Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Shout-Out to Boutique Wineries

Many wineries in the Commonwealth pride themselves on being "boutique wineries." The number of locations written up in the annual Virginia winery map using the term "boutique" increases every year. What, exactly, defines a boutique winery?

There is no standard answer to this question. There is no Wikipedia page analyzing what makes a boutique winery. In our travels to vineyards that label themselves "boutique," the answer to the question is similar, but never exactly the same. What we've pieced together is this: Limited number of bottles, relying on smaller festivals to move wine, no heavy advertising, small staff usually consisting of family members, small tasting room, not a wedding venue, limited number of bottles. We mention the number of bottles twice as that's the answer that was consistent amongst the winery owners we asked.

A Virginia location like Horton, Williamsburg Winery, or Chateau Morrisette will somehow find a way to produce mass quantities of wine, year after year after year, available not only in their tasting rooms, but also restaurants, grocery stores, and the biggest festivals in the state. If there is a bad growing year, these wineries known for particular varietals will find some way to get the grapes to make their signature wines. So, while one year, you may be drinking a Muscat from Chateau Morrisette labeled "Virginia" on the bottle (meaning the grapes for the wine were grown in the Commonwealth, perhaps not at the winery but at least in a vineyard in the state), but the next year the same varietal will be labeled "American," meaning the grapes were grown in another state (this is particularly true for varietals that are difficult to grow in Virginia, like Muscat.)

A boutique winery doesn't play that game. If there is a bad growing year for one of its signature varietals, the winery will simply not offer one the following year. Instead, a boutique winery may offer the same varietal or something similar from another winery (boutique wineries are more likely to engage in friendly competition, and sharing of their products, due to their relatively smaller sizes). "Relative" is the term we would use to describe a boutique winery. And rest assured a boutique winery in California or Oregon would look nothing like a boutique winery in Virginia (one winery the blogmasters visited in California produced as much wine a year, and had a tasting room just as large, as Tarara, one of the larger Virginia wineries, yet called itself "boutique").

With the winery boom in full swing in the Commonwealth, given characteristics outlined here, it's no surprise so many spots are calling themselves "boutique wineries." The blogmasters have visited boutique spots in the state that specialize in eggs and homemade jams (Crushed Cellars in Loudoun county) and chocolate (Glass House Winery north of Charlottesville), and one winery that resides in a camp ground (Belle Mount in the Northern Neck). Wine seemed to be a supplemental business, although the owners/winemakers were very serious about their wine and would probably be insulted by the "supplement" comment (so apologizes in advance).

We tend to prefer the boutique locations over the more commercialized spots; we can always count on the larger locations to be open every day of the week, so if we decide to blow off our day job on a Wednesday, we know where to go (boutique wineries are usually open Friday through Sunday only). And if we need to order a case for the holidays, the more commercial wineries in Virginia are our go-to spots for very good wine at reasonable prices (boutique wines, due to their limited production, tend to cost a few dollars more). Some locations in the state are open by appointment only (in fact that section of the annual Virginia wine map seems to grow every year; appointment only wineries typically mean you will be tasting their wines in their actual homes).

Our favorite boutique wineries in Virginia are too numerous to list here, but we will single out a few that we frequent regularly, mainly due to our proximity to them (being the prisoners of the Capital Beltway that we are). As these are boutique wineries, they usually don't allow (that is, have the room for) large groups, so please call ahead if you want to visit with a group of 8 or more:

Zephaniah Farm Vineyard, south of Leesburg, makes some of the best Chambourcin in the state and offers a tasting room inside an early 1800s era mansion. One of the family members will pour for you on your visit, and offer a tour of the house and (if you're lucky), wine cellar.

8 Chains North Winery, located off highway 9 (a winery heavy road in Loudoun county, also home to the aforementioned Crushed Cellars), specializes in red varietals. Owner/winemaker Ben Renshaw worked closely with Virginia wine pioneer Doug Fabbioli and crafts some delicious reds (and a few whites) that are far and away some of the best in the Commonwealth.

Marterella Winery, north of Warrenton, is an always fun spot that offers something for every palate - from off dry whites to bold reds.

Chester Gap Cellars, south of Front Royal, is one of our favorite locations in the state (the view alone is worth the trip to the winery), specializing in Virginia's signature grape, Viognier, and also offering some intense (with higher than usual alcohol content) red varietals.

Hume Vineyards, between Front Royal and Washington, VA, works mainly with Bordeaux varietals, offering very mature wine despite the young age of the winery (they opened in 2011).

What's your favorite boutique winery?

Monday, October 14, 2013


High atop a ridge in the "Northwest Quadrant" of the Monticello AVA (near Crozet and White Hall) lies Grace Estate Vineyard, which opened last year with great fanfare and support of its winemaker, well-known Virginia vineyard presence Jake Busching. Having perfected his winemaking craft at nearby Horton Vineyards, Keswick Vineyards, and most recently Pollak, Busching has been instrumental in advancing the Commonwealth's reputation for high quality red wines. Grace Estate proudly spotlights Busching on their website and at the winery, with the vow to allow the winemaker to experiment with unusual varietals.

A short drive from White Hall Vineyards, Stinson Vineyards, and King Family Vineyards, Grace Estate's long driveway transports you to a hilltop estate with a vast view of the valley and mountains. The tasting room is located on the lower level of the estate itself, in a wine cellar-like setting that's alternately formal and intimate. Like so many other wineries in the area, Grace Estate is a popular wedding destination, with ample land for tables and tents.

We were expecting great things with the wine, despite the young age of the winery. The vintages did not disappoint. The Chardonnay, albeit a bit on the oaky side, had just the right amount of buttery finish that meshed nicely with the crispness. The Vigonier is aged in steel and offer notes of fig. Le Gras Baril was our favorite, a red blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot. And Jake has crafted a Tannat, a lot less pricey than other Tannats in the state, medium bodied and perfect for cold months.

Finally, a word about "33." Two years ago, before Grace Estate opened its doors to the public, a collaborative effort of winemakers from Veritas, King Family Vineyards and Busching led to "3," which originally was a blend of 33% each of Cab Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. It was priced at $33.33. This time around, the "3" collaboration has led to a white blend of Viognier, Chardonnay, and Petit Manseng, also priced at $33.33, and absolutely delicious with notes of lemongrass and faint butterscotch. But hurry, as this vintage will not last long on their shelves.

The owners and the blogmasters invite you to spend a fall weekend visiting the Northwest Quadrant of the Monticello AVA, and be sure to visit Grace Estate, which appears on the winery map but doesn't currently have highway signs. Look out for it!

Winery URL:
Grace Estate Winery

Enjoy this short video clip:

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Four Wedding Wineries

It's no surprise that wineries are popular wedding venues. Most Virginia wineries offer incredible natural surroundings (be they mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, streams, meadows, ponds, vineyards), excellent wine, events rooms (and/or tents), and an onsite wedding planning staff. Some of the more popular Virginia wineries book wedding calendars up to three years in advance, in some cases - including winter months. Here we will spotlight four lesser-known but ideal wedding spots, keeping nearby accommodations, airports, and cities/towns in mind.

1. First Colony Winery

First Colony Winery is one of the first locations in the Commonwealth that the blogmasters fell in love with, and it remains a favorite. We always make a point to stop by, even with other wineries springing up so fast in this region southeast of Charlottesville, on the highway towards Scottsville. In fact, during our first visit, the owner and tasting room manager were preparing for a wedding (where the groomsmen inexplicably were bringing cases of Bud Light into the tasting can't take the Bud out of a sports fanatic). They allowed us to linger on one of their patios as they prepared and well into the start of the private wedding. That gave us a great first impression of the "you're at home here" quality of First Colony. That was way back in 2003. They've remained humble and accommodating to this day, with new owners and a terrific husband and wife team making the wine and managing the operation, respectively.

And speaking of weddings, this location is one of the best for weddings in the state, if not the best. Tucked away in the woods, not far from the main highway leading towards Charlottesville (the city is about 12 miles away, full of hotels, motels and B&Bs, plus an airport), the winery works in all seasons. A second floor of the tasting room can be decked out for cold months, and they offer both a deck in the back (facing the forest, with trees so close you can touch them) and a patio in front. As for the wine, something for everyone: Dry, off dry, sweet, rosé.

Winery website: First Colony (

2. Old House Winery

A close #2 on our list of all-around state favorites is Old House, named after an 1800s farm house that was lovingly restored by the owners. Another all-season location, Old House offers an events pavilion away from the house itself. The location includes a pond with an island, perfect for those inevitable hundreds of wedding photos:

The house itself is nicely appointed with antiques, paintings, knick knacks and chess boards. Several party rooms are offered. The wine is incredible, and they make some of the best Chambourcin in the state. They are located near Culpeper (Dulles Airport being the closest airport). The town offers hotels, motels and B&Bs for every budget.

Winery website: Old House (

3. Notaviva Vineyards

The blogmasters used to DJ on the side, and Notaviva Vineyards, in far western Loudoun County (2 miles from the West Virginia line on the way to Charles Town) was the location that referred the most brides and grooms-to-be to our business, and we gigged here a few times as well. Our experience with Notaviva Vineyards is partially based on our side business. The owners are professional musicians who themselves got married on the property several years ago. Their tasting room shares the property with their home, and was featured on the HGTV & DIY series "Dream House."

The tasting room is multi-leveled and the owners, having a passion for music, will ensure the entertainment matches the tastes of the bride and groom and guests. The passion for music here is so strong that their slogan is "wine paired with music." The property slopes towards a pond and a grove of trees, which provide ample photo ops. And of course the wine is stellar: The owner/winemaker worked closely with Virginia wine guru Doug Fabbioli, and crafts incredible Viognier, Vidal Blanc, and Chambourcin. An off-sweet blush is offered for those wine novices in your group.

Winery website: Notaviva (

4. Saudé Creek Vineyards

A relative newcomer to the Virginia wine scene (compared to the other three wineries in this post), Saudé Creek is named after a waterway in Alabama, but is actually situated on the Pamunkey River, a tributary of the York River in Southeast Virginia (between Richmond and Williamsburg). The location allows folks to fly in to either the Richmond or Williamsburg/Newport News airport. We were totally knocked out by the personal attention of the owners and the detail put into the tasting building. The wine wasn't too shabby either, favorites being their Pamunkey Fall blend of Chardonnay and Chardonel, and Saudé Creek red blend (a semi dry pasta wine that is sure to be a hit with wedding groups, especially during colder months).

Saudé Creek tasting room:

Despite the nearby population centers of Richmond and Hampton Roads, this location seems tucked away in a different world. The fact that it's relatively new compared to other nearby spots (like New Kent Winery and James River Cellars), their wedding calendars may not be as booked. But reserve early as word is sure to get out about this delightful location.

Winery website: Saudé Creek (

These are just four of our favorite wedding spots in Virginia but you can't really go wrong with any location. However not every winery in Virginia has the room (or interest) for hosting weddings. Consult the annual Virginia winery map available at most wineries as locations in the state that welcome weddings are indicated with a specific icon. Happy planning!