WEDDING- Blank canvas: Sugarleaf's acreage opens wedding options

Jerry and Lauren Bias.

With Central Virginia getting more and more Napa Valley-esque these days, brides don't have to look far to create their own vineyard-inspired wedding. One of the newest Central Virginia wineries, Sugarleaf Vineyards, has hit Charlottesville's wedding scene with full force, offering couples an opportunity to create their wildest wine-soaked dreams.

"Sugarleaf," says vineyard co-owner Lauren Bias, "offers a gorgeous blank canvas and breathtaking scenery."

She explains that instead of a single location, brides and grooms can choose their wedding spot anywhere on the estate's 126 rolling acres.

Lauren, along with her husband, UVA graduate Jerry Bias, opened the doors to their winery in August 2007. The story of Sugarleaf, however, began much earlier.

The couple bought the property in North Garden off 29 South nearly nine years ago as a retreat from their high-energy existence in New York City. As lovers of fine wine, the location among some of Virginia's most popular wineries was no mistake. But transforming the estate into a vineyard took root only after after the urgings of a friend. 

"We're just consumers and lovers of wine," says Bias.

With the couple's background in finance and Bias's previous career in modeling, neither had professional vineyards experience. But they were determined to learn.

"Our palates have developed over the years," Bias says, "and you begin to learn that wine can have undertones and smells."

After ordering the vines for their winery on September 6, 2001, the Biases were struck with tragedy. The September 11 attacks in their hometown took the life of Mike Taylor, their encouraging friend.

"We kept the plans the way he wanted," Bias says.

Five years later, having hired professional California winemaker Daniel Neumeister, Sugarleaf produced its inaugural vintage and has seen its popularity continue to grow among the region's long-standing wine aficionados. Among four awards the vineyard won at the 2008 Virginia State Fair wine competition was a gold medal for its 2006 Petit Verdot.

 Despite not having a large indoor facility, à la Veritas or Kluge, Sugarleaf has proven to have growing appeal for couples planning Charlottesville weddings due to its simplistic yet stunning, layout and– perhaps counterintuitively– its lack of structured facilities.

"You can make it your own," Bias says. "You can get married in the vineyard, with the breathtaking ambiance, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains– most people love that they have their own blank canvas."

Which is how Bias described her own wedding to Jerry years before the idea for Suglarleaf had taken root. Knowing she wanted a beach backdrop, Bias found her own blank slate in Jamaica– which has shaped her attitude towards hosting weddings at Sugarleaf.

"We're not dictating the menu or what the room looks like," she says. "We're not pumping out weddings every day, so there's not the idea that 'everyone has done it there'."