Loudoun County in Virginia is roughly 5,300 miles from Istanbul, Turkey and frankly there are few similarities, if any. But Virginia is where the father and son team of Bora and Kerem Baki set up Hillsborough Winery and Vineyards in 2003. Bora, a native of Turkey, emigrated to the U.S. in 1979 and, since he had family in Virginia, he came here. “I had a cousin here, like every immigrant. I’m very happy I chose this area, because I hate earthquakes,” he says referring to several devastating earthquakes in Istanbul he went through.
As an entrepreneur his various businesses have all succeeded, well, except for one he tells me. When his son, Kerem, decided he wanted to start a winery, Bora agreed. “I was getting ready to retire, get on my boat, but Kerem was taking a class at Virginia Tech about drinking wine. I thought, am I supposed to pay for this?” But Kerem had a natural aptitude for enology, so they bought the property and asked consultants what their perspective was of the land. “Several people said for growing grapes it’s not a 10, maybe a 7 or 8. But the retail aspect is 10 on 10,” Bora says. “We consider ourselves DC’s wine country,” Kerem added and the proximity means an easy day trip for anyone in the nation’s capital.
The cattle farm they bought had been abandoned for at least 15 years therefore Bora and Kerem set out to transform it into a vineyard. It took two years to get everything right and in October, 2003, the doors to Hillsborough Vineyards opened for the first time. The problem though was that Hillsborough only had a few wines to sell, so Bora brought in other wineries and sold their wines. “People were very happy to try all these different wines. People were coming back again and again.” Hoping for reciprocity with other small wineries on the East Coast, Bora was surprised to learn that the co-op mentality didn’t work. Other producers didn’t want to continue the arrangement, so when Kerem had a large enough portfolio in 2004/2005, they began pouring exclusively Hillsborough wine.
Given the Virginia weather Kerem tends to harvest his whites in September and his reds at the end of October or the beginning of November. And Virginia weather provides other challenges as well. “We spent $30,000 on irrigation and have never turned it on,” Kerem says. “This is Virginia, we have 30 to 40 inches of rain per year. The northern Virginia area, where we are, is known to have a hot pocket, it’s one of the better areas to grow in,” he feels. Another challenge in winemaking is “rolling with the punches,” as Kerem puts it, since the weather variable is so great. “The challenge here is proper canopy management to reduce excess moisture,” he advises. “The most important step in the vineyard is pruning because that dictates your growth, not just for the oncoming year but future years to come,” Kerem says. “You have to hit every step otherwise it’s like quicksand. We have so much rain and so much growth that we have to stay on top of everything.”
Virginia is not known for native yeasts either, and Kerem avoids them. “I’ve done some native yeast fermentations and I’m not impressed,” he tells me. He uses only French oak barrels and typically his reds have 20 percent new oak, and their 13 acres on average produce 3 tons of fruit per acre, weather depending. Hillsborough is an all estate winery and they crank out about 3,000 cases, a number they feel is perfectly manageable. Since Kerem is one of the few formally trained winemakers in the area, his services as a custom crush facility are in demand as well.
Being a small winery has its advantages, and so does the family operation. “We have a philosophy, we all go up together or we all go down together,” Kerem adds. “The advantage of being a small winery is we don’t have to please everyone. We create the wines on our own personal tastes. We do what makes us happy and then find a customer base for it. What I like about the French industry is that you go to a different house and every house is different, every region has differences. No one copies each other. I don’t like the competitive nature of the industry in the U.S.”
He may not like it, but it certainly exists. To combat some of that they have created all their wines as blends, all with unique names that reference gemstones, like Ruby (tannant, petite verdot, touriga nacional), Bloodstone (cabernet sauvignon, fer servadou and tannat), and Opal (chardonnay and petite manseng). That makes for a tough sell in distribution – who will buy something named after a rock? - but it also works in that people remember “that gem winery.” Plus, Hillsborough is one of the few wineries that have made a choice to pursue heirloom varietals. “We’re seeing more people moving towards the rare varieties,” Kerem says. “Virginia is a new frontier.” Those might be words you never thought you would hear. But Kerem’s wines are beautifully structured, deftly blended and hands down very good.
Bora seems introspective, and recalls Kerem and his friends as school-aged boys. “They were going to MacDonald’s on weekends and wasting time. But now the younger generation is going to wine tastings. It is so promising for the future of this country to see their love for wine.” And he’s clearly pleased with the choice to hold off on retirement and help his son. “This,” he says, gesturing around the exposed rock tasting room that’s been restored into a classy winery, “is more cultural, we teach the younger generation how to taste and appreciate wine, and they enjoy it.” Perhaps that is the new frontier of any winery, helping everyone to enjoy life just a little bit more.