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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Vint Hill Craft Winery

Army Monitoring Station Number One closed in the late 1990s. During World War II and on through the Cold War, however, the site was used to listen to radio transmissions. There’s no longer a heavy demand for that skill set, so the government divested the property, which now contains a Cold War museum, a housing subdivision and a winery. An odd combination? Perhaps, but read on.


Vint Hill Craft Winery's location, in the middle of a housing development and in the same building that housed the old radio monitoring station, does seem a bit out of the ordinary. Of course, Vint Hill Craft Winery is not your typical winery/tasting room. Since 2009, when Vint Hill opened its doors, they have existed to teach classes on winemaking. Businesses and even individuals can produce their own wines, purchase a barrel or half barrel, bottle their product and make their own labels. It’s an interesting concept and the only one of its kind in the Commonwealth.

The Cold War Museum shares a building with the winery.

So Vint Hill was not conceived as a winery in the traditional sense. I was a little put off by that initially, but the more I learned, the more I appreciated the concept. It’s not that there are no Vint Hill wines. There are, but their significance is muted by the winery's larger purpose. The Vint Hill mission is wine education and that is achieved in a couple of ways. On the most basic level, casual visitors will be exposed to wines produced from Virginia, Washington and California grapes. This provides an opportunity for comparison. Toward this end, Vint Hill charges an “education fee,” as opposed to a “tasting fee” and the tasting experience proceeds like a wine course. During my visit, there were ten wines on the tasting list that represented fruit from both Virginia and Washington. The staff seemed very adept at guiding visitors through the offerings and they perform well in their dual trainer/wine steward roles.

The tasting room is on the upper floor of the barn
that housed Monitoring Station Number One. 

Of course, the main event at Vint Hill is the making of wine. This is a “custom crush” facility, meaning that the winery will make wines to a customer’s specifications. Unlike similar operations, however, the customer can be as involved in the process as s/he likes. In this sense, there is a partnership with Vint Hill, that allows the customer to become the winemaker and the winery staff to simply facilitate that process. So there is a knowledge transfer to the customer and the art of winemaking can be learned on the winery floor using a hands-on approach.

The winemaking facility is on the ground floor. 

I have to admit that until sitting down to write this review, I did not fully appreciate the implications of the Vint Hill program. This is wine education in its purest form. There are certainly university programs and wine institutions that convey information in a formal setting. This program, on the other hand, is geared toward the average wine enthusiast, who is not interested in a degree or certification. Vint Hill is a legitimate venue for wine learning and, as such, plays an important role in educating wine consumers in regional wine differences, in addition to the art and science of winemaking. 


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Tarara Winery

In northeastern Loudoun County, on the banks of the Potomac River, you’ll find Tarara Winery situated on 500 rural acres. It’s a beautiful setting. The winery and tasting room complex is built into the side of the hill and has a kind of cellar feeling. Maybe that's because it is physically the basement of the property’s main estate. But anyway... The deck area is spacious and I picked an unseasonably warm February day for my visit, so there was a small crowd sitting outside and enjoying the view of the river and the hills of Maryland on the far side.


The estate above the winery complex is the home of Tarara’s owner, Margaret Hubert. It seems like a curious thing to live above a winery, but it appears to work. Parts of the home are even opened for special winery events. Premier tastings are held upstairs and it opens as the Vine Club Lounge on Sundays.

I learned that the winery is really two distinct entities and it’s not accurate to refer to both as Tarara. There are two lines of wine being produced. Although both can be sampled and purchased in the tasting room, the Boneyard and Tarara lines have been separated. They will each have their own advertising campaigns, wine clubs and identities. On the day of my visit, the Boneyard wines were being sampled in the tasting room, but I’ll get to that shortly.

The Tarrara deck on a beautiful February afternoon.

Total annual production of the Tarara and Boneyard wines is currently 8000 and 2000 cases respectively. The plan is to increase production to between 15,000 and 20,000 for Tarara and 10,000 for Boneyard, which will make this winery one of the largest in the state. In order to accomplish this, additional fruit—lots of additional fruit—will be necessary. So acres under vine will be increased from the current forty three to just over one hundred. That’s aggressive by any account. It can cost as much as $15,000 per acre to plant new vines and it’s typically at least three years before fruit can be harvested. It’s an impressive project and, if successful, will be a positive development for Virginia wine. The ability to export good Virginia wine can only help the reputation of the entire industry.

Inside the Tarrara tasting room.

Charged with making all of this happen is Jordan Harris, who is both winemaker and general manager. Before taking over at Tarara, Jordan made wines in Ontario’s Niagara region. Under Jordan’s watch, the winery has stopped hosting weddings and other private events and placed full emphasis on making world-class wine. It was also Jordan who added the Boneyard wines, which are intentionally a bit edgier than the Tarara line and it was these offerings that was being poured at the tasting bar.

I’m always happy to see a sparkling wine and the NV Bad to the Bones Bubbles, made from 100% Chardonnay, is an excellent example. There is also an “orange” wine in the lineup. The 2011 Skins is made from the traditional Rkatsetali, but didn’t exhibit the typical rust color. It did, however, have some of the complexity, while still presenting itself as a sipping wine. I thought my favorite wine would be the 2012 Cabernet Franc, of which only 29 cases were made, but I had an opportunity to try the 2010 Syrah. The Syrah is allegedly the most expensive wine in Virginia and is going for $100 per bottle. It was a big, dark wine with an amazing nose, great fruit and tons of complexity. Of course it’s a 2012, but it has legs and I think five or six more years in the bottle would serve that wine well. 

The view of the Maryland hills on the far side of the Potomac.

The wines were excellent and the entire tasting experience was just as good. Skylar was pouring my wines and I found her to be informative and full of positive energy. She represented the winery very well. I also spoke at length with Shawn, who is the Brand Ambassador. She was able to fill in many details about the winery and was good enough to track down additional information. Skylar and Shawn were both customer oriented and extremely knowledgable. It was a great visit.

So I need to stop in again to taste the Tarara wines. In the mean time, if you happen to be in the Leesburg area, this winery needs to be one of your stops. The property is breathtaking, the staff is exceptional and and the wines are world class. Tarara is on the right trajectory and it will be exciting to see how their future evolves.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lost Creek Vineyard & Winery

Like many new winery owners, Aimee and Todd Henkle had a long-standing dream to be involved in the wine industry. When they began looking for potential opportunities, Todd and Aimee considered California and Oregon, before settling in Loudoun County, Virginia. The fifty acre property that contains Lost Creek Vineyard and Winery was for sale. The beauty of the area combined with the excitement of being a part of a region that is just getting established proved to be a strong motivators.

After the Henkles took over in 2012, they started making changes. According to Aimee Henkle, their goal is "to create the highest quality Virginia wine possible while maintaining a great friendly atmosphere for people to come and enjoy [the] wines and the property.” They seem to have these goals firmly in their sights. The property is gorgeous with lots of space outside the tasting room. The building itself has a modern European exterior and the interior is small, but elegant and almost appears as if it's been decorated for a special event. 


On the quality wine front, they currently have sixteen acres under vine on the property, three acres at Shirland Farms near Middleburg and plans to plant an additional three acres. The goal is to increase production from the current 2000 cases to somewhere in the neighborhood of four or five thousand, but to remain a boutique winery with an eye toward crafting fine wine.

To assist with that plan, the Henkles have retained the services of Sebastien Marquet as a winemaking consultant. One hears that name everywhere in Northern Virginia. He has made wine in Burgundy, Napa and Martinique. Yes, Martinique! Marquet has a reputation for quality wine and is assisting several area wineries realize similar goals. Lost Creek has a reputation for excellent white wines, but the Henkles want to focus on Bordeaux blends. I think they brought in the right winemaker.


There were five wines on the menu when I visited. Four of them were whites. Like I said, I’d heard good things about the whites prior to my visit and every one of these had won an award. I really like the  Reserve Chardonnay, which took bronze in the Governor’s Cup. It’s an exceptional wine done in Bordeaux style with nice fruit, muted acidity and it’s beautifully balanced. My favorite wine overall was the Vidal Blanc. This cold fermentation wine was crisp and dry, with nice fruit and a delicate balance. The only red was the Genesis, which is intended to be Lost Creek’s signature red wine. It was big with good fruit and a nice finish and won Gold at the Virginia Wine Classic and Bronze in the Governor’s Cup. Unfortunately, it was from a particularly bad vintage, but I could see that it had promise and I look forward to returning and sampling one from a better year.


I would be remiss if I did not mention my wine steward. Karissa did a great job. We had a wonderful conversation as she deftly guided me through all of the offerings. Her knowledge of the Lost Creek wines was extensive and I found her to be an excellent representative of the industry. I can only imagine that each visitor she serves walks away with a better understanding of Virginia wine. 

So what can I tell you? Well, first of all I think there are exciting things on the horizon for Lost Creek. This is a winery to watch. Second, I think you need to add this venue to your short list and plan a visit. The beauty of the property, quality of the wine and overall tasting experience are all reasons to make he drive. 


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Hidden Brook Winery

Up in Northeastern Loudoun County, not far from Leesburg, Virginia, there is a group of wineries situated on the Maryland border along the banks of the Potomac River. Hidden Brook Winery is one of those that make up what is known as the “Potomac Cluster.” 

The road to Hidden Brook winds through a distinctly rural landscape and gives no clue that Leesburg is only twenty minutes away. Driving the narrow roads through the heavily forested countryside, it almost seemed an unlikely location for a winery, but I plunged suddenly out of the trees and the landscape changed to rolling hills and vineyards.


The winery and tasting room sit back inside the treeline. They are housed in a log cabin that the owners, Eric and Deborah Hauck built with the help of family and friends. It’s a rustic, but relaxing setting with a covered porch and tables distributed throughout the wooded property.


Inside the tasting room, there was a pretty healthy crowd. Most weekends there is live music and Adam Bruno, a local performer, was in the corner near the fireplace. It was unseasonably warm, so there was no fire lit, but I got a sense that this might be a great retreat on a winter weekend to relax with a glass of wine and listen to good local music.


The tasting room opened in 2002 and the first Hidden Brook grapes were planted in 1998, so the winery has been on the scene a few years. Today the winery is producing between 2500 and 3000 cases each year from the seven acres that are under vine. 

At the tasting bar, Ashleigh was my wine steward. She is a Northern Virginia transplant from Orange, in Central Virginia and had only been with Hidden Brook for about seven months. She displayed knowledge of the wine industry outside her current position as she deftly guided me through each of the selections. We had a great conversation about the wines and she was able to fill in additional background about the winery. I thought she did a fabulous job.


There were a number of 2010’s on the tasting menu, which was exciting. It’s such a good year and many wineries are pouring more recent vintages. I particularly enjoyed the 2010 Vidal Blanc, which was done in an off-dry style. It was a crisp balanced wine, with green apple notes. It was a well crafted and refreshing. In an effort to highlight the fruit, the red wines are produced with limited time in oak. Toward this end, the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon was done in neutral oak and showed lots of fruit on the nose and palate. Then Ashleigh poured me some of the 2011 Cab Sauv, which is a club wine. Because 2011 was such an awful year, you’d think the 2010 would be reserved for club members, but this fruit was harvested between the hurricanes, so the crop was salvaged. It demonstrated what 2011 could have been, It was the best 2011 Cab Sauv I’ve tasted and very possibly the best 2011 altogether. It was an amazing wine.


So it was another successful winery visit. I discovered a great location, tasted a flight of excellent wines and learned a great deal about Hidden Brook Winery. I strongly recommend a visit to the Potomac cluster and while you’re there, be sure to stop by Hidden Brook.