How Two Brothers Turned A Family Farm Into A Winery
Not a hobby, a passion.
That’s how brothers Ed and Paul Gerhardt describe owning and running Burnbrae Vineyards in Forest.
It’s a “blink and you’ll miss it” type of place. Tucked off Cottontown Road, the road to the property is marked by a tiny sign. Looks can be deceiving, however; once you pull further down the gravel road, visitors will find themselves at a little wooden cabin on a sprawling green lawn where it isn’t abnormal to see wildlife around.
The property has been in the family since the 1930s after it was purchased by a great uncle. You could find sheep, pigs, cattle, and horses—but no grapes.
“It became a lot for our father to take care of on his own,” Paul said. “For a long time, he and his siblings ran it but after they got older, it was just him.”
Paul and his brother, Ed, purchased it from their father and cousins, but they weren’t sure what they would do with it. The Lynchburg natives both had careers—Paul, a lawyer, and Ed, a surgeon—away from the area.
A vineyard wasn’t their first thought for the property. They were more concerned with preserving family history and memories they had on the farm. Besides, growing grapes is no easy process. It requires extensive consulting and research to see if the property could even sustain grapes. If it can, it takes a year for grape vines to arrive and another three years for them to be mature enough to be harvested.
But the brothers decided it might be worth it to have a study done on the land to see if it was even possible.
“We looked at three different spots on the property before we settled on this one,” Paul said of the ridge where their grapes reside. “You need something with a little higher altitude to protect crops from frost.”
That turned out to be the easy part. Once the grapes arrived, it was time to plant them. It was an endeavor that the brothers took on with the help of friends and family.
“If we learned anything that first year it’s hire people,” Ed said with a laugh.
While the original plan was to just grow the grapes, the brothers wanted to do something more.
“While exploring what more we could do, I ended up at this winery that I had never been to before,” Paul said.
And the wine stood out. Paul called up Ed and his sister-in-law Lori to get their opinions. They all agreed: it was good.
The Gerhardts ended up meeting the winemaker who expressed an interest in helping them create their own wine. From the petit verdot, sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet franc, and petit manseng varieties grown on the farm, they produce 14 different wines.
“My wife said, ‘I thought this was going to be a hobby,’” Paul laughed.
It had become more than just that. Ed and Lori decided to retire and moved full-time to Forest where they live on the property as caretakers.
“We just retired and changed career paths,” Lori, a former nurse practitioner, said.
When asked what the biggest adjustment was, Ed said, “a different call schedule.”
“I definitely get more texts from him now,” Paul mused.
“It was the perfect activity during COVID,” Ed said. “You got to be in the field all day with a seven-foot distance between the rows. You didn’t encounter anyone.”
Over the last few years, new life has been breathed into the property as the business continues to grow. They renovated the 19th century cabin into a tasting room, which opened in 2022. The winery has seen visitors from as close as Bedford County to as far as Utah. There’s even an option to ship wine to 41 different states.
“We’re not trying to do all the things,” Paul said. “We’re a small property. Every winery is a little different. We set out to make good wine and have an oasis for people to enjoy it.
It has also allowed them to connect with old friends from childhood—and new ones too like a couple hiking the Appalachian Trail or a group of friends on their yearly girl trip.
“This place has always been special to us and now we get to share it with the community,” Paul said.
If suddenly you’re inspired to start your own vineyard and winery, Paul said there’s a lot to consider.
“I recently sat down with a guy who wanted to chat,” he said. “I asked him, ‘Well, how much time do you have? How many acres do you have? Have you accounted for the employees you’ll need?’ If you’re going to do it as just a weekend thing, try it, and see how you do. Explore it. Maybe start with one or two varieties. Keep it small, unless you have a full business plan. You can do a lot of things if you’re willing to study and learn.”
Burnbrae Vineyards is open Monday through Friday 12-5 p.m. by appointment only and from 12-5 p.m. on Saturday and Sundays (reservations recommended).