' A Cherished Friendship That’s Stood the Test of Time - Chatham Vineyards on Church Creek



A Cherished Friendship That’s Stood the Test of Time

Time is the best teacher.


Vintners Jon and Mills Wehner learn more about all the facets of grape growing every year in Chatham Vineyards, wisdom that goes into an evolving knowledge bank that, just like fine wine, improves with age.


Chatham’s wines benefit from that slow, calculated growth, and vineyard manager José Macias has been integral to that consistency. Back in 1999, Jon and his father were putting the first line posts in the vineyard when they met José, who started as a vineyard worker 23 year ago.


“There are pictures of Jon and José installing the first Chatham sign,” Mills says.


“José has been a great part of the Chatham team, a great part of our family really,” Jon says. “One of the best things about Chatham is we’ve had the same people since the beginning. The important thing José brings to the table is consistency.”


Most don’t think about vineyard management when they’re sipping a glass of Vintner’s Blend or savoring Steel Chardonnay alongside a plate of oysters. From bud break to harvest, the complexities of canopy management are endless, including abrupt weather changes that threaten an entire year’s work.


Pruning and shoot and bunch thinning along with positioning and leaf removal affect the quality of the grapes for this year’s harvest and next. Jon recalls a hurricane in 2003 that produced minimal rainfall but sustained winds at more than 70mph for 24 hours caused salt water toxicity on the canopy from the blowing ocean water.


“José and the crew, all of us, picked 70 tons of grapes in 36 hours prior to the storm,” he says. “We were anticipating a lot of rain. Ironically, the lack of rain and high winds caused the damage. It worked out because the grapes were harvested, therefore, the canopy did not need to ripen the fruit.”


In 2007, an unexpected temperature drop of 11 degrees in 45 minutes one night produced a devastating spring frost and a temperature inversion layer at dawn. Ninety percent of the buds were lost, devastating for the workers after a long night fighting frost. By 10 a.m., 90% of the green tissue turned black in the melting sun.


“Going through something like that with José creates a bonding experience,” Jon says.


José lives on the property in what’s called the Pick House that sits roughly 500 yards from the vineyards. He shares the three-bedroom home with assistant vineyard manager, Esgar, and his wife.


“He watched our kids grow up,” Jon says.


Not having a commute benefits José as well as the crop. Minutes can be precious when weather turns. Jon recalls racing to join José and the crew in the vineyard in 2018 to pick Cabernet Franc grapes before a nor’easter hit. “It started to rain, and we had to get the fruit up out of the field into a refrigerated tractor-trailer. We just couldn’t walk away from it,” Jon says.


As the hours wore on, Jon took his instructions from José, who asked for Mexican sweet bread from a nearby Hispanic store in Exmore and something warm to drink and eat.


“I got 23 buns and went to the house and made several pots of hot coffee,” Jon says. “We finished in the rain loading the truck, but we got the job done! The crew really respects José, so there weren’t any problems.”


José hand selects crew members and treats them as family, too. Lunches are homemade; everyone on the crew cooks, and Jon and Mills contribute peppers from their garden that flavor the varying salsas that range from mild to extra spicy. Tortillas are made fresh every morning, and it’s not unusual for the crew to watch the sun come up while fueling up on huevos rancheros. Jon and Mills have open invitations to join everyone in the bay set up in an equipment shed.


“If somebody has a birthday, they make carne asada,” Jon says. “José sets the tone for the workers. He’s very much a gentleman and a family person, and it’s important to have everyone sit down to lunch together.”


Jon and his son, William, attended the ceremony at the federal courthouse in Norfolk when José became a U.S. citizen on Saint Patrick’s Day in 2014. Jon and Mills’ passion for what they do in the vineyard extends to the relationships that have grown along with the business.


“You build these lifelong friendships that really develop through hard work, and that’s really a beneficial part of what we do,” Jon says. “José is part of that. José is family.”

Post By:   Amanda Shortt
Return to Top