by Cory L. Higgs
One local woman is pouring her ambition back into the bottle, pursuing a life in the world of winemaking.
Emily Belcher enjoys making wine as much as she enjoys drinking it and she has devoted her time and energy to become one of the first female pioneers in the area to enter the industry.
From the crack of dawn till she cracks a bottle open at dusk, you can find Belcher deep in the cellar at Chateau Morrisette Winery, working tirelessly to create the world’s oldest, and arguably most adored, beverage.
Belcher was born and raised in Woolwine and has lived in Patrick County most of her life.
She sought employment at the chateau in Floyd, and from there, her passion and love for all things wine grew. She said her real passion for wine appeared once she made friends in the industry and became intoxicatingly interested in the process of turning a cluster of grapes into a bottle of wine. Belcher started as a dishwasher at the chateau and over the years has worked her way to the position of winemaker.
“I’ve worked at wineries since I was 18. While not necessarily in production, I worked in the tasting rooms, wine club, and restaurant. I moved to North Carolina to obtain a degree in Viticulture and Enology. It’s a two-year program at Surry Community College (SCC). It is one of the only colleges in the Southeast that has a wine production facility and a functioning vineyard,” Belcher said.
She noted that SCC also is one of the only colleges on the eastern seaboard to dabble in the production of sparkling wines, a favorite of hers. Belcher secured four years of hands-on training in the field and is now one of the industry’s budding female faces.
But it wasn’t without challenge.
“No one would take me very seriously at first. Being a 21-year-old female starting in what was only a male-dominated industry. , I received a lot of kickback when I told people that I wanted to be a winemaker and vineyard worker. I had people say, ‘Why would you do that? You aren’t a farmer. You are a woman,’” Belcher recalled.
Those comments were enough to convince her that she had to prove them wrong and make her way in the “boys club” of winemaking, she said. Belcher even recalls being passed over for a position in a cellar because the winemaker said “women are nothing but drama.” But she again took the comment in stride and made it drive her forward.
She also received support, she said. For instance, Belcher’s family was more than supportive, “especially when I gave them a bottle or two of the wine I’ve made. I can always count on them to try something new or something I’m playing around with.”
Through Belcher’s journey into winemaking, her family learned that they once owned the land that Chateau Morrisette now occupies. Belcher’s ancestors were among the first to work at the winery back in the day, having a label named “Belcher’s Best” in their honor.
After learning about her family’s involvement in the wine business long before her time, Belcher said “I should have known this would be my career. As a child, I would play video games while drinking sparkling white grape juice and pairing it with mozzarella sticks.”
Belcher said being a winemaker is her dream job, and that seeing people enjoy the wine she helped create makes the hard work worth it.
Even in layman’s terms, the wine making process “is a bit complex,” she said. “There’s a lot of decisions, such as which type of yeast strain, how much to add of an additive, the percentages of a blend.” Essentially, the wine making process is a half art, half science project to find the perfect balance and create a delicious wine, according to Belcher.
First, the grapes arrive in a raw form on giant pallets; then, they are crushed; inoculated with yeast and pumped into a tank where the fermentation process begins by turning the sugars in the juice to alcohol and carbon dioxide.
“Red grapes require daily maintenance during fermentation,” Belcher said. “The grapes form what’s called a ‘cap’ on the top. The cap needs to be incorporated into the juice to promote a healthy fermentation, maintain a consistent temperature and pH; it also helps extract tannin and color.”
Once the first fermentation is complete, the liquid is pressed, and most red wines, along with some white ones, will enter a second fermentation, called a malolactic conversion. From there, red wines are sent to the oak barrels will they will age for two to three years, or depending on the requirements of the wine, she explained.
Stabilization is the next step. It refers to balancing the wine at the perfect temperature to keep the formation of ice crystals at a constant in liquid – necessary to make the wine stable and prevent ice crystals from forming when you put the bottle in your refrigerator at home, Belcher said.
Other processes and chemicals are used to stabilize the wine and make sure it is ready for the trip to someone’s personal cellar or to their fridge, she added.
Belcher explained that the entire process requires hands-on attention, from the crushing to the bottling of the wine. Tests also are conducted on the wines in the cellar at regular intervals to check the status and keep track of progress towards a delicious beverage.
“One of the coolest parts of being a winemaker is seeing a product from start to finish. It’s also fun to see people’s faces when I tell them that I’m a winemaker,” Belcher said.
Her favorite wine to make is sparkling, because there is an array of ways to produce it.
However, everything isn’t all are wine and roses, she said, adding that her biggest pet peeve is the “heinous fruit fly. The sworn enemy of winemakers. It has bacteria in its stomach that digests yeast, called acetobacter. It is basically flying vinegar,” she said.
Despite the fly, Belcher says she can’t imagine herself doing anything else, and sees a long career making wine, and perhaps a foray in cider making — something else of interest to her. Belcher said the cider making process is virtually the same as with wine, but apples are used instead of grapes.
Belcher said she is thankful to have worked with “amazing people throughout the years,” and her family’s unwavering support through her journey to becoming a winemaker. She also is grateful to the educators who taught her the complex process of turning fruit into wine.
She also has a word of advice from Maya Angelou for women making their way into male-dominated industries:
“Don’t let someone define you and tell you what you are and aren’t capable of. One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women,’” Belcher said.
Those interested in tasting the fruits of Belcher’s labors are invited to visit Chateau Morrisette and take a tour/tasting, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of Belcher hard at work — pursuing her dreams in the cellar.