From Deep Creek Cellars, I headed west into Morgantown West Virginia, to visit one of our favorite wineries, Forks of Cheat Winery. We first tasted their wine at last year’s Berkeley Springs wine festival and fell in love with their fruit wines and the Foch based -Black Jewel Port. Today the winery was hosting Red Wine Tasting and Sales event which included entertainment from the bluegrass group, Weedhawks. Forks of Cheat is owned and operated by Jerry and Susan Deal, and their son Eric. The family is extremely hospitable and friendly, ready to engage in conversation and discuss their “hobby”. The winery opened in 1990, and it is best to quote why: “Who would have thought that getting caught stealing grapes would lead Jerry Deal to ownership of one of West Virginia’s foremost wineries? Well, that’s just what happened! When a neighbor chastised Jerry for eating grapes from her vines (on his side of the fence), he planted his own. In no time at all, the grape vines were so prolific that eating them all was out of the question. Wine making was the next choice. After several years of home wine making, recognition in amateur competitions, and the support of his friends, Jerry Deal decided to turn his hobby into a business. And so, Forks of Cheat Winery was established in July of 1990.”
The hobby struggled initially since selling wine in a small state, where 98% of the population doesn’t drink, was extremely difficult. And of the 2% that did drink, they preferred beer and liquor. But eventually advice from a UWV professor changed this situation. This professor told the Deal’s that their business model was flawed, instead of selling wine, Forks of Cheat sells gifts. Even if someone doesn’t drink, they know someone who does, so buy the wine as a gift. To facilitate this model, Eric has design award winning labels and custom labels for special occasions. The result, the winery now sells 2 dozen types of wine, and they just became the state’s third bonded distillery.
After hearing Mr. Deal explain the tax situation, I wonder why they started the distillery. The Federal government taxes the whiskey based on bulk product and proof. Thus, if the liquor is 150%, then the feds tax it 1.5 times. Then the state taxes the wholesale product at 28%, and the retail tax is 11%. How will they make a profit? We will see because the liquor will finally be available by the end of this month. The brandy (Peach, Pear, Blackberry, Cherry and Apple) will have low alcohol levels, since they want to market the wine to older women, who prefer a less alcoholic brandy. And eventually Forks of Cheat will produce Grappa, made from the second fermentation of skins, stems, seeds, etc from the wine grapes.
Even though Forks of Cheat is located just on the outskirts of Morgantown, it seems as if it is situated far into the countryside. The winery overlooks a small valley, with the vines planted on the sloped below. There are two decks; the larger surrounded by beautiful landscaping and Koi ponds. Even without today’s music, this is a great environment to share a glass of wine, relaxing in the sun or shade.
Since it was a red wine tasting event, that’s all I drank. These wines included the viniferia Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and the hybrid DeChaunac, Chambourcin, Baco Noir, and Leon Millot based Burgundy as well as the sweet Van Buren. The Van Buren is similar to Concord and is one of the winery’s best sellers. I really enjoyed the hybrids; all are medium bodied wines with low tannins which provide a smooth finish. The Chambourcin is slightly spicier than the Baco Noir and Burgundy, but each had a unique, drinkable flavor.
When visiting a winery, look for products that you normally do not have access to. Forks of Cheat produces plenty of these, such as their Niagara - Watson’s White Port, Bad Cat Catawba blush wine, the Baco Noir, DeChaunac, Leon Millot, and my favorite, the Foch – Black Jewel Port. And soon, you will have access to fruit liquor and Grappa. Quite a range of “gifts”.
Before leaving Morgantown Jerry recommended I purchase a bottle of Mountain Moonshine, distilled by his friend and West Virginia’s first distillery, the West Virginia Distilling Company. The whiskey is a clear corn whiskey made from 20% corn and 80% neutral grains. The whiskey is very clean tasting, with a slight sweetness; but be prepared, this whisky is strong.