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History of Powhatan’s Festival of the Grape

By Dan Jones

Powhatan’s Festival of the Grape has become much more than just a Chamber of Commerce or economic development event. The festival has become an opportunity for residents and visitors alike to gather and celebrate community – the community of Powhatan.

The genesis for a wine festival in Powhatan County came at the suggestion of Bobby Wilcox in the spring of 2002. This was followed shortly thereafter by an exploratory gathering hosted by Bobby at what was then Luckard’s Virginia Pantry.

It was concluded at the initial meeting that Powhatan County had a great many factors to showcase with several budding vineyard growers, a desire to promote tourism and the travel trade industry within the County, a pleasing story to share with the outside community, and the existence of a noticeable void to be filled in the Richmond and Central Virginia event market. Initial leadership and sponsorship resided within the Powhatan Chamber of Commerce and the Powhatan Department of Economic Development. Key players from the onset were Kathy Budner as the Chamber Executive Director and Susan Ash as Chamber President. A later addition to the sponsorship team was the Powhatan Cooperative Extension office led by Robert Harper. Other initial planning committee participants included Robert Blankenship, Sandy Duncan, Shirley Boelt, Ruth Boatwright, Kathy Grasty, Michael Potter, Dee Smith, Janie Dean and Dan Jones.

With a formal planning committee in place, additional team members and community leaders were recruited; an official event name was adopted – Powhatan’s Festival of the Grape; an event date was identified – July 26th, 2003; and a logo was created by local artist, Susan Ash. We moved forward with rapid speed and great determination – never looking back.

The first event brought typical hot and sunny July weather, a highly organized production, great national and regional music, 12 Virginia wineries, 100 crafters/vendors, 10 food vendors, generous sponsorships, and an estimated 3,000 people. A well-deserved reputation for excellence was born.

The early Festival events were tremendous success by every measure, drawing more than 5,000 people by year two. As a fundraiser for the Chamber, the Festival continues to exceed all expectations. As an economic development initiative, the Festival serves as a very positive and visible means of generating tax revenue and promoting County tourism. Plus it gives us the opportunity to share the Powhatan story not only with the Richmond region and the rest of the state, but, also with visitors from around the country. Attracting additional business growth to the County remains one of the many benefits.

Many vendors report that they have never attended a more organized festival and numerous wineries have reported historic sales figures. Business community involvement continues to be positive, generous and highly visible. As in the early years, the success of the Festival would not be possible without substantial support from the Powhatan community, local businesses, County Staff, elected officials, and numerous volunteers and supporters.

With a growing reputation for excellence, encouragement from patrons, and support from the wine community, the Festival was moved to late October in 2006. This move, allowing us to take advantage of Virginia’s beautiful fall weather, has proven to be highly successful.

From its early beginnings in 2002, the Festival has grown annually in both number of attendees and reputation. Because of our reputation, other wine festivals in the region have in part modeled their events after our winning formula. Attendance last year was estimated at 8,000 and, with another beautiful fall day anticipated, this year’s attendance could reach 8,500.