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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Trump, Albemarle House and the Rest of the Story

I attended the grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony at the palatial Albemarle House Bed and Breakfast. The remodeled and repurposed neo-Georgian estate is located on the 1300 acre Trump property, near Charlottesville, on the southeastern slope of Carter’s Mountain. I should add that Donald Trump was also there. I will not characterize the event as a media circus, but local, state and national news organizations were represented. Yes, they all showed up at the opening of a bed and breakfast. 

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Albemarle House Bed and Breakfast

Okay... I’m not stupid. The purpose of the media attention was not lost on me. Donald Trump is a celebrity and a presidential hopeful. The media is chasing him around. I get it.

So anyway, almost as soon as the event ended, I began to see and hear accounts of Trump’s speech. I admit, he stayed on message. He is, after all, running for president. As you would expect, news organizations obsessed over the politics of the moment. That is what they do, so no real surprise there, but even wine blogs… Yes! Even wine blogs fixated on the speech. I think they may have missed the real significance of the event.  

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Donald Trump delivering his remarks at the Albemarle House grand opening. In the background, from left to right: Eric Trump, Todd P. Haymore, Virginia Secretary of Agriculture, Jane Dittmar, Chair of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. 

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Media assembled for the grand opening

The Trumps stepped in a few years ago and purchased a failing venture. Business acumen was not the previous owner's strong suit. The property was purchased for a fraction of its asking price, but it was in serious decline. It took tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars to resuscitate the winery, vineyards and estate. And it was not just any vineyard. It was and still  is the largest vineyard on the east coast. I am big enough to admit that, like many, I was a little anxious after the Trumps took over. I had images of Disneyland on Carter’s Mountain. What took place, however, was one of the best possible outcomes for the Virginia wine industry.

Eric Trump took the lead on this venture and my hat goes off to him. The tasting experience under the previous owner was so dismal, that I visited once and never returned. Eric turned this around. The staff is poised, well trained and customer oriented. The tasting operation was extended to a back patio and lawn, which opens up to a spectacular view of the vineyard. Food service was added and a range of local-sourced menu items are now available. Attention was paid to every detail, but Eric Trump did not stop there.
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The Trump property boasts the largest vineyard on the east coast. 

Jonathan Wheeler was retained as the winemaker and sparkling wines are his superpower. The Trump sparklers can compete with any in the United States and possibly the world. All of the wines are first rate, but I also give very high marks to the red wines. The Bordeaux blends are particularly spectacular. Trump has become one of my go-to wineries when I am entertaining out of town guests and want to showcase Virginia wine.

The tasting room and wine may be what the majority of the public experiences, but there is more. The complex that once housed a collection of antique horse carriages has been made over as an event center and is considered Virginia’s top wedding destination. Now add Albemarle House to the equation, with ten luxurious guest rooms and a wide range of amenities. The entire Trump lineup offers an array of hospitality options designed to lure visitors to Virginia’s wine country. That, my friends, is not a bad thing.

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The back patio a the Trump tasting room

In the end, all of the attention may pay big dividends. For an instant, Albemarle House and Trump Vineyards were in the public eye. They may have been in the background, but they were the venue. No matter what becomes of Donald Trump’s presidential bid, he and his son have done a huge service for Virginia wineries in the Monticello AVA and beyond. They may have purchased the property for a pittance (relatively speaking) and the capital outlay was intended to make a profit. Nevertheless, the impact of those investments will benefit every small boutique winery in the region and help spotlight Virginia wine. 

So yeah, I attended the Albemarle House grand opening and like everyone in attendance I listened to Donald Trumps speech. Unlike the majority, however, I heard a very different message.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Eden Try Estate & Winery

Still scrambling to visit all of the wineries that opened in 2015, I drove over to Fredericksburg stopped in at Eden Try Estate and Winery. It is located on River Road, which is a lovely drive through heavily wooded acreage that meanders along the southern bank of the Rappahannock River. 

After you turn off River Road and through the gate at Eden Try, you will be struck by the beauty of the venue. The estate was originally built by a horticulturalist. After returning from an extensive tour of European gardens, he decided to try to recreate the Garden of Eden. Toward that end, he set about cultivating gardens throughout the property. Many years later, Linda Morrison purchased the acreage. With the help of Gary Gratopp, the general manager, it was transformed into one of the top wedding destinations in Virginia.

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The wedding venue came first and the winery came a little later. It seemed like a natural transition. Since wine is a normal component of most weddings, the idea was to create an Eden Try brand that might be included in the wedding package. Linda and Gary worked with Burnley Vineyards and Michael Shaps to produce and bottle a line of wines with the estate label. At the end of May, they opened a tasting room. Wine tastings can be arranged by appointment or regular tasting hours are available on the third Sunday of each month. You can stop in or reserve a seat on the Trolley Winery Tour that departs from Fredericksburg and stops at five local wineries.

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The lineup of wines is pretty solid. Considering who produces them, one should expect no less. They were pouring seven wines that included Rose, Vidal Blanc, stainless steel Chardonnay, Chambourcin, Cabernet Sauvignon and a pair of red blends. I was quite impressed by each wine in the lineup, but for my part the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon was worthy of writing home about. I was actually surprised that Burnley was putting an Eden Try label on such an excellent vintage. 

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I showed up for one of the third Sunday tasting days and I was able to observe the tasting operation with a large number of visitors. The Trolley Wine Tour was just wrapping up when I walked in and it appeared to be a very satisfied group. Linda and Gary were able to easily attend to their needs. Hospitality is, after all, one of their strong suits given the level of success they have achieved with the wedding business. So this was an easy day.

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The grounds are open as well and visitors are welcome to stroll through the gardens that surround the estate. Gary was gracious enough to show me around and I can easily see why this is such a popular venue. So I can heartily recommend stopping in on a third Sunday or making reservation to stop in on another day. Saturdays are typically reserved for weddings, but most other days will probably work. After you have made the trip, let me know what you think.


Monday, July 6, 2015

Sassafras Shade Vineyard

Another of the newly opened wineries that I have been scrambling to visit is Sassafras Shade Vineyard, which has the distinction of becoming the only (as of this writing) winery in Caroline County Virginia. It is easily accessible from Route 1 or Interstate 95, so it is positioned to attract visitors. Nevertheless, its nearest wine-producing neighbors are more than thirty minutes away.

Sassafras Shade is a distinctly family owned winery. This is not a winery born from a lot of Northern Virginia money. Gary Dudley got interested in wine as a hobby winemaker, but since childhood he dreamed of becoming a farmer. He has raised a variety of animals and planted more than grapes on his property near Ruther Glen. Growing vines is simply an extension of his farming interest. In the end, after all, viticulture is another agricultural pursuit.

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The tasting room has a rustic, cabin look to it. The outside is nearly complete, but there are ongoing improvements taking place inside. Gary is doing much of the work along with his family and they are making investments as they are able able. In the mean time, Gary is making and pouring wine made from vinifera, hybrids and Granny Smith apples. His enthusiasm for business of wine is obvious and he is anxious to talk about it with visitors who express an interest.

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There are five acres under vine at Sassafras Shade. Roughly 1000 cases of wine are produced annually using exclusively estate fruit. Gary is making a total of nine wines and I noted that a blackberry wine will be added to the lineup in 2015. I will also point out that all the wines I tasted were very well made. 

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The six white offerings included the Granny Smith apple wine. There were a couple surprises in that mix, which included an excellent stainless steel Chardonnay and very nice Cayuga that was full of lovely peach notes. Among the reds there was an interesting, unoaked Cabernet Franc, a Chambourcin and a blend of both varietals. I will say that my hands-down favorite was the dry-style Vidal Blanc, which incidentally took Bronze at the Finger Lakes. It was a nice lineup that will definitely inspire repeat visits.

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I had a great visit. I found Gary and his staff to be engaging and customer oriented. All of he visitors appeared to be completely entertained and relaxed. There was no rushing through the tasting and all of the wine stewards seemed well versed in all aspects of the wine and winery. So I walked away a huge fan and I encourage you to give this new winery your full support. Stop in and see what they are all about. After you do, let me know what you think.


Grey Horse Vineyards

I have been busy this last few months trying to catch up with all the new Virginia wineries that opened in 2015, which has kept be busy revisiting parts of the state I have not been to in a while. Grey Horse Vineyards has joined a small cluster of existing wineries in the rural southern tip of Fauquier County. It is an area that consists primarily of farmland and contains far more corn than grapevines, but I have discovered the wines to be of high quality.

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Driving across the property toward the tasting room, I noted that some land is still being cleared. It gives the impression that things are not quite settled. After parking and walking through the trees toward the tasting room, it quickly became evident that the winery was well established. The tasting facility is impressive. There is ample seating outdoors and inside the high ceilings lend it a palatial air. Once inside, I met owner/winemaker Jay Fenske, who took some time fill me in on some winery details while pouring my wine.

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Grey Horse opened in October of 2014 on a thirty five acre property that also contains a horse pasture, where owner Jay and his family raise Arabian Greys (which explains the name of the winery). Like so many winemakers, for years Jay made wine as a hobby. The siren call of commercial production led him to take courses at Piedmont Community College and attend seminars at Virginia Tech. Jay volunteered up the road at Molon Lave to gain practical experience and it was there that he also received technical advice.

As things progressed, Jay devoted a little over five acres to vines and used his estate fruit to make 1000 cases of wine in 2014. The plan is to eventually increase to sixteen acres under vine and ramp up production to between 4000 and 5000 cases per year. The Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot will be joined shortly by Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin. Other varietals may follow, but we will need to wait and see.

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I tasted four wines during my visit. All were 2012 and 2013 vintages and all were well crafted. The first wine set the tone for the tasting. It was a complex and perfectly balanced Chardonnay/Viognier blend filled with floral notes followed by citrus and honeysuckle. A well-made stainless steel Chardonnay rounded out the whites and then it was on to the reds, which included a Merlot and a Bordeaux blend. I thought both of the reds were exceptional, but I was particularly taken by the Merlot. Twenty four months in oak gave it a big nose full of red fruit and hints of tobacco. It was big and jammy with structured tannins. I am not always a fan of Merlot, but this one was over the top.

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In addition to the quality of the wine and the palatial nature of the tasting room, there are other reasons to visit. Grey Horse is both family and dog friendly. There is a large wood fireplace on the wall opposite the tasting bar. I am told that on the coldest snow-covered days last winter, when businesses were closed, the winery stayed open. Visitors braved the icy roads to gather around the fire. I think that says something about the inviting nature of the tasting room, but you will have to find out for yourselves. It does not necessarily need to be a cold winter day to stop by. After your visit, please let me know what you think.