Sunday, July 14, 2019

18 Years of Virginia Winery Hopping

If you visit any winery in Virginia, particularly a winery in a "hot spot" of the Commonwealth for wineries (Northern Virginia, the Charlottesville area, the Shenandoah Valley), the verdict is clear: Virginia wineries have made it. The Notebook started winery hopping in fall 2001. Following a brown grape cluster sign north of Charlottesville led us to Burnley Vineyards, our very first winery experience period, not just in Virginia. We were fascinated with the business and loved the wine, so we continued visits into winter 2002. Sharp Rock, Prince Michel, Willowcroft, well as locations that are sadly no longer open: Oakencroft, Christensen Ridge, Unicorn, Wintergreen, Deer Meadow, Farfelu.

When we started our journey into VAVINO, only a small leaflet promoted the (at the time) approximately 20 wineries in the state. The leaflet could be stamped at participating wineries for a gift if one collected enough stamps--usually a corkscrew. Most tastings were free, or 50 cents to $2 at the most. As the '00s progressed, the leaflet became a small booklet, with a small map. And then the small booklet became the annual Virginia winery guide and map we are so familiar with now.

The Virginia ABC laws became more winery friendly, and thanks to the lucrative backgrounds of many future winery owners (nuclear physicists, real estate moguls, successful attorneys, audio managers for successful acts such as Amy Grant and Bon Jovi--you name it), the vineyards, wineries, and tasting rooms kept coming. And they haven't stopped. Virginia is still nipping at the heels of New York state, as #5 on the list of winery rich states (California, Washington state, and Oregon are 1, 2, and 3), and there are no signs of the industry slowing down.

Thinking about our 18 years of winery hopping in the Commonwealth, we thought we would share 18 of our finest Virginia winery moments, in no particular order.

1. Discovering Ox Eye's tasting room, the first "city center" tasting room in Virginia (downtown Staunton), and kicking back on their back patio while Amtrak takes off up the bluff on its way to Chicago or New York City:

2. The Virginia wine blogger's tasting event at Tarara Winery, followed by VIP tickets for "Think Pink," an awesome Pink Floyd tribute band.

3. The soft opening of Sunset Hills Vineyard, meeting owners Diane and Mike Canney and sipping their first vintages on their porch.

4. Toasting fellow Virginia winery fans at their last stop before flying to Florence, Italy, under the walnut trees at Zephaniah Farm Vineyard.

5. Spinning tunes for Barrel Oak Winery during its opening year (The Notebook's blogmasters used to have a DJ business....)

6. Kate and Jerry Marterella, the gracious hosts of Marterella Winery (which sadly closed its Warrenton location several years ago), inviting us into their home for a fantastic spaghetti dinner.

7. Enjoying a tasting with a cockatoo (courtesy of the tasting room manager) perched on my wrist at Two Twisted Posts Winery:

8. Meeting James East, owner and winemaker at Sharp Rock Vineyards, chuckling at his stories about winemaking through the years, and savoring his spot by the river:

9. Chewing the fat with Scott Stinson and his daughter Rachel while soaking in the incredible views and savoring their award-winning port.

10. Meeting the Virginia winery cats! Flint at Willowcroft:

Fritz at First Colony:

Ginger at North Mountain:

Warren at Fabbioli Cellars:

Also: Aubie at Cardinal Point, Magic at Hunter's Run, Dawg at Barrek Oak Winery, Rudy at Hiddencroft, Charlie at James River Cellars, and many more I'm sure we missed.

11. Reflecting on the 100th Anniversary of the Titanic sinking, on April 10, 2012, while drinking the appropriately named White Star White at Veritas Vineyard.

12. Enjoying the normally bustling tasting room on a quiet, unusually empty, Friday in April at Barboursville Vineyards.

13. A conversation with Ben Renshaw and his incredible Furnace Mountain Red on a 100 degree day in August 2010 (8 Chains North Winery).

14. Talking to Phil Newcome, owner of Valerie Hill Winery, and the fascinating ghost stories involving his property (we unfortunately missed the seance the evening before).

15. Enjoying a bottle with Nelson at Casanel, and hearing his inspiring America, land of incredible opportunity, stories.

16. Misty Mountain Hop one unseasonably cool May morning at Moss Vineyards.

17. Sipping out of this world chambourcin by the fire on a cold, rainy November afternoon at Old House Vineyards.

18. Last, but definitely not least.....Burnley Vineyards, the first Virginia winery we popped into, on a whim, in fall 2001. Mulled wine was being prepared at 11 AM, and the pourer accidentally spilled some on my hand. "I'm sorry about that" he said with a slight slur in his voice. A new obsession was born that day. And 276 wineries now in the Commonwealth, and plenty more to come, the journey has only begun.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

2001: A Winery Odyssey

Fans of Virginia wine and wineries surely must remember when they began to take an active interest in the industry, and what their first Virginia winery experience was. For the Notebook, 2001 was the big year.

For months, we had noticed those state-issued grape cluster signs directing traffic to (usually) remote spots off the main highways, primarily U.S., state, and county highways. At the time, those signs were brown, but eventually the signs were enlarged and changed to blue (some older wineries still have the brown signs announcing their presence). Driving back from the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville at the end of October 2001, we finally decided to follow one of those brown signs, which we assumed would lead us to an extremely rural location. We really didn't know what to expect. (Note about that Film Festival: That year the festival spotlighted late filmmaker John Cassavetes, and we had the pleasure of meeting his muse Gena Rowlands in person. Ms. Rowlands had wine glass in hand when we met her around 10 AM on a Sunday morning, and the constant drinking in Cassavetes' films may have whetted our desire to finally explore the Virginia vineyard scene).

The brown sign led us to what we later found out was one of the pioneers of the Virginia wine industry: Oakencroft. Since we were green about the industry, we cannot remember if Felicia Rogan herself was present, but pulling up to that beautiful location, with the pond in front home to ducks, geese, and swans, is something we won't forget. Then we tried the wine. "This is incredible! What a find!" That led us to try four more wineries on the drive back from C'ville that weekend. Two are still open (Burnley Vineyards near Barboursville, and Sharp Rock Vineyards near Sperryville), and two are not (Farfelu Vineyards and Unicorn Vineyards, both of which were outside Warrenton). Suffice it to say, we were hooked.

Delfosse Vineyard, near Lovingston, VA:

From 2002 to 2009, we kept a spreadsheet of every winery visited and scored them based on a variety of criteria. During that time, the annual Virginia winery guides had evolved from a small leaflet, to a regular-size brochure, to a small booklet. For at least two years, one could have his or her Virginia winery "passport" stamped by a participating winery and collect enough stamps to be entered into drawings for a variety of gifts (ranging from corkscrews to bottles of wine to winery weekend getaways).

As the number of Virginia wineries grew, the annual guide grew (and the "passport stamping," alas, was eliminated, although some regional and county-wide winery trails in Virginia still do this).

In 2006 and 2007, laws in Virginia changed. Virginia winery owners are probably very familiar with HB1435, which stated that farm wineries can produce and manufacture their product without a special use permit. Passed in 2006, HB1435 allowed for the wineries to conduct tastings, serve meals, and hold musical performances to promote their product. Prior to 2006, wineries still conducted tastings, but the regulations were a bit stricter regarding sale and distribution.

Around the same period, the Commonwealth of Virginia realized the value of agritourism. Combine this with more relaxed laws, and the proximity to a major seemingly recession-proof metropolitan area (Washington DC/Northern Virginia), and you have a recipe for incredible industry growth.

First Colony Winery, south of Charlottesville:

And grow they did; the number of Virginia wineries doubled and in some cases tripled from one year to another between 2008 and 2014. Some of the original Virginia wineries, such as Piedmont Vineyards (which was located near Middleburg), didn't take too kindly to the boom. We remember talking to the owner, Gerhard von Finck, who complained about the "numerous calls asking if limos and buses are welcome." They were NOT welcome: "I send them to Chrysalis." The formerly sedate days of Virginia wine and wineries were over. It was RIP for wineries owned by Virginians whose children did not want to continue the business: The aforementioned Farfelu, Christensen Ridge, Deer Meadow, Smokehouse (ask the owners of Sharp Rock about Smokehouse and be prepared for a very amusing story). Other wineries closed for other reasons (by choice, in the cases of Oakencroft and Piedmont, or due to highly publicized scandals, in the case of Oasis).

In 2010, our Virginia winery spreadsheet was traded in for the launch of Virginia Wine Notebook. Flash forward to 2018, and the Virginia wine market is firmly in place. Its success has spurred a current booming craft brewery industry, and up-and-coming cidery and distillery industries.

There have been some updates to the laws regarding serving of food and allowing of dogs in tasting rooms. As of 2018, wineries can offer food without the need for a food license as long as food prepared in a kitchen is not being sold to customers. And dogs are allowed back in the winery tasting rooms after an uproar (from winery owners and visitors) stemming from a short-lived rule that outlawed them. We presume the winery owners' cats are allowed in the tasting rooms too (shout out to Flint at Willowcroft and Warren and Goldie at Fabbioli Cellars).

2001 to 2018: What a long, strange, delicious trip it's been. There are currently approximately 275 wineries in the Commonwealth. We have a long way to go to catch up to Oregon and Washington state, and will never catch up to California. But we're nipping at New York's heels. We hope you write a few lines to share your first Virginia winery experience. Cheers!

Glen Manor Vineyards, near Skyline Drive and Front Royal:

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

5 Unusual Virginia Wineries

Despite the number of Virginia wineries approximating 275, with the number growing each year, you can be sure of one thing when it comes to wineries in the Commonwealth: No two are alike. Some tasting rooms may be similar (we have friends who still get the tasting room at Pearmund Cellars confused with the one at King Family), but the wine lists will be different, the shape of the tasting building will vary from location to location, and of course the views will be unique to the winery.

We have visited over 210 Virginia wineries (slowly but surely, we are getting to all of them...), and looking through our logs and photo albums, we have pinpointed five that we feel are the most unusual. And we don't mean unusual in a negative context. Every Virginia winery brings a different adventure, whether you're a fan of mountain views, water views, bustling places, quieter places, dry wine, or off dry wine.

Our five most unusual (unique) wineries in Virginia:

5. Maggie Malick Wine Cave (northwest Loudoun County)
The closest in our list to Northern Virginia, Maggie Malick Wine Caves is located in a string of relatively new wineries on Harper's Ferry Road, off state route 9. The wine cave where the tastings are held is a man-made structure using the most economical, and eco-friendly, cooling technique available: Natural. A layer of grass covers the cave, ensuring cool temperatures that the barrel-aging wine needs, and also keeping the customers cool in the hot months (and warm in the colder months).

Maggie Malick Wine Caves entrance:

Guests may feel as if they are walking into the entrance of a place where trolls live. Actually, we'll save the Tolkien references to another winery on this list. Maggie offers an interesting selection, particularly for this section of Loudoun County. The Albariño is crisp and dry and a nice alternative for those who may be tired of Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. Tannat is a bold red with raspberry notes and will age on your rack nicely.

Inside the cave:

Bring your dog! There is a large pond in the back and dogs are welcome (and highly encouraged) to take a dip. Maggie Malick Wine Cave makes for a very memorable experience in a county rapidly becoming rather choked with wineries (not that that's a bad thing...)

4. Cedar Creek Winery (south of Winchester)
If you're new to the Virginia wine scene, but have been to at least five wineries, you have probably noticed that most in the state offer two varietals: Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. Cedar Creek Winery, on the edge of the Allegheny range south of Winchester, knows what grapes grow best in this climate and soil. So those are the only two varietals offered. Expect a vertical tasting of these two wines in an extremely relaxed, rec-room like environment (complete with intriguing pictures on the wall and antiques).

Tasting the line up at Cedar Creek:

Most likely, the owner and winemaker, Ron Schmidt, will guide you through an informative and entertaining tasting. What sets this winery apart, besides the "only two varietals" rule, is the lack of live music, weddings, dogs and kids, and general festivities. Not that there is anything wrong with those; Virginia wineries are thriving thanks to the live music and event venues many of them offer. But at Cedar Creek, it's all about the wine, and getting absorbed into the beautiful scenery. Seriously, this is one of the most beautiful locations in the state.

Don't expect food purchases here, aside from perhaps a small bag of Cheez-It crackers. But you are welcome and encouraged to bring your own picnic.

3. Burnley Vineyards (north of Charlottesville)
Burnley is one of the Commonwealth's original wineries; planting started in 1977, the first wines were offered in 1980, and the tasting room opened in 1984. This winery is not far from more famous (and decidedly slicker...again, not a bad thing) Barboursville Vineyards, about an 8 minute drive from Burnley. Visiting the two wineries on the same afternoon will give you two completely different Virginia winery experiences.

Entrance to Burnley:

The entrance to the winery has probably not changed much since 1984. We haven't visited the winery in a few years, so the basketball hoop may be gone, but for some reason, we doubt that. They focus on making wine here, not on window dressing at the winery. That would also explain the interior of the winery, where your group can "unwined":

The wines are all very well-priced. This is an excellent location for those who are just getting into wine, and still like their offerings on the sweeter side. Although dry fans will find a lot to like with their Cab Sauv and Norton.

Vineyards at Burnley:

2. Wisteria Farm Vineyard (Stanley, VA)
This is the only winery in Virginia that offers a red varietal called Carmine, which is a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and lesser-known Carignan. Carmine is a totally American grape, not even grown in Europe. It fares best in northern California and Pennsylvania, but they grow it at Wisteria.

This is a working farm, so you will be sharing the grounds with animals (mainly roosters, rabbits, and sheep), some of which roam the property freely. Others are inside pens, making this a good choice for the kids.

Besides Carmine, their Seyval is a winner, and perfect for the hot summer days that are in our near future in the Commonwealth. And those views...another eye pleasing location in Shenandoah Valley.

1. Grayhaven Winery (between Richmond and Charlottesville)
Continuing with the farm vibe, Grayhaven winery in central Virginia gets our vote as the most unique winery in the state. What makes it unique to us is the vibe...this is by far the most relaxed winery we've been to. There is even a small playground on the premises. Horses roam freely on the grounds. And the tasting room is housed in a Hobbit-like structure, complete with a koi pond in front.

Like Wisteria, Grayhaven offers a wine that is not found elsewhere in the state: Touriga. This is a variety developed by the Portuguese and often used in the production of Port wines, and goes very well with red meats. Like Tannat, it will age well. Another favorite is Sojourn, a blend of Touriga and Cabernet Franc, with a balanced acidity, soft tannins and a plum notes; perfect for pasta dishes with tomato sauce. The selection of wines here is vast. The owners are originally from South Africa and know what they are doing (South Africa, like Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina, is a big player in the southern hemisphere wine universe).

This location is miles away from other wineries, so be prepared to stay awhile. You'll feel transported to another world.

What are the most unusual Virginia wineries you've visited?

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Virginia Winery Tasting Rooms: Let Them Go to the Dogs (and Cats, and Parrots)

The Notebook has been away...but we're back. This new enforcement by Virginia authorities of wineries not allowing dogs, cats, even parrots, inside their tasting rooms has inspired us to return to blogworld.

There has been a lot of buzz on other Virginia blog sites, as well as Facebook and Twitter, about this enforcement. Apparently the Virginia authorities cracked down on breweries several years ago, and now they are cracking down on wineries. To which we reply: "Have a glass of cab franc and chill out!"

Based on (mostly verbal) research we've done with other Virginia wine fans, and some winery owners, this is what we've learned (other Virginia winery fans are welcome to correct us if one of these points is incorrect):

1. The law applies to winery owners, not necessarily the winery patrons.
2. The law has been on the books for decades.
3. The preparation of food at the wineries is one of the reasons the law is being enforced.
4. No furry (or feathered) friend is exempt.
5. There is a movement afoot by Virginia winery communities to have the law amended.

Has this enforcement taken a bite out of business? We won't name winery names but we have visited some wineries over the past few months where visitors were asked to leave their dogs outside the tasting room, even though apparently the law is meant to be applied to the winery owners. We've also come across wineries where dogs were inside the tasting rooms, just as they always have been.

And then there are the cats: A few wineries found permanent homes outside the wineries for their felines, while others are just keeping the cats outside.

We think the enforcement stinks. Part of the winery experience is to be among our four-legged friends. And what's that we hear about keeping the deer and mice and rats away?

Perhaps one amendment to the law would allow wineries that do not serve food to allow pets. And apparently, "food" means any type of food the winery sells - baked baguettes, hummus, salami rolls, cheese, crackers, you name it. If food was more of a "BYOF" thing, and guests just bought their own picnics to the wineries, would our furry friends be permitted then? That's a question for the grumpy authorities.

In the interim, we will salute our favorite pet-friendly wineries with The Black Dog from Chateau Morrisette and Ladies Man cider from Fabbioli Cellars.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Virginia Wineries Where You Can Beat the Heat

Whew, it's hot out there. As the Dog Days of summer continue, a full day of drinking wine, even white wine or refreshing rosé, may be the last thing on your mind.

But not the winos at the Notebook. Hot summer days are sometimes the best days for imbibing in the Commonwealth; think less crowds, less babies, less noise.

We have chosen a few favorites where you can beat the heat...send us your's!

1. Maggie Malick Wine Caves
What better place to enjoy a tasting, or glass, on a hot summer day than a climate-controlled cave? The wine cave is a man-made structure under a grass covered hill and creates a truly unique tasting experience. Grab a bottle of the Melange Blanc, with its soft honeydew melon notes, and kick back by the pond in the back.

2. Sharp Rock Vineyards
Forget hiking up Old Rag Mountain on this scorching can marvel at the mountain from Sharp Rock Vineyards, a favorite of the Notebook's since our first visit way back in 2001. Our go to hot day wine here is the Rosé Noir, consistently delicious and refreshing (and award-winning). Grab a spot by the creek at the bottom of the hill if you want to cool your heels.

3. Creek's Edge Winery
A relatively new winery in Loudoun County, Creek's Edge is a perfect year-round spot; the all-wood tasting building keeps the heat in during the winter, and the tasting room cooler in the summer. And the unusual locations of some of the tables inside, including at the top and at the bottom of their famous restored silo, is a great spot for sharing a bottle of their stainless steel vidal blanc.

4. First Colony Winery
Another long-time favorite of the Notebook, this Monticello AVA-based winery just gets better and better. We actually enjoy the wooded views from the deck here over some of the more famous mountain views at other Monticello AVA wineries. We always go for the rosé at First Colony; dry, refreshing, and as tasty as a strawberry Starburst.

5. Bluemont Vineyard
This is one of the most popular wineries in northern Virginia, and with good reason. It has a one-of-a-kind view from the mountainside, where you can make out the Dulles Airport control towers, the high rises of Reston and Tysons Corner, and even the tip of the Washington Monument on a clear day (bring your binoculars). We're going for a fruit wine here; The Peach. 50% peach and 50% vidal blanc. The Donkey rosé is another favorite.
Lots of protected spots inside the tasting room where you can escape the heat.

Some other spots we suggest:
Tarara Winery (the deck along the river banks)
Stone Mountain Vineyards (cooler temperatures when you taste the altitude)
Zephaniah Farm Vineyard (beautiful new tasting building nestled by the trees; don't take a dip in the pool though!)


Friday, June 9, 2017

10 Virginia Wineries in a Day

Winery hopping is a term usually reserved for a day event for winos (with a DD, or Uber, or Lyft, for the day) who visit many tasting rooms, buy a few bottles to go, and then move on. This is something that does not occur very often for the Notebook; typically, we visit 2 or 3 wineries, and then hang out for several hours at the first (or last) winery.

Winery hopping in the past has been best suited for areas where wineries are a stone's throw away from each other: the "banana belt" southeast corner of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes is a good example. About 25 wineries within 3 miles, due to the micro climate on this part of the lake that resembles Napa County for growing (the extremely deep section of this part of the lake controls freezing, and the soil is more fertile). And speaking of Napa, that is another wine region where visitors can hop around wineries in close proximity to each other; just select south Napa, central Napa, or north Napa, and do it.

Virginia has not really been conducive to this type of winery hopping. Even wineries in the Monticello AVA, although there are many, require at least 15 minutes of drive time per winery. For years, we've been pondering when Virginia will officially enter the realm of "day winery hopping." Thanks to Loudoun County, Virginia is now on that special map. In particular, the wineries along route 9 (Charles Town Pike), near the West Virginia border. This formerly remote highway now suffers from unfortunate "winery traffic jams" on Saturdays, and some Sundays...especially one frustrating intersection containing what must be the longest red traffic light in the county (those familiar with the Loudoun County scene will know which intersection we're talking about). Route 9 is now the Northern Virginia Wine Highway, and adding Harper's Ferry Road, a right turn off westbound route 9 that cuts a diagonal over to West Virginia, gives winos (driven by someone not partaking) even more to choose from.

We were up to the challenge. So here are 10 Wineries in one day, with winery links, for those who want to follow along. We'll start on the western side and work our way back to Route 7. (Important note: In order to preserve yourselves, we strongly urge doing tastings only; as inviting as the mood may be to "stick around," the nature of winery hopping is to hop).

1. Breaux Vineyards
There is no better way to start the hopping than at this Loudoun County (and Virginia) winery staple. The new tasting building is gorgeous and the views are some of the best in the state. Virginia wine with a Cajun atmosphere.

2. 868 Estate Vineyards
A whopping quarter mile from the Breaux turn-off, this is a newer winery with vineyards at an elevation that gave the winery its name. A bit too early for lunch, but the restaurant on the premises is award-winning.

3. Two Twisted Posts Winery
We suggest turning LEFT when you leave 868, in the direction of West Virginia, to check this even newer winery. Several years ago, they had to open to the public before their tasting room was finished, as they received the Governor's Cup straight out of the chute with their chardonnay. The owners set up a tent near the driveway and this soon-to-be-legendary-Virginia winery was born.

4. Hillsborough Vineyards
Another Loudoun staple, with consistently stellar wines and mountain views galore from their hilltop tasting room.

5. North Gate Vineyard
Take a right as you hit the village of Hillsboro, drive about 2 miles, and one of the Notebook's favorites in the entire state will appear on the right. Wonderful wine, nicely done LEED-certified tasting room, and calming pine forest views.

6. Doukenie Winery
Virginia wine with a soft Greek touch, another long time favorite that also updated its tasting room in the last few years. The painted turtle-filled pond with its "peninsula" jutting into the water makes you want to stay here for hours...but you have 4 more tasting rooms to hit!

The patio and pond at Doukenie:

7. The Wine Reserve at Waterford
The name is a mouthful but this newest location on our list, where Loudoun Valley Winery previously existed, is a winner, and offers a different kind of tasting experience. Whichever you select, "Virginia Tasting" or "Regions Beyond," you are in for a treat.

8. 8 Chains North Winery
Ben Renshaw is one of the top winemakers in Virginia. His wines, especially the reds, are shining examples of what the Commonwealth offers. Ths is the wine The Notebook shared with French wine snobs, who previously would not even think about trying a Virginia wine. They were totally won over.

9. Hunter's Run Wine Barn
A touch of the Emerald Isle in the middle of Loudoun County. Gerri and (occasionally) Annie welcome you and offer some charming wines, including very tasty port-style.

10. Casanel Vineyards or Dry Mill Vineyards (all depends which direction you land on business route 7...)
At this point in the day, your bellies are full of wine, and since you have a DD, or are using a Reston Limo or other service, direct the driver to either turn left or right at the T intersection of route 9 and business route 7 (the intersection past the new traffic circle over the route 7 bypass). Flip a coin if you have to. You cannot go wrong with either selection. Turning left towards Leesburg brings you to the cozy Dry Mill Vineyards, with its rustic tasting building built from an old horse stable. Turning right towards Hamilton leads you in the direction of Casanel, and if you're lucky Nelson himself will be on the premises, entertaining you with stories about his foray into the winery business. Grab a spot in the gazebo on the pond and kick back with a glass (perhaps of water or Gatorade...)


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Wine and Song, Episode 2

Enjoy a glass of Cave Ridge Riesling to this underrated gem.