Stanburn Winery

One of the benefits of going to big tasting events is it exposes me to Virginia wineries from all over the state. At one such event I found a bottle of 2015 Cabernet Franc from Stanburn, and quickly snatched it up for my Cab Franc-loving mother. But I admit – I almost kept it from myself, as at that point I’d never visited Stanburn and wanted to know what I was missing. Fortunately, my trip to southern Virginia allowed me to find out.

Many wineries have a fun story about how they got started, but I think Stanburn’s takes the cake. Family patriarch Nelson Stanley got the idea of starting a vineyard from…plumbing. That’s right; he was doing the plumbing for nearby Chateau Morrisette when he heard they needed more grapes. Nelson figured he had the land to do it, so in 1999 he planted his first vines.

Like many others in the wine business, the vineyard eventually turned into a full-fledged winery.  At 1300-1500 cases/year it’s still on the small side; to purchase bottles you’d either have to visit their tasting room, go to a local festival, or make the trek to The Virginia Tasting Cellar in Farmville. Now Stanburn’s vineyard is at 19 acres, about half hybrids and half vinifera – including 2 acres of Barbera.

Mike Shaps was their first winemaker, but that position has since been taken over by Jocelyn Kuzelka, a local and long-time friend of the family. If you haven’t heard of her give it time. She also consults for Albemarle CiderWorks.

After chatting a bit David Stanley let me try the entire tasting menu…and I think a few additional ones after that. Thank goodness I pace myself for these events!

White wines: We started with their dry and sweet-style Vidals, the “Highfly” Traminette/Vidal semi-sweet blend, a full Traminette, and a Chardonnay. My favorite was the regular Traminette, which was dry and well balanced.

But the most interesting story was that of the Highfly – named after the horse ridden by Civil War General J.E.B. Stewart (a native of these parts). It was definitely an easy drinking white, but calling it a ‘festival wine’ would be an insult. Everything about this wine was just on target. For $15 I also thought it was a total steal.

Red wines: I liked both the 2015 and 2017 Cabernet Francs; the first had some good body and complexity, while the 2017 was lighter and spicier. The 2017 Poorhourse was a 100% sweet-ish Chambourcin. We ended with the 2017 “Big A”, a very nice Chambourcin/Cab Franc blend.

My favorite reds though was a special tasting of their 2018 Barbera and 2016 Chambourcin. Barbera is rare in Virginia, and 2018 was a rough year in general. But that Barbera was soft, fruity, and subtle. It was young but easily can be enjoyed now.

The most surprising though was that Chambourcin. Most wines of this varietal tend to be too light and fruity for me – but not this one. It had fruit, but also a very noticeable smokiness to it that I honestly don’t think I’d ever seen in a Chambourcin before.

Southern Virginia isn’t (yet) known as a major wine destination, and when wine is discussed it’s probably better known for producing wines on the sweet side. But from what David showed me that reputation needs to be revisited!

Preston Ridge

As soon as you walk into Preston Ridge, you realize this is a local hangout joint. A slushy machine is right behind the bar, and wine supplies hang off the far wall like you’d expect to see at a hardware store. This place isn’t fancy, but like most watering holes it doesn’t pretend to be.

Lawrence Penn is the wine maker. As descendant of a long line of bootleggers, he proudly (if jokingly) says he’s the first ‘legal’ winemaker in his family line. But he honed his trade by using homemaking wine (and beer) sets, so I guess bootlegging is in his blood.

Given his previous job was in demolition, he probably didn’t plan to be a winery owner. When he told me how he got started I had to chuckle; demolition man to wine maker? I’ve heard of plenty of interesting backgrounds in Virginia’s wine industry, but that was definitely a first!

Preston Ridge makes 600-2500 cases of wine a year and leases 4 acres of vines. But he sources fruit anywhere he can, including California. A considerable amount of his wine aren’t even from grapes; I tried a lot of fruit wine during my visit. Lawrence explained a lot of locals make their own wine, so this allows him to cater to the local palate. Sourcing from multiple places also allowed him to have an expansive lineup.

For those who visit this area, you’ve likely tasted their wines at local festivals – that seems their bread & butter. Lawrence and his daughter went through a full tasting with me while other patrons dropped by for their own libations.

For grape wines, I found I especially liked the 2016 Chambourcin, which was dark and almost chocolaty. But the steel fermented Chardonnay was also light and refreshing.

But my favorites were the fruit wines. The Strawberry reminded me of a strawberry ice cream! But my very favorite was the apple wine, which was lightly oaked and had cinnamon notes. I think any of these would be welcome during a warm day (or even a not so warm day!).

Hamlet Vineyards

I went into this trip with the full intention of treating all my wine visits equally. After all, there’s SOMETHING good to be said about everyplace I visited, even if it’s not the style of wine that I drink. I’m an advocate for ‘drink what you like’, so if you like hybrids and/or sweet wine – go for it!

But I have an admission: Hamlet was my favorite of this trip.

Hamlet has two big things going for them; an excellent vineyard that’s focused on vinifera…and Michael Shaps. Combine the two, and you have a clear winner.

Butch and Virginia Hamlet got into wine making the traditional Virginia way – by accident. They already owned 300 acres of land, so they decided they may as well put it to productive use. I suppose having a love of wine was another motivation, since despite not having a background in agriculture they chose to open a vineyard.

But the Hamlets bonded with their vineyard, as nobody wants to sell grapes that they invested so much time in growing. By happy accident one year Chateau Morrisette didn’t purchase Hamlet’s crop, so they sought the assistance of Michael Shaps to turn their grapes into wine. Now Hamlet makes estate wine out of its 5 acres of grapes – mostly vinifera.

I asked about Hamlet’s partnership with Shaps, and Virginia was a huge advocate of his custom crush program. Hamlet’s wines are 100% estate, and Shaps definitely knows what to do with them. Since Virginia knows her customers’ palates, she and Michael are able to collaborate on the styles that best suit Hamlet’s needs. That partnership has definitely worked out well; their 2016 Eltham made its way to the 2017 Virginia’s Governor’s Case, and having tried the entire Case lineup I thought it was one of the best of the bunch.

The tasting room is small and cozy. They have a small patio with pull down walls that has served them well for years, but that should be replaced in the future with something more durable. Given their location, I thought it was just the right amount of space.

Hamlet is only open on Sundays. That’s an unusual decision but one that makes sense for them, given how many Saturday evenings Hamlet’s space is rented out for events. I definitely got the feeling this was a popular watering hole, although being open all weekend might dilute the crowd for both days.

Despite that, Virginia was kind enough to allow me to visit her on a Saturday. I got to try the entire lineup of wines while she went over the business.

Pinot Gris: Light, refreshing, with citrus notes.

Viognier: Honey-ish notes. Also sharp and dry, without the perfume nose that I often find.

“Bottle Blond”: Sweet wine made with Pinot Gris/Vidal/Chardonel. Local favorite. Virginia explained it took a while for Hamlet to introduce a sweet wine into their repertoire as they didn’t want to have a reputation as a sweet-wine focused winery, but there was so much demand eventually they gave in.

Rose (Merlot): Merlot is a workhorse for their vineyard. Strawberry notes; just barely off dry. A good compromise that can satisfy sweet and dry wine drinkers.

“Old Virginia Red”: Soft red; also bridges the gap between sweet and dry wine drinkers. Fruity; can be chilled. It sorta reminded me of a sangria.

2016 Cabernet Sauvignon: Light, bramble fruit notes.

2016 Petit Verdot: Smokey!

2015 Eltham: Very yummy…soft fruit notes.

2016 Eltham (50/50 Petit Verdot and Merlot): Sooooo gooooooooood…and a worthy edition to the 2017 Virginia Governor’s Case competition. Very good complexity, very smooth.

“VA Vino” Sparking viognier. Fun, festive sparkling wine.

A special shout-out goes to their cans of Pinot Gris!

Beliveau Estate Winery

Beliveau is the quintessential place to get away from town to enjoy the view while drinking adult beverages. While only 45 minutes from Roanoke, my GPS signal almost gave up on me as this area is definitely rural, given its location at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. If you’re into hiking as well as drinking, this is your place.

I called ahead and was told to meet up with their winemaker, Derek Gassler. Derek gave me the low-down of the vineyard, starting with how they first planted in 2009 and progressively added more after that. He seemed especially proud how as of 2018 they had finally become 100% estate-grown and for the first time were selling fruit – an uncommon feature in Virginia.

At 3-5000 cases/year this is still a small operation; Beliveau’s wines are rare outside the winery itself. Derek said he made their wine in what he called “High Mountain” style – light and low tannin. Their 12 acres of vines were 60%/40% split between hybrids and vinifera, sitting anywhere between 2100-2500 feet. While I’m don’t style myself an expert, this seemed like an especially good place for wine growing.

Wine isn’t the only thing on the menu. Derek wasn’t just a winemaker; he was a brewer. That’s right – Beliveau is about to join a growing trend of hybrid winery/brewery operations. If that’s not enough they are a Bed & Breakfast, plus they do a lot of events. Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on here.

After chatting about the vineyard I made my down to their outside tasting bar where Bob poured my wine. We chatted a bit as I enjoyed the view outside. He seemed just as thrilled as I was that Derek authorized him to open a bottle of their Petit Verdot, which definitely seemed to be on his ‘must drink after work’ list.

What I tried:

2016/2017 Destiny (Vidal): Both were quite nice, with the 2016 being more citrusy.

2017 Afternoon Delight (50/50 Chardonnel/Vidal): Lightly oaked and bright notes.

2015 Mystique (Chardonnay): Unoaked. Nutty and very sharp.

Reflection (Traminette): Floral nose, maybe lemon on my palate?

2017 Crown Jewel: Derek’s current favorite; an off dry Traminette/Vidal blend. Very crisp and clean.

2016 Pristine (Chardonnel): Apple notes; I’m finding I’m really starting to like Chardonnel (including this one) despite my usual apathy towards most hybrids.

Rose: Definite cranberry notes.

2017 Trailblazer (Merlot): Smokey!

2016 A Capallela: Fruit forward but still peppery. It’s a red blend but I suspect it’s Cabernet Franc heavy.

Fireside Chat (Cab Franc): Light and peppery.

2016 Soul Singer (Chambourcin): Cherry forward

Warm Glow (Chambourcin): This couldn’t be more different than the Soul Singer; semi sweet, kinda reminded me of melted chocolate in a good way.

******DRUM ROLL******

2017 Petit Verdot (with a tad bit of Tempranillo): Outstanding! Just enough pepper to make me happy but not overwhelming.

Spinning Jenny

I don’t know what it is about southern Virginia that attracts self-made winemakers who set up shop on practically their front yard. Maybe retirement just isn’t for some people. Or maybe the passion for wine just runs that strong. But whatever the reason, the wine bug definitely hit the owners of Spinning Jenny.

Jenny planted its vineyard in 2015 and opened to the public in early 2019. After some helpful suggestions from their neighbors at Iron Heart and Giles wineries, owners Curtis and Jenny decided to plant an acre of grapes – some hybrids but also Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, even some Cab Sauv. Well, if you’re going to own a winery, you may as well pant things you like, because you’re going to be your own #1 customer!

On the face of it neither of them had winemaking experience prior to this venture. That said they did have something going for them – Jennifer is an infection control nurse. You’d think these fields are totally different, but I’d disagree. Maintaining a vineyard in Virginia is all about disease control. What ails the grapes? When to spray? What to spray? I suspect Jennifer came to this field better prepared than she thought.

The tasting room is on the edge of their property, right off of I-81. It’s not a big place but doesn’t need to be. Some visitors are simply looking for a way stop, others are locals looking for a get-away.

The wines were almost universally soft and light, especially the whites. I especially liked the 2018 Chardonnay; nice mouthfeel, made in a Chablis style. But the 2018 Viognier was good too, especially considering what a wet year it was.

If you’re a red drinker, have no fear – they also have a fruity Cabernet Sauvignon/Chambourcin blend (80%/20%) which is probably best served chilled. Since Jenny is low on their own reds they are supplemented by bottles from Iron Heart. I especially like Iron Heart’s Cabernet Franc, which I purchased a bottle of when I visited them last year (it ended up with mom).

Fun facts – a “Spinning Jenny” is a fencing tool used to spool out wire. They are also in the running for smallest winery in Virginia, with a production of under 100 cases. While the production may grow, I really hope it never loses its homey vibe.

JBR Vineyards

JBR Vineyard – the initials of the owner/winemaker, Jessee B Ring – is practically the definition of what I’d call a mom & pop winery. The tasting room is actually the owner’s home, and you sit down at their dining room table. How’s that for a welcome!

This was my first visit of a 3 day excursion to this part of Virginia. Fortunately I was able to get an early appointment, so after a 4.5 hour drive from home, here I was.

You might say JBR Vineyard is a hobby gone wild. The owners bounced around the USA for work until returning to Jessee’s roots here in SW Virginia. In 2006 he planted a few trial rows of grapes, eventually deciding to concentrate on only two; Riesling and Pinot Noir. Now, they have a total of 2.5 acres between an off-site vineyard and a much smaller one in their front yard.

That JBR focuses on only two wines is a good thing. For one, it simplifies their vine management. Moreover, if you’re going to do something, you may as well do it well. JBR does both well.

You’ve probably not had many Virginia wines made from either Riesling or Pinot Noir. There’s a reason for that – both are notoriously difficult to grow in the state. They produce very tight clusters of grapes, making airflow difficult – hence susceptible to mold in Virginia’s humid climate. Fortunately, at 1800 feet JBR has the type of terroir to mitigate this problem. Jessee must have been thrilled to know that his front yard has the right conditions to grow some of his favorite wines.

I sat down for a flight of both wines accompanied by a cheese board. As I sampled, Jessee and his son gave me the run-down of the winery. What I tried:

2017 “Giles County” Pinot Noir: Jessee called this his steak wine. Cherry notes, very nice.

2017 “Virginia Mountain Red” Pinot Noir: Served chilled. Very light color; more of a festival or pizza wine.

2017 “Country Gentleman” Pinot Noir: Tiny bit lighter; more plumb than cherry. His ‘pasta wine’.

2018 Riesling: Made with juice from Washington State, as in 2018 JBR lost their own Riesling crop. Excellent wine; full mouthfeel.

2017 Riesling: Lemony, almost citrus notes, full mouthfeel. More citrus-forward than other Rieslings but still very enjoyable.

Muse Vineyard

If I were make a list of my Top 10 wineries in all Virginia, Muse would definitely be on there. It literally has the entire package; an amazing vineyard, great service, epic scenery, and some of the best wine I’ve had anywhere. Even though it’s an almost 2 hour drive for me, I make the pilgrimage several times a year.

Husband/wife team Robert Muse and Sally Cowal found the land advertised in the Washington Post as a ‘vineyard for sale’ and purchased it in 2003. Being wine lovers, the opportunity seemed too good to resist. It’s location in the middle of the lovely Shenandoah Valley must have been an additional bonus.

Getting there is sometimes a challenge. The vineyard is adjacent to the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, which occasionally floods the low bridge. Those in dire need of a drink in bad weather can cross an elevated walkway. Fortunately most of the time you can easily drive to the tasting room, set on a low hill that gives you a great view of the surrounding valley.

Sally was kind enough to give me a tour of the vineyard – which arguably is tied with the tasting room as my favorite part of their winery (note: I can drink in the vineyard so I’m not actually sacrificing anything here). When she explained what they are growing, it was jaw-dropping.

Muse currently has 21 grape varietals on 34 acres. That’s impressive, but what’s shocking is this includes vines seldom – if ever – seen in Virginia. Sally pointed out rows of Petit Syrah, Aglianico, Gamay, Grenache, Marsanne, Roussanne, Mourvèdre, Blaufränkisch (Lemberger), Terolodego and more…in addition to all your traditional Bordeaux-style grapes. Outside of Horton, it’s one of the most diverse vineyards of the state.

When I followed up with Robert on how he picked these varietals, he explained he didn’t use a consultant – he was just following his palate. That sounds rather shocking to me, as I often find those who plant what they like as opposed to what is proven to do well often find themselves with grapes that struggle in the local terroir (Virginian Cabernet Sauvignon lovers know what I’m talking about). Fortunately, he must have done his research because most of these grapes – especially the higher-elevation Italian ones – are doing quite well. Hopefully other wineries will take notice.

Their current winemaker is Tim Rausse; you may recognize the family name from his dad’s place, Gabrielle Rausse Winery. In fact, Gabrielle used to source fruit from Muse back when they sold grapes, which tells you something about their quality. Thus far I haven’t been able to catch Tim at work here, but if you do he’s not hard to notice – he’s a tall guy with a shaggy mountain man look.

When you see the tasting menu, you’ll understand the vineyard’s diversity is well represented. Muse seems to specialize in blends, including the whites. While I personally tend to focus on big reds all the time, this is one of the few places where I’ll carry home more than a few white wines.

What I tried:

2018 Erato: Made with Sauvignon Blanc & friends in stainless steel. Light, almost botanical notes.

2018 Rose: Practically a Bordeaux-blend of grapes with a lovely pale pink color.

2017 Thalia: Blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and a little Viognier, with just enough oak to compliment it. A very complex white.

2015 Cabernet Sauvignon: Actually 75% Cab Sauv with 25% Petit Verdot – and that PV goes a long way to make an excellent full bodied red.

2015 Petit Verdot: Full bodied red with a big mouthfeel. As a PV fanatic I loved this one.

2017 Calliope: 65% Grenache and 35% Mourvèdre, with lots of spice notes.

2015 Clio: Their signature red blend, with nearly 1/3 Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot each (and a splash of Malbec). Good fruit flavors, light nose, made in a mix of neutral and new oak.

2015 Cabernet Franc: Good earth notes, but not enough to be overpowering. Another winner!

Blanc d blanc: Sparkling Chardonnay aged 24 months. To say I loved it is an understatement.

Not tried was the Teroldego, which Robert seems especially proud of.