By Jan Mercker 

Every wine lover remembers the bottle that changed their life.

For Loudoun entrepreneur Renee Ventrice, it was a German Riesling at a Florida sushi restaurant in 1998. That was the night Ventrice discovered she had a passion for food and wine pairing—and a great palate to match.

Nearly 20 years later, she runs a booming business helping locals and tourists alike get an insider’s view of Loudoun’s craft beverage scene. Ventrice and her husband Don launched Cork and Keg Tours in 2017, combining their shared passion for wine and community.

“I didn’t know that wine was going to be my future, but nobody ever forgets the bottle that changes their life,” Ventrice said.

The couple has grown their business through the pandemic and watched it take off in the last year, with local accolades and a national spotlight bringing attention both to their company and the Loudoun wine country they love. Ventrice, named Loudoun’s top tourism ambassador last year, is featured in an upcoming episode of Vince Anter’s popular online wine show “V is for Vino” slated to air later this year. 

When the U.S. Navy veterans moved to Loudoun in 2003, wine was already a passion but not yet a business.

“It just became a hobby. It became what we did for fun. And then I started noticing that I had a real knack for noticing what was in wine without seeing the tasting notes,” Ventrice said.

Renee Ventrice leads tours of Loudoun’s wine country in a van specially designed to keep the party going.

In 2016, she and Don had full time jobs. But when Don was laid off from a cybersecurity job shortly after they dropped their son off at college, the couple saw it as an opportunity to follow their dream of launching a business. The Ventrices also saw a niche in Loudoun: they had been doing wine tours in Sonoma for years and noticed a dearth of detail-oriented wine tours here.

“We said no one does tours the way we experience them in Sonoma, which is backstage tours with winemakers, special seating, exclusivity and people who know the area and know what’s going on,” Ventrice said. “We did some spit-balling—opened a bottle of wine of course—and came up with the name. We wanted a name that would encompass all the different craft beverages: wineries, distilleries, breweries, meaderies—anything you can put a cork in or put into a keg.”

Cork and Keg did its first tour in the spring of 2017. The day after they bought their fully loaded touring van, Don got an offer for a full-time job, so the couple initially made Cork and Keg a weekend business. 

“We were turning away more than double the number of tours we could actually do,” Ventrice said. Meanwhile, Ventrice got her wine educator certification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.

“I thought, how cool would it be to have a wine expert instead of just a driver?” she said.

Ventrice went full time with Cork and Keg at the end of 2019, and in February 2020, she and Don were discussing franchising possibilities when COVID hit. Ventrice knew she had to act to keep both her business and local hospitality businesses alive. So she took her wine expertise and enthusiasm virtual.

“I decided to stay visible. I started popping bottles that were in my refrigerator and drinking wine with people on Facebook live,” she said. Ventrice began interviewing restaurant owners about their menus and doing virtual food and wine pairings.

“It became more than just me drinking wine and hanging out with people from my van. It became a way to support others in hospitality by sharing what they were doing,” she said.

During COVID shutdowns, Ventrice launched Cork and Keg’s sister business Go Be Grape with a focus on wine education, offering customized tastings for corporate clients and other groups.

Renee Ventrice, right, serves up an exclusive wine tasting for a tour group at Williams Gap Vineyard on a recent Friday afternoon.

As the region rebounded from pandemic closures, Cork and Keg’s business took off. In 2021, they did 70 tours and turned away more than double that number, Venstrice said. At the end of 2021, she hired six new employees to do weekend tours. Ventrice takes on corporate and other tastings during the week, offering insider access to wineries, including tours outside of normal tasting room hours.

“The way that we’ve differentiated ourselves is through the relationships that we’ve built with the other hospitality and tourism companies,” she said. “We thought it was really important to be a part of the community and not just take people to wineries and breweries. We took the time to understand their business, get to know their managers and team members.”

Don Ventrice remains heavily involved with the family business while keeping his 9-to-5 job. For Ventrice, the spouses, who met while serving in the Navy in Spain, are perfectly matched to run the business together after almost 30 years of marriage.

“We are yin and yang. We like to say he’s the keg, and I’m the cork. He’s the brakes, and I’m the gas. We don’t get in each other’s way and that’s how we successfully run a business as a married couple,” Ventrice said. The couple’s son Gino, now 24, has inherited his mom’s keen palate and also pitches in with tours.

Visit Loudoun named Ventrice its Certified Tourism Ambassador of the year for 2021. Ventrice has also been nominated as entrepreneur of the year at this year’s Loudoun Chamber Small Business Awards slated for Nov. 4.

As the accolades flow, one of the highlights for Ventrice is Loudoun’s spotlight on the “V is for Vino” show. Ventrice became a fan of the popular online program with more than 20,000 YouTube followers while earning her WSET certification.

“I absolutely loved what I was learning from it,” she said. “One day, I was like, ‘He’s never done Virginia.’”

On a whim, she reached out to the host Vince Anter and suggested he check out the region’s booming winery and hospitality scene. He agreed and shot the segment focusing on the Charlottesville and Loudoun regions in August, with Ventrice as a local co-host. The segment is expected to air later this year on Anter’s channel. 

“I showed Vince the wonderful things that Loudoun has to offer,” Ventrice said. “It’s a huge win for Virginia tourism.”

Loudoun’s craft brewing scene has come a long way since her family arrived nearly 20 years ago, Ventrice said, and she’s proud to play a role in building it up. 

“It’s been really fun watching Loudoun County grow and watching the agrotourism really start to take off, bringing people not just from other counties in the DMV but from other countries for the shopping, the farms, the music, the wine, the breweries and distilleries.”

For more information about Cork and Keg Tours, go to corkandkegtours.com. To check out the “V is for Vino” YouTube channel, go to visforvino.com.