Two Virginia grapegrowers recognized

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The Virginia Vineyards Association honored Bill Tonkins and Christopher Hill at their winter technical meeting in Charlottesville, Va.

Charlottesville, Va.—Each year at the winter technical meeting, the Virginia Vineyards Association presents a “Grower of the Year” award, and every five years, they give a “Lifetime Achievement Award.”

Nate Walsh, owner of Walsh Family Vineyards in Round Hill, Va., and president of the Virginia Vineyards Association, stated that the Lifetime Award recognizes “a person who has had a significant and lasting impact on the grape growing community.”

The first award, presented in 2008, went to Dr. Tony Wolf, professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech; five years later, the second award was given to Dr. Bruce Zoecklein, professor emeritus of food science and technology at Virginia Tech. Both are well-known educators who have played major roles in the growth and improvement of the Virginia wine and grape industry.

The recipient this year was Christopher Hill, a well-known Virginia grapegrower and consultant, who during the past 35 years has had a major impact on the Virginia wine industry. Walsh noted, “Chris not only provided the support that many vineyard owners needed to get started, he supplied the skill and expertise that helped them grow high-quality wine grapes. His work is one of the reasons that Virginia’s reputation as a source of great wine has grown so quickly.”

Hill and his wife, Kathy, first planted grapes at Glendower Vineyard near Scottsville, Va., in 1981. By the early 1990s, he began to give advice to other growers across the state and started his consulting business in 1995. Much of his knowledge was based on his experiences in his vineyard. For example, when he noted excessive vigor in his grapevines, he looked for a low-cost method that would help control that vigor but without too much effort on the part of the grower. He divided the canopy vertically and allowed the descending shoots to fall without an additional catch wire. When used on vigorous vines on an east-west oriented site, the leaves on the south side serve as a “solar collector” while the fruit on the north side is exposed but not sunburned.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Duke University and serving in the U.S. Army, Hill attended Virginia Tech, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1978 and a master’s in horticulture two years later. He served as president of the Virginia Vineyards Association from 1990 to 1993 and received the Association’s first Grower of the Year award in 2005. In addition to his consulting work, Hill taught classes in viticulture for about 10 years at Piedmont Virginia Community College, which offers certificate programs in viticulture and enology. He also served two terms on the Virginia Wine Advisory Board.

Grower of the Year
This year’s Grower of the Year award was presented to Bill Tonkins, vineyard manager at Veritas Vineyard and Winery in Afton, Va. This award for exemplary service to the Virginia grape industry was presented by Bettina Ring, Virginia secretary of agriculture and forestry.

After a career in the British Army, with deployments with the U.S. Army and assignments as a contractor for the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, Tonkins and his wife, Diane, moved to Afton in 2007. He planted some grapes in his vineyard, Aftonshire, Va., and in 2010 became the vineyard manager for his sister and brother-in-law, Patricia and Andrew Hodson, who own Veritas. Since that time, Tonkins has overseen the expansion of the Veritas vineyards from 20 to 100 acres.

Tonkins served as president of the Virginia Vineyards Association for two years (2011-12), and then as immediate past president for four years. He also has been a gubernatorial appointee to the Virginia Wine Advisory Board from 2011 to the present.

Walsh, current president of the VVA, stated, “Bill exemplifies the kind of modern grower who is helping to raise the bar for Virginia wine as a whole. Wines made from Veritas grapes have been consistent medalists in the Virginia Governor’s Cup, and in 2017 those grapes were responsible for two wines included in the Governor’s Cup case—our Commonwealth’s highest award.”
—Linda Jones McKee

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