September-October 2015 | Featured Article

Donna Evers: Weekend Winemaker

Local real estate mogul pursues her passion at her Virginia winery

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TWIN OAKS TAVERN WINERY is perched at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a view of the Shenandoah Valley. An award-winning boutique vineyard, it’s a 20-year endeavor for owner-winemaker Donna Evers of Chevy Chase Village, who also works full time at Evers & Co., the real estate firm she founded.

Evers fell in love with the idea of making wine while traveling through Europe. “I fell asleep on a train between Munich and Venice,” she says. “When I woke up in northern Italy, there were vineyards as far as my eye could see. I thought, ‘I have to have a vineyard.’ ”

Grapevines form neat rows at Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia. Photo by Skip Brown.

That was nearly two decades ago. Back then, the wine lover didn’t know anything about operating a vineyard. But she and her husband, Robert Evers—who died in 2010—were determined. They bought the 6½-acre property, including a historic stone house, in Bluemont, Virginia, for roughly $90,000 in 1998. Then they spent a year taming the wild landscape before planting Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Merlot grapes. “They grow well in this climate,” she says. “I wanted to have something that would have a shot at being successful.”

The stone house that now serves as Evers’ weekend residence was the historic Twin Oaks Tavern from the turn of the 20th century until the 1950s. Photo by Skip Brown.

AFTER BATTLING BAD weather, diseases and incursions from marauding turkeys and deer, the couple completed their first harvest in the fall of 2002. The original plan was to sell the grapes to another winemaker, but they didn’t have enough to attract a buyer. Not wanting the grapes to go to waste, they decided to make their own wine. They read viniculture books, talked to other local winemakers, and hired a consultant. In the end, they produced five 5-gallon carboy jugs of Chardonnay and two of Cabernet Franc. “It wasn’t very good, but it was wine,” Evers says.

The couple spent the next several years honing their skills privately before they began producing commercially in 2008. To this day, Evers has a hand in every step of the process—from planting through bottling—working long hours on weekends. When her Norton red wine is fermenting in 50-gallon blue plastic barrels in the house’s basement, she and her crew must “punch down” the mass of grapes, seeds and stems that rises to the surface, using long metal stirrer/mashers known as must plungers. The particulate is then strained out when the wine is funneled into oak barrels to be aged over the winter.

Donna Evers pours a vintage in the tasting room at her winery. Photo by Skip Brown.

Restoring the historic stone house was another project entirely. An inn from the turn of the 20th century until the 1950s—which inspired the winery’s name—the house had fallen into disrepair and been ravaged by a fire. The couple renovated the two-story house so they could live there on weekends, and then transformed the basement into the epicenter of the winemaking operation, where vintages are fermented, aged and stored.

NOW THE WINERY produces more than half a dozen varietals—a Chardonnay-Riesling blend called White Nights, Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Norton and the Bordeaux- inspired Raven Rocks Red—with approximately 8 tons of its own grapes, as well as those purchased elsewhere. Evers also crafts peach and raspberry fruit wines, which are especially popular with female customers.

Left: Evers uses a “must plunger” to “punch down” the mixture of grapes, seeds and stems that rises to the top while wine is fermenting in barrels. Right: Emptied oak aging barrels are set aside to be cleaned. Photos by Skip Brown.

Every year in the late spring or early summer, a mobile bottling operator comes to the property to move the vintages out of the aging barrels and into bottles. Evers rounds up all her employees and calls in favors from family and friends to come help.

This year’s bottling started at around 10:30 on a chilly, overcast June morning. As classic rock tunes blared from a stereo, wine was suctioned out of the barrels and through an advanced filtration system inside a bottling trailer. Meanwhile, the bottles traveled along a mechanized conveyor system where they were filled and given a puff of nitrogen to prevent the wine from becoming oxygenated. Then they were corked, capped with a paper-thin metal capsule, labeled, and shunted out the other side of the conveyor system.

Finally, the bottles were placed in hand-labeled boxes before going back into the cellar to settle before being put on sale later this year. Evers says the conveyor belt system gets hectic as more and more bottles move through it. “It’s like I Love Lucy with the chocolates coming off the assembly line,” she says.

Bottles move through the conveyor system of a mobile bottling truck at the winery in June. Photo by Skip Brown.