Waters Edge Winery is more than a place to gather over delicious wine and food in military-town Norfolk, Virginia. The walls are filled with a new future for a family who has given decades of service to this country.
Retired Navy Commander Jason Witt has a storied 21-year career as a pilot but the way he met his wife, Dyan, was just made for a blockbuster romcom. And – it was all set up (unknowingly) by his mother.
“I was a fourth grade elementary school teacher and Jason was already at his first squadron here in Norfolk as a helicopter pilot. And as a fourth grade teacher in Michigan, I wanted my fourth graders to practice writing a letter,” she explained. “I asked the principal of the school if the children could have a penpal. She told me we could and asked who we would write. I thought, 'It's 2004, there's a lot of conflict going on in the world.' Then she said the words that changed everything: ‘My son's in the Navy, do you want to just write to him?’”
Jason wrote every single student back and loved getting to know the kids. When he visited his mother awhile later though, he had a bit of an ulterior motive. “Some of the kids had written about how pretty their teacher was,” he laughed.
The rest, as they say, is history. They met and were instantly smitten. A long-distance relationship quickly morphed into a love spanning almost two decades. The years weren’t easy ones, though.
Jason was frank in sharing he didn’t always want to be a pilot or even join the military. But after college he found himself looking for something more. Hearing the stories of veterans he worked with at the time sparked his interest and in 2001, he headed to Officer Candidate School.
“I reported to OCS on September 9, 2001. Two days later our really scary drill sergeant broke character to tell us our country had been attacked and we were going to war,” he shared. “My entire career was in the Middle East and just as I was retiring, it was Afghanistan and the withdrawal.”
Though Jason could have easily pursued a career as an airline pilot or a role in the corporate world, an empty building in Norfolk was always on his mind. “As I was transitioning, I got really good advice to look for the big ‘three’ wins. A good quality of life, satisfaction, and liking what you do was on the list,” he said. “We had a bit of a safety net with my pension and I always had the ability to go back, whether it be as a government civilian or a pilot. So we decided to take a swing at something new.”
That something was a Waters Edge Winery in the adorable Larchmont neighborhood of Norfolk.
“When you're in the Navy, there are department heads, people who are subject matter experts," Dyan explained. "Jason knew he wanted to be the winemaker. His callsign was 'Tank,' which is perfect. He's got everything in that tank room all situated, but we've never run a restaurant. So we hired somebody who has been in the industry for 25 years. Jason says all the time that you play your strengths and stack your weaknesses.”
The result is a gorgeous interior, designed by Dyan who quickly became a successful photographer with her own studio a few years into their marriage. Jason took on the tedious paperwork, ordering and hiring – skills he’d acquired during his time in service.
“My last job was being in charge of the air traffic control turn for an aircraft carrier. I'd never done air traffic control. I'm a helicopter guy who'd never been on a carrier and we don't do aerial refueling. I made sure I had experts around me,” he explained.
Norfolk wasn’t always the plan for retirement, either. But both shared their love for the heavy military coastal community.
“We have connections to incredible vineyards all over the world. From there, the crushed grapes come to us and Jason works his magic in the tanks,” Dyan explained.
“I would say that more than the wine, I love this community. We saw a gap and an opportunity that this building sat empty for so long. There are so many amazing restaurants in Norfolk but not anywhere close to here so we went from just a winery to also having a restaurant,” he added.
The result is a curated menu with delicacies and fun comfort pairings for the delicious wine. Jason and Dyan made sure to include nods to their military life, too. The logo is a beautiful anchor with a wine glass attached to the top. You’ll also find gold wings displayed in the winery, along with a command coin collection on the wall.
Building a business from the ground up isn’t without its challenges but after everything this family has weathered, it's nothing. “He could be up here at all hours of the night and I know that he's half a mile from my house and he'll be in our bed that night,” Dyan said. “The last few years he was in the Navy, he was on back-to-back deployments on the USS Eisenhower during COVID. He didn't see land for 266 days. Immediately four months later, they went back out again and again. The last two years he was in the Navy, 430 of those days he wasn't home – he was on the other side of the world. That is sacrifice. This isn’t.”
Looking back on the two-year journey of creating Waters Edge, both are excited for the future to come. Their kids are joining in on the fun, pulling shifts. The hard moments have turned into laughter and memories made, together.
More than a family business, the duo are committed to giving back, too. “We have close friends who are now Gold Star families or injured,” Dyan said through tears. “The plan is to find ways to partner with nonprofit organizations serving the military community we love so much.”
As for what Jason would say to encourage other transitioning veterans, it was simple. “It may be a risk but you’ve already taken bigger risks wearing the uniform,” he said. “If you have the opportunity to do something different and special, do it.”
Waters Edge's grand opening is Saturday, March 10, 2023. To learn more about this incredible wine oasis, click here.