Find this article in the New River Voice here. It was written By Corey Mann and Taylor Kelly New River Voice correspondents
The constant hum of a grape press isn’t just a soothing noise in the background for
customer to enjoy; it’s a constant reminder of the hard work David Morrisette has put
in to create the biggest winery in the New River Valley.The family-owned winery started
in the mid ’70s in a blasted underground cave. By 1981 it had evolved into a full-scale
winery, restaurant and gift shop known as Chateau Morrisette. The Floyd County tourist
destination, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, is now one of the most profitable wineries
in all of Virginia.Morrisette met Bob Burgin, now vice president of the winery, when they
were two of three enology majors at Mississippi State. They graduated just before the
program closed down. “We went our separate ways, and when I realized I shouldn’t be
the wine maker because I was terrible at it, he came in and took over,” Morrisette said.
“I should have been doing other things, like marketing.”Chateau Morrisette produces and
ships 15 different wines that are sold throughout the commonwealth and along the East
Coast, including North Carolina, Maryland, Tennessee and West Virginia. With 70,000
cases and more than 100,000 customers each year, the winery is flourishing. October is
by far the best month for sales, as the fall season brings in much more business than
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. “We put it up for sale three times during the ’80s, and
even now it’s a tough market. It’s hard for all the wineries right now.” The family has
learned from experience. “In 1987 the temperature was 35 degrees below, and we had
all our grapes grown here in Floyd. Needless to say we lost 100 percent of our grapes.
That’s when we decided we needed to grow them in different areas around the state.”
Through trial and error, Morrisette has found better locations. “Different grapes grow
better in different microclimates. The grapes are brought in 24 hours a day by refrigerated
tractor-trailers.”They have grapes growing in Northern Virginia, Charlottesville, the
Shenandoah Valley, Patrick County and anywhere from 10 minutes away to five hours away.
No matter where the grapes are grown, every last one is shipped through the mountains
to the beautiful winery in Floyd to be pressed and used.
With their Sweet Mountain Laurel and Red Mountain Laurel dessert-style wines flying off
the shelves, most profits come from grocery chains. “Walmart, Sam’s, Kroger, whatever
grocery chain. But Kroger was the main chain that helped us get our foothold,” he said.
“It’s nice because now Walmart is pushing to have regional products in their stores, from
wine to apples, pears, local beef — anything local you can put in there.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell has made a big push to promote Virginia wineries, in contrast with
some past governors who never served Virginia wines at the Governor’s Mansion. In this
economy, the governor isn’t the only one pulling for the wine industry. According to the
Virginia Wine Marketing Office, sales of Virginia wine reached an all-time high in 2011,
with more than 462,000 cases sold. The office reported that it was an 11 percent increase
over 2010, making the commonwealth the nation’s fifth largest wine producer.
Suzette Miller, one of 85 current employees in Floyd, had nothing but great things to say
about the winery. Her job consists of greeting customers, taking them through the wine-
tasting process, giving tours of the production facilities, and sharing interesting facts.
She was the ultimate guide. Miller was an intern who just couldn’t leave. “I can’t express
how much I enjoy working here and being apart of this winery, giving to the Service Dogs
has really won me over.”Miller is referring to Chateau Morrisette’s community involvement.
It is known for its support of “Dogs 4 A Cause,” one of many service dog organizations
Chateau Morrisette supports. Profits from Liberty and Independence wines benefit St. Francis
Service Dogs. “The money pays for the dog as well as the training to serve as a service dog,
” Miller explained. They also give to “For the Love of Dogs,” which benefits the research for
EPI, Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency, a disease in which a dog has the inability to digest
food due to a lack of pancreatic digestive enzymes.The black labrador, or “Black Dog,”
featured on a number of the wines at Chateau Morrisette, has been a symbol of the winery
for more than 25 years. Winery? Black lab? Where’s the connection? While Morrisette was
growing up, he was the proud owner of a black lab named Hans. When Morrisette took over
the winery, Hans could always be found snooping around, as he had a fine taste for a special
Trilogy was Hans’ favorite wine, an off-dry wine with a blend of cabernet, chambourcin and
merlot. Though Hans could always be found slurping up a freshly poured bowl of what is
now known as “The Black Dog,” he lived a long and loving life until he passed at the age of
15. Morrisette was so affected by Hans’ death that he decided to start the Black Dog marketing
strategy, showing his respect for the dog he loved. Little did he know, the strategy turned into
what is now one of only two wineries in Virginia that sells more than 50,000 cases of wine a year.
Chateau Morrisette has found its place in wine making and is doing extremely well on the East
Though Morrisette is grateful for all that the winery has accomplished, he’s considering expansion.
As of right now, they are working on exporting to China. Morrisette plans to visit Hong Kong to
start selling his wine there as well.It’s important to David, his seven children and four dogs to keep
the winery in the family. Even though his children are young, Morrisette can tell some are destined
to join the family business. “I know a couple of them are really interested in the winery. They’ll
definitely want to get involved when they’re older.”