Friday, February 25, 2011

Virginia Wine Retailers

We’re stuck in the middle of a frigid, depressing winter with above-average precipitation, short days, and little sunshine. Diehard winery visitors like the blogmasters refuse to stay away from the Commonwealth wineries even during this time of year (that is, the wineries which are open year-round). But for many, these are not the ideal months for winery hopping (especially for the more remote wineries, where paved roads leading to the properties are typically rare). So that begs the question—“where can Virginia wine fans get their fix?”

Retailers of Virginia wine are not in short supply in the state. Because the blogmasters reside in Northern Virginia, we will focus on several locations in this area which have a decent selection of the Commonwealth’s finest offerings. Don’t expect low prices for these wines—as many who “buy local” already know, you will be spending a bit more for regional offerings. Virginia is not quite up to snuff compared to the distribution of wines from Italy, Australia, Spain, California, Washington State, et al. Therefore you will be spending more, unless you happen across a Virginia winery with mass production (and that doesn’t always guarantee that the wines are made in the Commonwealth; if it’s a wine from a Virginia winery and it’s stamped “American” instead of “Virginia,” it’s not grown or made in Virginia).

Intimate wine stores and major chains (supermarkets and specialty chains) will be spotlighted. If you’re lucky, you may happen upon a store during a tasting. In short, you won’t have to drive far during these bleak months to find Virginia wine. But as soon as that warmer weather breaks, readers are ordered to seek out actual wineries for the bona fide Virginia vineyard experience.

Fern Street Gourmet is tucked away in a small roadside shopping center off Quaker Lane in the Fairlington section of Alexandria/east Arlington. Fairlington and Shirlington residents familiar with the neighborhood pub “Rampart’s” have probably walked by Fern Street Gourmet many times. This European-influenced small wine shop has a few Virginia offerings and also has frequent tastings, spotlighting Virginia varietals such as Norton. The small deli in the back of the store adds to the European flavor.

HARRIS TEETER (various locations)
As the case with other supermarkets, the number of local offerings varies from store to store. But as Harris Teeter is gaining a reputation for following up on customer requests, they will attempt to get a favorite Virginia wine on their shelves. Currently most stores offer the more mass produced wines found in the state: Williamsburg, Chateau Morrisette, Prince Michel, Horton, Barboursville. But they also offer Breaux, which makes some of the best wine in the Commonwealth (albeit a little on the pricey side).

In our opinion, the best wine store in the state. Virginia wine, and only Virginia wine (plus a few beers). The industry is strong enough to support a store that only sells Virginia (and if you want to pick up a bottle or two from another world region, there is another equally delightful wine store two doors’ down from Old Dominion Wine Shoppe). The husband and wife who own the store are extremely chatty and know the industry well. Every Saturday, a different winery from the state comes in to pour and sell. It’s a win-win for the store (which sends out weekly e-mails to interested customers to alert them of the visiting winery) and the winery, which may be a distant location that many Northern Virginians haven’t been able to visit. The blogmasters have visited this store many times, and feel like the kids roaming around Willy Wonka’s candy garden every time. And the wineries keep coming – word has gotten out.

PLANET WINE (Alexandria)
The hip Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria (history lesson—this section of Alexandria was an independent town named Potomac in the late 19th Century) boasts many independent retailers. Del Ray residents are proud of their independent spirit. In fact they have been successful at keeping out national chains….a 7-11 store is the only major chain found in Del Ray. Next door to the popular bistro Evening Star is Planet Wine, owned by the same folks who run Evening Star and several other restaurants in Alexandria/Arlington (including Tallula, Vermillion, and Rustico). Planet Wine has a handful of Virginia wines, but perhaps the coolest thing about this store is you can buy a bottle of wine (any bottle of wine), and if you visit Evening Star after the wine store, they will open your bottle for you and serve it at the restaurant. You pick the perfect wine for your dinner.

STATE RUN (ABC) STORES (various locations)
Not every state-run ABC store sells Virginia wine, but it was such a surprise when the blogmasters came across one that did that we have to mention it (the location in North Reston, for those taking notes). The selection consisted of the “usual suspects” (Prince Michel, Williamsburg, Barboursville), but offering Casanel, a small, family-owned spot in Loudoun County, earned the store a spot on this list.

TOTAL WINE (various locations)
This mass retailer has probably the best selection of Virginia wines in the area, if not the state. Total Wine has many fans and a few detractors (the most common complaint is the “largeness” of the store). But an entire aisle dedicated to Virginia wines? You can’t miss. The blogmasters always leave this store with a bottle or two of wine from the Commonwealth, even if our wine racks are already full. Our biggest complaint is that these stores are usually in hellish strip malls with overstuffed parking lots. After spending twenty minutes trying to get out of some of these lots (the Total Wine in Alexandria, in the Lincolnia Shopping Center, is probably the worst), we have come very close to breaking out the corkscrew in the glove compartment, and then breaking the law, to reduce the stress.

UNWINED (Alexandria)
One of the blogmasters spent six years in the Fairlington/Shirlington area of Alexandria and east Arlington, so he got to know the wine stores in this neighborhood very well. Unwined, in the Bradlee Shopping Center off King Street, has arguably the best customer service of the bunch, and if you don’t see a favorite Virginia wine on their shelves, they will make valiant attempts to get it on their shelves.

WEGMAN’S (various locations)
Wegman’s is more of an event than a supermarket—just ask anyone who’s been there. Cartoon character signs (as found in DisneyWorld’s parking lot) are needed to help you find your car when the store and parking lot get packed. Food courts, small gourmet shops within the main supermarket, even a seafood bar (in the case of the Leesburg location). Wegman’s boasts a wine shop that surpasses many of the stand-alone wine stores in the state. And yes, they have a great selection of Virginia wine. The chain is known for embracing local offerings, be it cheese, produce, or wine. And since Wegman’s is an upstate New York-based grocery chain, you can snap up bottles of great Finger Lakes wine on the same trip.

WHOLE FOODS (various locations)
Whole Foods has proven to be “hit or miss” (depending on location) when it comes to Virginia wine. The location in the Clarendon area of Arlington—HIT. Their location in Reston—MISS. But when Whole Foods has a hit, they rival Total Wine.

Found in the same shopping center as the aforementioned ABC store, The Wine Cabinet has the best of the best tucked away in a corner of their store—not only Virginia wine, but the best in Virginia Wine: Barboursville’s Octagon, which many have deemed the best wine made in the state; Linden (Jim Law, the winemaker at Linden, is a Virginia wine pioneer); Lovingston (not only fantastic wine, but between $15 and $19 a bottle, fantastic prices).

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Wine Trail Spotlight--The Bedford Wine Trail

Bedford County is an intriguing rural county nestled between Roanoke and Lynchburg. One of the county’s biggest claims to fame is that of the troops who fought on D-Day on June 6, 1944, more hailed from Bedford County, Virginia than any other county in the U.S. This is why the D-Day Memorial, a highly impressive monument in the shadows of the Blue Ridge, was erected here (about a mile outside the town of Bedford itself).

But Bedford County also boasts a wine trail, which includes tucked-away spots such as Peaks of Otter Winery (fruit and vegetable wine—yes, vegetable wine), White Rock Vineyards, Hickory Hill Vineyards and LeoGrande Vineyards & Winery.


This winery is named for the two nearly-identical side-by-side mountain peaks due west of the D-Day Memorial. This is not a place for grape wine, but if you have a sense of humor and don’t mind experimenting with fruit (and vegetable!) wines, Peaks of Otter is a hoot. The winemaker and staff have a laid back northern California vibe, and their wines reflect their eccentricity. You name the fruit—a tree fruit (besides a citrus fruit) or a berry fruit—and most likely, they have it or have experimented with it. And some vegetables as well—peppers, pumpkins (and pumpkins are vegetables), tomatoes (fruit or vegetable—still debatable after all these years).

These are relatively low-alcohol and low price wines, so if you taste something you like, you can load up on bottles of it. These are wines best enjoyed in the warmer months, and Peaks of Otter is a fixture at many state-wide festivals, so you can stock up at the festivals if the winery is inaccessible during the winter months. (And they are extremely popular at festivals – seems like everyone is a fan of the entertaining staff and their unusual wines).

Our favorites were the plum, apple and blueberry wines. Other Virginia wineries are dabbling in fruit wines (see the December 2010 blog on this topic), but these wines are Peaks of Otter’s forte. Peaks of Otter only creates wine out of fruits and vegetables they grow on their property, which explains the lack of orange, lemon, banana and pineapple wine (although our hosts’ eyes lit up when we asked about those fruits). Any fruit or vegetable can ferment, so technically you can make wine (or brandy) out of all fruits. Peaks of Otter Winery, in all its quirky glory, proves this every year.


Located inside a house that deserves a listing in Better Homes and Gardens, White Rock Vineyards is one of those “hard to find, but even harder to leave” rural Virginia wineries, like nearby Fincastle Winery and Virginia Mountain Vineyards. The winery boasts a deck overlooking the mountains and vineyards. It feels like someone’s mountain home, as opposed to a straight tasting room. And that’s because it is the owner and winemaker’s home. The tasting room is located inside a screened-in patio, much like a Florida room. There is a friendly Siamese cat to keep guests company.

The typical Virginia wines are offered—Chardonnay, Cab Franc, Merlot. And White Rock is one of the few state wineries with a fantastic Cab Sauv. They also boast a Traminette that lives up to its website description---Granny Smith apple tones make for a delicious wine in all seasons. And their prices are unbeatable – you are rewarded for driving the distance. All wines are under $20!


The closest winery to Smith Mountain Lake, the largest lake in the state, Hickory Hill Vineyards is another quaint, family-owned spot that has been crafting good vintages for nearly ten years. Using the lake’s name in many of their offerings (“Smith Mountain Lake Mist,” “Smith Mountain Lake Redbud,” “Smith Mountain Lake Sunset”), the winery has a generous offering of dry, semi-dry and sweet wines. Their Chardonnays (one unoaked, the other mildly oaked) are award winners and the owners are rightfully proud of the wines and their winery.


Located in Goode, VA (off the highway leading to Lynchburg), LeoGrande Winery is, like many spots in the Commonwealth, a totally family-run operation. The day your blogmasters visited, there was a sign hanging on the tasting room door—“We’re out in the fields. Please honk your car horn if you’d like a tasting.” We were happy to follow the sign’s instructions, and before long, owner and winemaker Norman LeoGrande himself, greeted us.

His wines are winners – every one of them. We were lucky enough to try some of his earliest vintages (his winery has been open for about three years now), including a Reserve Chardonnay that was one of the best we’ve had in the entire state. And because Mr. LeoGrande was partaking in his own product during the tasting (we love it when winemakers do that), these tastings were probably more generous than others. Other offerings worth note are Sangiovese, Syrah, and Nebbiolo. Beautiful wines, and perfectly priced (Nebbiolo, at $20, was the most expensive non-library wine on his list!)

Outside the tasting room, several Adirondack chairs are lined up facing the vineyards and a host of farm animals (cows, horses, goats, and even a potbellied pig!) Settle in and enjoy multiple bottles of his product, and admire the foothills to the Blue Ridge in the distance.

Take a weekend jaunt to Bedford County, lap up some scenery and history, and delve into the fruits of these farm wineries’ labors!