MAXWELL:  The vintner of Chateau de Applewhite Acres

1/10/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When Lloyd Allen Applewhite, a successful peanut farmer, retired 13 years ago at age 62, he knew that he had many good years left to take farming to another, perhaps more creative, level. What, he asked himself, would he do after parking the tractors and pulling off his well-worn coveralls?

His wife, known as “Lady Doodle” or just plain “Doodle,” knew how he should spend his time. Even though her husband was not an avid wine drinker and had had very little experience with grapes, she bought him a $9.99 winemaking kit for Christmas, figuring that his natural instincts and talents would kick in.

“He’s always been a dedicated, persnickety farmer,” Doodle said. “He spends a lot of time with his grapevines. He is not sitting around idle, twiddling this thumbs. He loves to grow things.”

Indeed, he does.

Since planting his first vines, Applewhite, who lives in the same elegant, white farmhouse where he was born 75 years ago, has cultivated a reputation for making some of the finest amateur wines in Virginia. Each year now, his cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, riesling and seyval capture awards at American Wine Society conventions. This year, and for the first time, the state asked him to be a judge in Virginia’s most important wine contest.

With good humor and self-deprecation, the gold and black label that graces each bottle of Applewhite’s wine tells the tale of a quiet, wonderful success story: Chateau de Applewhite Acres. From the Vineyards of Lloyd Allen Applewhite. A small, much revered winery located in the farmlands of Courtland, Virginia. Produced and bottled at the country estate of Lloyd Allen and Lady Doodle Applewhite.

But the path to becoming a premier winemaker and judge was circuitous. “When I got the $9.99 kit, that was all right, but it was very unsatisfactory,” he said. “It was a plastic jug at that. Plastic and wine don’t go together.”

First, he and Doodle joined a wine tasting group, traveling near and far _ from Norfolk to Los Angeles and several sites in between. Then, they joined the American Wine Society after having traveled to California’s famous wine country. From this point, they attended many seminars. Applewhite learned not only how to “talk wine” but also how to grow grapes and make wine.

From a journal, he ordered his first vines, a French red hybrid that he planted. After three years, the vines were producing enough grapes to make several dozen bottles of wine. Applewhite did not like the taste of the final product and knew that the grapes were the main culprit. Frustrated, he pulled out these vines and replaced them with a French white from the vineyard of a friend in Charlottesville, Va. He has produced some of his best wine from those vines ever since. All total, he has 60 vines.

Knowing that he had to learn more about the industry, Applewhite became more involved in the American Wine Society. He traveled to most parts of the nation, talking, listening, learning and, of course, tasting. He entered his wines in contests, and his vintages often performed respectably, winning certificates in the regionals. But they didn’t perform as well in the nationals.

“It is tough competition, with as many as 500 bottles entered,” Applewhite said. “There’s no politics involved. It’s about learning and knowing what you’re doing. I learned that one of my biggest drawbacks was that I had never taken high school or college chemistry. I am not a chemist and don’t pretend to be. But wine is all about chemistry _ and the soil. I would meet doctors, college professors and other people who teach chemistry. They are all good winemakers.”

Applewhite was not and is not intimidated, though.

He studies and practices for hours and has purchased the right equipment for testing acidity and “brix,” or sugar. Because he intends to remain an amateur and never sell his vintages, Applewhite does not invest in machinery and materials he does not need.

“For example, most of the wineries ferment their grapes in oak barrels,” he said. “I don’t have oak barrels, so I use 5-gallon glass jugs. I can take oak strips and put them in there if I want to make it dry.”

This year, Applewhite expects to produce between 250 to 300 bottles, his best yield yet. His is basically a one-man operation. The hardest and most time-consuming chore is growing the grapes, which involves, among other things, careful pruning and spraying.

His real joy, of course, comes when taking a perfectly corked bottle from his cellar, a converted barn that is kept at 65 degrees year-round, and sharing his handiwork with friends. “You make a lot of friends when you make wine,” he said, smiling. “Wine doesn’t always give you a headache. Most of the time, it makes you cheerful. It’s a great hobby.”