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.

The Judgment of Virginia

The Judgement of Paris is probably the most famous wine competition in the history of American wine. In 1976 a panel of 11 judges blind tasted 10 chardonnays and 10 Bordeaux blends; half from California and half from France (Burgundy for whites and Bordeaux for reds). The winning red was from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (California) and the winning white was from Chateau Montelena (California).

Wine competitions are inherently subjective; those same wines tasted another day by the same judges could easily have produced different results. But at this event California reigned, and the resulting media attention helped pushed California to become the wine powerhouse it is today.

Some friends & I decided to do a similar comparison, but consisting of bottles from Virginia and France. In total the nine ‘judges’ enjoyed 7 pairings, including a sparkling, viognier, chardonnay, cabernet franc, and three red blends.

The Virginia wines included a Trump Winery 2017 Blanc de blanc, Greenhill 2019 Viognier, Linden 2017 Village (Chardonnay), Cave Ridge 2019 Cabernet Franc, Greenhill 2019 Philosophy (petit verdot-heavy red blend), Slater Run 2019 First Bridge (Bordeaux blend), and Afton Mountain 2017 Tradition (Bordeaux blend).

I should note these vintages and specific wineries represent (in my opinion at least) the upper tier of Virginia wine. All came from 2017 and 2019 vintages, which are two of the best years to bless Virginia vineyards in the past decade. On top of that we selected producers who are especially famous in their respective categories.

The French wines were roughly equal price points (or as close as I could make them). I’m not as familiar with the French bottles as I was with their Virginia ones, but we did our best for equal matchings.

It’s fair to note two things probably skewed the scores in favor of Virginia.

First, a fair number of bottles were young vintages, which put the French reds at a disadvantage. Sadly, there simply isn’t an inventory of ‘old’ Virginia wine at my disposal, so we made-due with what we had. Bordeaux reds need a good decade before reaching their prime, while Virginia bottles are approachable young.

Second, I should note that many of us have a ‘Virginia palate’ due to our long-time exploration of Virginia wine country. While this familiarity may have weighted my judge’s opinion in favor of the local team, it’s hard to quantify.

It was also interesting that our two participants that were part of the wine industry (and whose palates are considerably more experienced than the rest of us) did slightly skew slightly more in favor of France than the rest of us.

All tastings were done blind. While I specifically paired certain reds against one another based on their price points, we didn’t know which pairing was which when we enjoyed them.

Neither did we have a fancy scoring system; it was straight up opinion of which you enjoyed more. I did my best to capture their opinions as we went along.

The whites were served mildly chilled. I did my best to let the reds breathe, so they were opened for roughly 3-4 hours prior to sampling (but not fully decanted). Still, I wish we had aerated them more. We had light bites during the white portion, and transitioned to pizza as the reds came out.

Overall the event went smoothly. The worst part was when I received death glares from several participants when I interrupted a conversation regarding Gilmore Girls when trying to move us to the red wine portion of the event (they eventually forgave me…I think…)

The results:

Round 1: Sparklings

  • 2017 Trump Blanc de Blanc ($30): 7 votes (Virginia win)
  • NV Taittinger Brut ($48): 2 votes

To be honest, I saw this one coming.

Trump Winery’s sparkling program is one of the best in the United States. Its 2014 Blanc de Blanc and 2015 Blanc de Noir won Best in Class in the 2019 and 2020 San Francisco Wine Chronical wine competition for their respective categories. Their Brut Reserve was also part of the Virginia Governor’s Case in 2021 and 2022. Trump sparkling can go toe-to-toe with anything.

The bottle of Trump sparkling had a fair bit of brioche on the nose. Lighter color. Clean; more to the finish. Some noted it was a bit tart, even had a raw cookie dough quality to it. Someone mentioned notes of honey on the nose.

The Taittinger was more of a golden color, and tasted fuller, riper, with more pear. We noted notes of brioche but not as much as the Trump. Someone mentioned it had some funk (in a good way). Not as aromatic as the Trump; it’s finish “left me wanting more”.

Trump winemaker Jonathan Wheeler nailed this one.

  1. Brandon: Taittinger, based on how it was fuller (note; Brandon claimed he was more into reds than whites so this skewed his votes)
  2. Emily: Trump, based on how it was easier-drinking and she enjoyed the nose
  3. Lindsay: Taittinger, based on feeling Trump had too much brioche and she liked the fruit qualities of the Taittinger
  4. Matt: Trump
  5. Richard: Trump, based on it was more ‘traditional’
  6. Ryan: Trump
  7. Sarah: Trump
  8. Stacy: Trump
  9. Stephanie: Trump, liked the ‘entire experience’

Round 2: Viognier

  • 2019 Greenhill Viognier ($42): 6 votes (Virginia win) (this bottle was gifted)
  • JV Fleury Cotes Du Rhône Blanc ($25): 3 votes

Viognier was a comparison I really wanted since while this grape has fallen somewhat out of favor, it’s still in many ways one of Virginia’s signature grape varieties. I wanted to get a Condrieu but no local wine stores had one, so I made-due with a 100% Viognier from Côtes du Rhône. The Virginia bottle was gifted by Greenhill, as it is winemaker Ben Comstock’s favorite variety.

While our participants could usually tell which bottles were from Virginia and which were from France, I admit I got this one backwards. The color of the Greenhill was distinctly pink-ish, which is a quality I don’t recall seeing elsewhere in Virginia. It was floral with notes of honey but wasn’t overpowering. On the palate it had hints of lime up front, lime zest, ripe peach. Someone mentioned they felt it was creamy.

In other words, this was definitely not a ‘honeysuckle bomb’, like you often see in this variety elsewhere in Virginia (and why I thought it was from France).

The Rhône had a more white peach on the nose. Various descriptors for the palate came out, including honeysuckle and peach. It was also surprisingly bitter and had a ‘big’ palate.

Virginia won, but not by a huge margin. Several panelists waivered on giving their final scores. I think this could have gone either way but the nose on the Greenhill really made the difference for several voters.

  1. Brandon: Greenhill
  2. Emily: Greenhill; liked the nose
  3. Lindsay: Greenhill
  4. Matt: Greenhill
  5. Richard: France, because it was better balanced
  6. Ryan: Greenhill, for the nose
  7. Sarah: France, enjoyed the floral nose
  8. Stacy: France
  9. Stephanie: Greenhill; didn’t like the bitterness of the French wine

Round 3: Chardonnay

  • 2017 Linden Village ($32): 6 votes (Virginia win)
  • 2018 Patrick Javillier Bourgogne Cote d’Or Cuvee des Forgets ($38): 3 votes

This was another one I looked forward to. Linden draws its inspiration from Burgundy, so I insisted it be paired against a Burgundy with a similar price point.

While Virginia got more votes this round, this competition could have gone either way. Several were torn between the two, and only grudgingly made a decision. If I allowed ties, this would have had several.

The Linden had notes of pineapple, vanilla, white pepper, and yellow apple. We detected newer oak.

The Burgundy was brighter, with notes of lemon zest and lemon curd. It was a little herbal on the palate with notes parsley. On the palate some also noted pineapple notes. It was also higher acid than the Virginia chardonnay.

  1. Brandon: Linden
  2. Emily: France
  3. Lindsay: Linden, “because of the flavors”
  4. Matt: Linden
  5. Richard: France; liked the herbal qualities
  6. Ryan: Linden; liked the coconut notes
  7. Sarah: Linden, because it was richer. Noted it was “American, but elegant”
  8. Stacy: France
  9. Stephanie: France; liked how it was more drinkable

Round 4: Cabernet Franc

  • 2019 Cave Ridge Cabernet Franc: 7 votes (Virginia win)
  • 2019 Domaine Guion Bourgueil Rouge (Loire Valley): 2 votes (likely had brett)

Cabernet Franc is Virginia’s most planted grape variety. Not only is it the backbone of many red blends, a bottle is almost guaranteed to be found at every Virginia winery. The French wine came from the Loire Valley, cabernet franc’s spiritual home.

Let me say up front that this was not a fair competition because we felt the French wine was flawed with brett (aka brettanomyces, a yeast which can spoil the wine). At this point there was nothing we could do but continue on. Even so I feel the Virginia bottle was exceptionally good, and not everyone was turned off by the brett.

  1. Brandon: Cave Ridge
  2. Emily: Cave Ridge, because of the aroma
  3. Lindsay: Cave Ridge
  4. Matt: Cave Ridge
  5. Richard: Cave Ridge; hit ‘all the marks’
  6. Ryan: Cave Ridge; felt it was cleaner
  7. Sarah: Cave Ridge; liked the creamy body, balance, and complexity
  8. Stacy: France; felt the Virginia bottle was too bright and liked the funk on the French wine
  9. Stephanie: Cave Ridge; “overall just enjoyable”

Round 5: Bordeaux blends

  • 2019 Greenhill Philosophy ($62, 46% petit verdot, 32% merlot, and 22% cabernet franc): 8 votes (Virginia win) (This bottle was gifted)
  • 2019 Chateau Quinault l’Enclos ($60, 74% merlot, 14% cabernet sauvignon and 12% cabernet franc): 1 votes

Greenhill gifted this bottle (along with a viognier) to me when they learned I was doing this event. This bottle won the San Francisco Wine Chronical for Best in Class in the Petit Verdot blend category, so it was something of a ringer.

The blends were quite different, with the Bordeaux bottle being merlot dominant while the Virginia bottle was heavy on petit verdot. While this arguably made this comparison not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, I think it’s fair considering their respective blends are based on what varieties grows best in their respective areas.

The Bordeaux was highly rated and not exactly cheap. You’d think it would have been a close contest. Yet this was one of the most lopsided rounds of the night.

My favorite quote of the night was ‘I could write a sonnet’ regarding the bottle from Greenhill. It had high marks nearly across the board for its flavor profile, nose, and overall approachability. This blend had notes of lavender, plumb, vanilla, cherry, and vanilla bean. It was just amazing in every way.

The Bordeaux was surprisingly high alcohol (14%!). Notes of under ripe plumb. More acidic, earthy, and tannic. It was also closed; not surprising given it was a 2019 vintage (Bordeauxs need time).

  1. Brandon: Greenhill
  2. Emily: Greenhill, ‘based on the aroma’
  3. Lindsay: Greenhill; ‘just so much going on’
  4. Matt: Greenhill
  5. Richard: Greenhill, ‘but France in 5 years’
  6. Ryan: Greenhill
  7. Sarah: Greenhill
  8. Stacy: France; felt the Virginia wine was too acidic and liked the notes of blueberry on the French bottle.
  9. Stephanie: Greenhill, ‘because it was softer and more drinkable’

Round 6: Bordeaux Blends:

  • 2018 Chateau Grand Corbin Manuel (St Emilion, Bordeaux; 75% merlot, 20% cabernet Franc, 5% cabernet sauvignon): 1 vote (likely cooked)
  • 2019 Slater Run First Bridge (38% cabernet franc, 32% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon, 10% petit verdot): 8 votes (Virginia win)

This was another unfair comparison because the French wine was ‘cooked’, likely due to poor storage. Oh well; the show must go on.

The French wine wasn’t especially remarkable. More tannic, but at least drinkable. Almost nobody had positive things to say, so I could only imagine that this would have showed better if we had a non-flawed wine.

The Slater Run bottle had notes of green pepper and cherry on the nose. The nose was ‘bright’, while on the body it was riper and more balanced.

  1. Brandon: Slater Run
  2. Emily: France
  3. Lindsay: Slater Run
  4. Matt: Slater Run
  5. Richard: Slater Run
  6. Ryan: Slater Run
  7. Sarah: Slater Run
  8. Stacy: Slater Run
  9. Stephanie: Slater Run

Round 7: Bordeaux blends

  • 2017 Afton Mountain Tradition ($45, 41% merlot, 37% petit verdot and 22% cabernet sauvignon): 5 votes (Virginia win)
  • 2015 Chateau Lalande-Borie (Saint-Julien) ($35, 45% cabernet sauvignon and 55% merlot): 4 votes

This was arguably my favorite pairing of the night. The two blends were very different but smelled and tasted almost identical. Although Virginia won by a tiny margin, this easily could have gone either way.

I personally loved the nose on the Afton Mountain, which had a savory quality to it with notes of blueberry. We were split on which was more vegetal, although that descriptor was used for both bottles. It did have more leather on the palate and was slightly more rounded.

The French wine had more notes of smoke and blueberry on the nose. On the palate it was arguably fruitier (dark fruit, that is), but also had notes of cedar.

  1. Brandon: Afton Mountain
  2. Emily: Saint-Julien
  3. Lindsay: Afton Mountain; felt it was more balanced
  4. Matt: Afton Mountain
  5. Richard: Saint-Julien
  6. Ryan: Afton Mountain
  7. Sarah: Saint-Julien
  8. Stacy: Saint-Julien
  9. Stephanie: Afton Mountain

So there you have it – it was a total sweep for Virginia!

Or…was it?

To be fair, two of the seven pairings I would disqualify because of faulted bottles (which is a shame; I had faith in that Cave Ridge Cabernet Franc).

Still, 5 good pairings with 9 participants seems statistically relevant. So…Virginia dominated…right???

Yes – but with some caveats.

First off, I’ve come to learn that Virginia wine is very approachable even when young, and this helped in this scenario. The Bordeaux may have killed it in another few years, but we had the vintages we had. Of course, this only applied to the reds; the Virginia team did score two wins with whites and another for a sparkling, so it’s not like age was decisive in every scenario.

Aeration also mattered. I will say that when I opened a 2019 Rosemont red blend against a comparable Bordeaux the next day…not that I didn’t love the Rosemont…that Bordeaux was OUTSTANDING. Might more aeration be helpful to the other reds? Well…maybe?

Second, the scores were often very evenly divided. Even those who voted for one could easily have voted the other way. The last pairing was so well matched nearly everyone was wavering on which was their favorite.

Third, for a future “Virginia Versus” to be statistically relevant, I do think we need more participants who never had Virginia wine. Having ‘familiar’ flavor profiles could easily have swayed a few local drinkers to the Virginia bottles, and with such tight margins it’s possible that made the difference.

But overall I still have to say – Virginia really impressed tonight. Even against comparable French wines, Virginia came on top.

Getting to Know Virginia’s Assistant Winemakers

My article on several of Virginia’s Assistant Winemakers is now published for the #OldTownCrier.

Link below:

When Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyards was handed the 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition’s highest award, Doug Fabboli of Fabbioli Cellars was there to witness the event. Doug had a personal interest in watching Melanie ascend the stage; she was his Assistant Winemaker a decade earlier, one of a long roster of people he’s mentored in the Virginia wine industry.

Melanie’s journey demonstrates how today’s assistants are tomorrow’s leaders. Many also have their own projects which deserve attention.

Not only are these young winemakers introducing new ideas, their progression is changing the industry’s demographics. A number of today’s Head Winemakers such as Chelsey Blevins, Christopher Harris, and Corry Craighill got their start elsewhere in Virginia before moving to their present gigs.

Kent Arendt, Assistant Winemaker for Walsh Family Wine & maker of his private label Boden Young

What drew you to winemaking? “My last job was in data analysis. I was always interested in wine, but I didn’t think much about it until 10 years ago. But the more I enjoyed wine the more interested I became in the details; like how different wine is regionally, why it tastes so different, why different winemakers use different styles.

So in 2016 I decided to give it a try. I’m the kind of person who needs tangible results in his work. I interned in Washington State and worked a harvest at a big facility. When I came back, I realized that’s not the kind of place I want to work at. So I applied to an ad from Nate Walsh and was his first hire.”

Describe your role of an Assistant Winemaker: “Winemaking is 90% organization and cleaning and 10% winemaking. But being an assistant varies depending on the winery. For us, the Head Winemaker becomes more and more hands-off in the cellar work as the business grows.

I do much of the day-to-day cellar work. Nate will have a list of things to do and I work through that list, whether it’s running the lab, checking sulfur and acidity levels, topping up barrels, maintenance of equipment, and getting ready for bottle. And cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.”

What parts of the business are you in charge of? “Anything that happens in the cellar is done by me or scheduled by me. I meet with Nate on almost a daily basis to talk about what’s going on in the cellar.

But the best part is the farming. A big part of what makes Virginia wine special is the farming.”

Do you have any side-projects of your own? “Nate creates an environment that is conducive for small projects. I make a wine named Boden Young. Boden translated roughly as “Soil” in German. Albariño is one of those varieties that I’ve enjoyed for a long time and I’m excited that it’s picked up in the past 5 years. I’ve made 43 cases of albariño and 38 of viognier.”

Katrina Buccella, Assistant Winemaker at Paradise Springs Winery

What drew you to winemaking? “I originally went to Virginia Tech to study veterinary medicine but fell in love with microbiology and food sciences. That led me to their fermentation course.

Five years ago I interned at Rocklands Farm Winery (in Maryland). I had the chance to do every step in the process from planting a vineyard, to harvesting grapes, to making wine, to sales. I’ve also worked in New Zealand and finished my UC Davis winemaking program.

I love the cyclical nature of winemaking. It spoke to something older, and winemaking is so much more soulful.” 

Describe your role of an Assistant Winemaker: “I’m basically Rob’s (Rob Cox, Head winemaker at Paradise Springs) right hand. He makes the decisions in the cellar, but I’m in charge of the estate vineyard. It’s only one acre but it’s a well taken care of acre.

In the production facility I do the barrel maintenance, upkeep of the barrel room, punch down, racking, but most of all cleaning. I also do a lot of the laboratory tasks. It’s a small team so it’s all hands-on deck.”

What has been your career path to become a winemaker?: “I’ve heard of so many different ways to get into this business. But there’s no one way, you just have to be moved to take it. As long as you have the drive and ambition and a little science smarts you can go far.” 

Are there any specific parts of the winery you are in charge of?“Rob asked me if I had any project ideas and I suggested a pét-nat. So we’re planning on making 80 cases using seyval blanc. It will be a cool first for Paradise Springs. 

I’m hoping it will be more of a natural fermentation pétnat, but we haven’t made any final decisions. I’d like to be as intervention free as possible but I won’t know what will happen till I’m in the thick of it!”

Ashleigh White, Assistant Winemaker for Glen Manor Vineyards

What drew you to winemaking? “I was still in school for biology with a concentration in ecology when Jeff (owner/winemaker Jeff White of Glen Manor) opened the winery. After I graduated I was doing different internships but I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Jeff offered me a position in the tasting room in 2014, and the next year I moved to a full time job in the vineyard and then in the cellar.

Being a winemaker blended different parts of my degree; being outside in nature as well as growing into the winemaking. I also got to work in different cellars around the world which was exciting.”

Describe your role of an Assistant Winemaker: “Jeff makes the decisions and trajectory for what will come for the year and I work alongside him learning things like making picking decisions in the vineyard. I’m kinda his shadow, learning his approach to processing the fruit and monitoring the fermentation.”

What has been your career path to become a winemaker?: “I would say do multiple internships; you gather knowledge from different winemakers. I learned you can do the same job 5 different ways and none are wrong but you learn to pick and choose what works for you best.

I’ve worked in New Zealand, Australia, British Columbia, and California. I miss the traveling, I miss learning. But the experience is always worth it. I’d like to keep traveling but I now feel like I need to stay put.”

Are there any specific parts of the winery you are in charge of? “It really depends; every week is a bit different. I’m in charge of managing our Instagram account, and this year I was in charge of blending trials for our 2021 red blends. I’ve also been leading our research into future varietals, like warmer climate reds.

We also did a bit of carbonic maceration for the first time, which was my idea. The color was really pretty. We did the blending trial for our rosé blind and we all ended up liking it. Jeff is open to trying new things.”

Virginia Viognier Blind Tasting Showdown

Viognier is one of the grapes that helped put Virginia wine on the map. Before petit manseng was cool, before petit verdot was appreciated as a stand-alone varietal, it was a 1993 viogner (pronounced VEE-on-yay) from Horton Vineyards that caused international wine critics to first take notice of Virginia.

Dennis Horton, one of the pioneers of the Virginia wine industry, brought this Rhône Valley varietal to Virginia in 1989. At the time viognier was essentially dying out. When Jancis Robinson wrote Vines, Grapes & Wine in 1985 she could only identify records for 80 acres planted in the entire world, most of it in viognier’s home of Condrieu.

According to Dennis’s granddaughter, Horton Vineyards winemaker Caitlin Horton, “My grandfather really didn’t like chardonnay. He wanted a heavier white that he could go with heavier food. While traveling in France he found viognier in the Rhône valley and fell in love with it. So he planted 14 acres off the bat – didn’t even do a test planting. People thought he was crazy.”

Of course, Dennis’s desire to find a varietal outside chardonnay was only one piece of the puzzle. Viognier fits Virginia’s terroir because it has thick skin and loose clusters; important factors to resist pests and mildew. His 1993 viognier became famous as one of the best wines the state ever produced, and the recognition it received was enough to encourage winegrowers around the Virginia to follow his lead.

This success and a desire to find an identity around which Virginia could focus its marketing efforts led the Virginia Wine Marketing Board to designate viognier as the state’s “signature grape” (but not “official state grape”, as sometimes reported) in 2011.

But as the quality of Virginia wine improved and newer varieties gained traction, viognier gradually faded in popularity. According to Virginia’s Commercial Wine Grape Reports, it went from a high of 340 acres in 2015 to 301 acres in 2021 even as plantings of other varieties grew significantly. Its special designation was quietly dropped around 2018 as marketers realized Virginia didn’t need a signature grape to rally around after all.

Viognier has other challenges. It’s a low acid grape, which means it’s often at risk of tasting flabby. Viognier is also low yielding and not as consistent in the vineyard as other grapes available to Virginia growers. Its heavier body, perfume nose, and somewhat oily nature are sometimes love-it-or-hate it qualities to consumers.

Regardless, a group of friends joined me to taste 12 viogniers from around the state in a blind tasting to see for ourselves what may have sparked the viognier trend.

The Contenders:

  1. 2016 Linden Vineyards. Winemaker and grower Jim Law. Fruit from Boisseau Vineyard, near Front Royal. Barrel fermented in neutral French Oak.
  2. 2020 The Winery at Bull Run Lilly’s Viognier. Winemaker Ashton Lough, fruit from Rappahannock County. Made mostly in steel but with 20% acacia barrels.
  3. 2020 Barrel Fermented Horton Vineyards. Winemaker Caitlin Horton, fruit from Orange County.
  4. 2019 Ingleside Vineyards. Winemaker Mark Misch, fruit from the Northern Neck AVA.
  5. 2020 King Family Vineyards. Winemaker Matthieu Finot, fruit from the Monticello AVA.
  6. 2020 Iron Will Winery. Winemaker Nate Walsh, fruit from Iron Will’s estate vineyard in Waterford.
  7. 2019 Jefferson Vineyards. Winemaker Chris Ritzcovan, fruit from the Monticello AVA.
  8. 2020 Rosemont Vineyards. Winemaker Justin Rose, fruit from Zephaniah Farm.
  9. 2020 Philip Carter Vineyards. I believe the winemaker was Tony McDonnell. Fruit from Fauquier County.
  10. 2017 Bluestone Vineyards. Winemaker Lee Hartman. I believe the fruit came from the Shenandoah Valley AVA.
  11. 2019 DuCard Vineyards. Winemaker Julien Durantie. Fruit from the east side of Shenandoah National Park near White Oak Canyon.
  12. 2020 Delaplane Cellars. Winemaker Rick Tagg. I believe the fruit was from Loudoun County.

A big thank you to Delaplane, DuCard, Horton, Philip Carter, and Rosemont who graciously provided the bottles for inclusion in this tasting. Other bottles were procured at the wineries or local shops and brought from the taster’s cellars.

Flight #1:

First off, I noticed fairly limited variation in the colors. This was true across multiple rounds.

Wine 1: 2016 Linden Vineyards. Our oldest vintage of the evening. We felt it had a perfume-y nose, with various descriptors of white peach, dried pineapple, and lime zest. We thought it would taste sweet based on the nose but it was a dry wine.

On the palate it was a tad bitter, with notes of lime, white blossom and cream.

Wine 2: 2020 Bull Run (Round Winner) (4 votes, 1 half vote). Great balance and good complexity; we knew this a contender as soon as we tasted it. Very floral aroma, with abundant notes of lemon zest and nectarine which hit you immediately.

On the palate we found it tasted of honeysuckle, nectarine, and petrichor (a scent associated with how it smells before it rains).

Wine 3: 2020 Horton Vineyards Barrel Select (2 votes, 1 half vote). Little herbal on the nose, heavier on the hay instead of viognier’s traditional honeysuckle. Also notes of chamomile and apricot.

On the palate we found strong notes of lemon juice, as well as apricot and orange zest. It was also a tad more acidic than its counterparts.

We liked this so much we later gave it a wild card to the finalist round.

Wine 4: 2019 Ingleside Vineyards. The funky nose was noticeable. It’s not a bad quality (after all, Bordeaux can have funk) but it stood out from the rest. You might say it had an almost fuel quality to it.

Flight #2:

Personally I thought this was the strongest round of the evening, although I’m biased since I loved the King Family as much as the Iron Will.

Wine 5: 2020 King Family Vineyards (half vote). Very complex nose, with peach, orange blossom, lemon tart, and a finish of grass at the end. On the palate we also detected grass, and it had a tannic yet creamy quality to it. It may have had some lees contact as well.

I will say this was one of my favorites of the day, although I was torn between this and the following wine.

Wine 6: 2020 Iron Will Winery (Round Winner) (5 votes, 2 half votes). Very pronounced nose with lots of great qualities; rose and almond were mention. On the palate we found it was orange-y, as well had notes of ripe nectarine and papaya. Others mentioned notes of lime and a creamy note.

Wine 7: 2019 Jefferson Vineyards (half vote). Softer nose, with an herbaceous, savory quality to it. Lemon and lime were also mentioned.

On the palate we found the fruit was pronounced; one taster mentioned it had an almost citrus or yogurt quality to it. There was also a tea quality on the finish, like drinking tea that had been out too long. This wine was a bit more divisive than others we tried, since some especially loved it as it opened up while others never fell for it.

Wine 8: 2020 Rosemont Vineyards. Slate or lemon grass on the nose; this was the only time slate was mentioned during this event. I wouldn’t have guessed this was even a viognier; maybe more like a sauvignon blanc?

Flight #3:

Wine 9: 2020 Philip Carter Vineyards. The lime on the nose was almost overwhelming here. White pepper or spice on the finish; white peach was mentioned. Lots of minerally as well.

Another viognier that didn’t strike us as viognier-y. In fact it had an almost albariño quality to it.

Wine 10: 2017 Bluestone Vineyards. Another one that was reminiscent of a sauv blanc. Herbal nose, like fresh grass after it’s been mowed. On the palate we had notes of quinice and under ripe peach. Tart as well, and maybe a little tannic?

Wine 11: 2019 DuCard Vineyards (Round Winner) (7 votes). One of the easiest drinking wines of the day. This was also the only time the group was unanimous in our voting.

Peach (blossom, fruit, or flower; take your pick) and gooseberry on the nose, also some orange peel. On the palate we find a hint of ginger and under ripe peach.

Wine 12: 2020 Delaplane Cellars. Very “pretty” nose; one of the nicest aromas of the evening, in fact. On the palate, it had a fairly short finish with notes of green apple and herbs.

Finalist Round

After a brief discussion on previous round favorites that weren’t selected as the round favorite, we decided to wildcard Horton Vineyards into the finalist round. I personally thought Wine #5/King Family was a sure-thing for a wild card advance, but I was outvoted.

The result ended up to be a tie! The bottle from Bull Run was an all-around classic example of what a Virginia viognier should be, honeysuckle and all. One of the best-balanced viogniers I’ve had in a long time.

If the Bull Run was a classic example of what viognier often is, then Iron Will was an example of what viognier could be. On the nose, white flower, vanilla, white fruit abound. It was creamy and had maybe a hint of lime on the palate. This was also the second time in a row that a wine made by Nate Walsh won one of my events (including chardonnay).

Wine 2: Bull Run: (Tied for winner of the day) (2 votes, 2 half votes)

Wine 3: Horton: 1 vote

Wine 6: Iron Will: (Tied for winner of the day) (2 votes, 2 half votes)

Wine 11: DuCard (no votes)

So – what did we learn?

In a nutshell, I think the biggest take-away was this: viognier has range.

I fully expected to find overwhelming honeysuckle every time, but that was actually only true of a few examples. I thought the barrel fermented versions were done especially well.

I was also surprised to find several viogniers were distinctly not very viognier-y. A few felt more like sauvignon blanc, or even albariño. While viognier is known for having a heavy quality to it, most were medium bodied. A few I’d say were even light bodied. The oily texture I was expecting wasn’t always there.

I’m not sure how to explain the variance. I’d have thought there would be more consistency but apparently there is more variation than I expected, beyond Virginia’s normal vintage-variation.

Next up: Virginia vs France.