Emma French Randel grew up in Virginia's rural Shenandoah Valley in a non-drinking family. But life brings unpredictable turns.
After earning a business degree, teaching in a secretarial school in post-World War II Washington, marrying, and rearing five children, she returned to the Shenandoah twenty years ago to run the valley's first winery. One of the biggest challenges of the job, she is fond of noting, is persuading local beer drinkers to try wine instead.
She's been successful enough to have earned Shenandoah Vineyards a respected place in Virginia's flourishing wine industry. Located near Edinburg, between Winchester and Harrisonburg on land that has been in her mother's family since the mid-1800s, Shenandoah Vineyards now boasts some thirty-five acres planted in such varieties as Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Seyval, Villard Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Chambourcin.
Randel and her late husband, Jim, a petroleum engineer, planted their first 5,000 vines in 1976, envisioning the enterprise as a retirement project.
The winery opened on a small scale in 1979, making it the state's fourth-oldest winery. They were still living in New Jersey, where he had spent his career working for a utility company. The plan was to start slowly, cultivating vines and learning the wine business through seminars, reading, and seeking out expert advice.
Jim's training as a petroleum engineer was invaluable. He also had a highly discriminating palate--so much so, Randel says, that she "couldn't make iced tea at lunch [time] and serve it to him at dinner," without his noticing the lack of freshness.
But his untimely death in 1985 hastened her return to Virginia and her full-time immersion in the vineyard. Over the years, Randel has done her share of hard work. Vineyard work "takes stamina," she says--"things are heavy ... and [in the winter] it can be twenty degrees when you're doing the pruning."
She's seventy-eight now, and employees handle the physical labor while she devotes herself primarily to administrative duties. Her real joy is spending time in the sales room, greeting guests from around the world who take the short detour from Interstate 81 to tour the winery and enjoy memorable views of Massanutten Mountain as they sample various vintages.
With an annual production of about 5,000 cases, covering ten to twelve varieties of wine, Shenandoah Vineyards ranks as a mid-size winery, a size Randel says suits her just fine. In the early years, she often entered the vineyard's wines in competitions. But after winning several awards, she says she is less concerned with winning professional accolades than with pleasing customers.
"The best award is for people to taste our wine and say, 'I'll buy it.' "