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?

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