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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Wolf Mountain Vineyards

Until recently I did not really associate Georgia (the state not the republic) with fine wine. I vaguely knew that the southern United States made a lot of sweet wine from Muscadine. Beyond that, I did not give it much thought. A recent visit to north-central Georgia completely changed my way of thinking. In the mountains near the town of Dahlonega, there is a cluster of wineries making exceptionally good wine from vinifera. Wolf Mountain Vineyards is perhaps the state's premier winery and they are setting the standard for what is possible in that region. 

The Wolf Mountain tasting room/winery complex

In 1999, the Boegner family purchased their thirty-acre estate high on the Dahlonega Plateau and began planting grapes the following year. Today there are ten acres of vinifera under vine on south-facing slopes. The grapes include Syrah and Bordeaux varietals grown at elevations above 1400 feet, where they escape the Georgia heat. Additional fruit for the white offerings is sourced locally. The winery produces 6000 cases annually with the potential to increase that number to as much as 10,000 cases.

Outdoor seating with a killer view

There are a total of sixteen wines in the Wolf Mountain portfolio, but I tasted only half of them. I will say without reservation that the real story here is the sparkling wine and red blends. This is currently the only winery in the state of Georgia that is producing sparkling wine. The tasting started with a Blanc de Blanc and a second sparkler made from whole-cluster pressing of Marsanne, Viognier and Syrah. Both were exceptionally well crafted, dry-style wines and they alone might have made my trip worth while. The still white offerings are also worthy of note, but the reds were simply over the top. I tasted four different red blends and with each one I thought I had found my favorite. The Claret was the fourth and it was simply mind blowing. I did not expect to taste a wine of that calibre. It is a big, earthy, berry infused wine that spent 24 months in new Hungarian and American oak. It is complex with firm tannins and finish that lasts forever. It won double gold in San Francisco for good reason.

One of many Wolf Mountain offerings

The wine is a reason to visit, but it is not the only reason. Prior to establishing the winery, Karl Boegner had a long and distinguished career in the hospitality industry and he brought that background to bear in the Wolf Mountain tasting room. Every aspect of my experience was first rate. The staff has been well coached. They can speak with authority about the wine and they are professional in every aspect of their duties. Wolf Mountain provides the type of environment that will reflect favorably on Georgia’s wine industry. 

Harvesting Malbec 

If what I outlined above is not enough, I should add that Wolf Mountain is one of the most beautiful venues I have encountered on the east coast. The property seems ideal for a wedding venue set against a mountain backdrop that is simply jaw dropping. The popularity of the space is obvious. I arrived late in the day to a full parking lot and a very large crowd in the tasting room. The decks and patios are designed to take advantage of the view and provides every reason to linger after a tasting.

An amazing view from the Wolf Creek tasting room

Simply put, the Boegner family has put great effort into establishing a singular winery in the mountains of Georgia. They are producing world-class wines in a lesser-known wine producing region. I came away a huge fan of this wine venue and I think they deserve our support, but do not take my word for it. I urge you to find out for yourself. After you do, I hope you will let me know what you think.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Chateau Elan Winery

In 1978, when Chateau Elan Winery was established near Braselton, Georgia, consultants were brought in from California. An ambitious program was drafted and 450 acres of vinifera were planted. To put that in perspective, the largest wine growing operation in Virginia is only 200 acres. The viticultural program at Chateau Elan was bigger than anything on the entire east coast. That was problematic.

Outside the Chateau Elan tasting complex

These were still the early days of American viticulture and very little was known about eastern growing conditions. Soil analysis indicated that European varietals might thrive, but everything else about the terroir was wrong. Braselton is not in the mountains, where higher elevation will support vinifera. This part of Georgia is flat, hot and humid. Fungal infections were a nuisance, but could be controlled. The real problem was Pierce’s Disease, which is spread by leaf hoppers. Spraying programs were unsuccessful and a series of west coast and European experts continued to pursue a failing program in vineyards that were slowly dying. The wine lacked any semblance of quality, active acres under vine dwindled to seventeen and the reputation of Chateau Elan suffered.

In 2012 the resort leadership hired a new winemaker. Simone Bergese began his career making wine in Italy and Australia, but he also ran a successful program at Potomac Point in Virginia. So he had some east coast experience. When Simone arrived, he immediately realized that the vineyards were “a dead man walking.” He established a program of sourced vinifera from select vineyards in California. Simone does not use juice or bulk wine. He imports only whole clusters and produces all of the wine on site at Chateau Elan. With the remaining vineyard acreage at Chateau Elan, he took a more radical step. All of the vines were ripped up and replaced with Muscadine.

Rows of Muscadine in front of the tasting room

Thomas Jefferson believed that Muscadine might be the future of American wine production, because it is resistant to every disease that plagues vinifera. Muscadine, however, has the unfortunate reputation of being a “southern sweet wine.” Curiously, Muscadine is not inherently sweet. In truth, the grape ripens with high amounts of acidity. Southern producers have traditionally masked that acidity by adding large amounts of sugar so the product can be cloyingly sweet. Simone had a different idea.

With the right balance of sugar, Muscadine is capable of dry-style wines. Rather than mask the acidity, Simone uses it in his Muscadry line and balances it with percentages of residual sugar that are one percent or less. Chateau Elan's Duncan Creek offering is the only “sweet” Muscadine wine at five percent residual sugar, but it still retains perfect balance. These are early days for the dry-style Muscadines, but I am of the opinion that the wines show great promise. There is a Muscadine sparkler coming in the near future and Simone is considering a move to entirely organic wines. 

A few of the Chateau Elon offerings

Of course I had an opportunity to taste the full line of Chateau Elan offerings. I will say that the wines made from California fruit are uniformly excellent. The Pinot Noir Reserve and the higher end Fingerprint Collection are worthy of particular note. I particularly enjoyed the Mameli, which is a blend of Barbera, Nebbiolo and Montepulciano. Simone grew up with these varietals, so it is no wonder that it is the most complex and food-friendly wine in the Chateau Elan lineup. 

I will be remiss, if I do not say a few words about the Muscadine wines. First of all, because of their bright acidity, all of them will benefit from a food pairing. Unlike most wines, I found that the Muscadine taste profile was less linear and spread out more across the palate, which adds a degree of complexity that I did not expect. All were well crafted. On the nose, I detected hints of berry and something akin to Concord in all of the Muscadines, but the grape juice feature did not carry over to the palate. The Mascadry Rouge is blended with a bit of Syrah and spends a short time in oak to make it a slightly bigger wine. While it drinks well, it is more of a gateway red that will appeal to new wine drinkers without a strongly developed palate. That is not meant to be derogatory, but the red is simply not the same caliber as the higher-end wines made from imported fruit and I think that is by design.

Visitors enjoying the wine and view from the tasting room balcony

In the end, I feel that Muscadine is the main story at Chateau Elan. Simone is singlehandedly rehabilitating the reputation of that grape and his effort may reverberate through the south. The resort and palatial tasting room will draw visitors from nearby Atlanta and the wines will speak for themselves. Great effort has been placed on an educational tasting program, so it is just a matter of time before the word gets out. With regard to the winery, Simone Bergese has taken Chateau Elan to the next level. Something historical is taking place and I strongly recommend seeing for yourself, so we can watch together as Simone’s wine program evolves. After you stop in, please let me know what you think.


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Well Hung Vineyard

As legend has it, the winegrowers were in the vineyard and commented on the fruit as being “well hung.” It is from this reference that Well Hung Vineyard was named. The wine label has probably received more attention that the wine. It contains the image of three gentlemen standing behind trellised vines and only their legs are visible. Bunches of grapes hang at about crotch level.  Beneath that image are the words “Well Hung.” It is a little racy, but fun.

Well Hung has been growing grapes since about 2002 and started bottling their wines seven years later. So they have been around for a while, but they do not have a dedicated tasting room. I first encountered their wine at Early Mountain Vineyards and I recall enjoying the wines I sampled, but I have never written anything about Well Hung. Honah Lee Vineyards in Gordonsville has also been pouring their wines for a couple years. I was recently in Nelson County on Route 151 and noticed a Well Hung sign hanging outside the Blue Toad Cidery tasting room, so I pulled in with the intention of doing a tasting and writing a piece for my blog. 

Inside the tasting room, Blue Toad and Well Hung share the same small tasting bar. Having said that, it appears that there is ample space to disperse visitors with seating inside and out. I found the staff to be very attentive and they seemed knowledgable about both the cider and wine. There is a very cozy aura about the place and it appears that there were a number of repeat customers, which bodes well for the reputation.

I sampled six of the Well Hung wines. The three whites and three reds were all well crafted. The lightly oaked Chardonnay was a solid wine and I enjoyed the white blend. Among the reds there were three single varietal: Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The Merlot and Petit Verdot were excellent, but the Cab Franc reserve just stole the show. There were no green notes at all. It had beautiful ripe fruit, a hint of black pepper and a nice finish. Overall the Well Hung wines were all solid.

This was a very quick stop for me and I feel like I need to spend a little more time with the Well Hung wines, but based on this single tasting, I give them high marks. Their Nelson County tasting room is in a corridor that contains many great Virginia wineries, so when you find yourself in the vicinity, definitely make a stop at Well Hung. It is a winery that needs to be on your radar. After you visit, please let me know what you think.


Monday, July 18, 2016

Rappahannock Cellars

The Delmare family moved from the Santa Cruz Mountains, where they were making wine from old-growth vines at Savannah Channel Vineyards 30 miles north of San Francisco. They still own the California Vineyard, but they made the move to Virginia in an effort to find a more wholesome and family-friendly environment. John and Marialisa Delmare subsequently raised 12 children on their 85-acre farm in Rappahannock County. It is a family operation in the truest sense. All of the children, in turn, have had a hand in working the vineyards and assisting with other aspects of winery operations.

Over the past 16 years, the Delmare family has transformed their winery into one of the most respected and well-known winemaking operations in the Commonwealth. Planting began at Rappahannock Cellars in 2000. Today there are 30 acres under vine and another 22 leased acres at Indian Springs in the Shenandoah Valley. They also import fruit from their Californian vineyards and have other small holdings in Virginia. All told, they are producing between 12,000 and 13,000 cases annually from this fruit.

It had been at least three years since my last visit, so my site was long overdue for an updated profile of Rappahannock. Prior to my tasting, I spent some time wandering around reacquainting myself with the grounds and tasting room complex. The property is hugged by a series of rolling hills that give way to the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. A food truck was parked near the barn, where they were selling their wares. Ample outside seating can be found in the yard or on the deck and porch areas. Inside there is a tasting space with three bars and off of that room there are large areas reserved for the wine club. A couple of staff members seem to be dedicated exclusively to the club rooms.

I finally made my way to one of the tasting bars and found seven wines on the menu. There are separate lists for the public and club spaces. There are no “inferior” wines at Rappahannock, but club members do taste reserve and “black label” wines that are aged longer in oak. Jenna was my wine steward and she let me taste from both menus, so I could gage the difference. She has been with the winery for six years and was able to speak with great confidence about each of the offerings. Her knowledge of the wines and winery contributed to a very nice dialogue throughout the tasting. It really was a first-rate tasting experience. I think Jenna created an excellent customer experience and represented the industry well, creating conditions that will inspire a return visit.

All told, I probably tasted a dozen wines, which is far too many to talk about at length. We started with a white blend and a Chardonnay. Both were excellent wines, but I thought the Cab Franc and Merlot Rosé was a particular standout with its watermelon notes and tart raspberry finish. Among the reds, I tasted both the regular and black label Meritage. The extra six months in oak make a marked difference in the black label example. The black label was characterized by more complexity and supple tannins that will ensure more years in the cellar. The final wine of the tasting was the Solara, which I think is one of the most unique wines in Virginia. This wine is produced from Vidal Blanc that is left to age on the roof in large glass jars. Each year part of the wine is siphoned off and more Vidal is added. This is an Oloroso Sherry style wine that is characterized with a pecan nuttiness that takes on a strong pecan taste profile that can taste almost like pecan pie. I think this wine is all the justification you need to visit.

Rappahannock Cellars is certainly one of the state’s premier wineries and produces wine of the highest caliber. If, inexplicably, you have never visited, you should make plans to stop in. If you have been there before, it is probably time to return. Rappahannock is a Virginia institution that inspires our support. After you drop by the tasting room, I hope you will let me know what you think. I will be waiting to hear from you.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Michael Shaps Satellite Tasting Room

On the west coast, satellite tasting rooms are quite common. When I use the term “satellite tasting room,” I’m referring to an off-site tasting room. In other words, it is not located on the same property as the vineyard and, in most cases, the winery. It often operates in addition to the tasting room at the winery itself. Santa Barbara, California has quite a few tasting rooms. Woodinville, Washington, with a population of only 11,000, boasts 140 tasting rooms, wineries and wine bars. The entire state of Virginia contains only a small fraction of that number and the success rate has been spotty.

Charlottesville has hosted a couple tasting rooms for Virginia wineries. Ankida Ridge opened one just off of Water Street called “22 Brix” and Little Washington Winery pours wine at “Wine Loves Chocolate” on the downtown mall. Sadly, both have struggled. 22 Brix recently shuttered its windows and Wine Loves Chocolate may change its business model and transition into a wine bar. On the other hand, Ox Eye Vineyards has successfully run a tasting operation in downtown Staunton for many years. In the end, it probably boils down to location.

Michael Shaps has recently gambled on a satellite operation on the edge of Charlottesville directly adjacent to one of the entrances to the soon to open Wegman’s Supermarket. On the surface this looks like a safe bet. With proper signage in such a prominent location, odds are he will be able to attract a significant number of visitors. When the shopping complex opens, Shaps will be sitting next to one of the busiest intersections in the city (at least until the excitement dies down). That may be enough. If Shaps can make people aware of the location and offer a reasonable tasting experience, it may increase his probability of success.

I stopped in recently to find out a little more about the tasting room, which is located just off of Avon Street on the southern edge of Charlottesville. Tasting room manager Cassie Derby was on hand and she was able to give me a tour of the facility and step me through the tasting program. First of all, the satellite operation will not replace the existing tasting room south of town. It will offer a pair of slightly different tasting menus. One will concentrate on the Wineworks box wines. These are low on the Shaps spectrum of wines, but still of very high quality for box wine. I sampled a couple of these during my visit. Both the dry-style Rosé and the Cabernet Franc were drinking well.

The higher-end flight consists of "Michael’s picks.” The first two on the list were a Wineworks Chardonnay and a white blend of Roussanne, Petit Manseng and Viognier. They were both well crafted, but the blend was excellent with floral and honey notes followed by apple and pear on the palate. These were followed by a Maison Shaps Rosé from his winery in Burgundy and a wine from one of Shaps’ favorites a Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Domaine Berthoumieu Madiran in Southwestern France. 

Of course the full range of Shaps wines are available for purchase and this includes the Maison Shaps line in addition to several bottles from Domaine Berthoumieu Madiran. All of the wines on the tasting menus are available by the glass, carafe or bottle (or growler for the Wineworks offerings) and there is some limited room to linger in the tasting room. Cassie took me up the a second space that is currently under construction. It will allow for overflow and provide a space for small private events.

It is an interesting lineup that is complimented by an expert tasting room staff. Cassie’s staff all seemed professional and customer oriented. For my part, I did enjoy the tasting and I will certainly return. It is certainly convenient for anyone living in or near Charlottesville and of course the Shaps wines are all excellent. If you have not heard about this venue or simply not yet visited, there is no time like the present. When Wegman’s opens, things are likely to get a little crazy. Beat the crowd, check them out and, when you do, let me know what you think.


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.