Valhalla Vineyards

As I was driving up the mountaintop towards Valhalla it should have been obvious that this was an aptly named winery. Valhalla of Norse mythos is said to be an enormous drinking hall where fallen warriors would wine & dine after a glorious death. Well, I’m not a Viking and I didn’t have a Valkyrie guiding me to the afterlife (I was driving a Hyundai Sonata instead of a winged horse, to be truthful about it), but I was totally down with the ‘wine and dine’ part. Heck, the tasting room is even reminiscent of a longhall.

Valhalla Vineyard is one of the older wineries in the state, opening its doors in 1998. That means its these are old vines, which tend to produce more layered wines. At 2000 feet of elevation, the site’s 20 acres have amazing drainage, lots of sun, and cool air; just the right conditions for great wines. The fact it has a fantastic view of Roanoke is an added bonus.

I arrived close to closing time on a Sunday but they still kindly sat me through a full tasting. Several options were available, but of course I went with the Reserve tasting and got pours of several other vintages on top of that.

Choosing wines from here was drafting a fantasy football roster with an unlimited number of picks. At some point I just stopped taking notes as my taste buds became overwhelmed with liquid goodness. And if this I wasn’t already spoiled enough, they kindly allowed me to take home the bottles that were open, rather than pour them out at the end of the day. SCORE!!!

This place is unabashedly about big, bold red wines; and well aged ones at that. Their average tasting is the equivalent of a library tasting elsewhere. What I tried:

2008 Gotterdammerung: Red blend that was still fruity and a bit spicy. And it was only $22 (!!!).

2005 Cabernet Sauvignon: Extremely smooth.

Sangiovese (didn’t get there year): Light color but enough bite to keep me happy.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon: Nice, although it was getting past its prime.

2008 Cornucopia (red blend): It was bold for my palate, although maybe not to the same standards as others on this list.

Non-vintage (NV) Valkyrie: Red blend made with grapes from different years. Actually one of my favorites of the bunch.

2007 Valkyrie: Cab Sauv/Shiraz blend: My favorite; still bold after all these years. Only $28.

Alicante Bouschet: A French hybrid still planted worldwide (including southern France).

I will definitely be back here; preferably as my first option of the day, with food pairings to go with everything. The only downside is I might not make it to any follow-on activities.

Iron Heart Winery

One of my favorite visits in all of the Blue Ridge AVA wineries I’ve visited. All wineries have a story behind them, but I’d say Iron Heart’s story is among the coolest. The name has a double meaning; it honors the site’s history as a steel mill, as well as the strength of character of the women who once owned the farm.

Their wine labels reflect this background. All of them depict the various ladies who work here or family & friends of the vineyard. It may well be the most feminist line of wine labels I’ve ever seen.

The winery is a bit out of the way. This area isn’t famous for its vineyards (although it could be – this corner of Virginia is choc-full of good places to visit) so you need a bit of motivation to make this trip. It is farm country almost all the way, with a smattering of reminders of SW Virginia’s industrial age.

I visited on a slow day so I had the place mostly to myself. The tasting room is very cozy, and is decorated with little farm tchotchkes on the wall.  My server was kind enough to guide me through the farm’s history as she poured.

Their vineyard has 10 acres of vines. While the focus is on hybrids, they have some Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc as well. While the winery has only been open since 2016, the vines were planted before that so they’ve had fruit for a while.

I was a little surprised that two Rieslings were available; a dry and a sweet. Fun fact – the high elevation here means this is one of the few places in Virginia that Riesling grows relatively well. But my favorites of the tasting were the dry Chardonnay and the smooth Cabernet Franc (which will go to mom in the future).

Burke’s Garden

Visits to Burke’s Garden is what happens when you spend too much time on Google Earth. Maybe it’s the explorer in me, but I love to scroll all over the world. One day I was looking at the SW corner of Virginia and discovered an unusual bowl-shaped valley and thought…”What’s this”?

That’s Burke’s Garden at the bottom on a topographic map

What I found is one of Virginia’s natural wonders; a lush valley surrounded by high mountains, practically cut off from the rest of the world. Today, it’s the home of about 300-ish people – mostly Amish – who take advantage of the fertile land to raise high-poundage cattle.

I stayed at the Burke’s Garden Cottage, a B&B a short drive down from the local general store. This may be a misnomer; it’s stocked with fresh baked goodies and they offer good, hearty meals as well. Because seriously – you can’t go wrong with Amish food.

At the end of every September they throw a festival full of music, arts & crafts, and of course food. If you’re going to pick a time to visit, this would be a good one. But short of the dead of winter it’s not like there’s every going to be a bad time to visit this place.

Not visited this trip is part of the Appalachian Trail, which crosses the crest of the valley. From what I could see there is definitely some excellent hiking here. I was too busy soaking up the serenity of it all to explore much beyond the country roads – but maybe next time?

New River Vineyard

New River is a neat little place tucked away in a residential area. It’s still new-ish; only opening in late 2016. The tasting room is the basement/backyard of the owner’s home, and the vineyard (I think they have a total of 5 acres) was next door.

When I visited it was PACKED – people were hanging out on the patio having a few glasses. I got the sense this was a favorite local hangout. And why not? I rather like the idea of a place I can walk home from.

Anthony was my server, and he took me through a tasting of a smattering of their dryer wines. The menu is varied – I saw everything from dry muscadine to sauv blanc to strawberry wines available. Needless to say, they have something for every palate – doubly so if you enjoy sweet wines.

While most of their wines were locally sourced, they also imported some muscadine fruit from North Carolina (a growing wine destination in its own right). They also had a sizable number of fruit wines, and (not tasted) a chocolate mint wine. Most of their wines trended towards sweet and made in steel, although I concentrated on the dryer options.

Across the board I found their wines to be easy drinking. My (surprise) favorite varietal was a hybrid called Leon Millot – a grape normally found in southern France. I’d never heard of it before and was impressed with this choice. But I could go for the semi-sweet Sauv Blanc as well.

They have far more wines than I could have easily tasted, but if you want to expand your palate, try it out.

Giles Mountain Vineyard and Winery

To get to Giles Mountain, prepared to do a lot of driving. Fortunately this is a good thing, since the scenery here is drop dead gorgeous! Nestled in a small valley in the Blue Mountain AVA, Giles is a farm-turned-winery about 40 minutes away from Blacksburg. Suffice to say, unless you’re a local only people who are really interested in expanding their palate or chalking off names of a very long wine list are likely to visit.

My server explained how this was a passion project that sorta got out of hand (a common theme among wineries, no doubt). The tasting room is just around the corner from the owner’s home. The room was brand new, and takes advantage of the hilltop views.

As with most wineries in this area, they specialize in hybrids. The terroir of this area doesn’t lend itself to your typical Bordeaux varietals, so instead they planted 3-4 acres of Chambourcin and Vidal. All their wines are estate with the exception of some Cabernet Franc.

Given how much Chambourcin they have, they were doing flights of different vintages and ever decided to experiment a bit. What I tried:

“Prelude” Vidal: No notes on this one, although (truth in advertising) Vidal isn’t my favorite grape.

White Chambourcin: Reminded me of a dry rose. It’s called a ‘white’ because it’s made without any skin contact, so it looks like a white wine even though it’s a red.

Duet (Chambourcin/Cab Franc): Not bad, although the Cab really stood out.

2015 Chambourcin: Very fruity, even by Chambourcin standards. I ended up with a glass of this while I enjoyed the view outside.

2016 Chambourcin: I liked it, but not quite as much as the 2015.

Briede Family Vineyard

Briede is a very different experience than most other wineries. For one it’s small – 5 acres of vines (half Cayuga and half a Cornell University hybrid grape called Arandell), the tasting room is tiny, and it’s a good distance away from…well…basically anything else. That said, I loved my experience.

Owners Paul and Loretta Briede were serving when I visited. They kindly gave me the history of the place, and explained how their love of wine and Champaign in particular encouraged them to build their own vineyard. Afterward Paul gave me a personal tour of his vineyard, including how he wanted to keep it as ‘organic’ as possible (2019 update: because of how bad the 2018 growing season was, they eventually introduced non-organic pesticide to combat black rot).

When I visited, four tasting options were available; 1) wines from the winery’s own vineyard, 2) a trio of roses, 3) an assortment of imported (but reasonably priced) French sparklings and roses, and 4) an assortment of even fancier sparklings. I did options #1 and #3.

When I saw they had Cayuga on the menu, I privately despaired – since I’ve always HATED this grape. Neither did I have high hopes for their Arandell, as hybrids are hit or miss for me. But color me shocked when I enjoyed both! Not surprisingly their wine maker is Matthew Finot, who is one of VA’s best.  

The Cayuga is made in an almost Champaign style, and the Arandell is kinda-sorta like some Italian varietals I’m more used to. It’s hard to describe, but this is definitely one of the best hybrids I’ve ever found.

Yes it’s far, but the chance to experiment with new wines and a great selection of imported sparklings makes it worth the trip.

Williamsburg Winery

Williamsburg is one of the oldest, biggest, and most award-winning wineries in Virginia. Opening in 1988 right outside Colonial Williamsburg, it occupies a huge expanse of tasting rooms and production facilities. It even has its own restaurant on premise – which I happily visited after my tasting for some crab cakes paired with Sauv Blanc. And if that’s not enough, they even have their own hotel. How’s this for ‘all inclusive’?

Because they are so busy it’s advisable to make a reservation in advance. Different tasting options are available, depending on if you’re looking to sample their library wines or not. You can also do a tour which includes an introduction to the history of Virginia wine. During my first visit years ago, this is where I first learned about how Thomas Jefferson is in fact the ‘godfather’ of American wines, and also how American vines saved wine production around the world after the phylloxera bug was accidentally unleashed.

At 40,000 cases a year (40 acres under vine, plus some grapes are brought in from California or Washington state) they are a BIG producer. The wines made from local grapes tend to be light on tannins (for reds) or heavy on the minerals (for whites).

I teamed up with a friend and picked different wines from their ‘standard’ tasting menu…although I think my server snuck in a few extra wines on top of that.

What I tried:

Sauvignon blanc: honeydew taste; went well with a seafood lunch.

Chardonnay (American oak): very light and fresh tasting.

“Midsummer” white: Semi dry, tasting creamy with a butterscotch nose

Governor’s White (Riesling): Washington grapes I think; very nice.

Claret: Nicely balanced red blend.

Petit Verdot: Early, not especially heavy.

Adagio: Excellent (and expensive) red blend, really big mouthfeel.

Gabrielle Archer: Very well balanced red

Moscotto desert wine: Too sweet for me, but not bad.

Dining At The Inn at Little Washington

Curse you, Anthony Bourdain – why did you have to entice me with episode after episode of fine dining? Why couldn’t you stick with cheap street food –  you know, something I can always afford? I know you thought everything was delicious, but don’t blame us if the uber-exquisite restaurants usually looked more enticing than the hot-dog stands.

An idea was born on that episode I watched you dine in Lyon, an itch that wouldn’t go away until I scratched it. I’d never dined at a Michelin star restaurant before, much less one with three. So vising here was definitely my way of ‘go big or go home’.

It starts with hanging out at the elegant waiting area. Remy XO while your table is prepared? Maybe a cocktail? Yes please – that rum-infused cider was amazing, as was those spicy dried pineapple bites. Oh, your table is ready – please let me escort you to the dining room.

Seat with extra fluffy pillows? Of course. Some sparkling water while you peruse the menu. Three pre-fixe options were available, although you can swap out individual items from one option to another. I went with the “gastronaut”, except I exchanged my coconut sorbet with the chocolate-hazelnut mousse.

The first serving looked like a tiny cannoli – the fancy term for this plate is it’s an ‘amuse bouche’; something that demonstrates the cook’s talents and whets your appetite. It was possibly the single most flavorful item I’ve ever had in my life.

Next up was the caviar vinaigrette (note – I’d never had caviar before…it tasted…wet). But what killed me was the popcorn. Yes that’s right – they believe dining here should be a show, and shows should serve popcorn. Of course, THIS popcorn has white truffle shavings on it. Beat that AMC! A tiny soup-like concoction washed it down.

The next few dishes were a whirl – which says a lot considering the entire experience was just over 2 hours. The foie gras was especially amazing; the sauce was almost enough for me to pass out from bliss.

Special thanks for my servers for never looking down their nose at my admittedly inexperienced questions, and offering up excellent wine paring advise. I went with a half-bottle of a Rhone wine, but as it wasn’t enough I also got a glass of New Zealand carminiere. Maybe I should have gone with the $150 option to pair all the dishes with their recommended wine, but I was very happy with the options I had.

Oh – also thank you for the quick tour of the kitchen!