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Success Stories

Musings of a Well Traveled Virginia Winemaker

Barbara Bowen
Value Added
Sally Cowal lifts a glass with assistant winemaker Joshua Riesner

How did a globe-trotting former diplomat and one of Washington’s top international lawyers end up running an award-winning winery along the North Fork of the Shenandoah River? The answer is pretty simple really. It was a place to put down roots.

The historic Woodstock, Va., property had rich soil that had been continuously farmed since 1792. When they contemplated dipping a toe into agriculture, Robert Muse made a convincing case for planting “a few grapes” and went on to expand the enterprise into a 35-acre vineyard after the first harvest in 2009.

Directional sign to the Muse Vineyards tasting room

Muse was and is the winemaker. His first and most popular wine, Clio, is named for the muse of history and is a nod to the rich heritage of the Valley and the period farmhouse that sits on the property. Other varieties are named for her sisters from Greek mythology who serve as inspiration for different fields of endeavor.

His wife Sally Cowal put her organizational and negotiating skills to work to grow Muse Vineyards into a thriving business that capitalized on their mutual love of good wines. She knew that getting into the hospitality industry would be difficult and set about making connections that would help them succeed.

She joined the Virginia Farm Bureau and the local chapter of the American Viticultural Area (AVA) to make contacts and put the winery on the Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail. She also learned about Farm Bureau’s Virginia Foundation for Agriculture, Innovation and Rural Sustainability (VA FAIRS), a nonprofit organization that offers free business planning and grant assistance to farmers and agribusinesses.

Those networks would bring USDA Rural Development into the picture to provide financial assistance that would be vital to the ongoing success of the operation. The next chapter in the couple’s story is just one of many instances in which the farm’s location on Serendipity Lane would prove to be a good omen.

I learned about Value-Added Producer Grants from a fellow vineyard owner in McGaheysville,” said Cowal. “Then, we worked with VA FAIRS to help write the application for a $250,000 matching grant that we received in 2021, exactly when we needed it most.”

Muse Vineyards corks

The Muse Vineyards project focused on three key needs. The first and largest was supplies and materials like bottles, labels, corks and capsules to package the product. The second was marketing and promotions and the third was additional labor to assist with day-to-day operations.

Virginia Rural Business Specialist Laurette Tucker worked alongside Cowal to ensure that expenses were properly tracked, and reimbursements issued in a timely manner. The strong relationship they developed is evident in Cowal’s impressions of USDA Rural Development and its VAPG offering.

“We always had the feeling that she was our partner and she wanted it to work for us,” said Cowal. “It was a partnership. I never felt like she was looking for something to deny. She was there to help us stay within the very generous guidelines of this program.”

Cowal’s experiences running the winery have given her an education beyond history and political science as well as a new respect for farmers. She understands that every aspect of vineyard operations needs to be on a strict timetable as they progress from bud break in April to harvest in September.

“Had we not had the additional funds provided through VAPG, we would not have been able to keep up,” said Cowal. “We were coming off a very hard year in 2020, which was the first one where we’ve ever had a drop in sales. Our vines were coming into maturity too and producing more.

Perry Hickman, Sally Cowal and Joshua Riesner in the winemaking area of Muse Vineyards
Sally Cowal discusses the finer points of wine making with Virginia RD State Director Perry Hickman and assistant winemaker Joshua Riesner.

“We were able to move faster and not have a tremendous buildup of five years of wine that we weren’t been able to get on the market, so it was instrumental for us. It’s not a product if it’s still sitting in a barrel or a tank. It’s a product when it gets into a bottle or into a glass.”

Cowal is pleased to help write a new chapter in Virginia’s long history of wine making that dates back to Thomas Jefferson whose experiences as an ambassador to France convinced him that wine, not whiskey, was the hallmark of civilized society. The pair has also submitted a 2024 VAPG application to build out their wholesale business for increased sales statewide and in other countries to achieve their ultimate vision for the operation.

“Most of our wines are sold through the tasting room,” explains Cowal. “We also have an online store and can ship to 36 states, but I would say that most of the people who have bought wine from us have been visitors. Sales to stores and restaurants account for about five percent of our business right now. The goal for the grant that we have written is to grow that to 15 percent and hopefully 15 percent of a larger business.”

Cowal says her favorite parts of running a winery are tasting new blends and working with the community. Those connections are an integral part of her approach to running the business with each visit and sale making Muse Vineyards part of an extended family.

“As a foreign service officer, I lived in seven different countries and I always thought it was wonderful to join in those communities as much as you could and really understand what the countries and people were about,” she explains.

Cowal serves as a winery representative on an agricultural extension citizen’s board and is planning a new product launch in June as a benefit event for the Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. A chair rail was also part of the design of the tasting room so the works of different local artists could be featured each month.

“We are at the crossroads of tourism and agriculture, and it helps make this a place where you want to be,” said Cowal. “I think every senior in high school has been here, not to drink of course, but because they have their proms. It’s become THE location to have your pictures taken if you’re in Shenandoah County.

“Being an important part of the community, building that community and making it a better place is as important to me, even more so, than the revenue generated. I’ve been here full time since COVID and found a place where I can live the life I wanted to be living at age 80, but it’s even more of a joy to know I don’t have to move again. This time, I’m home.”

Jennifer Stacey serves up the award-winning wines at Muse Vineyards.
Top: Value-Added Producer Grant recipient Sally Cowal lifts a glass of Muse Vineyards' popular Erato steel fermented, unoaked wine with Joshua Riesner.
Bottom: Jennifer Stacey serves up award-winning wines in the tasting room of the Shenandoah County vineyard (USDA photos by Andrew Stacy and Emily Cannon).
Obligation Amount:
Year(s) of Obligation:
Congressional District:
  • Virginia: District 6