Narmada Winery

Trick question – how much do you love your mom? Maybe more importantly – how much does your mom love you? What would she sacrifice for you? These are important questions in understanding how Narmada got started.

Narmada was founded by Suvi and Pandit Patil, both originally from India. Pandit wished to study in the U.S. but lacked the funds to do so. Undeterred, he applied for a scholarship to New Mexico State University – and earned one. But that scholarship didn’t cover a plane ticket. To pay for it, his mother sold her family jewelry to pay for the ride over. Narmada is named after her, because she’s the reason this winery exists.

Now, THAT’S what I call a backstory!

Suvi and Pandit married when she was 17. Their parents arranged the marriage – but on the condition Pandit had to not only take her with him to the States, but also further Suvi’s education. He agreed, and Suvi pursued her education with vigor. First came a BS in Chemistry from George Mason, followed by a dental degree at Georgetown, and lastly an MS from the University of Maryland.

Over the years they indulged in their passion for traveling, and with traveling came an interest in wine. As the 1990s arrived the Patils started thinking of retirement. But while driving home from dinner at The Inn at Little Washington they discovered a farm down the road from Grey Ghost was for sale. As Grey Ghost was already a favorite of theirs, the idea of starting a vineyard was intriguing.

While both of their parents had a farming or gardening background, looking back Suvi admits they had no idea what they were getting into. But fortunately for all of us who love Virginia wine, in 1999 they purchased the property. The vineyard was planted five years later.

The initial plan was to grow organically – but Mother Nature had a vote on that decision. After fighting weather and Japanese beetles, in 2005 they switched strategies started to utilize pesticides. Now, Narmada has 10 varietals planted on almost 20 acres of vines, split about evenly between vinifera and hybrids. Occasionally they purchase fruit from Horton – usually Tannat – but most of their wines are made from estate fruit.

Suvi has been the winemaker since they opened in 2009. One thing that always struck me about Narmada’s wines is they often seem to have a spiciness to them, which I attribute to her cultural and educational background. It also helped that she took classes with Jim Law, who she calls the “guru of Virginia wine”. Now Narmada makes around 3000 cases/year.

As soon as you walk in, you can sense the Indian theme permeating all aspects of the venue, whether it be the décor, the soft music in the background, or the even the food. That’s right – they have Indian food here! I admit I indulged myself with some samosas.

As for the wine, Narmada boasts a large selection from sweet to dry with several options that lie in-between. Suvi kept pouring…and pouring…but I obviously wasn’t going to say ‘no’ to anything. My tasting experience started off well and everything just kept getting better and better (no that’s not the alcohol talking – it really was that good).

2015 “Dream” (Traminette): Subtle for this grape, light and crisp.

2015 Mom (Vidal and a bit of Chardonel): Some pineapple on the nose, semi-sweet but only barely.

2017 Chardonel: Made in neutral barrels; some citrus on the nose and palate.

2018 Gualabi (Rose): Made with Chambourcin and a dash of some other grapes. Lots of strawberry and watermelon notes.

2014 Reflection: Chambourcin heavy; semi-sweet.

2015 Melange: The first of two Bordeaux-blends that I tried; the fruit notes are there but not overly so.

2014 Yash-vir: Another Bordeaux-blend; bold but well balanced. My second favorite of the day.

2015 Cabernet Franc Reserve: Suvi’s favorite; some spice and pepper notes while retaining red fruit.

2017 Merlot: Another winner; 100% Merlot fruit, noticeably earthy.

2014 Cabernet Sauvignon: Very round mouthfeel; smooth tannins. I swear, every time I thought I had a favorite the wines just get better and better!

2016 Petit Verdot (with a splash of Cab Franc): Jammy nose, plumb and blackberry notes.

Legacy: Traminette heavy but with Vidal and Chardonel; sweetened with mango. I’m not a sweet wine drinker but I really liked this one.

Allure: A desert wine made with Chambourcin and a little Tannat; the nose reminded me of bourbon (which is a good thing).

2014 Midnight (Chambourcin): Semi-sweet; very fruity. Reminded me of a sagria.

2016 Tannat: MY favorite of the day; and that says a lot since there was a lot to love here. Great nose; smooth but full bodied. Just an all-around amazing wine.

Ramulose Ridge Vineyards

Ramulose Ridge Vineyards was one of the last visits of my latest Southern Virginia excursion; although to be technically correct, they are in the Virginia Mountains AVA. Located a short drive from Smith Mountain Lake, the area is a mix of residential housing and farm country. It’s a pretty area to visit, both for the lake and nearby city of Roanoke.

Driving there it’s easy to miss the turn into the long driveway; after a false start I passed through the gate towards the house in the distance. Sadly, I couldn’t linger here, although that patio upstairs overlooking the vineyard seemed very inviting.

In an industry full of places where most tasting room associates are all too often only somewhat acquainted with their wines, Ramulose was a treat as owner/wine maker Sandi Ramaker was pouring. Although the tasting room was busy we still found a corner to chat.

Ramulose Ridge translates as “Having many branches”; certainly an apt description for a vineyard. Sandi and husband Jim were living in Hong Kong when they decided to turn their Virginia property into a winery. While many places utilize consultants and hire a wine maker, they decided they wanted to forge their own path. In preparation Sandi studied enology at UC Davis, and together they researched what to plant for their future vineyard.

Today they have 5 acres of vines, roughly split between hybrids and vinifera.  Notably these vines include Syrah, Malbec and Muscat; all varietals that are rare for Virginia. Sandi was justifiably proud how they’ve produced several vintages of each – although the Malbec was long gone when I visited. At the time of my visit they were producing just under 3000 cases/year, all made with estate fruit.

The tasting menu was surprisingly extensive for such a small vineyard. But if that’s not enough they also make small packets of fruit-driven wines. Think of them as sippy packets, but for adults!

I was also surprised to learn that Ramulose is a participant in the Virginia Wine and Cigar Trail; I actually didn’t know there was such a thing. It’s quite useful to know, since my dad is a cigar smoker but not a wine drinker, so now I can hook up mom and dad at the same place.

Across the board I thought the wines were well made. For someone who was more-or-less a winemaker by accident, you definitely could have fooled me. I was also shocked how well priced everything was. Coming from northern Virginia where bottles often start in the low 20s and often go higher, it was a pleasant surprise to see well-made reds in the under $20 range.

Viognier: Crisp, apricot notes.

Chardonnel: Light oak, very nice

Traminette: Also apricot, but more of a full bodied white.

Muscat: Specifically, “Golden Muscat”, a sub-variety of the Muscat family. At 4% sugar this is most definitely a sweet wine.

Vidal Blanc: While it has 1% sugar it almost fooled me into thinking it was a dry wine.

Cabernet Franc: Very unusual for a Franc but I liked it a lot (and bought a bottle). Almost raspberry notes, with some spice. Very nice wine.

Syrah: One of a handful of Syrahs in Virginia. Spicy, definitely a good steak wine.

Pineapple: Served in a package. Good porch sipping wine that is good for a sangria base.

Hickory Hill Vineyard

After hanging out at Hickory Hill for a bit, I got the vibe that this is one of those establishments where the atmosphere and camaraderie is just as important as what’s served at the bar. Located on the north side of Smith Mountain Lake, Hickory is a 1920-s era house converted into a winery. Visiting here is a bit like stepping back in time, as you’re surrounded by farm country, southern charm, and wine instead of mint julips.

Wendy Furrow was my server – and Hickory Hill’s wine maker. She told me how her dad Roger Furrow planted the vineyard in 1992 and opened as a full winery in 2001. As the tasting bar got crowded her dad took over my tasting and history lesson, starting with how he got into wine in the first place.

See, Roger was serving in the Army when he was ordered to inventory the Officer’s Club’s wine cellar. As he tells the story you can almost get a visual of him dusting off these bottles with odd French labels, scratching his head while wondering “What does this taste like? Where does it come from?”. That curiosity grew, so when he ‘retired’ he started a winery.

Of course ‘retirement’ and ‘winery’ are two words that are totally in opposition to one another, as operating a vineyard is a tough job (but somebody’s gotta do it). Now Hickory has 4 acres of vines, including Vidal, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon, and makes 600 cases/year.

One thing that immediately struck me was how well-aged their reds are. Virginia wineries often struggle to have anything more than 2-3 years old on the tasting menu. But here, seeing 2013 vintages was shocking. Special kudos for planting Cabernet Sauvignon; it’s tough to ripen up elsewhere in Virginia but they are doing a good job of it here.

What I tried.

2018 Full Pond: Chardonnay blend, with a tiny bit of Vidal. Clean and Crisp.

2017 Chardonnay: Made in French Oak, which gave it nice toasty-ness. This went down way to easily.

“Lake Mist” blend (Chardonnay and Vidal): Semi sweet, porch sipping wine.

2013 Cabernet Franc: Very nice, and had a softness to it that likely came with age. Still had noticeable tannin.

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon: Rustic as opposed to soft, while retaining good tannin.

Smith Mountain Lake Country Red: Stainless steel Cab & Merlot blend.

Smith Mountain Lake Redbud (Rose-style): Chardonnay and Cabernet blend. A little heavy by Rose standards, but I like my roses that way so this was actually a plus.

Smith Mountain Lake Sunset (Vidal): Sweet desert-style wine. Reminiscent of ice wine. Crisp and well balanced.

Smith Mountain Lake Sweet Red Sail. Sweet red blend that was Cab-heavy. Good all-purpose wine for sweet and dry wine drinkers.

Thanks to Wendy and Roger for the chat!

Brooks Mill Winery

Brooks Mill is one of the least pretentious wineries I’ve ever visited. Located in a suburban neighborhood, its tasting room/production area is a converted garage next to the owner’s home. If the ‘winery’ is closed no worries – just ring the outdoor bell and someone will be with you shortly.

Co-owner Rhonda Page was my server; her husband is the wine maker. She explained how he loved blackberry wine so much he decided to make it himself; the hobby expanded from there. Now Brooks Mill (named after an old local landmark) has been open 10 years and produce all sorts of fruit wines – not just blackberry!

Rhonda explained a lot of their business comes from tourists visiting Smith Mountain Lake, although they are also active on the local festival circuit. Almost on cue a small party came in and sure enough – they were out-of-towners having fun at the lake’s campgrounds and beaches, and stopped here for a few bottles.

All the wine made at Brooks Mill is from fruit; not a single ‘grape’ wine was in sight. Almost all the fruit they use is local, with the blackberries coming from their own property.

Fruit wine has a reputation for being sweet, but I found my samples to be a mix of dry, sweet, and everything in between.

For the 100% fruit wines, I liked the semi-sweet plumb the best; it reminded me of a plumb-based desert. But the sweet blueberry and peach wines were also nice. Rhonda recommended the former with ice cream, and the later tasted exactly like the fruit it came from.

They also had a blend of Chambourcin and blueberry, made in a dry style. Actually this combo works well, as Chambourcin is naturally fruity already. But the sangria was by far my favorite of the trip. Made with maraschino cherries and Gatorade, they sell ‘kits’ for making this at home.

For such a tiny place, I really enjoyed my visit to Brooks. Fruit wine isn’t something I’d have all the time, but when it’s hot out I’d be happy go get a bottle from here.

Villa Appalaccia

While visiting new wineries was the focus of my last trip, some places are just so good you must visit them again. Villa Appalaccia is one such location.

When I made my first trip here in September 2018, it was at the end of the day and my notes weren’t all that great. This time I called ahead (with the assistance at the great people at Stanburn) and was lucky enough that one of the owners was available for an interview. Needless to say, I scurried over as quickly as I could.

Visiting here is one of the prettiest drives in all of Virginia wine country – and that’s saying something. Villa is right off the Blue Ridge parkway. For those who have never been, you’re missing something special.

Tim and Julie Block took over the winery late last year. Both had long been in the corporate world but wanted to try something new, and realized they wanted a venture they could share with the family. While neither had a background in viticulture, Tim brought with him experience in the restaurant business and both had a love of wine. As new winery owners go, that’s at least as a good of a start as most that I’ve met!

Julie talked to me at length about how both of them fell in love with the local area – especially because of the similarities the Blue Ridge has with Tuscany. The previous owners were definitely inspired by Italy, and incorporated not only Tuscan-style architecture but Italian grapes as well.

Speaking of grapes – some of the varietals grown here can’t be found anywhere else in Virginia. Sure, a few places have Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, or Aglianico. But Vermentino is VERY hard to find, and Villa is the only Virginia winery that I know of that has Corvina, Malvasia, Montepulciano, and Pinotivo. Julie explained many of these are very tough to grow in the local terroir, but in keeping with the Villa’s theme she seemed determined to keep as many Italian varietals as they could. All told they have 11 acres under vine, plus some other vinifera.

As for the styles of wine, all the whites are done in stainless, and the reds a mix of stainless and/or barrel. Even the styles of wine are reminiscent of Italy.

Pinot Grigio: Big mouthfeel, some citrus notes. Lots of character here.

Rosa: A nice, pink colored, prosecco-style Merlot rose.

2016 Sangiovese: Made in the soft Chianti style. Nice complexity, good fruit notes, more blackberry than strawberry notes.

2014 Toscanello: Based on a Super Tuscan, this blend has Cabernet Franc, Aglianico, and Sangiovese. The fruit is noticeable but not overly fruity.

Aglianico Reserve. Very nice! Some bramble fruit.

Raspberry Taxi: Tart by itself, but excellent with chocolate.

Some of the rarer wines were in short supply when I visited, so I suspect I’ll have to arrange a 3rd visit just to try the rest!

Stanburn Winery

One of the benefits of going to big tasting events is it exposes me to Virginia wineries from all over the state. At one such event I found a bottle of 2015 Cabernet Franc from Stanburn, and quickly snatched it up for my Cab Franc-loving mother. But I admit – I almost kept it from myself, as at that point I’d never visited Stanburn and wanted to know what I was missing. Fortunately, my trip to southern Virginia allowed me to find out.

Many wineries have a fun story about how they got started, but I think Stanburn’s takes the cake. Family patriarch Nelson Stanley got the idea of starting a vineyard from…plumbing. That’s right; he was doing the plumbing for nearby Chateau Morrisette when he heard they needed more grapes. Nelson figured he had the land to do it, so in 1999 he planted his first vines.

Like many others in the wine business, the vineyard eventually turned into a full-fledged winery.  At 1300-1500 cases/year it’s still on the small side; to purchase bottles you’d either have to visit their tasting room, go to a local festival, or make the trek to The Virginia Tasting Cellar in Farmville. Now Stanburn’s vineyard is at 19 acres, about half hybrids and half vinifera – including 2 acres of Barbera.

Mike Shaps was their first winemaker, but that position has since been taken over by Jocelyn Kuzelka, a local and long-time friend of the family. If you haven’t heard of her give it time. She also consults for Albemarle CiderWorks.

After chatting a bit David Stanley let me try the entire tasting menu…and I think a few additional ones after that. Thank goodness I pace myself for these events!

White wines: We started with their dry and sweet-style Vidals, the “Highfly” Traminette/Vidal semi-sweet blend, a full Traminette, and a Chardonnay. My favorite was the regular Traminette, which was dry and well balanced.

But the most interesting story was that of the Highfly – named after the horse ridden by Civil War General J.E.B. Stewart (a native of these parts). It was definitely an easy drinking white, but calling it a ‘festival wine’ would be an insult. Everything about this wine was just on target. For $15 I also thought it was a total steal.

Red wines: I liked both the 2015 and 2017 Cabernet Francs; the first had some good body and complexity, while the 2017 was lighter and spicier. The 2017 Poorhourse was a 100% sweet-ish Chambourcin. We ended with the 2017 “Big A”, a very nice Chambourcin/Cab Franc blend.

My favorite reds though was a special tasting of their 2018 Barbera and 2016 Chambourcin. Barbera is rare in Virginia, and 2018 was a rough year in general. But that Barbera was soft, fruity, and subtle. It was young but easily can be enjoyed now.

The most surprising though was that Chambourcin. Most wines of this varietal tend to be too light and fruity for me – but not this one. It had fruit, but also a very noticeable smokiness to it that I honestly don’t think I’d ever seen in a Chambourcin before.

Southern Virginia isn’t (yet) known as a major wine destination, and when wine is discussed it’s probably better known for producing wines on the sweet side. But from what David showed me that reputation needs to be revisited!

Preston Ridge

As soon as you walk into Preston Ridge, you realize this is a local hangout joint. A slushy machine is right behind the bar, and wine supplies hang off the far wall like you’d expect to see at a hardware store. This place isn’t fancy, but like most watering holes it doesn’t pretend to be.

Lawrence Penn is the wine maker. As descendant of a long line of bootleggers, he proudly (if jokingly) says he’s the first ‘legal’ winemaker in his family line. But he honed his trade by using homemaking wine (and beer) sets, so I guess bootlegging is in his blood.

Given his previous job was in demolition, he probably didn’t plan to be a winery owner. When he told me how he got started I had to chuckle; demolition man to wine maker? I’ve heard of plenty of interesting backgrounds in Virginia’s wine industry, but that was definitely a first!

Preston Ridge makes 600-2500 cases of wine a year and leases 4 acres of vines. But he sources fruit anywhere he can, including California. A considerable amount of his wine aren’t even from grapes; I tried a lot of fruit wine during my visit. Lawrence explained a lot of locals make their own wine, so this allows him to cater to the local palate. Sourcing from multiple places also allowed him to have an expansive lineup.

For those who visit this area, you’ve likely tasted their wines at local festivals – that seems their bread & butter. Lawrence and his daughter went through a full tasting with me while other patrons dropped by for their own libations.

For grape wines, I found I especially liked the 2016 Chambourcin, which was dark and almost chocolaty. But the steel fermented Chardonnay was also light and refreshing.

But my favorites were the fruit wines. The Strawberry reminded me of a strawberry ice cream! But my very favorite was the apple wine, which was lightly oaked and had cinnamon notes. I think any of these would be welcome during a warm day (or even a not so warm day!).