Sunday, November 29, 2015

50 West Vineyards: The New Leaves of Grass

January 2015: The Notebook visits an unusual winery up a long gravel (and horrible pot hole-infested) driveway directly off route 50, about 3 miles east of Middleburg. Leaves of Grass Vineyards is the intriguing name, and their wines (grapes brought in from other vineyards around the Commonwealth) were good to excellent; the promise of another fine daycation spot in the stressful environment that is Northern Virginia. Their Cab Sauv, in particular, was delicious, bold and offering strong cedar and spearmint notes.

The tasting room was nestled inside a restored farm building, with inviting glass surrounding a third of the tasting room, which afforded views of the Piedmont foot hills. The owner/winemaker was initially not onsite the day we visited, so the gracious ladies behind the bar (neither of whom spoke English very well) took care of the tastings. We found out the family that opened the vineyard were from Russia, with the owner bringing over not only extended family members, but friends as well. The winery operation was going to be a life-changing affair.

Photos of Leaves of Grass Vineyards: Early 2015

The hosts were so eager to please, the tastings were larger than usual. When the owner finally arrived, he and his large (and friendly) German Shepard (appropriately named Hans) greeted us as well. The normally drab January afternoon turned into a wonderful occasion with fine wine; we both purchased several bottles.

Flash forward to November 2015: The Leaves of Grass sign off route 50 is replaced with a sign reading "50West Vineyards." We drive up the hill on the gravel road, pot holes now completely filled in. Mini Coopers adorn the parking lot (did we somehow beam ourselves to Cooper Vineyards near Mineral, known for great wine, a LEED-certified tasting room, and their annual Mini Cooper festival?) The Russian hosts are replaced with a friendly pourer wearing a Sunset Hills Vineyards shirt. Everything else about the location was as we remember it; the windows overlooking the hills, the outdoor patios, the abundance of sound-absorbing wood inside the tasting room, the absence of a live band (the latter being a major plus for us).

Although we didn't get the full story about what happened to Leaves of Grass and the previous owners, the data we did receive from both the pourer and Diane Canney (co-owner of Sunset Hills) was financial - a big issue for new Virginia winery owners. If adequate research is not done, several years in advance in many cases, the best intentions (bringing more fine wine to the state) could be met with at best disappointment and at worst, a total bankruptcy situation. We hope the latter did not fall upon the previous owners.

A nearby Mini Cooper dealership was having an event, which explained the numerous Mini Coopers in the parking lot. The tasting building at 50West is deceptive - it is much larger than its outdoor appearance would lead you to believe. The second floor was being occupied by the Mini Cooper folks, but the first floor and patios were open to others. The wines during our visit were all from Sunset Hills, which created no issues for us as their wine is fantastic. At some point during the day, blogger David reached into his jacket and pulled out two labels from Leaves of Grass, which were given to him during the January visit, since the friendly Russian hosts that day did not have a tasting sheet listing their wines. The labels were meant to remind the bloggers of their wine styles. If the state of Virginia ever opens a wine museum, these labels would make a nice contribution.

Sunset Hills plans to use 50West as a satellite tasting room and eventually, this location will have its own wine style and label. Sunset Hills has been a favorite of the Notebook since they opened in 2008. It will be nice to enjoy their wine in a less-crowded, less noisy atmosphere (as anyone who has visited Sunset Hills can agree about). A festive mood is great if you're entertaining friends, but sometimes you want a lower key afternoon.

If anyone has additional information on what happened to the owners of Leaves of Grass, please reply to let us know.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

New Tasting Rooms Arrive in Loudoun

The Notebook was surprised and pleased to encounter not one, not two, not three, but four new tasting rooms in “DC’s Wine Country” (Loudoun County) over the past few months (and there is fifth new tasting room opening soon.) These elegant new spaces prove that the popularity of the Virginia wine scene is no passing fad.

Breaux Vineyards:
Breaux has been a mainstay on the VAVINO scene for years, and despite their popularity (consistently rated as one of the state’s best wineries offering the finest wines), their tasting room was almost always crammed, and the wait for a tasting could sometimes take 20 minutes (the exception, of course, was if you visited on a Wednesday afternoon around 2 PM.) The owners blueprinted the new tasting building (and adjacent events building) several years ago. They wanted to make them perfect. And did they ever.

The tasting building is bright and airy, offering plenty of room to spread out, regardless of how busy they are. This is the way a tasting building should be; wood dominates in the tasting room, for maximum sound absorption. A host in the tasting room sends guests to spots at the tasting bar that are available, or about to become available.

New tasting building at Breaux:

Under construction (July 2014):

August 2015:

Another major improvement is the patio in the back, affording visitors with breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge foothills. And this patio is “21 and over” and “no dogs!” We love kids, we love dogs…but sometimes you want to escape them. For families with kids (or dogs), there are plenty of other options for you.

The d├ęcor tastefully incorporates the owners’ Louisiana Cajun heritage. With so many new wineries popping up all over the county (including one which opened a mere quarter mile from Breaux several years ago), it is refreshing to see an established winery take such measures to improve the experience for their guests. The original tasting room is still used for spillover and smaller group events.

Breaux has always been a long-time friend, and with these improvements, they will reclaim their spot as our go-to winery in northern Loudoun County for out-of-state guests interested in the best of what Virginia wine and wineries have to offer.

Cardamon Family Vineyards and Two Twisted Posts Winery:
These wineries (a stone’s throw away from each other along Harper’s Ferry Road) have only been open for a little over a year, and previously tastings were conducted in tents near their gravel parking lots, quite close to the main highway. We visited their new tasting buildings recently, and they’re both special, and definitely different from one another.

Cardamon’s tasting bar hugs one side of an intimate, living room-style tasting room, and the view of the foothills so close to the house makes one believe he’s in Wise County, not Loudoun County. It seemed as if the entire family was behind the tasting bar the afternoon we visited, and the family made you feel like you were sipping great wine among long-time friends. And as usual, Chuck's salsa and wine pairings were a treat.

Two Twisted Posts’ tasting room is a bit more industrial in feel than Cardamon's; think Sonoma County instead of Wise County. Their story is interesting—they won a Governor’s Cup for their slightly oaked, extremely delicious Chardonnay two years ago. However, they had not finished their tasting building yet, and in order to accept the Governor’s Cup, a requirement of the winery is to offer tastings to the general public. They set up their tent and complied. We loved this location from the minute we set foot and were greeted by owner Theresa Robertson, a charming and witty host who entertained us with stories about her family history and their new adventure.

Zephaniah Farm Vineyard:
Further south in Loudoun County, in the “Harmony Cluster,” lays another perennial Notebook favorite. Zephaniah still conducts their tastings inside their 19th Century house, as the sit-down intimacy of this experience is adored by many. However, a chalet-like tasting building was erected up the hill, with a spectacular view of the surrounding woods and meadows. The owners invite all guests to visit the tasting room and relax, either inside the wood-dominated building (constructed primarily for special events and weddings), or on the porch (appointed with rocking chairs, to give it a truly Southern feel). And this could be the only winery in the state with a swimming pool near the tasting building. Where the owners take Nestea (or maybe chardonnay) plunges after hot days of working in the vineyards?

The new tasting "chalet" at Zephaniah Farm Vineyard:

Finally, we were intrigued by the new circular building on the grounds of Fabbioli Cellars….we understand that their new tasting building will be opening soon. So expect a “Part 2” to this Notebook entry in the next few months.