Six weeks before becoming a mother, Mills Wehner was aboard a tractor, preparing the vineyard for harvest.
Mills isn’t technically the vintner at Chatham Vineyards — that’s her husband, Jon — but her worker-bee mentality about every aspect of the operation is the reason family-owned Chatham Vineyards thrives well into its third decade as the only winery on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Mills — a former graphic designer who also worked at the Smithsonian after earning a graduate degree in art history — manages Chatham’s tasting room and guides the marketing efforts. She oversees the financial end of the business and manages cash flow. She did the books for years. She is an extra hand during harvest and filtering and bottling in addition to making sure everybody is well fed during the crunch.
“Mills has always been a doer who does the stuff people don’t value because they don’t really see it,” Jon says. “There’s so much behind the scenes that needs to be done when you have a family business, which is more work and more risk that anybody could ever imagine. When you’re in business for yourself, both people have to be on board or it’s not going to work.”
Mills’ self-made to-do list includes preparing a hot dinner with salad every night for the family of five. Over favorites that include spaghetti, creamy chicken and authentic Mexican, Mills and Jon gather alongside their teenagers William and Lydia, with their eldest, Jon Henry, returning to the table after finishing up his sophomore year at James Madison University.
“Mills grew up having a homemade dinner and she said from the beginning that was important to her,” Jon says. “She’s always said it’s the ultimate sign of love.”
In many ways, Mills reminds Jon of his own mother, Joan, whose tireless work ethic and foresight helped Great Falls Vineyard get off the ground and prosper at a time when grape growing was in its infancy in the Commonwealth. Jon’s father, Harrison, had the vision to start the vineyard but his Monday-through-Friday job in D.C. as an economist didn’t leave him the time to be hands-on during the week.
“My dad would go to the office and my mom would do everything else that needed doing,” Jon says. “That included going to our sporting events, volunteering at the school and maintaining the huge vegetable garden we had. In the vineyard, she did the pruning and all the canopy management. My mom handled the day to day. In many ways, it was her vineyard. My dad was the one who came up with the idea, but she’s the one who did most of the work.”
Dinner, too, was a special time for that Wehner family.
“Before dinner, my mom would pick radishes, lettuce and carrots and we’d pick raspberries after dinner,” Jon says. “She made dinner every night for three boys and my dad.”
Joan, 83 today, remains active playing golf and mahjong in addition to tending to the flower garden at her historic home at Chatham.
“My mom loves projects and always has one going,” Jon says.
She also knows to weather a crisis. Joan endured when her husband was diagnosed with brain cancer and died two months later. “My mom was a rock when we lost my dad,” Jon says. “She went into survival mode and got everything in order.”
Commitment and sacrifice come naturally to Mills and Joan. It’s not lost on Jon, who remains in awe of the way devoted mothers juggle multiple responsibilities and make it look seamless.
“Moms sacrifice themselves for the greater good,” Jon says. “That’s the reality of being a mom. You talk about boots on the ground. Mothers are the unrecognized boots on the ground.”
Happy Mother’s Day to Mills, Joan and all the moms who we can never thank enough.