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Monday, September 14, 2015

10 Must-Visit Virginia Wineries

When I sat down to make my list, I really struggled to limit it to ten. There are many others that could easily make the cut, but nobody publishes a top twelve, fourteen or twenty list. So I agonized and deliberated at length. In the end, I decided to go with some real top-tier wineries that may be flying just a little below the radar. 

**Central Virginia**

Ankida Ridge Vineyards


This has long been one of my favorite wineries and the only one in Virginia that consistently produces a quality single-varietal Pinot Noir. In a state that is simply not known for Pinot, Ankida’s location at eighteen hundred feet on the western slope of the Blue Ridge seems to make the difference. The tasting room and vineyard are, by most standards, out of the way and they are only open one weekend a month. Nevertheless, the property and the mountain views are breathtakingly beautiful and infinitely worth a visit. 

Gabriele Rausse Vineyards and Winery

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If you have not heard the name Gabriele Rausse, it is high time you did. He helped plant the state's first vinifera (international varietals) and he has been making wine in the Commonwealth since the early days of Virginia wine. Gabriele is among the most experienced winemakers in the state and does not compromise on the quality of his fruit. His wines are the ones I typically open with friends from out of state. I strongly recommend his Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, but all of his wines are excellent. Until recently, he sold his wine primarily at wine festivals, but in 2015 he opened a tasting room on his Carter’s Mountain property. 

Moss Vineyards


This is a fairly new addition to the Monticello AVA, but Moss has quickly established a reputation for quality wine. I particularly like the Architettura Reserva, which is their Bordeaux blend. Plan to park there for a while and enjoy a glass of wine while looking out at the amazing view of the Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah National Park. You need to see it to believe it.

**Chesapeake Bay**

Ingleside Vineyards

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This is the oldest winery on my list and one of the oldest in Virginia. I am not exactly certain that Ingleside Vineyards is exactly “flying under the radar,” but it is one of the state’s premier wineries. Unlike most of the others on my list it is not pressed up against the Blue Ridge Mountains. Winemaker Dominick Fioresi is making award-wining wines from the estate grapes. of particular note are the whites. I will point specifically to the AlbariƱo, which will pair well with the local seafood. I will also say that I did a barrel tasting of the 2013 Cabernet Franc, which is definitely world class and I imagine it has been bottled by now. 

**Northern Virginia**

Hiddencroft Vineyards

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Most people don’t know Hiddencroft, but it is easily one of the best wineries in Loudoun County. Clyde Housel was a farmer before he started growing grapes and making wine. His is a very small-batch boutique operation, but he makes no wines that are less than excellent. A couple of his reds spend a lot of time in oak and big, bold reds are something of a specialty. His Tannat is simply over the top and he makes a Chambourcin to write home about. The Hiddencroft 2012 Petit Verdot won gold in the Governor’s Cup and is an absolutely fabulous wine. 

Zephaniah Farm Vineyard

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This is another Loudoun County winery located not far from Leesburg. The tastings are done in a downstairs room of the early 19th-century manor house and everything about the experience is first rate. With regard to wine, I thought all of the white offerings were extraordinary, but the Cabernet Franc is stellar. Zephaniah places emphasis on properly ripening their fruit and it shows in the quality of their wines.

**Shenandoah Valley**

Cedar Creek

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This winery was a great discovery. It is on the western side of the Shenandoah facing the Allegheny Mountains and it is one of Virginia’s more remote wineries (or it seems that way when driving up from the south). In any case, this is one to visit. Ron Schmidt grows only Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay and began this second career with the intention of just selling his fruit. Lucky for us that the decided to make wine. His total yield is only 500 cases per year, but his is making the best Cabernet Franc in the Commonwealth and that’s saying something. Take a picnic and linger, because the mountain views from the top of the vineyard are sensational.

Glen Manor Vineyards

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It is impossible to say enough good things about Glen Manor. The tasting room looks east at the Shenandoah National Park and one of the best winery views in the state. That panorama, however, pales in comparison to the wine. Jeff White apprenticed under Jim Law at Linden. He learned the craft well. His terroir-driven wines demonstrate what is possible for Virginia wine. There are nine wines produced and every one of them is world class. You just can’t go wrong at Glen Manor.

Jump Mountain Vineyard

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This was another great recent discovery and the drive to Jump Mountain is part of the experience. Its location in Rockbridge County is one of the most beautiful parts of Virginia. They have been on the scene a short time, but Mary Hughes and David Vermillion brought in Mathieu Finot from King Family as a consultant. It has paid off. This is one to keep your eye on, but the Cabernet Sauvignon will eventually be some of the best in the state. 

Muse Vineyards

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This is another winery that took me by surprise. If I had known that Gabriele Rausse purchases fruit from them, that would have been a clue. The 2009 Muse Bordeaux blend took best of show in the 2015 Governor’s Cup, but there are other wines that are just as impressive. Aside from Bordeaux varietals, there are Rhones like Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Roussanne. There are also a couple Italian varietals. Frankly, I found the Bordeaux blend to be remarkable, but the Roussanne was the main story. They are currently open by appointment, but they are in the process of building a tasting room, so look for regular hours in the near future.

If you have not been to any of these wineries, then you have a mission. If you should happen to cycle through my list, I think you will agree with my assessment. As I said, of course, there are plenty of other great wineries in Virginia, but I am sure that there are a few on this list that you have not considered. Give them a shot and let me know what you think


Monday, September 7, 2015

Epicurience Virginia - Taking it to the Next Level

As a rule, I do not attend Virginia wine festivals. I have been to a few and I find that they generally have a couple of serious shortcomings. They do not really educate the participants about Virginia wine. Instead, they tend to be a platform for public drunkenness, where attendees stumble from booth to booth swilling as many tasting pours as possible. At a recent Expo in Richmond, where they handed out very nice Riedel stemware for the tasting, every time a drunken participant dropped one on the floor, the sound of breaking glass would resonate throughout the crowded hall. And each time, the drunken revelers would cheer. So, yeah, not my thing… but that is not what I want to tell you about.

For the past couple years, the folks up at Visit Loudoun have offered me a ticket to Epicurience Virginia. Last year I was unavailable, but this year I had no excuses, so I accepted. I did have some reservations as I drove up to Morven Park in Leesburg. I kept telling myself that I could leave early and salvage the day, but on paper Epicurience looked different. I also have great respect for the Visit Loudoun staff, so I wanted to give this festival a chance.

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The festival area at Epicurience Virginia. 

The first tent I encountered, after leaving the registration tent, was running a series of educational tastings. I went in to take photos and noted that the session covered Virginia Chardonnays. I sat down and participated. It was organized and professionally conducted with the winemakers for each of the four offerings on stage along with a moderator. As each wine was introduced, the winemaker gave some background, which was followed by a tasting and a general discussion among the panel of winemakers. We tasted Chardonnay from Naked Mountain, Sunset Hills, Pearmund Cellars and Tarara side by side. When does the average Virginia wine lover get a chance to do something like this? It was the first of three such tastings scheduled throughout the afternoon and a fabulous educational opportunity. It set the tone for the rest of my afternoon.

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Panel of winemakers. 

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Four Chardonnays in the tasting tent. 

On the far side of the festival grounds was a large Chef Demonstration tent, where cooking demos were conducted throughout the day. Chef Bryan Voltaggio was the headliner and drew a crowd, but all of the participating chefs commanded a large audience. Outside the food demo tent, at 2pm, French Master Butcher Marc Pauvert provided a hog-butchering demonstration, that was both educational and entertaining. I did not necessarily attend for the food demos, but I got sucked in and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

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Bringing out the pig, for the butchering demo. 

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French Master Butcher Marc Pauvert

These tents on opposing sides of the grounds represented both the food and wine aspects of the festival. In the center were numerous booths offering equal portions of each. It was possible to taste local wines and local food in a relaxed environment that lacked the frenzied drinking atmosphere of most wine festivals. Winemakers and owners helped pour the wines and at nearly every wine table an adjoining food table offered a tasting that complimented the wine. Simply put, it was well executed. 

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Entrance to the Chef Demonstration Tent 

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Lost Creek was one of many winery tables in the tasting area.

I have to give a shoutout. If you have never read If I Ran the Circus, by Dr. Seuss, the basic premise is that a young boy is fantasizing about the fabulous circus he will organize in an abandon lot. Instrumental in these plans is Mr. Sneelock, who runs the small store adjacent to the lot. The boy imagines Mr. Sneelock as the star of nearly every event. Sneelock is taming wild animals, being shot from cannons, performing acrobatic stunts, serving refreshments, etc. You get the picture. If there were a “Sneelock” award, I am not sure it can go to a single person, but I would award it to Visit Loudoun. I just witnessed them working tirelessly on every aspect of the event on through the afternoon managing details in one place after another.

I am certain, given the amount of organization involved, that the event's success did not boil down to just the Visit Loudoun staff. My hat is off to all the organizers and participants.  This is one festival that will be on my calendar again next year and in the years that follow. Epicurience Virginia has set the bar for Virginia wine events and I would love to see more festivals follow a similar model.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Philip Carter Winery

Nearly every aspect of the area around Hume, Virginia in rural Fauquier County is ideal for growing grapes. This was recognized years ago by local wine producers and several of the state’s most iconic wineries have opened their doors within a short drive of that village. One of these is Philip Carter Winery of Virginia. 

It had been years since my last visit to Philip Carter and that was early in my blogging career. So I really needed to get back out there. An earlier attempt ended in failure due to winter weather. I managed to brave the treacherous road conditions only to find that the tasting room was closed. Just because I am stupid enough to drive on icy backroads is no reason why the winery should force employees to do the same. Good for them, I say. But I digress...

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Anyway, I cobbled together a winery itinerary that included two wineries I had not yet visited and I tacked Philip Carter on to the end. It is sort of on my way home. Weather and road conditions were favorable, the gods smiled on me and the tasting room was not only open, but not terribly crowded. 

The drive along along State Rte. 688 winds through the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge past farmland and wooded acreage until you at last you see the vineyards alongside the road and the entrance to Philip Carter. Over the tops of the vines, you will make out the tasting room, which strongly resembles a country schoolhouse. It is admittedly larger, but the red paint and tall windows lend it that schoolhouse vibe. Wondering around front, however, you will find picnic tables arranged neatly in the courtyard and a constant crowd of visitors enjoying a picnic or simply sipping glasses of Philip Carter wine while looking out at the vineyards and distant hills.

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Inside you will find an modern, organized and tastefully decorated series of rooms. On the top level is the cashier, where bottles or tastings can be purchased. Just around the corner and down the stairs will bring you to a large room with tasting bars, leather furniture and a large fireplace. On an inclement day, this will serve handily as a space to warm in front of a fire and while away a bit of time with friends.

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On my visit, I bellied up to the bar and found that eight wines were being poured. Just as I remembered, they were all exceptionally well crafted. As I sat down and prepared to write this short piece, I took a few minutes to read through reviews and comments on the Philip Carter wines. I was hard pressed to find anything negative, which is rather unusual, but it confirmed my own assessment. I distinctly remembered the Viognier from my earlier visit and I was not disappointed. I am a huge Cabernet Franc fan and I did enjoy the 2013 vintage, but the real surprise for me was the Norton. I can appreciate a well-made Norton, but I am not a huge fan of the varietal. I must say that the Oatlands Norton is as good as they come. It lacked the astringency at mid palate and while very fruity on the nose, it was far more complex than most Nortons. If you have never tried a Norton, this is the one you want to taste.

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My visit was a little rushed, because it was the last of the day and I had a long drive ahead of me. Nevertheless, I did enjoy my return visit and left convinced that I should let less time pass before returning again. It really is a lovely venue, the wines are excellent and the staff is friendly and customer oriented. So I have to recommend that you stop in as well. When you do, please let me know what you think.