed the Bragg Farm, a historic cattle and hay farm and began planting vines in 2013. . They opened their tasting room in 2016. It now has some 13.5 acres of French varietals, producing single varietals and blends from whites like Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Viognier and Rosé, reds including Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.
The person behind those varieties is winemaker Bruce Deal who along with wife Debby “retired” in 2011 and began the next chapter in t heir lives.
Bruce, who will tell you he was bachelor number 1 on the “Dating Game” TV show in 1969, says he’s dabbled with amateur winemaking since his college days in the 1970s, making his first wine in an old fire extinguisher with canned grape juice and bread yeast (tasting as you would imagine).
“To make good wine I had to learn how. I took classes at our local community college and also at UC Davis (Certificate Program in Winemaking). However, nothing beats hands-on training. My main mentor is Matthieu Finot of King Family Vineyards here in Virginia. We did custom crush at King Family for our first few years before shifting production to Cunningham Creek Winery in 2017. The experience in our first years helped significantly going forward,” Bruce says.
His winemaking philosophy is simple: “make wine that I like to drink.”
“We decided to plant French varieties here at CCW. We grow the best varieties possible each year and then make blends we can be both proud to present and pleased to enjoy. Once the blends are made, the single varietals become the balance,” he notes.
It’s a winning recipe. In 2020, Cunningham Creek Winery won its first-ever gold medal with its 2017 Her Dog Red in the Virginia Governor's Cup, a stringent competition hosted by the Virginia Wineries Association in partnership with the Virginia Wine Board and the Virginia Vineyards Association. Sixteen world-class Judges use a 100-point scale to rate the most outstanding wines in the Commonwealth.
The winery repeated the feat in 2021 with a 2017 Meritage and a 2017 Estate Petit Verdot.
Bruce, a former engineer who enjoys cooking and food, found wine was a natural extension of that passion.
“I also have a biological science background that helps with the technical aspects of winemaking. I like to see the art and science work together to make a delicious product,” he explains.
Winemaking is not an easy task. There are so many parts to it, any of which will affect the final product.
For Bruce, those difficult aspects are also the most interesting.
“The grapes come in differently every year. The variation in the weather and timing of the rainfall here in Virginia creates large variations in grape flavor. Each year we need to tailor processes and blends to achieve the desired quality,” he says.
He likes to make wine the “fruit profile of the grape.”
“However, complexity and balance of all the wine aromas and flavors are important too,” he adds.
While he enjoys all the challenges associated with winemaking, Bruce admits he has also made mistakes, which are part of every winemaker journey.
“During one very wet year the wines were attacked by the bacteria that produces vinegar,” he recalls. “The standard precautions were not adequate to prevent the infection. We recovered using reverse osmosis but it was time consuming and expensive.”
While the winery has achieved success with his offerings, they are always looking to add to their portfolio.
Bruce says he would like to experiment with making sparkling wine, but the equipment and commitment is prohibitive at this point.
Outside of Virginia, Bruce’s favorite wine region is California’s Central Coast, which he says has a good balance of quality and variety in both reds and whites.
Virginia’s wine region has the same latitude of Bruce’s West Coast favorite region, but local climate does play a role in the wine making produced in the Commonwealth. A major difference is precipitation.
“Unlike some regions where the water that the grapes receive is managed by the grower, in Virginia, water just falls from the sky. This variability of rainfall drives the grapes ripening and flavor. The winemaker responds to variability with different fermentation, aging, and blending methods,” he says.
Given the terroir and climate conditions, Cunningham Creek Winery prefers to produce its wine using oak barrels.
“Oak is a significant flavor element in many wine styles. Oak should contribute to the flavor and balance of the wine, but not overpower it. At CCW we use French Oak for its subtlety and smooth flavor profile. Our wines rarely use more than 35% new oak,” explains Bruce, whose favorite after work drink varies depending on the season.
“When it is hot I prefer our Rosé, or Strawberry wine. When it’s cold I like our Meritage,” he says.
A fortified Rosé made in 2020 that replicates a wine Hurricane Cocktail they call “Tall & Strong” is one of the wines in the cellar he’s most excited about.
“It’s really great on the rocks with a lime twist,” Bruce notes.
The winery’s best seller is its Pinot Gris.
“We named it ‘Cycle 76’ after the trans-continental bicycle route that goes right in front of our vineyard. When we make this wine we assemble a group of our customers that are the biggest fans of the wine to taste and approve of the final blend. It’s a grassroots group effort,” he explains.
After nearly a decade as a winemaker, Bruce has a few pointers for others interested in the craft.
“Make what you like to drink. Remember that wine pairs best with friendship and laughter. Look for that in your relationships with your customers,” he summarizes.
He also emphasizes wine making is not the same as wine drinking. “Your local community college may have wine making classes. The best advice is to just get started.”
For those trying to break into the industry, he also recommends learning from the ground up, as much as you can about everything involved in the process.
“Right now, many wineries are looking for help. Get a job as a cellar helper in a winery. And do your work, ask a lot of ‘why’ questions,” he says.
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