BUNKER HILL (AP) - Out of a childhood pastime, Michael Cox turned wine making from a hobby into a family-run business ready to expand toward becoming an established presence in the region.
Operating Cox Family Winery on his family's land in Bunker Hill since 2009, Cox recently signed an agreement with the Berkeley County Landmarks Committee for a 20-year lease on 44 acres in Shanghai to expand his vineyards.
Now an established winery with a signature label and eight flavors of Cox Juice, Cox Family Winery first began as a hobby between Cox and his uncle, Rodney Cox.
"My first time ever making wine, it was plum wine in a yellow trash can. I was 7 years old - my uncle's about 17 years older than I am. I couldn't drink it, but it was a fun making it because he was a lot older," Cox said.
After Cox returned to West Virginia following a career in law enforcement, Cox and his uncle began experimenting with wine and produced 17 bottles in 2009. Word-of-mouth grew, and soon, Cox had friends and strangers asking to buy bottles, beginning the idea to develop the hobby into a full-time passion.
"They said they liked it and asked for more. (My uncle and I) sat in the doorway and crushed the grapes in white pillowcases; it was exhausting. We asked people to donate wine bottles for it," Cox said.
Slowly building a presence over the years through wine and art festivals, wine judgings, and a loyal customer base, Cox has been in negotiations with the county Landmarks Committee for about a year to lease the land and expand the business.
"It's a West Virginia law that we have to grow 25 percent of our own fruit, and we've topped out. We can't buy any more fruit from anyone else until we grow more fruit of our own," he said.
Through the land lease, the winery will expand from 129 vines on Cox's land and access to three acres of fruit to the ability to plant 10,000 vines.
"Not only are we going to be growing grapes, but we're going to be putting peach trees in there, we're going to put a whole bunch of raspberries and blackberries. Right now we're bottling wineberries, a wild raspberry. When we go to festivals, people are looking for the fruitier wines," Cox said.
When choosing a location for the new vineyard, Cox said it was important to remain local, a philosophy he and his family try to incorporate in all aspects of the business. In addition to staffing family, Cox Family Winery also offers internships to local high school students, adding to their agricultural credits.
Along with using the fruit produced on the new site, Cox hopes to eventually grow enough grapes to sell to other West Virginia and Virginia winemakers.
However, before vines and fruit can be planted at the new acreage, a fence must be erected around the property to protect the crops from animal life. Cox anticipates to begin planting next year.
To help defray the cost of fencing, Cox Family Winery will apply for a grant through the Eastern Panhandle Conservation District and is part of a small business grant competition through FedEx. The winery is one of 100 finalists, selected from among 5,000 applicants nationwide, in competition for a $25,000 grant.
The new site is the foundation to Cox's long-term plans for the winery, including expanding the direct-to-consumer sales, finding at least six distributors nationwide to stock and sell the wine, and expanding the local liquor and grocery stores that sell the wine.
Cox Juice is currently sold at Penn Liquors, in Martinsburg; Big Apple Liquors, in Inwood; Inwood Farmers' Market; Grapes and Grains Gourmet, in Shepherdstown; and Top Shelf Liquor, in Berkeley Springs.
"I do miss law enforcement. It's probably the best job I ever had. But with this business, I think anybody would want to work with their families. I have my father, my uncle and close friends," Cox said.