Since it’s Women’s History Month it seems appropriate to end March with an interview with winemaker Lauren Zimmerman of Port of Leonardtown.
If you aren’t following Lauren’s Instagram (@laurenwinegirl), you’re missing out. Her stories are incredibly fun to follow along, whether you’re a wino or not. But in person, she was every bit as fun as her stories are.
My visit was inspired by news of their recent Maryland Governor’s Cup awards, but more broadly because I was curious about Maryland wine in general. Port of Leonardtown had recently earned the Jack Aellen award for the state’s best fruit wine, and best in class for their 2020 Sauvignon Blanc. While that Sauv Blanc made the entire trip worthwhile, there was plenty to love here.
I started with a barrel tasting, chatting with Lauren about the state’s wineries in-between sips. She explained how Maryland has over 100 x wineries and 1000 x acres of grapes, making Maryland something of a ‘little brother’ to Virginia’s own wineries. Since many Maryland wineries are closer to me than Virginia counterparts in Charlottesville or the Shenandoah, I began to wonder why I don’t visit here more often.
But even within Maryland, Port of Leonardtown is a unique enterprise. It’s comprised of 13 x independent vineyards from around the state who banded together to form a winery co-op under one roof (and one winemaker). The wines resulting from this cooperation showcase a variety of terroirs from coastline to mountains to flat farmland.
Unlike most winery tasting rooms, Port of Leonardtown is set in a suburban area. While they have a picnic area and some ‘show vines’ in front, don’t expect the sweeping vineyard views that you might see elsewhere. But not to worry; they make up for it with great wine.
One observation about Maryland wine is since its terroir has a little bit of everything it’s hard to define a signature ‘Maryland’ style. Fortunately, this suits Lauren well. While she comes from Canada (and definitely misses Riesling) Lauren has jumped between wineries all over the world before finding a cute guy and settling here to start a family, so she’s accustomed to dealing with a range of styles and grapes.
Lauren’s most consistent grape is definitely Chambourcin – which she praised for its versatility. She also felt Chambourcin grown in eastern Maryland was richer than what you can find elsewhere. Port of Leonardtown’s vineyards also produce Barbera, Vidal, Albariño, Chardonnay, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Merlot.
Since I had her full attention, I took the opportunity to ask her own favorite wines. The unreleased 2020 Sauv Blanc and her steel-fermented Chardonnay were up there, along with her Governor’s Cup-winning 2015 Barbera.
Since it was Women’s History month I also asked her a few questions about women’s representation in the Maryland winery scene. She agreed that while the field is dominated by men, that trend is dying out. She also pointed out that women generally have better olfactory skills then men, so biology seems to be on her side here.
As for the wine, I enjoyed the entire lineup. We started with the whites, with the 2020 Sauvignon Blanc quickly becoming my favorite – young and juicy, with lots of grapefruit notes. The 2020 Vidal was also good, leaning towards a more citrusy style.
For reds, the Cabernet Franc was bright and peppery, while the 2019 “Old Line” red (Merlot / Cabernet Franc / Petit Verdot) was richer. Finishing things off were the Vidal dessert wine, which Lauren called a ‘porch sipper’ because it wasn’t overly sweet. Finally we had a dry, rich port-style made with Chambourcin.
If you haven’t been to Maryland wineries before, start here!
Sunshine Ridge is Virginia’s newest winery, located along the edge of Lake Manassas and very close to Vint Hill. And I’ll say it out loud – it also has some of the most stunning views of any winery in Virginia.
Owners Maria & Tom Rafferty bought the property with an eye for building a new home, but they felt the space gave them the opportunity to do something hospitality related as well. Fortunately their friend (and future business partner) Tom Schrade was looking to do something similar, so they were able to team up and build Sunshine Ridge Farm.
You can tell that Tom is a landscaper by trade, because the location has great views of the lake and a lot of attention to detail. Tom must also be a carpenter because he helped build the tasting room – using wood harnessed from the property. He did a great job, although Maria can’t help but poke fun at the single support column that is just a little bit crooked. I’m sure he could fit it but she won’t let him because it’s a better story that way.
I particularly loved the garage doors that opened up towards the lake, as well as the fireplace. It was chilly when I visited so the doors remained closed, but I did grab a prime seat near the fire.
I get the sense that Sunshine Ridge is designed to entertain large crowds, both inside the tasting room and on the extensive lawn outside. Maria gave me a tour and I was impressed by the building’s coziness. They also have a large upstairs area for club members and a separate room for the brewery. I can only imagine how this place will be in the summertime, with the breeze coming off the lake and maybe a concert going on.
Right now Ashton Lough of Bull Run Winery makes their wine, and that will continue to be the case for a while. While Sunshine is planting a quarter acre of Vidal Blanc, most of their fruit will come from 11 acres leased from Bull Run’s vineyard in Rappahannock or purchased elsewhere.
Another item that is certain to be a crowd-pleaser is they are a brewery as well as a winery. Right now Cedar Run Brewery is supplying the beer, but Sunshine will brew their own beer in the future. Add some food trucks. music, and maybe lounge chairs near the lake, and this place is a one-stop-stop for all your recreational needs.
I sampled the wine lineup and was particularly taken with the Meritage (nice complexity) and the Chardonnay (which hit the right balance of new and used French oak). They also had a citrusy Riesling, off-dry rosé with strawberry notes, a Pinot Gris, Cab Franc, and a Norton. The last one surprised me; I’m rarely a Norton drinker but I would drink this one again as the 20% Merlot they used cut through the ‘foxy’ characteristics that I don’t like. It was a Norton for those who don’t usually try Norton!
Right now all their wine is from the 2019 vintage so several reds tasted young, but give it some time and they will mellow out. Most of their wine use Virginia fruit, with the exception of the Riesling (100% Washington State) and the Pinot Gris (a mix of Virginia and Washington fruit).
Since I would be remiss not to try the entire lineup, I also tried the beer. My favorites were the Trice Ax Stout (nice coffee and earthy notes), Farmhouse Saison, and the Light Lager, which is served in a room styled after an Irish-style pub.
While I anticipate Sunshine Ridge will a favorite for those planning to meet groups of friends, for the time being they are reservation-only. That said they was plenty of space to spread out. They also have a no-children under 16 years old policy, specifically due to the risk that small kids will wander off to close to the water.
As of late February 2021, I count 254 wineries, 28 cideries, and 10 meaderies, plus 16 wine producers that lack tasting rooms. I rename the spreadsheet according to the current date every time I update it. Because of this, check back periodically as I make new edits all the time.
Also, deciding what qualifies as a ‘Virginia winery’ is harder than it seems. Some wineries don’t have tasting rooms; others are so rarely open that it makes visiting them nearly impossible. Some ‘wineries’ are really just tasting rooms for wine made elsewhere in the state. Others are companies that only sell retail. A few businesses make wine but don’t use Virginia grapes, leading to me to wonder if they even qualify as a ‘Virginia winery’.
For the sake of maximum accuracy, I listed every winery, cidery, and meadery I could find in Virginia, even those which lack tasting rooms or are more of a wine distribution company.
If a location had wine using Virginia fruit under their own label, I listed them as a winery.
If a location had cider and/or mead as well as wine using Virginia fruit under their own label, I annotated that they have cider/mead but for tracking purposes I still list them primarily as a winery.
If a location had mead and cider (but not wine), I listed them as a cidery.
There is also a row for wine distribution companies or wineries or wine labels that lack tasting room, such as True Heritage or Jake Busching’s wines.
I’m really happy how this article came out. The best articles are one where I learn something in my research.
I still think Ben Jordan of Early Mountain Vineyards explained it best, “It seems to me that the market accepts something as natural when a wine checks most of those boxes, and when the character of the wine fits the overall ethos, but since there is no certification, there are no hard and fast rules.
Special thanks to Arterra Wines, Rock Roadhouse, and Briedé Family Vineyard.
Saying you’re a fan of RdV is basically Virginia wine code for “Yes, I have a taste for very luxurious bottles – and I’m not ashamed to say it”.
Many would argue RdV is Virginia’s most famous winery; it’s certainly the most expensive. But put this into context; RdV provides a curated experience with wines that easily match up to very expensive bottles from Bordeaux or California, so you’re getting what you paid for.
RdV also has an amazing lineage, since owner Rutger de Vink was mentored by Jim Law of Linden Vineyards – one of the few acceptable alternatives for those who don’t point to RdV as the best winery in the state.
“How I found my vineyard”
Rutger comes from a well-heeled Dutch family but in his younger days apparently felt the need for some personal direction – so he joined the U.S. Marines and became a member of their Force Reconnaissance element (think Navy SEALs or Army Special Forces-level training). This background (that, plus an MBA and experience in a tech company) explains his devotion to methodical planning, which no doubt paid off here.
RdV also has perhaps the most famous “How I found my vineyard” story in Virginia. As the legend is told, he was driving on a back road in search of a vineyard site when his car was halted by some sheep crossing the road. After pausing he looked around, only to realize the hills around him seemed to have all the things he needed.
Turns out the property belong to a sheep farmer who only used this location for grazing as it was too barren for farming. Initially this gent wasn’t interested in selling, but not long afterwards the farmer realized his kids weren’t interested in keeping the land so he called Rutger asking for an offer. The rest is history.
Rutger must have gone ALL IN when designing this place; the winery is one of the most picturesque in Virginia. But it isn’t just about looks; a lot of thought went into the design, be it the long underground passageway or the tower/lightwell in the middle of the building. These are just a few of the details that come together perfectly.
I’d visited before, but that was before I learned to appreciate Virginia wine in the way I do now. At $75 a person, you aren’t just signing up for a tasting – you sign up for an education.
You start with a personal tour of the building, while the guide explained why this location is so special for viticulture. Put simply – it comes down to rock. Lots of very, very hard rock.
The winery sits on a big hunk of granite. This is actually perfect for a vineyard; granite minimizes water retention and soil nutrients, forcing the vines to struggle. It’s a counter-intuitive way to farm; ‘happy’ vines don’t produce good wine grapes, but vines that struggle put all their effort into ripening their grapes –which results in great wine.
The tour continues through an underground tunnel which doubles as their long-term storage and barrel aging area. The most interesting part of this walk is the bare rock face. While it may have been planned more for show, RdV realized this wall serves a useful purpose – it shows how deeply rainfall has penetrated the ground. That’s the type of info that vineyard managers love, so ‘art’ here serves a purpose.
After that, you finished with a stop by the bottling line and chemistry lab then moved upstairs for a tasting.
RdV is known for two wines; it’s Rendezvous (right bank, Merlot-heavy blend) and Lost Mountain (left bank, Cabernet Sauvignon-heavy blend). No white grapes are grown; their 16 acres of vines is entirely composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc (no Malbec either).
RdV does make several other wines, although those aren’t typically sold to the public. The best known is their somewhat cheaper Friends and Family red blend found at wine stores and restaurants – made from grapes that aren’t used for the two main wines. But on rare occasions RdV also makes a single-varietal wine (I’ve had their “Outlier” Petit Verdot at Field & Main restaurant) and even a dry Rosé they serve to club members.
Their blending master is Eric Boissenot. I admit I didn’t know the name, but wine snobs likely do – he decides the blends for 4 out of 5 of France’s “First Growth” wineries. RdV is his only American client – that’s how fancy this place is.
Normally I go into long tasting descriptions of the wine; but here I won’t. Suffice to say, RdV wine is world-class. I tried the 2017 vintages of the Rendezvous and Lost Mountain and both were amazing – although I actually leaned more towards the right bank style than the left bank one (much to my wallet’s relief). I’m actually in deep regret not getting more bottles – it was that good.
Your tasting is accompanied by a small charcuterie board and a serving of Dom Pérignon.
Some would say that this event is overpriced. My response – it depends what you are looking for. If you just want to drink some wine, skip the tour and buy a bottle. But if you enjoy being feted and receiving a full on wine education (that I enjoyed almost as much as the wine), make a visit. You’ll walk away with confidence that Virginia really can make wine on par with the best in the world.
Another Virginia winemaker recently called Jim Law “The guru on the hill”, who’s dedication has elevated the entire Virginia wine industry. The roster of those who’ve worked for him at Linden is something of a who’s-who of Virginia wine royalty, including (but certainly not limited to) Rutger de Vink of RdV Vineyards and Jeff White of Glen Manor Vineyards. Two of Jim’s Chardonnays received 94 points from Robert Parker – the highest score he’s given any Virginia wine. So when the guru speaks – you listen.
I’d been a member for several years, so when Jim announced he would be releasing his 2017 vintages I rushed to get my tickets. In a very socially-distanced event, Jim introduced 3 x Chardonnays, 4 x Bordeaux blends, plus a dessert wine. He also treated us to a long discussion about his wine and winemaking philosophy in general.
For background, Linden draws from three vineyards; Hardscrabble, Avenius, and Boisseau. Hardscrabble is their 20 acre estate vineyard located at the winery, primarily growing Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon (although less Cabernet and more Chardonnay than it used to have) but home to several other varietals. Avenius a cooler 5 acre site down the road with soil composed of shale, granite and greenstone; they have a mix of vinifera but the largest planting is 1.5 acres of Sauvignon Blanc. Boisseau is the warmest site near Front Royal, its 4 acres likewise a mix. Many of his wines are bottled according the vineyard they came from; it’s not uncommon to have vertical flights of the same varietal but from different vineyards.
Although most Virginia wineries designate their red blends as their flagship wines, Jim’s first love is Chardonnay so his Hardscrabble Chardonnay is the wine he’s often proudest of. In my opinion, this is the best Chardonnay in Virginia – and I dare anyone to show me otherwise.
Jim explained that 2017 was a great vintage for both reds and whites, which is an unusual combination – usually it’s one or the other. Fortunately they were blessed with cool nights and warm days, particularly in September/October. He actually likes his 2017s better than his 2019s, mostly because the weather in 2017 was more even.
He also discussed climate change and his vineyard replanting project. Regarding the former, he has a small experimental vineyard where he’s planted several hybrids and Italian varietals, and discussed how unpredictable Virginia’s weather has become. Jim even installed several huge solar panels outdoors, in an effort to not be a contributor to the problem of global warming that has beset his own vineyards.
As for his replanting his vineyards, right now Jim is on ‘year 20 of his 15 year plan’. He freely admits to undergoing a long period of education which resulted him in revising his methodology for planting vineyards, and how water retention is the single most important factor in planting vines in Virginia.
He spoke at length about his Chardonnay planting from decades ago; right now there’s only around 10% of the original vines. While he enjoys the freshness that younger Chardonnay vines offer his wines, they lack the depth and character of older vines.
Usually I try to take my own notes for tastings – but the descriptors Jim provided were so dead-on that I decided to use them.
What I tried:
2017 “Village” Chardonnay: Jim’s “Village” is a mixture of all three vineyards, but this year drawing heavily from Hardscrabble. “Creamy” was the optional word. He said this wine will improve over several years but damn, this was easy to drink now. This was also my favorite wine of the day (which I was rather grateful for, since it was one of the cheapest).
2017 Avenius Chardonnay: This had an almost Sauv Blanc quality to it. Higher acid and mineral notes. Has lots of personality.
2017 Hardscrabble Chardonnay: His flagship wine. Some newer oak to give it some toastiness, which is unusual since he’s usually a fan of neutral oak. Apple notes and long finish.
2017 Claret: Usually half of Linden’s reds are Claret but the 2017 vintage was so great he used most of his fruit for his site-specific vintages. I got currant notes, although his tasting sheet said red fruit (close enough).
2017 Boisseau: Fresh, not as heavy as I would have expected from a Petit Verdot/Cabernet heavy blend.
2017 Avenius: Black fruit notes and the acidity was on the higher side.
2017 Hardscrabble (red): “Rose pedals” was the tasting note. I’d keep this one for a few years though.