' New Year, New Page, Exciting Chapter Ahead at Chatham Vineyards - Chatham Vineyards on Church Creek



New Year, New Page, Exciting Chapter Ahead at Chatham Vineyards

The calendar flipping to reveal a new year energizes Jon and Mills Wehner, owners of Chatham Vineyards at historic Chatham Farm.


Their enthusiasm grows every year much like the buds forming on the vines every spring.


While every year varies, second generation vintner Jon pulls from a volume that continues to thicken with the passage of another growing season. Jon has been a winegrower going on three decades, but every year his knowledge of how to best grow grapes in the unique maritime terroir and unpredictable weather conditions on Virginia’s Eastern Shore increases.


You don’t turn to a page and find the answer. You leaf back through the pages in your head and arrive at a solution. It’s trial and error and years of experience reduce the error.


“What makes Virginia so unique is the variation of the weather and the ability for winemakers and growers to adapt,” Jon says.


For Chatham and many other Virginia wineries, 2022 proved to be a banner year, when the wet spring and dry heat leading into the fall created a near-perfect growing season. Conditions allowed grapes to ripen on the vine longer and darken in color, making for better density, higher concentration and a lower pH that will positively impact the aging of the wine. Jon expects the 2022 vintages to take on a slightly different flavor profile, one that “should be expectational,” he says.


Twenty-five years of practical experience coupled with education passed down from his parents, longtime former operators of their own vineyard in Great Falls, Virginia, prompted Jon to start a new project at the end of 2022 that will pick up speed in 2023. He is in the early stages of redeveloping several of the existing vineyards at Chatham, evaluating each for quality with the help of vineyard consultant Lucie Morton, whom he’s worked with since 1997.


“The first 20 years, we were making decisions based on very little existing information and hopes, but now I’m making decisions for redevelopment and expansion that are really going to affect the third generation,” Jon says. “They’re knowledgeable decisions based on years of experience, so we have a really good idea of what grows well here, what clones, row spacing, row orientation.”


One of the initial changes is pulling out a Merlot vineyard originally planted in 1999 and letting it lie fallow for a few years.


Jon also plans to plant a block of the Dijon 548 Chardonnay Clone, which ripens early and will add another flavor component to Chatham’s Steel Chardonnay.


Chardonnay 76, a French Clone that Chatham has grown for decades will also increase.


Mechanization in the vineyards — a state-of-the-art leaf puller that gently removes leaves from the canopy without damaging the grapes — improves on the hand method. By being more efficient, it frees up the workers in the vineyard from repetitive tasks that can be taxing on the body.  “That allows us to focus more on timing and not just trying to keep up with the workload,” Jon says. “It’s going to help with the sustainability of the company moving forward.


Time is the best teacher in grape growing and winemaking. There are no shortcuts; there is no way to “spend your way through it.” Jon embraces the process that is a journey, each step building on the one before it. The thread leads to the wine in the bottle, how it tastes, smells and feels on the palate. Every step is important. Nothing can be rushed to meet a manmade deadline.


“What I love about this industry is it’s a very subtle industry. It takes decades and decades and centuries to fine tune and really get to the next level,” he says. “You can only do it through working knowledge.”


The Chatham team has enjoyed the viticultural journey and its sense of place on the Eastern Shore, an enchanting slice of family farms and waterside villages connected to the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay.


“I’d like to think I’m contributing to the success of Chatham Vineyards over the next 20 or 30 years,” Jon says. “Hopefully my kids will benefit from the clonal selection and the redevelopment and our thoughtful expansion. It’s the mark I’ll leave behind, and it doesn’t matter whether I’m involved or not. It’s based on twenty-some years of working and grinding it out and seeing what works and what doesn’t work.


And that’s priceless.

Post By:   Amanda Shortt
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