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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Stone Tower Estate Winery

After leaving Loudoun County’s oldest winery, I drove a few miles down the road to Stone Tower Estate Winery. You know, I’d never heard of this place and I really do make an effort to stay on top of these things. As it turned out, I’d never heard of it, because Stone Tower is Loudoun County’s newest winery. So there you go. 

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Mike and Kristi Huber purchased this property and quickly realized that it might have potential for wine production. I should point out that the Hubers cut their teeth in the business community as owners and operators of Belfort Furniture in the metro DC area. So when they started contemplating a winemaking venture, they approached it as one might a business. That is to say, they did their homework.

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During my visit, I was able to speak with Mike, Kristi, their daughter Lacey and assistant manager Jeremy Zimmerman. So, I got some pretty good insights into where they’re headed with the winery. Mike told me that he is interested in making world-class wine. Most and maybe all winery owners probably have a similar goal, but the Hubers assembled a team that make their end game seem probable.

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They first brought in Lucy Morton, the legendary Virginia vineyard consultant. She spent an extended period analyzing the property, taking soil samples and working her “Lucy Morton” magic. She pronounced the property to be suitable for viticulture and pointed out all the best vineyard sites. Armed with this knowledge, the Hubers promptly planted 22 acres of vines. That’s right, 22 acres.

You know, most new wineries coming online will plant a few acres with an eye toward planting a couple more each year. Well, the Hubers are interested in making the business work and they want to make wine. Not just wine, but good wine. And in these times of grape shortage, there’s little chance of purchasing large quantities of grapes locally and there are always concerns about grape quality. So they went all in. Not only did they immediately plant 22 acres, but they have an intermediate goal of 52 acres under vine. That’s a pretty fair amount of acreage.

Then they hired a winemaking prodigy from Northern California. Tim Crowe has spent his winemaking career in California, New Zealand and Germany. He has produced wines with ratings in the nineties. This is a guy on the way up and the Hubers want to harness that energy.

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This year Stone Tower produced about 1900 cases of wine. The goal is to top out at 15,000 cases. This will not be a small boutique winery and the trick will be to increase to those levels while maintaining quality. I followed Mike Huber on a tour of the new winery and they have made every effort to provide Tim with the tools he needs. It’s already showing in the few wines he’s produced.

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Lacey Huber poured my wine during the tasting. The Stone Tower vineyards were only planted in 2009, but they are already producing some estate whites. There were three additional wines from Stone Tower’s Wild Boar line, but these are sourced from other wineries to add depth to the tasting. I’ll focus only the the estate offerings, which included a pair of 2012 Chardonnays and a 2012 Viognier. Both Chards were good, but the Viognier was amazing. It was done half in stainless steel and half in a concrete egg. There were peach notes on the nose and palate with a nice crispness and a hint of minerality. It’s a beautiful wine. Is this a preview of what we can expect in the future? I think it is.

The temporary tasting room is in a converted barn. I found it to be expertly decorated and well designed, but it will eventually be repurposed as an event space. The new tasting room and visitor areas are currently under construction next to the winery. Kristi and Lacey showed me the artists renderings of the finished space. If the drawings are accurate, this will be one of the nicest winery/tasting room complexes in the state. I’m not exaggerating. They seem to have spared no expense. I then tagged along with  Kristi as she toured a group around the new site. It will overlook the vineyards in a west-facing orientation that will allow visitors to watch the sunset.

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So this is a winery to keep your eye on. The Hubers are definitely being aggressive, but the business plan seems sound. The new tasting room will be, fingers crossed, finished in the fall and I look forward to another visit. I’ll follow up and let you know what I find. In the mean time, you should wonder over on your own. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Narmada Winery

I was up in Rappahannock County, trying to work through my list of recommended wineries. The numerous stars next to Narmada Winery indicated that it had been suggested more than once and I was finally in a position to visit. My interest was further fueled by the recent news that Narmada, along with two other Virginia wineries, had won double gold in San Francisco. 

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About ten years ago, following a career in public service, Pandit Patil planted grapes on his Rappahannock County property. Selling grapes often proves to be the "gateway drug" for transitioning into winemaking and this was true for Pandit. In 2009, he and his wife, Dr. Sudah Patil, opened Narmada Winery. Since then, the couple and their winery have earned accolades from every quarter. Today they have 24 acres under vine and produce between 2500 and 3500 cases of wine each year. It is a relatively small boutique operation that is focused on the creation of world-class wines. 

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Sudah Patil assumed duties as the winemaker, a task to which she seems uniquely suited. In addition to a legendary palate, Sudah's undergraduate degree in chemistry provides an ideal background for understanding the finer nuances of winemaking.  I was fortunate enough to get a few minutes of her time during my visit and we had a nice conversation about the winery and some of the strategies for developing Namada's reputation in Virginia and throughout the United States.

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Wine competitions, she pointed out, represent an ideal platform for "getting the word out" about the quality of Narmada wine. Clearly they are meeting this goal. The San Francisco medals are just one example. An examination of the tasting menu reads like a roster of wine competitions. Nearly every wine on the list has won a medal and almost all of them are gold. 

Another of Sudah's interests is pairing the Narmada wines with Indian cuisine. She has thrown out the conventional wisdom, that dictates sweeter white wines with with spicy Indian food. The tasting menu makes pairing recommendations with many familiar American entrĂ©es, but an array of Indian suggestions are also included. Indeed, the Narmada kitchen even produces an impressive Indian menu, so you needn’t go far to attempt the recommended pairings. 

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Much like the wine list, the tasting room is an elegant convergence of India and Americana. Many reminders of the Patil's native country are intermingled with seasonal American decorations. It's an inviting, comfortable, attractive room, with many options for relaxing with a glass of wine. The relaxed ambiance puts it near the top of my list of favorite tasting rooms.

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I can tell you honestly that I really enjoyed all of the Narmada wines, but of course I had some favorites. The 2011 Viognier is one of the gold medal winners. It showed big tropical notes with a bit of pineapple, nice mouth feel and a wonderful finish. While many Virginia wineries are currently offering 2011 and 2012 vintages, Narmada's tasting list featured many slightly more mature red wines. The 2010 Reflection is a big, jammy Chambourcin and was the other SF gold winner. It displayed nice fruit with a bit of spice in the finish. The 2009 Cab Franc Reserve was another exceptional offering, but the 2010 Yas-Vin was my overall pick from the reds. This Bordeaux blend spent eighteen months in oak. It is big and deep red, with lots of black fruit on the palate. It's complex with an amazing finish. It’s truly an excellent wine.

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All the recommendations to visit Narmada were spot on. I really had a great visit. Elizabeth, my wine steward, was friendly, knowledgable and informed. We had a great conversation as she poured the wines and she was able to answer nearly all of my questions. This is a winery worth keeping your eye on. They produce excellent wine, it’s a beautiful venue and there are many other great wineries nearby. Don’t just add it to your list, get over there and check it out.