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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Gadino Cellars

Rappahannock County was once one of the state’s largest wine producing areas. While a couple other Virginia counties have eclipsed it in recent years, it still contains some regional clusters of very good producers. One of these is Gadino Cellars in Washington, Virginia. It had been nearly three years since my last visit, so I was overdue to stop in and see what they are up to.

The grounds at Gadino are tastefully landscaped with an abundance of flowers and hedges that nearly obscure the tasting room. Looking out across the vineyards, there is a line of hills that can be admired from the picnic table out front. Just down the hill are a pair of bocci ball courts, where you might while away an afternoon while sharing a bottle of Gadino wine. Alternately, there is a shaded patio or plenty of seating inside. 

The founding owners are Bill and Aleta Saccuta Gadino, who began planting 1990. There are Cabernet Franc vines on the property that are 26 years old and that is a varietal the winery is known for. They sold fruit for a number of years and only released their first vintage in 2004. Today there are seven acres of estate fruit, which is supplemented with some local grapes to produce the 1700 cases bottled annually.

The day-to-day operations now fall to daughter Stephanie and her husband Derek Cross, but the same high standards and quality wine can be enjoyed in the tasting room. Stephanie and Derek make the wine, but Tom Payette has long been in a consulting role. If you are unfamiliar with Tom, he is one of the state’s premier winemakers. In his consulting role, he has coached a number of Virginia’s top wineries. His influence can be seen in the quality of Stephanie and Derek’s wine.

The day-to-day operations now fall to daughter Stephanie and her husband Derek Cross, but the same high standards and quality wine can be enjoyed in the tasting room. Stephanie and Derek make the wine, but Tom Payette has long been in a consulting role. If you are unfamiliar with Tom, he is one of the state’s premier winemakers. In his consulting role, he has coached a number of Virginia’s top wineries. His influence can be seen in the quality of Stephanie and Derek’s wine. 

On the day of my visit, there were eight wines on the Gadino tasting menu. The majority of the offerings are from French varietals, but there are a couple that give a nod to the family’s Italian roots. Starting off the lineup were a Pinot Grigio and a nice barrel-aged Chardonnay, but the Petit Manseng stood out among the whites. This perfectly balanced, dry style wine was full of pineapple notes and bright acidity. It was a fabulous wine. In my opinion, however, the red offerings are the main event.

I placed stars next to all the reds. They were all excellent. The Bordeaux blend is lovely and complex, but the Cabernet Franc… There is something to be said for old-growth vines and that much age will tell in the final product. It was characterized by dark, ripe fruit and a hint of black pepper in the finish. I thought it was my favorite until Derek poured the 2010 Nebbiolo. It is a great wine produced in a great year. With a beautiful nose, layers of complexity and firm tannins, it is no wonder this age worthy wine won gold in the Governor’s Cup.


Although great wine is enough reason to visit, I also found the quality of the customer experience to be exceptional. My wine steward had only been working in the tasting room for two months, but she acted like a pro. We had a great conversation and she was able to talk with some authority about the wine, which is an indication that Gadino is making some effort to educate or at least closely screen tasting room help. I left inspired to return and I strongly recommend a visit. After you stop in, please let me know what you think.


Monday, May 30, 2016

Little Washington Winery

It had been a couple years (or possibly more) since I last visited Little Washington Winery. They do have a satellite tasting room here in Charlottesville and I have been there a few times, but I really needed to get back to the Rappahannock County tasting room. If you are unfamiliar with the Little Washington operation, let me fill you in. 

You don’t really notice the view as you are driving up the winding lane that leads to the winery. You might catch a glimpse in your rear view mirror, but you have got to park and get out of the car to really appreciate the panorama. If you have ever traveled along route 231 from Madison to Sperryville, you know what a stunning drive that can be. But when you look back at it from the perspective of the hillside below the Little Washington tasting room, it is infinitely more stunning. You take in the whole of the valley that is framed by the Blue Ridge and see the rocky crags of Old Rag Mountain in the distance. I have not stayed to watch the sunset, but I am told that it is spectacular. While the vista is pretty amazing, however, It is not really the thing I want to tell you about.

Carl and Donna Henrickson are the owners and they have put together a wine education program that is fairly unique. In fact, I know of nothing else like it in the state of Virginia. There are two primary elements to the program. The first takes place at the tasting bar and it is call the “Dirt Road Wine Tour.” In addition to wines bearing the Little Washington label, there will be a second menu of offerings from around the globe. It is designed contain winemakers and even grapes that will be unfamiliar to the average wine drinker. Carl works with Andrew, a DC-based somm, who travels the world looking for exceptional wines from small boutique wineries. You simply will not find them in our average wine shop. During my recent visit, Carl was pouring a pair of Austrian Gruner Veltliners, an old-vine blend from California’s Santa Cruz Mountains and a sparkling Riesling from Germany’s Mosel Valley. The tasting menu calls them “the most incredible wines you’ll never find without us.” It really is an exciting lineup and if this were the only thing happening at Little Washington it would still be worth a visit.

Little Washington is also a wine school of sorts. There are a range of wine education classes available. The most basic is “Wine Boot Camp,” which attempts to make attendees into wine snobs, but approaches the topics in plain English and covers topics like “How to behave in a restaurant,” “aeration,” and some of the finer points of food and wine pairing. There are a range of other seminars that include things like pairing with cheese, chocolate or dessert, country or region-specific wine tastings and overviews, and “Aromas of Wine.” This is really just a sampling. You will need to check the website for more up-to-date information.

As I mentioned earlier, Little Washington is pouring several of their own wines. The vines on the property are a tale of woe, but will eventually produce fruit. In the meantime, Carl is sourcing fruit from Southern Virginia and producing about 800 cases annually. There are plans to eventually increase output to 1200 cases. In any event, the wines are expertly crafted and quite good. I tasted a pair of Chardonnays, a dry-style Rosé, a red blend, a Cabernet Franc and a Syrah. All were worthy of comment, but the Syrah was special. You simply do not find much Syrah in Virginia. This one was full of dark fruit, tobacco notes and spice. It is a cellar-worthy wine.

So there are a multitude of reasons to visit Little Washington Winery. Whether you are interested in education, unusual wines or a great vineyard view in a picnic-worthy location, this is the place. Make an effort to check them out and definitely let me know what you think.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Decanter Wine & Racing Festival

I only recently began to explore Maryland wine, but I am making a serious effort to learn more. I tasted some of the state's best offerings last January at the Winter Wine Showcase in Baltimore and I walked away very impressed by what I discovered. So when I was offered tickets to the Decanter Wine & Racing Festival near Laurel, Maryland, I jumped at the opportunity.

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The event is held at the Laurel Park Racetrack and is not your typical wine festival. After checking in and picking up a glass, I strolled through the indoor tasting space and then wandered outside to explore the tent, which contained additional wineries and food venues. Outside the tent, there were food booths and trucks assembled beyond the betting windows and offered an excellent spot to purchase lunch or a snack and watch the races.

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The event started at noon and I arrived as the doors opened. I wanted to beat the crowd as much as possible, so that I might taste a few wines without having to wait in line. I started out tasting multiple wines per table, but as the throng began to assemble and lines formed at the tables, I refined my plan and decided to concentrate only on Cabernet Franc. I have a certain fondness for that varietal and I can fairly say that I have tasted a large number of them from Virginia, the Loire and California. I will not go so far as to call myself an expert, but I do have a lot of experience with that grape and there are characteristics that I can certainly pick out.

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In the spirit of full disclosure, there were 23 wineries in attendance and I did not visit all of them. This was largely due to my own personal shortcoming. I just do not have the patience to stand in a long line to taste wine. Nevertheless, I was able to taste enough Cab Franc that I came away with a sense of its importance as a Maryland varietal. Most of the wines I tasted were from 2013 and clearly that was a good year in Maryland. A feature of all the Cab Francs I tasted was the ripeness of the fruit. Most lacked even a hint of green pepper and the best had notes of spice and black pepper in the finish. The examples from Great Frogs and Elk Run were quite good. The Knob Hall and Boordy Cab Francs were absolutely stellar. 

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In addition to wine, food and horse racing, there was live music and a competition. One of the annual features of the event is a “Best Dressed” contest. So many attendees were attired in their best spring outfits, which necessarily included large spring hats. It adds an additional element of fun to the event. 

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My only lament about the festival was the crowding at the booths. Many of them were pouring eight or more wines, so even at a frenzied festival wine-pouring pace, visitors might spend several minutes at a single table. I have seen other festivals limit the number of offerings the wineries are allowed to present, in an effort to alleviate some of the crowding. In the end, however, this is just the nature of the beast. 

On the flip side, the event was well organized and executed. It was more than just another festival and provided a variety of attractions and events to keep the crowd engaged. For me, it was just a springboard. From here I will begin to explore Maryland in earnest. I am gaining some understanding of the wine industry’s geography, the varietals and the premier wineries. I do recommend this event as a way to become acclimated. If you went this year or if you stop in on a subsequent year, please let me know what you think.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Taste of Monticello 2016

The average Virginia wine drinker knows the Taste of Monticello Wine Trail celebration as a festival in the Ntelos Pavilion at the east end of Charlottesville’s downtown mall. Most people do not realize that this annual event takes place officially and unofficially over several days in April with a variety of events. The festival is simply the culmination of a larger celebration. While it is too late to sign on for 2016, let me give you a rundown, so you will know what to look forward to next year.

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From the perspective of the local wineries, a key feature of the Taste of Monticello is the wine competition judged by a panel of wine experts. This is a chance for winemakers to submit their premier wines in search of gold and the competition's top prize, the Monticello Cup. From among the top wines, the tasting panel selects the "best in show." This best of the best is subsequently awarded the Monticello Cup at a Thursday night award ceremony. The event is open to casual wine enthusiasts and features a keynote speaker.

My favorite of the public events is the series of wine dinners hosted by the participating wineries. These take place throughout the week and typically involve a set fee that includes dinner at a local restaurant or other venue paired with the host's wines. Of course the owners and winemakers will be in attendance at these events.

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Peter Chang’s Chinese cuisine paired with Afton wines

I attended the dinner sponsored by Afton Mountain Vineyards at Peter Chang’s China Grill. I was invited to sit at the head table, which was quite an honor. So I was able to get to know owners Elizabeth and Tony Smith, as well as Damien Blanchon who makes the amazing Afton Mountain wines. I will point that a seat at the head table was not the only way to meet the owners and winemaker. They worked the floor and went by each of the tables to talk about the wines and greet the guests. 

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The Virginia Grape (right) with Elizabeth and Tony Smith

I will just sum up the wine dinner by saying that it was as fabulous as any meal at Peter Chang’s, but the wine pairings took the multiple courses to the next level. Ten cold appetizers, six hot appetizers, two entrees and dessert were paired with the Afton sparkling wine, Gewürztraminer, super-Tuscan style Festo di Bacco and it was finished off with the Port-style dessert wine. It was a meal to remember and the wines were simply amazing.

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On Thursday night is the awards ceremony, which features an opportunity to taste all of the silver and gold medal winners along with a food pairing. The floor of the Jefferson Theater was the venue and it was packed with fabulous wine and sumptuous goodies that were available before and after the award presentations. You just do not get many opportunities to taste from such a lineup of amazing Virginia wines. This year Michael Shaps 2015 Viognier was recognized as the top-rated white wine and Barboursville Vineyards won the Monticello Cup with their 2010 Petit Verdot Reserve.

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The main event for most wine drinkers is on Saturday at the pavilion. With the purchase of a reasonably priced ticket, you can taste the offerings of 32 wineries from the Monticello Wine Trail. The festival is a popular draw and can get a little crowded, but there are few events that feature this many wineries. Some attendees may drink their way through all of the tables, but a discerning wine drinker can use it as an opportunity to become acquainted with some of the wineries they are less familiar with. Alternately, it can be an afternoon of reacquainting with some of your local favorites.

So keep your eye open next year and take time to celebrate our local wine industry. I will be sending out reminders and I may see you at one of the events. If you attended this year, I am anxious to hear what you thought.


Monday, February 15, 2016

Otium Cellars

The last time I visited Otium Cellars, which is also the only other time, it was a rainy, dismal early spring afternoon. This time at least it was not raining. It was unseasonably cold even for February, but the sun had taken the edge off the chill and I was at least able to survey the property and take a couple reasonable outdoor photos. 

The property is quite lovely and it is hard to believe that it is only an hour from Washington DC. It was and still is a horse farm set in the piedmont region just east of the Blue Ridge. The rolling hills spread out in from the the tasting room providing an idyllic view of the farm and pastureland of central Loudoun County. It is a scene that I will endeavor to return to in the spring, so I can take it in during a better season.

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Tasting room has a vaguely German feel. The timber construction, large windows and covered porch also lend it a ski-lodge quality. Just inside the door, there is an L-shaped tasting bar and tables line the window. There are exposed wood beams throughout and all of the glass allows ample natural light into the space. I know I am probably overstating the similarity, but there is a distinct Gasthaus feel.  

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Gerhard Bauer established the the winery and runs it with the assistance of his son Max, who is the general manager. The family hails from Northern Bavaria and they established a winery that seems to give more than a wink to that heritage. Aside There are a couple French varietals growing in the vineyard, but the majority are traditionally German or Austrian. Gruner Veltliner was recently planted and I was told a couple years ago that there are plans to cultivate Zweigelt and Lagrein. Currently, the Bauers are growing and producing single-varietal Blaufrankisch and Dornfelder. 


There were eight wines on the tasting menu and I will not go into all of them in detail. I will say that they were all well crafted, but the real story here is the Blaufrankisch. If you are unfamiliar with this varietal, it is an Austrian red hybrid. You will find it growing in Washington, the Finger Lakes and there are a couple other Virginia wineries producing it under its other name, Lemberger. It is a medium-bodied wine filled with black fruit and hint of black pepper. This a wine that Otium can hang their hat on. They may be producing their Gruner Veltliner as early as next year. The vines will still need time to mature, but I have high expectations for that wine.

This winery represents more than a novelty. There are a handful of other venues producing German varietals, but Otium is definitely on the cutting edge of that movement. It is alway exciting to find something different and that is what you will find at this winery. I strongly recommend a visit. If for no other reason, you need to taste the Blaufrankisch. After you stop in, please let me know what you think.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Maryland's Winter Wine Showcase

There was a time when it was thought Maryland would become the wine-producing powerhouse in the mid-Atlantic region. Based on my recent observations, that prediction might still come to pass. There may only be 77 wineries in the entire state, but the elimination of political hurdles has cleared the way for expansion. In 2000, there were about a dozen Maryland wineries. Today there is a total of 77 and more than twenty of those opened in the last year. I think that qualifies as rapid growth.

I was invited by the Maryland Wineries Association to attend their Winter Wine Showcase on January 21st. The event was held in Baltimore at the B&O Railroad Museum, which is on the National Register of Historic places and is the oldest surviving railroad station in the United States. It is an amazing venue filled with railroad artifacts and the world’s largest collection of 19th-century locamotives. The museum is well curated and and filled with spectacular dioramas and displays. It made a perfect backdrop for showcasing Maryland wine.

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The Roundhouse at the C&O Museum 

Of course, a fabulous backdrop does not guarantee success. I have to give great credit to the Maryland Wineries Association for the organization of the actual event. It began with a sparkling wine reception spread throughout the Museum's anterooms. The quality of the sparklers set the tone and heightened anticipation of the main event. When the doors finally opened for the Roundhouse Tasting, visitors were ushered into a space what was planned and executed with thought given to every detail. Tables were at the center of the space and wines were poured at tables around the perimeter. Carving stations and hors d'oeuvres were interspersed among the tasting stations. A light jazz ensemble provided music. It lacked any semblance of a wine festival atmosphere.

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 Sparkling wines on ice.

I want to emphasize that the event was a “showcase” in the true meaning of the word.  Wineries were asked to submit their best wines. Each wine was then evaluated and 37 of the states finest examples, produced by only 17 wineries, were selected for presentation. So the Winter Wine Showcase demonstrated to all in attendance the level of quality that can be achieved in Maryland. All of the wines were simply exceptional with many bordering on world class.

There were too many wines to review and, in any case, I did not take detailed tasting notes. I attended in an effort to capture an impression. I hesitate to mention specific wines at the exclusion of all the others that were equally amazing. I will say that there were a few things that stood out simply because they were unusual. During the reception, I tasted sparkling Albarino from Old Westminster Winery, Vidal Blanc from Crow Vineyard, and Chambourcin Rose from Knob Hall. All of these get extra points for being out of the ordinary. Among the still wines Black Ankle Vineyards was pouring a Gruner Veltliner and Old Westminster Winery was pouring their Albarino. These were each great wines, but the big surprise for me was a Vignoles from Linganore Winecellars. I had no idea that hybrid was capable of such a complex and balanced white wine.

 Wine against a railroad backdrop.

Among the reds, I tasted several excellent Cabernet Francs. Other real standouts were the Thanksgiving Farm Reserve Heritage and the Crow Vineyard Barbera Reserve. The biggest surprise of the night was the Malbec from Big Cork Vineyards. I have tasted a few from the mid Atlantic and all tended to be on the light side. This one was big like an Argentine Malbec and easily the best example I have tasted on the East Coast. I could go on and I realize that I have overlooked some equally great wines, but I think you get the picture.

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 Guests enjoying the evening.

The event was a bit pricey at $65 dollars for the Roundhouse Tasting and another $15 for the reception. Having said that, the price seemed to limit the crowd to serious oenophiles and there were no public displays of drunkenness. In the end, the tasting was open to anyone willing pay the price and everyone appeared to enjoy themselves. All that aside, did I mention the wine? I will tell you that I came away a fan and I am inspired to explore and write about Maryland in greater detail over the next few years. I was telling a wine-writer friend in Los Angles about the event and she was surprised to learn that they made wine in Maryland. Let me say for the record that they are not just making wine, they are making great wine. If you have not tried it, it is time you did.


Monday, December 14, 2015

Delaplane Cellars

As part of a concerted effort to make my winery reviews more current, I drove up to Fauquier County and stopped in at Delaplane Cellars, which I had not visited in over two years. I arrived just as they were opening and lingered a few minutes on the hillside below the tasting room to admire the view. The west-facing slope offers a panorama of the Blue Ridge that is simply jaw-dropping. 

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The tasting room is also quite stunning. The long, L-shaped tasting bar occupies one large corner of the room. Seating is arranged just inside the entrance and along the large picture windows. Outside there is an elevated deck that wraps around the front of the building and offers additional seating options. It is all designed to allow visitors a perfect vantage point to admire the same view I described above. 

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Looking back over my earlier review, I noted that I went on at great length about the Delaplane wines. I can say that this is something I hear frequently from others who have visited. And the winery is one that always comes highly recommended. My experience with the wine was no different during my most recent stop. There were four whites, a rosé and two red Bordeaux-style blends.

The tasting began with a barrel fermented Chardonnay, a Melange Blanc and a Traminette. All were well made, but the Petite Manseng was the standout and possibly the best wine of the tasting. At two percent residual sugar, it was a perfectly balanced wine. There were big tropical aromas and on the palate that little bit of sugar was just enough to accent the pineapple and pear notes. It really is a fabulous wine.

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The two red blends were also worth writing home about. The Duet, in particlar, was a high point on the tasting menu. Hints of cigar box mingled with red berries and structured tannins gave way to an extremely long finish. The Williams Gap blend was also noteworthy. They are both perfectly constructed wines.

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In my last Delaplane blog, I also went on at length about the quality of the customer experience. This time I am not sure I can echo that same sentiment. I introduced myself at the tasting bar and rendered my business card. After that, I was treated a little bit like an industrial spy. I struck up a pleasant conversation with a couple at the tasting bar, but interacting with the staff was strained and bordered on unpleasant. Maybe they have had a bad experience with another blogger. Maybe they have been instructed not to answer questions. It might be easier to understand, if the tasting room were crowded. Curiously, it was first thing in the morning and there were only five other visitors. I do not know what was going on, but the entire experience was unfortunate.

Will I go so far as to wave you off of a visit to Delaplane? No. On the other hand, I am very interested in hearing from others. If you have been to Delaplane, please let me know the details. I do hope my experience was not typical, but I am not inspired to visit again any time soon.