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Former Coal Mines Sprout New Economy

MountainRose Vineyards Facebook/Let's See America

In central Appalachia, coal has not only been the main economic driver for nearly a hundred years, it’s also been an important part of the culture.

In Part 3 of our series on what’s next for abandoned mine land in Wise County, Virginia, Robbie Harris takes us to a boutique vineyard in Wise County that honors its roots as it looks to future growth.

At Mountain Rose Vineyards, co-owner Suzanne Lawson explains the wines are named for the coal seams that ran through here - some, literally, underfoot.

Jawbone is our dry red and it was a deep mine seam. It was called Jawbone because that was the rock or slate in the middle.

Dorchester is the seam that our winery was seated on.  We actually hit the seam when we were excavating at the back of the winery.”

Her dad and her husband’s dad were miners. His brother owned this mine land where the winery now sits. Its gentle slopes provide a perfect angle for growing wine grapes.

"I've run into a lot of people who think that reclaimed mine land is a moonscape, that nothing will ever grow and I guess I'm happy to show them that that's not the case."

“And the real story is that we planted here because we had no other land.”

Arable land is relatively scarce here. High mountain peaks and dark hollows don’t make for easy farming. And while strip mining and mountain top removal are dirty words to some people, to others, there’s an upside to terrain that’s left almost level when the mining was done.

“I’ve run into a lot of people who think that reclaimed mine land is a moonscape, that nothing will ever grow and I guess I’m happy to show them that that’s not the case.”

Suzanne’s son, David Lawson is the grape grower. He says he didn’t have to do that much more to this land than he would have had to do to prepare any plot for wine grapes.

“Soil prep is important for a crop that you’re going to put in the ground for 30-plus years. The great vineyards of the world spend several years to prepare the soil properly to have those grapes growing for them.”

After more than a decade growing wine grapes, he says he can just look at mine soil to determine what kind of prep it needs.

“Sometimes the land has been reclaimed and it’s really compacted so we’ll do a lot of chisel plowing, we’ll use several years of cover crops that will loosen compaction,” David explains.

“Now, the other kind of mine soil is really rocky. And so in the really rocky soil, we actually want to grow biomass. So maybe it takes us an extra year or 2 now to really get the soil the way we want it and that’s probably because we’re just trying to improve ourselves and improve the product that we make over the years.”

Apples were once a major crop in Appalachia. They were said to be among the best tasting in the country.  Maybe for the same reason this land will prove good for wine making too.

Credit MountainRose Vineyards Facebook/Suzanne Lawson
Some recently planted grapes at Mountain Rose Vineyard.

“There’s a lot more mineral content and rock mineral for grapes to take up.  There’s less organic matter, which actually is going to promote higher quality fruit, not the quantity; but I’m in the business of wine, so I’m always in the business of quality,” says David.

“So there’s a chance that that mineral content will make a wine that is better and more complex and potentially, a better wine.”

Right now Mountain Rose Winery supports 3 and half workers, and they’d like to add more

“I’ll be honest, until the coal boom, the bust, hit around 2011, 2012 and they started laying off a lot of people it did affect our business,” says Suzanne.

But, she adds, Mountain Rose Vineyard does much of its business in online sales.

She says what she’d really like to see is more foot traffic through her tasting room, a charming chalet with indoor and outdoor seating.  It’s clear the family has put a lot of care into this business, starting with the uncle who owned the land when it was a coal mine - and who worked to restore it afterward.

David says, “So he had a vested interest to do that to start with. So it’s getting people who are stake holders, who realize that they have to return (the land), and there are those people out there that want to do a good job - and we need to foster them.”

David Lawson says that’s key to this region’s future; a love and respect for a piece of land that supported people here when it was a coal mine, and that could do the same in its new incarnation.  

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.