Well Hung Wine Tasting Room

Well Hung is the cheekiest name in the Virginia wine scene. Established in 2008, it only recently found a brick-and-mortar home in Gordonsville, right down the road from the BBQ Exchange.

If you’ve been around the Charlottesville wine scene for a while, you’ve probably heard of the name. Well Hung was started by a trio of ladies with a sense of humor (and taste for wine). The name came from a comment about how the grape bunches were ‘well hung’ (off the vines, that is). The name took off…and there you go!

More recently, Well Hung’s wines have been made at Prince Michel Vineyard, using grapes sourced from all over Virginia and sometimes Washington State. No word on where the ‘nuts’ come from, though…

This isn’t just a tasting room; it has a kitchen that serves mostly flatbreads and sandwiches.  I ended up with the “French Kiss” chicken breast with brie, which was quite scrumptious.

Janice was the manager that day; she guided me through a tasting of their wines as well as the backstory of the place. Only open since September 2019, they seemed busy when I first entered but fortunately it quieted down after the lunch-crowd mostly departed. She started off as a govie, but (unlike me) she decided she decided to chase that dream in the hospitality industry, while I still toil behind a desk (at least it pays my wine bills, though).

What I tried:

2018 Viognier: Very soft

Well Hung White (VA and Washington fruit): Citrusy

Rose: Pinot Noir: Cranberry/rhubarb notes

Under the Table Red: Janice called this a “gateway red”, as its versatile enough for white and red drinkers. Also good as a mulled wine, or chilled.

Red Tryst: Cab heavy blend; I liked this a lot

2017 PV: Powerful!

Wishful thinking: Very sweet

I can’t do a blog on Well Hung without talking about their…nuts. This is the funniest label I’ve ever seen, and I can’t help but pick them up as a gag-gift for friends.

Otium Cellars

Otium Cellars has one of the best ‘this is who we are’ views I’ve ever encountered. You drive up the dirt road past the horse barn and find yourself at what looks like an alpine ski lodge. It’s like you’ve taken a trip to Bavaria, except you’re here to drink wine instead of beer.

The German theme doesn’t stop there. Otium has a total of 18 acres under vine (and a production of 2-4000/year), with a decided focus on German varietals. Grüner Veltliner, Blaufränkisch, and Dornfelder all have a home here (not Riesling though; not cool enough). Saying these grapes are “rare” in Virginia is an understatement; a handful of VA wineries have one or two of these, but I dare you to find another place in the state that concentrates on German-style grapes like Otium does.

Of course, this makes perfect sense once you realize who the owner is. Gerhard Bauer is an immigrant from Germany who was living here in Loudoun with acreage to spare. When the tax bill came he decided to put that land to good use. His solution? Grow grapes! And not just any grapes, but ones from his homeland.

Tasting room manager Chris explained that opening a winery wasn’t the original plan; Gerhard wanted to stick with only operating a vineyard. But when it came time to sell their fruit – surprise! Nobody was familiar with German grapes, so Gerhard couldn’t find a buyer. So quite accidentally, the vineyard became a winery.

Otium opened its tasting room in 2012 – and the place is stunning, both inside and out. It’s a tribute to the quality he put into his wines (and the local’s thirst for vino) that what Gerhard thought was a 2-year stock in wine only lasted 8 months. I don’t blame them one bit – Otium’s wines here tend to be exceptionally well aged, with a tendency towards full bodied reds. Gerhard’s son Max may not have set out to be a wine maker, but he learned to become an exceptional one.

After my tasting I sat down at one of the inside tables with my picnic lunch and enjoyed the view – accompanied by a bottle of the Malbec. I wish we could have visited the horses’ stabled next door, but as Otium doesn’t own them we couldn’t get up close. I suppose admiring the log-cabin room would have to suffice. The Riedel-style glasses were a nice added touch.

I spoke at length about the German varietals, but I’m going to give a special shout-out to that Malbec. This is another hard to find varietal in Virginia, especially as a 100% vintage. I thought they were going to rip it out because of its difficulty, but – surprise! – it’s going to stay!

2017 Grüner Veltliner: Pineapple-y notes, made in steel.

2016 Chardonnay: Creamy but smooth, butterscotch ending.

2015 Chardonnay: Also nice but toastier.

2014 Blaufränkisch: Lots of black cherry; 24 months in Hungarian oak, cranberry-ish notes.

2014 Merlot: Black currant, some oakiness to it (but in a good way), and good mouthfeel.

2015 Malbec: Favorite of the day! Very different from other Malbecs; full bodied but less fruit notes except that strong emphasis on black cherry.

2015 Cabernet Sauvignon: More black currant notes, also lots of tannin.

2015 Dornfelder: Some pepper notes, but even more earth.

2015 Merlot Reserve: Cherry notes

Auburn Road Vineyard

New Jersey’s nickname is “The Garden State”. As someone who grew outside NYC that moniker seemed surprising…until I visited southern NJ. I swear, the burbs of northern end of the state is like a different world from the farmland in the southern part.

I found Auburn Road several years ago by accident; after traveling several hours on I-95 I wanted a pit-stop, and looking at my wine map I found a winery conveniently close to the Delaware Bridge. I passed farm after farm until I drove down a dirt road advertising the ‘enoteca’, located in a refurbished horse barn.

To my surprise, they had not only wine but were also serving pizza – something that’s on the menu many evenings. Needless to say, you won’t go hungry or thirsty here, so I’ve been back several times.​

Auburn Road is on the border of two appellations; the Inner and Outer Coastal Plain AVAs. The former is a mix of silt, sand and clay; the latter is characterized by sandy or sandy loam soil. On top of that, the Delaware River acts as a mellowing influence to the weather, so the temperature here rarely gets especially cold and it isn’t quite as humid as my home of Virginia. In other words – this is not only FARM country, but good terroir for vines.​​​

Owner Scott Donnini explained he started off as a… corporate lawyer! That’s right, no farm or winery background at all (although he IS New Jersey Italian…so that should count for something on the wine background). Ironically enough, one of Scott’s consultants was none other than Tom Payette, from Grey Ghost Vineyards in Virginia. Scott’s wife Julianne became the (self-taught) wine maker, and in 2007 they opened to the public.

Today they have 23 acres of vines on two vineyards (one sandy loam/clay, the other gravely/sandy) and produce around 4500 cases/year. The vineyards are a mix of vinifera and hybrids, including Chambourcin, Vidal and Cayuga. Of the vinifera, Cabernet Franc is the star…although Petit Verdot is making inroads (Scott was very proud of his). It’s actually a similar story to Virginia – the terroir of the two have a lot in common, so New Jersey’s younger wine industry is taking cues from what’s going on in the Dominion state.​​

Scott explained Auburn Road’s biggest challenge is getting the public to take New Jersey wines seriously. The reality is when people think of NJ, vineyards and wineries are NOT what they think of – despite the “Garden State” nickname and hosting over 65 wineries. Still, it’s a growing business, and NJ wines are starting to get noticed.

As for the wines they make, Auburn Road makes a mix of sweet and dry styles. Scott noted that he and Julianne are in the business of making people happy, so they have a huge assortment of wines of all styles including several fruit wines. I personally tasted about a dozen samples, and still didn’t complete the roster.

I particularly liked the red-blends. Good Karma was a nice ‘starter’ red, and well-priced too. Gaia had the best complexity, while Eidolon was the heaviest and smokiest. As befitting a winery that styles itself after Italy, they even had a Chianti-style! All were well done.

Of the whites, I ended up bringing home a bottle of the 2017 Chardonnay (the “White Bottle”), which I thought had great acidity and was nicely complimented by its French Oak. But I liked the Provence-style Rose a lot too, as well as the 2018 NV Blanc.

Of the sweeter options, I found myself surprised by their Vidal Blanc – which went down way to easily (the surprise was not that it wasn’t well done, but I usually don’t enjoy this grape). Rounding out the lighter options were the “Give Peach a Chance” (which I swear was like biting into a fresh peach) and their Granny Smith-driven apple wine.

One of the biggest surprises was their Petit Verdot. I’m a huge fan of this grape, which grows well all over the eastern seaboard. It was rustic to me – but in this case, I say that in a good way. I tasted strong black cherry and earth notes. I’d decant this to smooth it out, but it’s definitely drinkable now.

So if you never been to a New Jersey winery – start here! If all of them are like this, you’ll be back soon enough.

Hark Vineyards

Hark Vineyards is a place I’d been looking forward to visiting for a long time. Located north of Charlottesville in a neck of the woods packed with wineries (literally – it’s all forests here), it’s trip that’s guaranteed to quench your thirst.

I initially planned visiting the Friday of their opening weekend, but delayed when I realized they’d likely be too packed to answer geeky wine questions. Fortunately switching to Sunday morning paid off; nobody else had yet to arrive, so I had the tasting bar all to myself.

Although open to the public, Hark presently lacks a purpose-built tasting room. Fortunately, an ad-hoc bar in the production building serves just fine. Just drive past the old farm building (don’t despair! It’s not the tasting room) down the winding road.

Tasting room associate Paxton welcomed me when I walked in; owners Aaron and Candice Hark arrived soon thereafter. Between the three of them, I was treated to generous pours as they gave me the low-down on the business.

The Harks were bitten by the wine bug years ago. Eventually they found this parcel of land and liked it so much they put an offer on it immediately. Their eye for good terroir paid off; now they have 18 acres planted, all French varietals with the exception of Vidal and Pinot Gris. Hark’s focus on vinifera tells me they have lots of confidence in this site’s ability to grow great wine.

As soon as you walk in you can’t help but see the production building is HUGE. Candice joked how tiny their fermenters looked in the middle of the ginormous space. While modest now, they expect to be able to reach around 10,000 cases/year when at full production.

While the venue was impressive, more impressive is their collection of talent. Jake Busching is their wine maker. While not well-known to the general public, industry veterans recognize him as someone who’s been around the VA wine scene for decades. Jake not only makes Hark’s wines, you can taste his own lineup of wines here.

After our tasting, Aaron and Candice gave me the grand tour of the place (note to all readers; this is one of the perks to wine blogging…just saying). Assistant winemaker AJ Greely showed me the reds juice in their bins that had just been picked, followed by a barrel tasting of their recently picked Merlot.

AJ shimmied up the barrels with her wine thief to get some samples. Candice’s eyes light up after she tried it out; the freshness reminded me of a Beaujolais. To say we were near-giddy in excitement is an understatement; 2019 has been a great growing year and this vintage promise to be one of the best any of us had experienced.

We finished the day with a drive through the vineyard, stopping at where the future tasting room would be. The views promise to be stunning.

As for the wines…

The current slate of Hark white wines are 100% estate grown. The Busching wines are made with fruit from local growers he has relationships with, including Honah Lee (where Mike Shaps gets a lot of fruit from).

For whites, we started with a pair of Chardonnays, then the Viognier. The toastiness of the 2018 Chard was a pleasant surprise, given how wet it was that year. The 2017 had a bigger mouthfeel and benefited greatly from the new French Oak. A nice honeysuckle-driven Viognier rounded out the whites.

Next were the two Hark reds; a 2018 Cabernet Franc and a 2017 Merlot. The Franc was light with pomegranate notes; the Merlot reminded me of…cola! That’s right; a new tasting note for me!

Last but not least were the Jake Busching wine lineup. Across the board, Jake’s wines were INTENSE. I mean slap-your-face intense. First the 2017 Petit Verdot, followed by the 2016 Tannat. The very yummy and relatively softer 2017 “Spark” Bordeaux blend was practically a reprieve by comparison. But then….then came the 2016 “F8”, a 50/50 Tannat-Petit Verdot blend.

Let me tell you…that F8 was niiiiiiice. These are two grapes that play very well together. I’ve only had a handful of 50/50 blends like this and I can’t wait to do a blind tasting with all of them. I had to buy a bottle, even if it is likely to be a short-lived addition to my collection.

All in all, this is a strong start to Hark. Thanks to Aaron and Candice for their great hospitality, and I’ll be seeing Jake in a few weeks at a separate event!