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How propane helps Virginia’s Barboursville Vineyards keep guests and grapes warm

As an agricultural and hospitality enterprise, the award-winning winery uses propane-fueled equipment to cultivate top-notch wines and a high-end guest experience.

By Jeffrey Lee

Winemaker Luca Paschina has a passion for cultivating award-winning wine and for creating lasting memories for guests at his Virginia winery, Barboursville Vineyards. Whether as a winemaker or a host for guests at the estate, Paschina uses every tool at his disposal to achieve those goals.

And for both hospitality and agriculture, many of those tools run on propane.

Paschina moved to Virginia from a winemaking region in northwest Italy 28 years ago to manage Barboursville Vineyards. The farm, established in 1976 by a prominent Italian winemaker, was one of the first big investments in vineyards in the state of Virginia, says Paschina, now the winery's general manager. "He felt that the climate and soil conditions were suitable to grow fine wines, and he preferred being the first to establish in Virginia, versus starting last in another market," he says.

Most wine regions have a limiting factor for growing grapes. Some have a shortage of water; others are prone to hail storms. In Virginia, the limiting factor is occasional spring frost during critical growing times in April through early May. "Once the leaves are out and the buds are open, if the temperature drops below 30 or 31 degrees, there is a risk that the buds are damaged to the point that they get destroyed," Paschina says. "Therefore, we would lose a crop on every shoot that is damaged."

Battling the freeze

To avoid damage that could create losses of up to $500,000 per season, Paschina has tried a number of strategies. "Throughout the years, we have switched from different systems to produce heat," he says, "from hay bales to pots burning diesel fuel to then finally moving to propane, which is cleaner and easier to control. It doesn't spill, and we, therefore, developed a different system to produce heat in areas where it is needed."

The system relies on mobile propane heaters pulled by tractors through locations in the vineyard that require calibrated heat. The machines push hot air 150 feet in each direction, moving continuously so they don't burn the vegetation. When the heat begins to rise above the field, propane-powered windmills use large blades tilted toward the ground to capture the rising heat and recirculate it downward, raising the microclimate temperature by 2 or 3 degrees and saving the crop.

The plan is fuel intensive, consuming 1,000 to 1,500 gallons of propane per night, but it's needed about 1–4 times each season to prevent expensive losses. "It's a system that helps us mitigate damages," Paschina says. "There is usually not efficient and comprehensive crop insurance for grapes in the state of Virginia. So we have to fight the fight."

In addition to frost, Paschina has to battle large bird populations that can threaten the grapes at certain times of the year. To keep the birds at a distance, the winery uses propane cannons that release compressed gas with a spark, creating a loud blast that scares the birds away.

Once the grapes have been harvested, workers use a propane forklift to move crates of grapes and load and unload cases of wine and jars.

Propane also provides a powerful and precise heating source for equipment used in the production process. During fermenting, juice from processed grapes is put in a large stainless steel tank. Warm water from a propane tankless water heater is run over the tank to raise the temperature. The tankless water heater provides the continuous flow of warm water necessary for the fermentation process to take place.

Finally, a propane-powered steam machine is used to clean out the barrels between batches of wine. In a process as exacting as winemaking, Paschina says, these propane technologies are critical in the task of creating a consistent production environment.

Cozy guests

Given Paschina's focus on producing high-quality wines, it is important for the winery to be a place where visitors can experience and better understand Barboursville's wines.

"One thing that is important to people is to be able to visit the source where the wine comes from and get a chance to discover it and savor it on the site where it's produced," Paschina says. "And for us also to create food in a great restaurant and have people spend perhaps a weekend here, tour the vineyard — it gives them a sense of craftsmanship."

In an environment where guests expect a first-rate hospitality experience, comfort is vital, Paschina says. It's not just grapes that experience the chill of a late spring frost, so Barboursville uses propane-fueled space heating and fireplaces in the onsite bed and breakfast, as well as propane heating in worker housing and the repair shop. "It's a very comfortable heat compared to the heat pumps," Paschina says, and it can also heat buildings quickly when needed. Propane water heaters, some of which are tankless, supply steady hot water in the bed and breakfast, housing, and restaurant.

Chefs in the restaurant and bed and breakfast appreciate having access to gas cooking in the kitchens. The restaurant's full commercial kitchen includes a propane-fueled gas range, convection ovens, and a steak charbroiler.

Fueling a legacy

When Barboursville's founders were evaluating locations to establish the winery, they toured several farms in the Charlottesville and Middleburg, Virginia, areas, which have since become popular vineyard destinations. "The microclimate fits well for grape growing, and the beautiful countryside is a plus," Paschina says. But like many rural areas and, indeed, many wineries, the Barboursville farm lacked access to natural gas — though a large transmission pipeline runs through the area, the winery can't access it.

But through a relationship with Blossman Gas, Barboursville can meet its energy needs for both agriculture and hospitality through one fuel source and one responsive provider. Just how responsive? During frost events, the mobile propane heaters have to be rapidly refueled and sent out again to continue their work, "almost like the pit stop at NASCAR," Paschina says, in order to avoid losing the crop and, therefore, the momentum Paschina has helped build at Barboursville. "They even have come in the middle of the night to supply the propane tanks for heating the vineyards. The service has been spectacular from them."


 
   
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Top image credit: Thomas Kriese via Creative Commons

Published Sept. 7, 2018

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