The 2022 Virginia Wine Year In Review

As 2022 closes Virginia has (by my count) 267 winery tasting rooms, 31 cideries, and 11 meaderies. It also has over 26 brands that sell their wine/cider/mead to the public but lack a physical tasting room.

11 new wineries (plus 2 tasting rooms from existing wineries) opened in 2022, a number on par with annual growth in the Virginia wine industry. An additional 5 wine brands opened for direct sales or can be found at a partner location (notably Walsh Family Wine, which hosts ‘Bar Takeovers’ for small brands that lack a tasting room).

5 wineries (Castle Gruen, Dry Creek, Hunt’s Vineyard, Thatch and Whitebarrel) closed, will close, or rebranded in 2022.

2022 also saw a number of major wineries being sold, with new owners at Barrel Oak, Sunset Hills/50 West, and Fox Meadow. These come in the wake of the sale of Three Fox Vineyards and 8 Chains North, which changed hands in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

2022’s Major Trends and Events

1. Growing representation in local winemaking: Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyards made history in 2022 by becoming the state’s 2nd female Virginia Governors Cup winner (and its 1st under the Cup’s post-2011 rigorous judging system). Maggie Malick and Rachel Stinson Vrooman also had wines selected for the 2022 Governor’s Case.

Not to let be outdone by its neighbor, Maryland winemaker Lauren Zimmerman of Port of Leonardtown joined Melanie by winning both the Maryland Governors Cup and Comptroller Cup, her state’s two highest wine awards in 2022.

These women are part of a cohort of female head winemakers and assistant winemakers who are gaining major name-recognition. All told, around 15% of all head winemakers in Virginia are female.

Representation by Black–owned wine brands also grew this year. Fifty Leven and Shockoe Wine joined the small but growing group of local Black-owned wine brands, which also includes Delaplane Cellars, Preston Ridge, Sweet Vines Farm, and Vintner’s Cellar of Yorktown.

2. Climate change: Jim Law called 2022 ‘climate change on steroids’. While climate change is hardly a new topic, this year included a number of high-intensity weather events which punctuated the extent of this trend. At worst, the type of dramatic weather fluctuations seen this year portent what Virginia’s ‘new normal’ may become.

For much of Virginia, 2022 see-sawed between hot, sunny days and short but intense summer storms, bookended by frost warnings in April and a hurricane in late September. Winegrowers looking at the rainy weather forecast in July had good reason to be concerned.

Fortunately, mid-summer’s capricious weather gave way to far more favorable conditions in August to September, turning what could have been a tough vintage into a very favorable one for large parts of the state.

Some years – such as 2017 and 2019 – are fondly looked back as strong vintages, while others like 2011 and 2018 are ones most winemakers would prefer to not dwell on.

But the answer regarding the 2022 growing season might be summarized as ‘it depends’, all depending on a vineyard’s specific microclimate.

3. Labor Shortages: Many wineries had significant challenges in staffing. This had a number of impacts, both in the tasting room and the vineyard.

Those hopeful for a return to pre-COVID bar-side tastings were likely disappointed. While health concerns and consumer demand for take-away flights played a part in this decision, this pivot away from bar-side tasting is largely a product of limited staffing, which precludes many wineries from servicing a full bar of customers as they did in the past.

These shortages also impacted vineyard operations. Frequent rain resulted in a high-vigor growing season, so pruning was especially time-consuming. When hurricane Ian arrived, some vineyards struggled to bring in their fruit with the labor at their disposal.

Those with full time labor were able to endure these challenges more easily. Those who did not were forced to compete with neighboring vineyards, resulting delays in vineyard work or harvesting.

4. The Common Wealth Crush Company and “garagiste” winemaking: This November Ben and Tim Jordan announced their new custom winemaking facility, capable of producing up to 30,000 cases/year. This business is especially designed for smaller winemakers who lack their own facilities.

“Contract winemaking” already exists in Virginia, but that term is usually associated with business such as Michael Shaps Wineworks who do the entire winemaking process for their customer.

CWCC differs in that it allows winemakers to make their own wine. As Tim Jordan explained, “People do it at their employer’s wineries and sometimes they can get their friends to let them do it. But what almost always happens is that you grow out of it, or the winery facility grows its production and kicks you out. There’s not really a dedicated facility that allows a winemaker to start a brand, do the project, make the wine they want the way they want and be confident they’ll be able to stay there.”

This business model comes at a good time as the number of ‘small batch’ wines has dramatically increased over the past several years. Winemakers including Jake Bushing, Mattieu Finot, and Ben Jordan have long championed “garagiste” style wines, but they’ve been joined by Jocelyn Kuzelka and Megan Hereford of Daring Wine Company, Tim Jordan’s Star Party, Kent Arendt’s Boden Young, Rich Sullivan’s Guide Wine, and others.

CWCC also plan of having a tasting room at their Waynesboro facility to serve these brands, allowing customer to sample wines from Midland, Lightwell, and Star Party.

5. Small Batch Wines more popular than ever: “Garagiste” winemakers are a large part of this group, but this trend goes beyond independent operators.

I use “small batch wines” as a catch-all term to cover a large group of different wine ventures, including everything from collaborations between different wineries, independent brands that lack a permanent home, to off-brand labels at established wineries.

One recent example is the ‘Sun Room’ collaboration between Corry Craighill of Septenary Vineyards and Nate Walsh, where each winemaker took a batch of Malvasia Bianca grapes but made a wine in their own style, yet sold as a 2-pack. Another is the Odd Bird series by Lee Hartman of Bluestone Vineyards.

The common denominator between these ventures is they tend to focus on the creative aspect of winemaking, often featuring unusual blends, uncommonly used winemaking styles, and/or unique branding.

Expect more of these type of off-brand ventures in the future, as winemakers look for ways to flex their creative muscles.

6. Vermouth gaining traction: Rosemont and Flying Fox have made vermouth for several years, but the field of local vermouth-makers expanded this year with the addition of botanical wines from Artemisia Farm, Walsh Family Wine, and Joy Ting.

While this beverage is usually thought of as a drink mixer for bartenders, local vermouth sales have largely been to customers who use it as a sipping drink. Many of these producers also focus on local ingredients, sometimes expanding beyond wormwood as a bittering agent.

Wineries, Brands & Tasting rooms that opened in 2022:

  1. Artemisia Farm & Vineyard (no tasting room, but found at NOVA farmers markets)
  2. Bluemont Station Farm Winery (Bluemont)
  3. Boden Young (no tasting room, but found at Walsh Family Wine)
  4. Burnbrae Vineyards (Lynchburg)
  5. Caihailian Vineyard (south of Afton)
  6. Chapelle Charlemagne Vineyards (new tasting room in Flint  Hill)
  7. Daring Wine Company (no tasting room)
  8. Droumavalla Farm (north of Leesburg)
  9. Everleigh Vineyards (Mineral)
  10. Kalero Vineyards (Hillsborough)
  11. Lake Front Winery (Buffalo Junction)
  12. Mount Fair Farm (Crozet)
  13. Nookesville Winery (no tasting room)
  14. October One Vineyard (new tasting room open in Leesburg)
  15. Star Party (no tasting room)
  16. The Barn at 678 (Barboursville)
  17. Wind Vineyard at Laurel Grove (Tappahannock)
  18. Woodbrook Farm Vineyard (Orange)

Upcoming Wineries expected to open in 2023

  1. Blevins Family Vineyard (Scottsburg)
  2. Crimson Lane Vineyards (Linden)
  3. Domaine Fortier Vineyard (Loudoun)
  4. Fallen Tree Vineyard (Crozet)
  5. Haunted Winery Vineyard (Amelia)
  6. Seven Lady Vineyards at Dover Hall  (west of Richmond)
  7. Silverdog Vineyards (Linden)
  8. Southwest Mountain Vineyards (Keswick)

Wineries that closed or closing in 2022:

  1. Castle Gruen
  2. Dry Creek
  3. Hunt’s Vineyard
  4. Thatch Vineyard (rebranded as part of Michael Shaps)
  5. Whitebarrel

Champagne vs Virginia: Blind Blanc de Noir Sparkling Tasting

Sparkling wine is one of the fasted-growing segments in the beverage industry, and Virginia is no different.

10 years ago only a handful of wineries offered bubbly. But the growing popularity of relatively easy-to-make pét-nats and availability of businesses (such as the Virginia Sparkling Company) that produce Méthode Champenoise sparkling for smaller customers has given wineries of all sizes the ability to sell sparkling in-house.

Most of Virginia’s sparklings are blends or Blanc de Blancs; only a minority are Blanc de Noirs (red grapes made into sparkling wine). To the best of my knowledge only Trump Winery, Ankida Ridge, and CrossKeys produce a pinot noir-based Blanc de Noir, although others use cabernet franc, norton, and even a tannat (from Horton).

I’d previously did an entire lineup of Blanc de Blancs, so this time we compared Blanc de Noirs with wines from CrossKeys, Keswick, and Trump.

I admit I had some trepidation over a France vs Virginia comparison of Blanc de Noirs. Nearly all of France’s Blanc de Noirs come from Champagne; no matter how much I may love Virginia wine, this is a tough act to beat.

But this was done in the name of science, so I figured we’d give it a go anyway.

The contestants:

  1. Eric Rodez Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru (Ambonnay, Champagne; $63 on wine searcher)
  2. 2019 Crosskeys Blanc de Noir (Shenandoah Valley; ~$40 when it was in stock)
  3. 2016 Trump Blanc de Noir (Charlottesville; $55 at the winery)
  4. Mailly Grand Cru Blanc de Noir (Champagne; $60 at Total Wine)
  5. Keswick Vineyards Amélie (Charlottesville; $39 at the winery)
  6. Albert Lebrun Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut (Marne Valley, Champagne; $38 on wine searcher)

We randomly paired the Virginia and French wines and bagged them in pairs. Bottles that won their flight advanced to the next round.

As always; this event was the product of THIS night with THIS group. On another day, we may have had different favorites.

Round 1 / Flight #1:

  • Wine 1: Eric Rodez Blanc De Noirs Grand Cru: 5 votes (winner)
  • Wine 2: 2019 CrossKeys Blanc de Noir: 1 vote

Eric Rodez comes from Ambonnay, one of 17 villages in Champagne authorized to label their sparkling as ‘Grand Cru’. I don’t know much more about them, other than any wine from champagne automatically has a serious rep to uphold.

CrossKeys is located in the ‘upper’ (southern) Shenandoah Valley. It’s made with pinot, which is grown specifically for sparkling production. This particular wine won “Best in Show” at the 2022 Atlantic Seaboard Wine competition.

PS – if you haven’t tried Shenandoah sparklings you should; the region’s cool climate makes it a good place for higher-acid wines, so sparkling are a good match.

Comparing the color and aromas of the two, the Grand Cru had more of a yellow hue with a funkier nose, while the CrossKeys was lighter with some light brioche.

On the palate the Eric Rodez had more complexity and we found it to be especially well balanced. The CrossKeys was easier drinking; lots of lemon notes. Someone mentioned a tad of vanilla, although it wasn’t from any barrel aging.

Votes:

  1. Alex: #1; liked the depth
  2. Lieven: #1; well balanced and overall drinkability
  3. Lindsay: #2; felt it was easier drinking
  4. Matt: #1, based on the greater complexity
  5. Sarah: #1 enjoyed the brioche notes and the yeastiness
  6. Stephanie: #1; noted the flavor carried through from the beginning to the end

Round 1 / Flight #2:

  • Wine #3: 2016 Trump Blanc de Noir: 5 votes (winner)
  • Wine #4: Mailly Grand Cru Blanc de Noir: 1 vote

Trump Winery’s sparkling shouldn’t need any introduction, as it makes some of the most famous sparklings in the state. You might even argue that its predecessor Patricia Kluge paved the way for local sparkling production in Virginia as she brought in Claude Thibaut (now one of the state’s premiere sparkling producers) as her winemaker.

The Mailley is another of Champagne’s Grand Cru villages. I couldn’t say much about it but hey…champagne!

The coloration of both were extremely close, but the noses were different. The Trump wine had yellow apple on the nose and was a little bready. It also took time to open up, although it never displayed any strong fruit notes.

The Mailly was smoky, and oddly enough seemed to get even smokier as it opened up. It was the drier of the two, although that’s not to say the Trump didn’t seem dry. It initially had a very displeasing cardboard note to it but that dissipated after about 10 minutes. It also had some tartness on the back end.

We felt the bubbles on both dissipated faster than we would have liked.

Votes:

  1. Alex: #3; felt it was more drinkable
  2. Lindsay: #4; once the funk came off, thought it was more complex
  3. Lieven: #3; based on the balance and drinkability.
  4. Matt: #3; I had a tough time choosing between the two and I probably couldn’t give you an exact reason why, but I just liked #3 better
  5. Sarah: #3; also felt it was more drinkable
  6. Stephanie: #3

Round 1 / Flight #3:

  • Keswick Vineyards Amélie: 3 votes (tie)
  • Albert Lebrun Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut: 3 votes (tie)

Keswick’s sparkling is made with cabernet franc, which is arguably the most versatile red grape in Virginia (as well as its most planted). It’s also available for purchase now (and I think it would make a great Thanksgiving wine).

The Albert Lebrun was different from the other two champagnes in that it was made of pinot meunier, which is usually used in Champagne as a blending grape. While it wasn’t planned, I liked that a cabernet franc and a pinot meunier were paired against one another, as neither style of sparkling is easy to find.

Sadly I didn’t capture as many notes on this round as I wished. I can say that while they both had strong starts, both changed in the glass in even more enjoyable ways as we enjoyed them. The Keswick had a vanilla nose and a palate that changed from vanilla to maybe orange notes. Some also detected a sense of petrol.

The funniest tasting note was someone mentioned that ‘it tasted like a donut’ in that the front and end palates were very enjoyable, but there wasn’t so much in the middle. Those who follow Keswick’s winemaker might laugh at this, since ‘donut’ is one of his favorite tasting phrases.

No notes for the Albert Lebrun, which is sad because this was one of the favorite wines of the night.

I took the votes and…it was a tie! I thought about using my place as host to cast a tie-breaker, but truth was I loved both equally. So I gave Keswick a wildcard and both went to the final round.

Votes:

  1. Alex: #6; thought it was approachable, although he noted the shorter finish
  2. Lieven: #5. Thought #6 was a little rough, while #5 was better balanced.
  3. Lindsay: #5; no particular reason other than she just gravitated towards it. Thought #6 had lots of interesting things going on, though.
  4. Matt: Split vote; ½ point for each; loved both
  5. Sarah: #6. Thought the way #5 presented was ‘circular’ while also weightier, with lots of yellow apple and vanilla. #6 had more brioche-y notes.
  6. Stephanie: Split vote; ½ point for each

Round 2 / Finalist Round

Normally we would have the single ‘best in flight’ wines go to the finalist round, but we enjoyed the third flight so much that we added both to the finalist round.

We tasted them side-by-side and rated them most-to-least favorite.

  1. Alex: Keswick (4 points), Albert Lebrun (3 points), Trump (2 points), Eric Rodez (1 point)
  2. Lieven: Eric Rodez (4 points), Trump (3 points), Keswick (2 points), Albert Lebrun (1 point)
  3. Lindsay: Keswick (4 points), Albert Lebrun (3 points), Eric Rodez (2 points), Trump (1 point)
  4. Matt: Eric Rodez (4 points), Albert Lebrun (3 points), Keswick (2 points), Trump (1 point)
  5. Sarah: Albert Lebrun (4 points), Eric Rodez (3 points), Trump (2 points), Keswick (1 point)
  6. Stephanie: Albert Lebrun (4 points), Eric Rodez (3 points), Keswick (2 points), Trump (1 point)
  • Wine #1: Eric Rodez: (17 points)
  • Wine #3: Trump Blanc de Noir (10 points) 
  • Wine #5: Keswick Vineyards Amélie (15 points)
  • Wine #6: Albert Lebrun Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut (18 points; finalist)

So a caveat; we liked ALL of these wines (admittedly I personally wasn’t a fan of #4, but that’s a personal preference). One thing I did find interesting is the favorite ones tended to be some of the less-costly ones. None of them were especially fruity, which is something that often separates Blanc de Noirs from Blanc de Blancs.

In retrospect I might have opened them sooner so these wines had time to open up (I felt the CrossKeys definitely improved the following day). Sadly, my tasting events have a time limit.

So were we surprised that Champagne won? Not at all. That said, it wasn’t a blowout either.

The price point of these Virginia wines were on the whole comparable to these mid-priced Champagnes, and 2 made it to the final round. Two of my group selected the Keswick sparkling as the overall favorite of the night.

As far as I’m concerned, that Virginia was able to hang tough with a comparison to Champagne is a win in itself.

France vs Virginia: The Bordeaux (blend) Heavyweights

A few months ago, I did a blind “Judgement of Virginia” tasting, modeled off the famous Judgment of Paris where California triumphed over France. 7 French wines were compared to 7 similar Virginia wines, all made between 2017 and 2021.

I knew our Virginia wines would do well, but to my surprise all 7 Virginia bottles beat their French counterparts. Granted I picked high-quality Virginia wineries, but even I was shocked at the blowout.

After examining the contest I realized something; Virginia went into this comparison with an advantage since its wines can be enjoyed young, while wines from Bordeaux require time to age. So, I came up with a new idea – to compare older Virginia Bordeaux-style vintages against similar French wines in order to keep the matchup even.

I invited a panel of experts (OK – they were wino friends of mine…who happened to have a great deal of industry experience and/or above average palates) and we sampled 3 Virginia Bordeaux-style wines vs 3 actual Bordeaux wines, all made between 2012-2015. Everything was done blind.

While I call this a “Bordeaux blend comparison”, that term isn’t entirely fair despite the Virginia wines using 100% Bordeaux grapes.

Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot often play prominent roles in Virginia, but very secondary ones in France. Also, Bordeaux wines tend to favor either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot (often around 75% of its primary grape), while Virginia red blends tend to be more evenly distributed between multiple grapes. This means while the grapes may be the same, the composition of the blends could be very different.

The tasting was simple; compare two wines side by side and we’d select a favorite. While several attendees were wine judges, I elected to keep things simple and have everyone simply pick a single favorite of every flight. In the case of a tie, the host (me) decided between the two.

I bagged everything in pairs, so nobody (including myself) knew which pairs we were trying. All we knew is one wine was Virginia, and the other was Bordeaux. The specific pairings were selected in advance, based on the wine’s age and blend.

The wines:

France:

  1. 2012 Château Phélan Ségur: 50% Cabernet Sauvignon/ 50% Merlot (Left Bank, Saint-Estèphe) (wine searcher retail $62, with significant regional variation)
  2. 2014 Château Léoville-Poyferré: 60% Cabernet Sauvignon / 35% Merlot / 3% Cabernet Franc (Left bank Second Growth, Saint-Julien) (wine searcher retail $118, locally priced at $80)
  3. 2015 Château Gracia: 70% Merlot / 25% Cabernet Franc / 5% Cabernet Sauvignon (Right bank Grand Cru, Saint-Émilion) (wine searcher retail $111)

Virginia:

  1. 2012 Linden Hardscrabble: 56% Cabernet Sauvignon / 34% Merlot/ 9% Cabernet Franc / 1% Petit Verdot (selling at $75 in the winery)
  2. 2012 RdV Lost Mountain: 46% Cabernet Sauvignon / 40% Cabernet Franc / 14% Merlot (impossible to price due to scarcity; originally around $120 but recent vintages price at $220)
  3. 2014 Barboursville Octagon: 56% Merlot/ 23% Petit Verdot / 15% Cabernet Franc / 6% Cabernet Sauvignon (impossible to price to do scarcity; originally around $50 at the winery several years ago but likely retailing over $100 now).

Each of these came from well-regarded producers on both sides of the Atlantic. Even the experienced group tasting with me sometimes had difficulty identifying which was Bordeaux and which was Virginia. Of the 6 of us tasting 6 wines, I think we were accurate under 70% of the time.

As always, a caveat: this competition was the result of this day, with this group of people. It by no means indicates the wines that were selected as round favorites were superior to the other, or the wines that didn’t win their round weren’t loved. For this particular event, I’m convinced that at least 5 of the 6 wines we tried could have been selected as the ‘winner’ with a different food pairing; they were that good.

Pairing #1:

Wine #1 (2015 Château Gracia): 70% Merlot / 25% Cabernet Franc / 5% Cabernet Sauvignon (Saint-Émilion): 3 Votes

Wine #2 (2014 Barboursville Octagon): 56% Merlot/ 23% Petit Verdot / 15% Cabernet Franc / 6% Cabernet Sauvignon: 3 Votes (3 votes, round winner)

This round was evenly matched. I asked Dave McIntyre to pick a favorite and he didn’t want to give an answer; both of these were so equally well loved.

That feeling was shared amongst the group. To nobody’s surprise we were tied 3/3 (note to self – I need to have an odd number of tasters in the future). Not only that, but I think half of us (including me) got the Virginia wine wrong.

Ultimately I picked #2 to go to the next round, although it could have gone either way.

Alex: #2. Thought #1 was Bordeaux, also mentioned it was approachable. Notes of black current, red cherry, and tobacco backed by a long finish. Yet #2 was even more approachable with lots of red fruit, cola and a nice brightness to it.

Dave: #2. Loved both; didn’t want to pick between the two. #1 had a more ‘candied’ fruitiness he thought was associated with Virginia, but had less oak integration and was less harmonious because it didn’t have a lot of tannin. #2 loved it, and made a note about the color.

Matt: #1. #1 had some primary fruit on the nose but it was fading. #2 had some funk; earthy nose.

Katie: #2. She thought #1 was Virginia; liked the wine although she didn’t think the tannins were well integrated.

Kathy: #1. #1 had grippy tannins and more prominent fruit. #2 she found the fruit harder to find, and maybe a little reductive.

Vanessa: #1. Good maturity; tannins were chalky. Lots of fullness on the finish. #2 was brighter, velvety tannins, good acidity.

Pairing #2:

Wine #3 (2012 Linden Hardscrabble): 56% Cab Sauv / 34% Merlot/ 9% Cab Franc / 1% PV ( 3 votes)

Wine #4 (2012 Château Phélan Ségur): 50% Cab Sauv/ 50% Merlot (Saint-Estèphe) (3 votes, round winner)

This was another even round. I favored #4 but not by a huge degree. Again, I was wrong on which was Virginia vs France since I thought I felt a lot more Cab Franc on #4, but was proven wrong (it had none).

With another 3/3 vote I was the tie-breaker here since I favored #4, so it went to the next round. Coincidentally it was my favorite of the night.

Alex: #3: Notes of smoke, tobacco, black cherry, vanilla, blackberry, and strawberries, with a long finish.

Dave: #4. Thought #3 was dense, dark fruit note, needed more time to develop. #4 had notes of clove, and maybe a cigar box note to it. Of the two, this was the one that was presenting better ‘now’.

Matt: #4. I found #3 to be lighter on the nose; some fruit but with an earthy palate. #4 had more pepper but very smooth tannins. I admittedly thought this was Virginia.

Katie: #3. Though #3 was elegant, and ‘couldn’t stop going back to it’. Also very floral. #4 had a herbatiousness to it, and thought it needed food.

Kathy: #3. Very “pretty” wine. Stewed strawberries but not overly jammy. #4 was had a meaty and spicy note.

Vanessa: #4. Thought #3 was lighter, good fruit quality, and less extraction. Overall it was ‘elegant’. #4 had more extraction and richness. She thought it had a brett note which gave it more complexity.

Pairing #3

Wine #5 (2012 RdV Lost Mountain): 46% Cab Sauv / 40% Cab Franc / 14% Merlot (5 Votes, round winner)

Wine #6 (2014 Château Léoville-Poyferré): 60% Cab Sauv / 35% Merlot / 3% Cab Franc (Saint-Julien) (1 Vote)

This round had a clear winner. #6 came off as too tannic; my mouth was positively dry after tasting it. But #5 was enjoyed all-around.

Alex: Split his votes between the two. #5 was more approachable, with lots of black pepper baking spice, cloves, and plumb on the palate. #6 had notes of dark chocolate, cherry and red fruit, but had a harsh nose.

Dave: #5. Dave said #5 had a pretty nose, was floral, and tasted notes of black currant and soft tannin. #6 had an off-putting nose and a very tannic finish.

Matt: #5. I found #5 to have some fruit on the nose but not the palate. Of the two, this was definitely the more drinkable right now. #6 was more of a food wine. Tannic finish, very dark and brooding overall. 

Katie: #5.

Kathy: #5 had notes of blackberry, plumb, maybe menthol. Wished the finish lasted longer. #6 had an interesting notes, burnt toffee character to it on the palate.

Vanessa: #5. Thought #5 was well put together, while #6 was disjointed.

Finalist Round:

Wine #2 (2014 Barboursville Octagon): 56% Merlot/ 23% Petit Verdot / 15% Cabernet Franc / 6% Cabernet Sauvignon

Wine #4 (2012 Château Phélan Ségur): 50% Cabernet Sauvignon/ 50% Merlot (Saint-Estèphe)

Wine #5 (2012 RdV Lost Mountain): 46% Cabernet Sauvignon / 40% Cabernet Franc / 14% Merlot

From most favorite to least favorite, the results were:

Alex: Wines 2/5/4

Dave: Wines 4/5/2

Matt: Wines 4/2/5

Katie: Wines 5/4/2

Kathy: Wines 5/4/2

Vanessa: Wines 4/2/5

The lowest vote earned 1 point. The runner-up had 2 points, and the favorite wine got 3 points.

2014 Octagon from Barboursville had 7 points

2012 Lost Mountain from RdV had 11 points:

2012 Château Phélan Ségur had 12 points (Finalist)

Results:

I’d say there were a few take-aways.

The biggest is I felt this event demonstrated Virginia has the ability to go toe-to-toe with Bordeaux. Of 3 pairings, Virginia tied its Bordeaux counterpart twice and once easily surpassed it. 2 Virginia wines made it to the FInalist round, and the 2012 RdV Lost Mountain was also the 2nd favorite wine of the evening.

I was pleased to see how incredibly close these parings were at multiple levels. Every wine deserved high scores, and I truly believe that on another day, most of them could have been picked as our finalist. Even identifying the Bordeaux of the mix was sometimes difficult.

Second would be that while price and quality often go hand-in-hand, that’s not 100% true. The favorite of the day was the least expensive wine of all (still not cheap at $60-ish, but still). Not surprisingly RdV came in second, but the ‘brown bag’ method definitely evens the playing field.

Lastly, if there’s a downside to this event is while this tasting showed to me Virginia’s potential, the reality is it’s nearly impossible for our average wine lover to enjoy this kind of comparison. Virginia wines are often sold young, and limited inventory means most ‘older’ vintages are almost impossible to find. Even long-time Virginia wine collectors might only have a few special bottles from the 2012 vintage (or earlier).

Also keep in mind that the Virginia wines I selected represent the ‘elite’ of what the state has to offer. Few Virginia wines can age for 10 years like these did, or are made with the exquisite craftmanship we found.

Next up – a comparison of mid-priced Virginia red blends, a Cabernet Franc day, another sparkling round, and Petit Manseng.

2022 Loudoun Wine Awards Showcases Both Wine And Teamwork

The Loudoun Wine Awards hosted its 2022 event at the Lansdowne Resort and Spa on Friday, October 14th. Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyards took home the Winemaker of the Year award, while the 2021 Albariño made by Scott Spelbring of Bluemont Vineyards won the Chairman’s Grand Award.

But the evening’s real winner was the Virginia wine industry as a whole. In a business that can be tough and competitive, Virginia wine stands out for its teamwork.

This sense of community was evident throughout the event. While guests enjoyed a 3-course dinner and extensive tasting of Loudoun County wines, they seemed just as eager to rub-shoulders and take selfies with owners, winemakers, and fellow Virginia wine lovers.

Multiple winners including Melanie and 2022 Winegrower of the Year Michael Newland made a point to recognize their coworkers and mentors, with both thanking Doug Fabbioli of Fabbioli Cellars for giving them their start in the industry.

“I am a Loudoun made winemaker and I’m proud of that,” said Melanie during her acceptance speech. “I spoke from the heart to my tribe. I put on a dress because it was a special night, but I wore slippers on my tired harvest feet because I’m home with my people.” Earlier this year Melanie also won Virginia’s 2022 Governor’s Cup, becoming the 1st female winemaker to win the award in the past 20 years.

“This event really showed how communal and convivial Virginia wine is,” said Neal Wavra, owner of Field & Main Restaurant and the event’s Competition Director. “Not only did the awardees thank their teams and mentors, but the people who were thanked were in the room.”

Virginia Wine Increasingly Thinking Outside The Box

Bill Hatch, President of the Loudoun Wineries Association and owner/winemaker of Zephaniah Farm Vineyard, called Loudoun County “D.C.’s wine country”, based on the presence of over 40 tasting rooms just over an hour from the city.

Loudoun wineries entered 139 wines into the competition. 15 Gold medals were awarded to 8 Chains North, 868 Estate Vineyards, Bluemont Vineyard, Cana Vineyards & Winery of Middleburg, Carriage House Wineworks, Doukenie Winery, Maggie Malick Wine Caves, Three Creeks Winery and Williams Gap Vineyard. 112 wines also won Silver.

Loudoun County is nearly tied with Charlottesville in terms of acres of vines planted. While it’s long been associated with grapes traditionally grown in Bordeaux and Burgundy (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and others), relative newcomers Petit Manseng and Albariño are also finding a home in the area.

The rising quality of Virginia wine is largely due to two factors. On one hand, vineyards are increasingly dialing-in on grape varieties and clones that do well locally. On the other, there is a growing level of expertise in the Virginia winemaking community.

To Dominique Landragin, owner and founder of D.C.’s Cork & Fork and one of the wine judges, the evolution he’s seen in Virginia wine from 1993 when he left Prince Michel Vineyard & Winery to today is easily apparent.

“When I look back on the Gold medals earned by Virginia wines, they used to be 100% single varietal. But this time I see a lot of blends, especially Merlot and Petit Verdot. I thought there was an amazing improvement.

I was especially impressed by the Albariños. It takes the humidity very well. Petit Manseng also. I’ve seen a few promising Syrahs as well. The Cabernet Francs here don’t have the vegetal character we find in the Loire; it’s very exciting.

The industry is really coming together, the mom & pop wineries and the professionals. In the beginning there were no professionals. But now, Michael Shaps makes some great wine!”

Neal was also impressed by the growing variety of wines in the region. “A few years ago Albariño wasn’t even a category. Last year was the first time it was its own category, and this year it was the winner.”

Scott Spelbring of Bluemont Vineyard, who took home the trophy for his 2021 Albariño, also had high praise for this grape.

“Albariño is a prolific grower but not a great yielder. We usually get 2-3 tones an acre. It’s one of the first we pick, usually in early September. We’ve grown it since before I started in 2016, and I’ve made it every year.

It has great acidity, but we’re not afraid to experiment. This wine is mostly cold fermented in stainless steel, but we also add in 2 barrels that are fermented using native yeast.

I think a lot of consumers are aware of Albariño but it’s not well known on the east coast. But we’re starting to step outside the box of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Petit Manseng is a grape where sweet or dry, you never know what you’ll get. But Albariño is such a great wine out of the box, because we know what to expect.”

Loudoun Wine Awards Competition Results

GRAND AWARDS

Chairman’s Grand Award | 2021 Albariño from Bluemont Vineyards

Winemaker of the Year | Melanie Natoli, Winemaker, Cana Vineyards

Winegrower of the Year | Mike Newland, Vineyard Manager, Walsh Family Wine

Wine Ambassador of the Year | Nancy Deliso, Owner, 868 Vineyard

President’s Award | Aimee Henkel, Owner, Lost Creek Winery & Echelon Wine Bar

BEST OF CLASS

Best Albariño: 2021 Albariño, Bluemont Vineyard

Best Bordeaux Blend: 2019 Furnace Mountain Red, 8 Chains North

Best Chardonnay: 2020 Chardonnay, Cana Vineyards

Best Cabernet Franc: 2021 Cabernet Franc, Williams Gap Vineyard

Best Hybrid Red: 2018 Three Captains Red, Zephaniah Farm Vineyard

Best Hybrid White: 2020 Mandolin White, Doukenie Winery

Best Merlot: 2019 Russ Mountain Merlot, Walsh Family Wine

Best Petit Manseng: 2020 Petit Manseng, Williams Gap Vineyard

Best Petit Verdot: 2020 Petit Verdot, Carriage House Wineworks

Best Red Vinifera: 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon, October One Vineyard

Best Rosé: 2021 Rosé of Cabernet Franc, Sunset Hills Vineyard

Best Sauvignon Blanc: 2021 Sauvignon Blanc, 868 Vineyard

Best Viognier: 2020 Viognier, 868 Vineyards

This article can also be found on the Old Town Crier website.

Greenhill Vineyards & Winery – Raising The Bar for Virginia Wine

There’s a lot of wine history in Virginia. That said, Greenhill’s history is truly exceptional.

Prior to David Greenhill purchasing the property in 2013, this historic farm was known as Swedenburg Estate Vineyard. Founded in 1988, Swedenburg was one of Virginia’s first wineries. Not only did these Virginia wine pioneers demonstrate vinifera could find a home in the state, they created the blueprint for today’s ‘agro-tourism’ model used today.

But owner Juanita Swedenburg didn’t stop there. Finding that post-Prohibition laws prohibited her from selling her wine to out of state patrons, she took her case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 2005 the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision allowing Greenhill – and thus all ‘farm’ wineries around the country – sell to these consumers as well.

Greenhill continues to raise the bar. They’ve been competing at a high-level in major US wine competitions, including a 2022 Best in Class win in the San Fransisco Chronical Wine Competition for their 2019 Philosophy (Petit Verdot-heavy red blend), and a 2021 Best in Class win for their 2019 Petit Manseng.

Follow this link to see my Old Town Crier on Greenhill Vineyards –

Barboursville Vineyards – Library 1821 Tasting

It’s hard to write anything about Barboursville that hasn’t been said before. It’s the source of nearly endless articles regarding its wine, its history, and the team that runs it. But since the story is so great, how can you skip over it?

When Barboursville opened in 1976 it was the 6th winery to open in Virginia since the end of prohibition. Luca Paschina has been its winemaker and general manager since 1990, and winegrower Fernando Franco has been (justifiably) credited as one of the best viticulturists in the USA.

Nearly every year at least one of their bottles is selected by the Virginia Governors Cup competition as one of the top 12 wines the state. This is amongst the reasons why Barboursville is sometimes referred to as Virginia’s answer to France’s “First Growth” estates.

Thomas Jefferson’s legacy is strong here. The property includes the ruins of a manor Jefferson designed for his friend James Barbour. Its distinctive eight-sided design was inspired by a 16th century Italian architect named Andrea Palladio, whose book I quattro libri dell’architettura (The Four Books of Architecture) Jefferson referred to as his ‘bible’. Jefferson used Palladio’s octagon motif in many of his buildings, including Monticello and “The Rotunda” at the University of Virginia.

When Luca was researching possible names for what would become his flagship wine, he came upon the story of how Jefferson thought the octagon was a symbol of “perfection and balance”. Needless to say this description was exactly what Luca strives for, so his flagship wine became known as “Octagon”.

Barboursville has over 180 acres of vines including at least a dozen of grape varieties, including Italian grapes rarely found elsewhere in Virginia including Barbera, Fiano, Nebbiolo, and Vermentino.

I’ve visited here more times than I can count and dinned at the Palladio restaurant several times. While they have a ‘regular’ tasting room, when I visit it’s almost always to visit is the Library 1821, which showcases its deep library of older vintages.

The way the Library tasting works is you select 6 wines, although some older vintages ‘costs’ 2 picks. The lineup changes periodically, although older vintages of Octagon are always on the menu, some of them well over a decade old.

For my last few visits I lucked out since we scored patio seating. Even better, Carrie was my server and she always kept checking in on us. After a brief analysis-paralysis, several flights were ordered, as well as food from the kitchen.

Often I do two flights because I never want to miss anything, but go with a group so you can order more. And funny story – turns out that I had some unpublished notes from November 2021, so I’ll include those notes with my August 2022 visit.

2014 Octagon was, in a word, outstanding. I later learned this was the Governor’s Cup winner in 2020. Spice notes but not earthy. Dark fruit but nothing in particular I could pick out.

The 2017 Octagon was the runner-up; many of the same qualities but more on the fruit and less on the tertiary flavors. But special mention goes to the 2018 Octagon; it was a softer, fruitier wine that came out well despite a difficult vintage.

While Octagon is arguably the highlight, the entire lineup is full of stars. I was able to retry their Nascent white blend (Viognier, but with smaller dashes of Fiano and Vermentino) which might be their new flagship white. It has lots of depth but was smooth at the same time.

But on the last few visits I thought their Barbera and Cabernet Franc were also special. Both were from the 2020 vintage. Their Vermentino is also a consistent award-winner.

Tasting notes:

December 2021:

  • Brute NV: Notes of peach.
  • 2019 Fiano: Lemon nose, little perfume. Another almost thick, full bodied white
  • 2015 Viognier Reserve: Very tropical
  • 2013 Vermentino: Heavier on the tongue
  • 2017 Vermentino: This is a full-bodied white that explodes at the beginning of your palate. Lots of tropical notes
  • 2017 Barbera Reserve: Notes of bramble fruit, cherry and spice.
  • 2004 Octagon: As you’d expect on an older vintage, low on fruit but high on tertiary notes including mushroom, especially on the nose.
  • 2014 Octagon: Good depth
  • 2015 Octagon: Spicy
  • 2017 Octagon: No notes other than *really liked it*
  • 2010 Merlot: More fruit than I would have given it credit for.
  • 2006 Sangiovese: Sour cherry; starting to brown due to its age.
  • 2018 Nebbiolo: Very light, strawberry notes
  • 2013 Petit Verdot: Smooth!
  • 2017 Petit Verdot: Dark cherry, earthy nose, but palate is brighter with some assertive tannin

August 2022

  • 2020 Fiano: Almost like a Sauv Blanc!
  • 2021 Viognier Reserve: Not overly floral; no honeysuckle bomb here
  • 2021 Vermentino: Bright lemon notes.
  • 2021 Sauvignon Blanc: Lots of melon notes, but a far cry from a NZ-style SB
  • 2007 Octagon: End of its life but lots of tertiary flavors
  • 2014 Octagon: Mushroom on both the nose and the palate.
  • 2015 Octagon: More fruit forward but not to the extent of the 2018
  • 2016 Octagon: Earthy; lots of texture
  • 2018 Octagon: Soft, fruity; easy to drink. High marks for a wine from a difficult vintage.
  • 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon: I needed a moment alone with this wine. It was hitting that inflection point when the fruit is there but the tertiary notes are appearing 2018 Cab Franc: Super aromatic, fruity
  • 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon: Carmelized; light colored and smooth, with a tad bit of fruit left.
  • 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve: So young by comparison
  • 2018 Petit Verdot. Not in your face tannin or acid. The wet 2018 vintage may have helped since it made it more approachable
  • 2020 Barbera: Really good! Didn’t have a lot but bright red notes
  • 2019 Nebbiolo: Sour – which is exactly what you’d expect from this variety. Still young
  • 2020 Cabernet Franc: Medium bodied; not spicy not earthy not tobacco but a nice blend of all of that

Virginia’s Sparkling Wines and Pét-Nats

My article on Virginia’s Pét-nats for Wine and Country Life published the other week. Sampling wine as part of **research** is fun, but even better was interviewing some of my favorite winemakers, especially Maya Hood White of Early Mountain Vineyards, and Sarah and Nate Walsh of Walsh Family Wine.

I have to agree with Nate; Maya is ‘Queen of Pét-nats”. Not sure if she was the first in Virginia to make one, but if not she comes close.

Pét-nats aren’t just delicious; “they are a labor of love”. To quote Maya, “We would release in January and it’s like a snapshot of the vineyard. There’s something unique about it in that you are getting a totally unadulterated version of the wine. It’s kind of the first taste of the vintage.”

But if Maya is Queen of the Pét-nats, then Walsh Family is “The House That Pét-nat Built”. OK that’s not entirely true; they were rocking still wine before they made their first sparkling.

But given you can buy six (!!!) different Pét-nats (from Walsh, plus bottles from their associates of Boden Young, Guide Wine, and Quartzwood Farm) that ***should*** be their name. My shot of all of Nate’s bottles laying in the vines was too good for me not to use.

Click on the link at the bottom to read the full article.

Forge Cellars

Forge Cellars was hands-down one of my best Finger Lakes experiences. I wasn’t able to visit in 2019 so I marked it down as a ‘must visit’ for my next trip.

While you can enjoy tastings at every winery in the Finger Lakes, none offered the level of wine education that Forge provided. The irony is their guided flight cost the same $20 as a self-guided salon flight, so there’s no reason not to do it.

This is one of the area’s more famous wineries, although it’s not one of the larger ones. Forge has 40 acres of vines and produces of 10,000 cases/year.

Their most famous wine is their “Classique” riesling, but there’s much more to them. All told, they make around 13 different rieslings (most if not all vineyard-specific), plus a pair of pinots and a single-vineyard cabernet franc.

Forge’s guided flights are only done on Friday & Saturday mornings. But fear not, around a year ago they expanded their patio so drop-ins can visit at any time. Visitors can soak up the view while enjoying a self-guided flight, plus they have great cheese boards (and that jamón!).

Patio for self-guided flights

My guide was Alec, a former Somm who decided to leave the city life for something quieter. He explained the terroir of their vineyards and Forge’s overall winemaking philosophy.

The story of how Seneca offsets the local weather is well known. A few tasting room associates may tell you how deep it is (just over 600 feet at its deepest) and how it hasn’t freezed in living memory.

But Alec was the first to explain how ancient glaciers deposited multiple types of soil in this area, giving winemakers a multitude of options on where to plant their vines. He especially focused on Devonian shale, the ‘mother rock’ of the area which causes the vines to struggle, resulting in better fruit.

Forge has multiple vineyards which take advantage of this diversity of soil types, allowing them to create vineyard-specific wines which showcase their own terroir-driven personalities. I’d never seen one winery with so many rieslings of the same vintage, yet all of them so unique.

He also explained how they use native yeast fermentation and use only neutral barrels, most of them from France or Hungary. They even have a French winemaker, Louis Barruol.

We did a flight of five wines, plus I did an additional five wines on my own on the patio.

  1. 2020 Freese (riesling): Soft nose, with notes of white pepper and apricot. A ‘classic’ expression of this grape. I liked it so much I picked up two bottles.
  2. 2020 Breakneck Creek (riesling): Named for the vineyard’ steep slope, this was a ‘bigger’ riesling. Heavier, more intense. Notes of quince.
  3. 2020 Navone (riesling): This was even more different than the first two. I couldn’t explain why, but this time I got an herbal-spice note. Also notes of tangerine.
  4. 2019 Classique (riesling): Their “standard” riesling, although their “standard” is high-quality. Lighter, more grapefruit notes. The lightness was also due to the vintage.
  5. 2020 Leidenfrost (riesling): Lots of texture, heavier.
  6. 2020 Tango Oaks (riesling): Ripe, with lemon notes. I bought a bottle.
  7. 2020 Peach Orchard (riesling): Bright and herbal
  8. 2020 Railroad (riesling): Tropical notes
  9. 2020 Leidenfrost (pinot noir): Deep color, which did not remind me of pinot noir at all. It was also exceptionally tannic, with an ash finish. I liked it but definitely very different.
  10. 2020 Tango Oaks (pinot noir): Spicy for a pinot!

Kemmeter Wines

I visited 21 wineries during my 2022 Finger Lakes trip. While many of these venues truly stood out, I felt it easier to simply wrap most of them into a single trip report than blog about all of them separately.

But I’m making an exception for Kemmeter.

In an area where huge tasting rooms were the norm, where many wineries have food options and great views, it might seem odd that my favorite was 6-person maximum tasting room that is only open Thurs-Sat, 1:30 PM-5:30 PM (they may open for additional appointments by request). Yet it was hands-down my favorite winery of the entire trip, which is even more conspicuous for a place that is almost deliberately under the radar.

That’s because great visits aren’t just about great wine – although many were found here. This was the only location where I actually met the winemaker, who guided us through a tasting coupled with a great deal of wine education.

Having the winemaker personally conduct the tasting wasn’t Kemmeter’s only unique feature. This was one of the smallest wineries of my entire trip; all of Kemmeter’s fruit comes from 6-acres of estate vines. “Stay small and do the best you can” explained owner/winemaker/vineyard manager Johannes Rienhardt, which seems to summarize his operating philosophy.

This ‘stay small’ mentality is a direct reflection of his schedule. Johannes spends 80% of his time in the vineyard and 15% in winemaking, leaving only 5% for the tasting room. This is why the tasting room is open only 3 afternoons a week and can accommodate only 6 guests at a time.

Johannes talked about his background as he poured, starting with how he was supposed to run the family business back in Germany but after some family disagreements he ultimately took his own path. He found a job with Dr. Frank, returned to Germany for a bit, then decided to come back to the US.

We sampled 5 wines:

  1. NV “Trio” Pinot. This wine had some aromatics, plus was soft and fruit-driven. Johannes explained the decision to make a non-vintage wine based on how every year has its unique strengths and weaknesses, so he decided to blend different years to make the best wine he could. Really liked this!
  2. Rosé (100% Pinot Noir). Another winner (and bought a bottle that was consumed that night). This has a strong argument for best pinot of my trip.
  3. 2021 Riesling from the “2014 Vineyard”: Lemon on the palate and a wonderful nose. Very aromatic and perhaps the single best wine of my entire trip. It was a dry wine (only 1.5 sugar) but it struck me as off-dry. Johannes attributed this to the density of the wine, which changed the flavor profile from tart/green to lush, giving the illusion of sweetness. The 2014 Vineyard also has more organic matter, lesser silt in the loam and more clay influence. 
  4. 2021 Riesling from the “2016 Vineyard”: Lemon on the palate, only 0.7 RS. I really enjoyed it, not quite as much as the 2016 Vineyard but still it was excellent. It tasted very dry, something the winemaker attributed to the soil being shallower and having more silt influence. This warms up the soil, promoting ripeness.
  5. 2021 Pinot Blanc: Clean, fresh, peach notes.

Johannes also had us play ‘guess the off-dry riesling’ and I guessed wrong. Turns out the two are grown on different types of soil and one location produces riper fruit, which gives the dry wine the illusion of sweetness. He definitely fooled me but it was a great learning experience.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the dumplings. His wife is the chef; it’s best to order first and pick them up after the tasting.

2022 Finger Lakes Trip

The Finger Lakes American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a wine region that I can continually return to. There are almost 150 wineries in this region, plus plenty of wine bars and hiking trails. This was my 2nd trip but I’ll be back.

The Finger Lakes is almost certainly the best-known AVA on the east coast. Ancient glaciers widened and deepened existing river valleys, creating deep crevices that would eventually become the 11 lakes we know today.

These glaciers also deposited a diverse assortment of rocks and soil around the region. Old rocky soil is especially good for vinifera, as not only is it porous (grapes don’t like wet feet) it forces vines to struggle for nutrition (struggling vines produce good fruit). These deposits of limestone, shale, gravel, and silt play a major role in the area’s ‘terroir’.

Western shore of Keuka Lake

While soil is important, the Finger Lakes play an even more central role. These bodies of water act as temperature sponges, absorbing heat during the day and radiating it back to the shoreline. Without these lakes alleviating upstate New York’s cold weather, viticulture here would be impossible.

This combination of moderated weather and favorable soil creates excellent conditions for viticulture, especially cool-climate grapes. The best vineyards are along the edge of these lakes, especially their deepest portions. Not coincidentally, this terroir is similar to that of the Mosel, Germany’s most famous riesling-producing wine region.

My 2019 trip was done with limited knowledge of where to go, so the family & I just meandered from winery to winery. We visited some of the more famous locations, but often as not we just went to the next winery down the road.

This time I planned my trip more carefully, focused on select clusters of wineries around Seneca, Cayuga, and Keuka. Most of these tastings were drop-ins, we also visited a number of reservation-only venues. My family and I stayed at a long-stay residence in Watkins Glen, on the southern shore of Lake Seneca.

While our trip was centered around wine, I was happy to discover an assortment of non-alcoholic options were also available. Many involved activities on lakes themselves, including kayaking and cruising. But my favorite non-winery excursions were hikes in local state parks, especially those that possessed waterfalls.

Over 5 days I visited 21 wineries. It sounds like a lot (and admittedly it is), but the tastings are often so slim that you can visit multiple locations and not get a major buzz. Nearly all had moved to a model of providing self-guided flights (often but not always pre-selected), but a few larger wineries took reservations for guided flights.

My greatest take-away was that riesling has far more range than I anticipated. The most enjoyable visits were locations that had wines from the same vintage but grown at different vineyards, each with their own terroir-driven personality.

It’s difficult to rank-order 21 wineries – especially since some blended together despite my best attempts at note taking – so instead I sorted them in groups. Not coincidentally, my ranking system can be seen in how much wine I purchased (or not at all, in many cases) during a visit.

Except for the top 3 venues, wineries in the same tier are ranked about the same and listed in alphabetical order.

Being in a lower tier didn’t mean I didn’t like them. To the contrary, I can honestly say I didn’t visit any ‘bad’ wineries during my trip (I should note I also planned very carefully, avoiding party-centric locations). I admit I’m biased towards smaller wineries where I had more personalized service. I also was specifically looking for riesling and sparkling wine, so red-focused wineries didn’t get rated as well as they probably should have been.

The Top Tier (#1-3) of my wine-visits are definitely listed in rank order. The downside to these particular wineries was all were in out-of-the-way locations or had limited visiting hours (and Kemmeter was reservation only). But they made up for that with not just outstanding wine but guided tastings which provided a significant educational component.

1. Kemmeter Wines (NW Seneca): This 6-acre vineyard was an amazing find. The tasting room is tiny and only open 3 afternoons a week (and closed Sundays). But I bought more wine here than at any other winery.

They are only open by appointment and have a maximum capacity of 6 guests. Yes – the tasting room is that tiny!

I enjoyed my visit so much I decided to write a separate blog so I don’t miss any details. Because of that I’ll keep this entry short.

Owner/winemaker/vineyard manager Johannes Rienhardt lead a tasting that consisted of 5 wines; a pair of rieslings (dry and off dry), a pinot, a pinot blanc, and a pinot rosé. I bought several of the dry rieslings and the rosé (which didn’t last the evening). The dry riesling was the best of the entire trip.

Johannes also had us play ‘guess the off-dry riesling’ and I guessed wrong. Turns out both were dry, although the one from the 2014 Vineyard could have fooled me. The two are grown on different types of soil and one location produces riper fruit. The density of the wine gives the illusion of sweetness. He fooled me but it was a great learning experience.

You can also order dumplings from his wife at their store outside; order first and pick them up later. Warning – they don’t have a public bathroom!

2. Forge Cellars (East Seneca): One of the smaller locations of my trip, with 40 acres of vines and a production of 10,000 cases/year. I loved the vineyard-specific rieslings (8 at this one place alone!), the view, and overall ambiance.

I highly recommend getting an appointment for a guided flight, which is as much about wine education as it is a wine tasting. But fear not, those who randomly drop-in can still enjoy a self-guided flight while sitting on the patio. They also had great cheese boards, plus excellent jamón.

Their “Classique” riesling is their best-known wine (and was definitely good) but it wasn’t my personal favorite of this visit. But I did leave with 2020 Freese (riesling) and 2020 Tango Oaks (riesling), both of which were among the best wines of my entire trip (right after Kemmeter).

3. Six Eighty Cellars (West Cayuga): A very small (and brand new) producer with only 20 acres under vine. The wines were accompanied by light bites.

One thing that made them unique is their special focus on winemaking using a variety of fermentation vessels. They had your standard oak barrels and steel tanks, but they also had amphoras made of sandstone, clay, concrete, and terra cotta.

The small size of the winery meant we had very personalized service. Highlights included a mineral-driven 2020 Grüner Veltliner (made in a concrete tulip), an outstanding 2019 Riesling, and the flora, soft, and fruity 2020 Pinot Noir (made in sandstone). I left with some riesling.

My second tier (#4-7) wineries are ranked about equally. Every winery in this group had a solid lineup with several standout wines, and usually had other attributes (like food or service) that made it an overall excellent tasting experience. All are definitely must-try locations. All are in alphabetical order, not ranked in preference.

4. Hermann J Wiemer Vineyard (SW Seneca): One of the larger wineries in the area, with 131 acres under vine between HJW and their other property, Standing Stone Vineyards. HJW has their own estate vineyards plus they manage other people’s vineyard. They make around 35,000 cases/year between HJW and Standing Stone.

HWJ’s tasting experience is different from their neighbors in that they don’t have set flights. Every pour was separately charged, so you can get as many or as few as you want. My group didn’t have a tasting room associate with us, but it wasn’t overly busy so we still had lots of attention.

They had an excellent selection across the board, but my favorites were the 2020 Magdalena Cab Franc and an especially outstanding 2009 Cab Franc they brought out just for me. I wanted to like their biodynamic riesling, but just couldn’t get into it.

5. Heron Hill Winery (SW Keuka): This was one of the larger and lovelier venues of my trip. Heron Hill makes 30,000 cases/year, plus have 40 acres under vine between 2 vineyards. They also source fruit from elsewhere.

I admit I’m biased in describing this visit because it gave me a chance to catch up with winemaker Jordan Harris, who I knew from his time in Virginia. Jordan gave my family and I a very extensive tasting, I suspect including several not on the menu.

But my assessment of his 2020 Cabernet Franc and 2020 blaufränkisch needs no special boosting; both were excellent and I left with three bottles of the cabernet franc to show off to my Virginia friends (edit: one was enjoyed with dinner and another went home with mom for her birthday). Also shout-outs to the 2020 Pinot Noir (very fruit forward nose and easy drinking), his rosé, and the 2020 Chosen Spot red-blend.

6. Keuka Lake Vineyards (SW Keuka): One of the most underrated wineries in the area. So good that I made an exception and allowed myself a visit despite having been here in 2019.

Small to mid-sized by FXL standards, they have 40 acres under vine and make 2-3,000 cases/year. Three tasting flights were available, now served in an old barn. I went with the “Terroir Red” and “a mix of the “”Terroir White”.

I LOVED their natural yeast vignoles pét-nat, which was the first wine I opened when I returned home. Their 2017 ‘Rows” dry riesling (complex, mineral driven, maybe lime notes), 2013 dry riesling (peach notes and honey, made with wild yeast), 2018 KLV Red (a table red with hybrids foch, vincent, and de chaunac, very good!), and 2019 cabernet franc were also excellent (some pepper, slightly fuller bodied than I often see.)

They also grow leon millet and make an orange wine. This is one of the few places where I genuinely enjoyed their wines made with hybrid grapes, which are rarely a favorite.

7. Weis Vineyards (East Keuka): Another rare repeat visit for me. It also helped that Dave McIntyre (wine writer for the Washington Post) was aghast at even the possibility I skip it. So back to Weis I went. Reservations recommended.

Weis has 40 acres of vines (mostly hybrids) but most of this estate fruit is sold locally. No word on the number of cases/year they make, but all of it uses locally sourced fruit.

My favorites included their 2021 Dry Riesling (nice and crisp), 2021 Wizner Select K (K for Kabinnet, more mineral-y and a tad sweet), and 2019 Merlot (great balance!). Also good were the 2020 Schulhouse red (an easy drinking blend of mostly Chancellor, plus 10% Cab Sauv, named in honor of the school house the tasting room now occupies), and dry rosé (nice balance).

I felt this tasting experience was more upscale than most other FXL locations. As for flights, out of 15 or so options you can pick 5 but can order more. I liked this method since it was sort of a ‘build your own adventure’ style. We had a tasting room associate guide us through our wines.

The third tier (#8-13) had above average wines in all of them, and oftentimes they had great food, service, and/or an amazing view. All in this group are equally good and listed in alphabetical order, rather than ranked in any order.

8. Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery (SE Keuka): The granddaddy of Finger Lakes wineries. Guided tastings are by appointment only (and go fast, apparently), but you can also randomly visit and stay in their courtyard to enjoy a self-guided flight.

I go more into detail on their background (and the Finger Lakes in general) in my 2019 trip report so won’t repeat too much. But suffice to say that any trip to the Finger Lakes is incomplete without a pilgrimage here.

“Dr. Frank” is one of the largest Finger Lakes wineries, making over 75,000 cases/year. While Dr. Frank has 60 acres under vine at their main estate plus 20 more acres at Seneca, most of their fruit is purchased locally.

This place has a large tasting menu, with all of their bottles being solid in quality and well-priced. I wasn’t personally moved to buy any particular bottle but I did especially enjoy their toasty Celeb (Sparkling Riesling) with brioche notes and their 2021 Dry Riesling.

Small dishes are also available.

9. Red Newt Cellars (SW Seneca): Mid-to-large sized winery. 20 acres under vine but another 100 leased. They make 24,000 cases/year, 1/3rd of which was devoted to their most popular wine, the off-dry ‘Circle’.

They were recommended to me because of their extensive collection of older rieslings. Multiple flight options were available, but I went with the Dry and Riesling flights. I think this is going to need a return visit since there was a lot left off the menu I never tried.

I really enjoyed their especially well balanced 2013 Dry Reserve (no saline notes, oddly enough) and the 2013 Bullhorn Creek, which was unusually for its spice and herbal notes. I noted how the Circle had a ton of action up front.

10. Red Tail Ridge Winery (West Seneca): A mid-sized location with 35 acres of vines planted. This includes several varietals you don’t often see including teroldego and lagrein, red grapes normally found in northern Italy. No notes on their production but was told its mostly estate.

I did the sparkling flight plus sampled a few others. Red Tail seemed to have one of the largest sparkling programs I encountered on the trip, and their pét-nats were especially good. The NV “Rebel With A Cause” (50% Terodego/25% Langein/25% Dornfelder) was probably my favorite, with the terodego red the runner-up.

11. Ryan Williams Vineyard (SE Seneca): This was one of the larger wineries in the area. I didn’t get the number of cases they produce but was told they have 120 acres of vines. They also have a BEAUTIFUL tasting room with a great view of Seneca.

One standout element of my visit is they also have a full-service kitchen. Had I known I would have been brunching here all the time, although their lunch menu looked equally appetizing.

I tried the white and red flights, with my favorites being the very textured 2018 Chardonnay and soft 2017 Cabernet Franc. They also had a pretty good sauvignon blanc that was clean, fresh, and quaffable.

12. Sheldrake Point Winery (West Cayuga): An unexpected gem! Wineries along Cayuga are further away from the main tourist trail so they tend to be smaller, but this location stood out as a very classy venue with a lot of great wine and tasty light bites. The view and service were great.

Their wine is 100% estate, with 66 acres under vine. Ironically, they only make 7 or 8,000 cases/year (most of their fruit is sold).

My family and I shared three flights; ‘All about Aromatics’, ‘Cool Climate Reds’, and ‘Library Reds’. Favorites included the 2017 “BLK3” Pinot and 2013 Pinot, the latter of which was more tannic than I expected.

Mom said their 2012 Gamay (with 17% Syrah) was very much a ‘eat stake and put me to sleep wine’. I though the “Acid Head” riesling had an interesting sauv blanc quality to it, while the 2019 Reserve was very tropical, with notes of passion fruit.

13. Wagner Vineyards (SE Seneca). Part of me wanted to be turned off by their large scale, commercial-winery vibe, but they won me over with great wine and service (and beer! and food!).

Wagner produces 60,000 cases/year and have 240 acres under vine, which makes them the largest grape distributor in the area. They have a very nice (and busy) tasting room as well.

I thought their 2017 Riesling was really good; minerally, light, and easy drinking. Apparently, Wine Enthusiast magazine thought so as well, since it chose this as one of their Top 100 affordable wines. The 2020 Riesling Caywood East Dry was my second favorite.

My fourth tier (#14-18) selections all provided pretty good wines. Some might have a standout I really enjoyed.

14. Atwater Vineyards (SE Seneca): While probably mid-sized by FXL standards, their 50-acre vineyard charges ahead with an exceptionally diverse vineyard consisting of 19 varieties. Among the hard-to-find vines planted are syrah and a bunch of hybrid grapes including reval (a hybrid of chardonnay).

This place should get an award for one of the nicest views of the trip. It’s not that far away from Watkins Glen, so I’d have totally hung out more here on a slow day.

No particular wine sang out to me, but I did like their apple-note 2021 “Bubbles” sparkling riesling and 2020 Pinot Noir, which was made unfiltered and with minimal-intervention. I bought a bottle of the pinot just because it subverted my expectations of what a pinot should be like.

15. Fox Run Vineyards (West Seneca): This was a mid-sized location with 52 acres under vine and a production of 20,000 cases/year. They also had one of the best kitchens in the area, which by itself makes it a must-stop. The family and I enjoyed a great selection of sandwiches, salads, and personal pizzas.

The wine lineup didn’t disappoint either. My favorite was their Reserve Riesling (and I bought a bottle) but I also thought their “Silvan” Riesling was pretty good. Not sampled here, but back home I’ve also had a really nice meritage blend (not on the menu here, unfortunately).

16. Hosmer Winery (West Cayuga): A mid-sized location, making 10,000 cases/year using 72 acres of grapes.

Hosmer is especially known for their dry reds plus their sauvignon blanc. They also have a petit verdot and lemberger (aka blaufränkisch), both of which were hard to find in this area. My favorite wine was a blend of cabernet franc and lemberger.

17. Ravines Wine Cellar (NW Seneca): This was one of my first visits of my trip and helped set the tone of the rest of the visit. Ravines is on the larger side at 30,000 cases/year from 4 vineyards, plus 130 acres under vine.

Several flight options were available, but my favorites were their dry sparkling riesling (which had a tad botrytis which made it interesting), plus their 2020 cabernet franc.

18. Shalestone Vineyards (East Seneca): I feel weird listing Shalestone so low because it’s definitely a nice place, and wine lovers who are red-focused would love it. It’s last in this group simply because of alphabetical order, and in a lower tier because I wasn’t focused on reds on this trip.

When I asked why the focus on reds my server explained “We only make wine we really want to drink”. They were also one of the smaller producers in the area, with only 6 acres under vine and a production of 1,200-1,500 cases/year.

That said their 2019 cabernet franc was one of the best in the Finger Lakes; aromatic with soft pepper notes. They also have a syrah and saperavi.

Last tier (#19-21) didn’t have any particular wines that tickled my fancy. In some cases, this was simply because they were unlucky enough to be the place I visited at the end of the day when my palate was tired.

19. Anthony Road Wine Company (West Seneca): They make 12,000 cases/year and have 100 acres under vine. I don’t have great notes on the visit, but I did notice the Devonian White blend (chard/riesling/pinot gris) and vignoles off-dry.

20. Magnus Ridge Winery (SW Seneca): Another winery on the larger end of the scale. It was unique in that they had cheese/food pairings with their wine flights. The most interesting combination was a traminette paired with wasabi.

21. Missick Wine Cellars (West Seneca): Formerly known as Bellangelo, they rebranded a few years back when the new owner decided he wanted this place to be his legacy. They came highly recommended by Dave McIntyre of the Washington Post, so I had to try it. Missick makes 5,000 cases/year; not sure on the number of acres under vine.

Of the 4 flight options available I went with the “Staff Pick”, with chenin (!) as an add-on. At this point my wallet was in conservation mode, but I did think the ‘Foreword’ red blend made with 5 hybrids (foch, baco noir, marquette, dechaunac, chambourcin) was interesting enough to buy a bottle. It turned out to be my only purchase of a wine made with hybrids the entire trip.