Virginia is ranked #7 in the nation in terms of number of wineries, with over 300 in the state. While this is an impressive figure, it actually undercounts the number of brands available to wine lovers. For those willing to try something more experimental, try one of the state’s small batch wines.
Defining a ‘small batch’ wine can be difficult, especially in a state where few wineries make more than 3,000 cases a year. Many of these operations are colloquially referred to as ‘side hustles’, although that encompasses only part of this trend. However, as a ballpark definition, I’d broadly define ‘small batch’ as smaller brands whose wines are designed to be stylistically ‘different’ in some way.
Being different is something of a hallmark in the Virginia wine scene. As a young wine region, many vintners are still experimenting to find the styles and grapes that work best. While they usually draw more inspiration from the Old World than California, the reality is that only by experimenting will they move the industry forward. These small batch wines are the wine industry’s proverbial front line.
It’s a broad category for sure. Some are made in tiny lots by owners who lack a production facility or tasting room so they make & market their wines wherever they can. Others are crafted by winemakers at established locations who use a private label to play with different techniques or use fruit from a different terroir.
Established wineries are tapping into this trend as well, including Horton Vineyards’ “Gears and Lace” series and Gabriele Rausse Winery’s “Vino dal Bosco” lineup. Both feature wines that are labeled & marketed separately, usually featuring different blends or production methods. In discussing her Pinotage rosé and Tannat sparkling, Caitlin Horton stated, “This is my personality in a glass. Some people see the Steampunk-themed artwork and based on that alone say ‘That’s what I want.’”
All of these ventures have one thing in common; they are creative. Many use different styles of winemaking or natural yeast fermentation. A few use blends that are rarely seen elsewhere. The use of hardy grapes such as Petit Manseng or hybrids that grow well in Virginia are recurring themes. While some of these products are sold at the winery they are made, you are more likely to find these labels at local wine stores.
Odd Birds Make Great Wine
If there was ever a wine where necessity became the mother of invention, it’s Bluestone Vineyard’s “Odd Bird”. “2020 was a bad frost year, so we had less quantity and ripening was shortened by 1.5 months,” said winemaker Lee Hartman. Since weather precluded him from making a traditional Bordeaux-blend, Lee looked outside the box.
His solution was to whole cluster press the fruit. Although 93% of the wine came from red Bordeaux grapes, this process allowed Lee to leave the red pigments behind. The result is a fat but balanced white wine, with a citrusy nose and notes of orange and nectarine on the palate.
Guide Wine’s “Field Blend” is made with Petit Manseng and Viognier that were picked and fermented together. According to winemaker Rich Sullivan, “My thought was to do something a little different. I chose those two grapes specifically because Viognier is softer and would complement the Petit Manseng by softening the edge of its acid”.
For Ben Sedlins and Sarah Searle of Quartzwood, making wine in a sustainable way is an important component of their business. Sarah explained, “We’ve been long nagged by a sense that Virginia wine shouldn’t only be growing finicky European grapes that might not be suited for many sites nor our climate, and that there are likely some beautiful ferments to be created by stepping outside a narrow conception of what is ‘typical’ or ‘serious.’”
Currently Quartzwood makes three wines; a Noriet pét-nat, a Vidal-heavy pét-nat, and a soon to be released semi-carbonic Tannat. While they don’t use the phrase ‘natural wine’ (which is hard enough to define) to describe their creations, the use of hybrid grapes and limited intervention is in line with that concept. Both Quartzwood and Guild Wine are sold at Walsh Family Wine.
Side Hustles Arriving At Center Stage
Nearly a half-dozen Virginia winemakers have side hustles to various degrees, but Ben Jordan is perhaps Virginia’s king of side hustles. In addition to being head winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards he’s part of two smaller ventures, Lightwell Survey and his family-operated Midland Wine. Both brands emphasize limited intervention and unusual blends, including a Riesling/Petit Manseng named “Riesl-ing”, a Cabernet Franc/Blaufränkisch combo called “Cabernet Frankisch”, and a Cabernet Franc spiced with Petit Manseng named “The Weird Ones are Wolves.” The blends (and names) get weirder from there.
Both brands have received critical acclaim, but Ben isn’t the only winemaker whose side hustles are getting noticed. Wine Advocate recently rated the 2017 “F8” from Hark winemaker Jake Busching’s Jake Busching Wines as one of their favorites in a recent review of Virginia.
The list goes on. King Family’s Matthieu Finot makes wine for Turk Mountain Vineyard and his own Domaine Finot, which includes a Malbec made using carbonic maceration. Enologist Dr. Joy Ting has her eponymous label Joy Ting Wine, where she experiments with whole-cluster fermentation. Maya Hood White, associate winemaker at Early Mountain, makes a Petit Manseng-based appassimento-style wine named R.A.H. More brands are likely to follow as winemakers flex their creative freedom.
But it’s not just about creative freedom – it’s about collaboration. Jake is a big fan of working with his fellow winemakers and winegrowers. He’s also made a few one-off wines, including a Cabernet Franc/Petit Manseng blend named Orphan #3. In explaining the idea behind Orphan, Jake stated, “It speaks to the idea that we always have a barrel of something sitting around. The goal of a collaboration is to experiment”.