Stinson Vineyards

As one of the smaller Charlottesville-based wineries, Stinson is easy to miss. Located in the woods just outside the city, it doesn’t have the grandiose tasting room that some neighbors have. But it has one key ingredient – excellent vino made by it resident winemaker, Rachel Stinson Vrooman.

Rachael said her winemaking style is inspired by the “garagiste” (garage) wineries of France. There’s likely a double meaning to this as the Stinson tasting room is located in an old garage, plus her consultant Matthieu Finot (of King Family Vineyard) to this day makes wine in his own garage. Hey – who needs a wine cave when you have a wine garage!

Even more astounding is she has no formal training; her previous job was a photo editor in New York. But when her parents purchased an old vineyard in Crozet, she came down to become their winemaker (her first vintage was produced in 2010). Today Stinson produces around 2800 cases/year from 7 acres of vines, plus locally sourced fruit.

I find myself constantly revisiting Stinson because this is one of the very rare wineries that I’ve ALWAYS left with at least one bottle. That’s no small feat; I visit a lot of places so I’m forced to be choosey on where to spend. I’m especially partial to their Sauvignon Blanc and Tannat, but vintage after vintage I always seem to return to their Chardonnay.

Stinson also serves wine from two other vineyards; Ankida Ridge (owned by her husband) and Turk Mountain Vineyard. Turk Mountain doesn’t have a tasting room so they sell their wine here. Unlike Stinson, Turk’s wines tend to have a rustic, unrefined quality to them.

Unlike most wineries that I’ve visited Stinson has several small tasting bars instead of one big counter. I found this adds to the intimacy of my wine tasting as you’re not fighting a crowd. After guiding me through her wines, Rachel gave me a tour of the facility – including a barrel tasting of some outstanding Tannat and Sauvignon Blanc.

We also stopped to discuss their concrete egg, which they used for their Sauvignon Blanc. This ‘egg’ fascinates me. These vessels combine some of the advantages of both oak and steel; it adds depth and mouthfeel but doesn’t leave flavor behind. Given Linden Vineyard (possibly my all-time favorite winery) is one of the few Virginia wineries that also uses such a device, I’d say Stinson is in great company.

What I tried: 

2018 Sauvignon Blanc: Made in the concrete egg and steel. Soft and yeasty.

2016 Chardonnay: Light oak, toasty. I always enjoy their Chardonnay because Rachael always hits the right balance of oak without overpowering the wine.

2016 Wildcat (Rkatistelli): Made with fruit from Horton vineyards. Rkats is a really fun grape that has some bite to it.

2018 Cabernet Franc: Soft, almost herbal qualities but no green pepper.

2015 Meritage: Merlot heavy, black cherry notes.

2015 Tannat: Wonderful! Soft but full. This is up there with the Chardonnay as my favorites of the lineup.

2016 Petit Verdot: Full bodied, notes of plumb.

2015 Le Rouge: 50/50 blend of Tannat and Petit Verdot, which I swear is an up and coming blend in Virginia. My lips puckered up because of the acid (which is always a good sign).

Bluemont Vineyard

Whenever I chat with people who have only been to one or two Virginia wineries, Bluemont is typically been among the ones they’ve visited. The reason is simple; with a view that allows you to see as far as the Washington Monument, Bluemont delivers a pretty amazing daytrip experience.

But focusing on the view alone is unfair. With 50 acres of vines and a production of 8-9,000 cases/year, Bluemont is one of the larger wineries in Loudoun. So a friend & I went on a wintery day to chat up winemaker Scott Spelbring for a closer look.

Things were slow when we arrived but it got busy quickly; even in cold weather it’s still a popular, family-friendly place so you need to grab a table early. In the summertime the outside patio fills up especially fast with people picnicking.

Speaking of food – this is one of the few wineries that has a kitchen. This time around I got a flatbread and the crab dip. But looking at the menu, it’s hard to go wrong on any option.

Eventually I met up with Scott, who explained Bluemont is more than a winery; it’s a group of businesses which also includes a farm, a brewery, and now a cidery. The property covers some 245 acres of land, from the farm at the bottom to vineyards waaaay up at 1300 feet. While I took plenty of pictures, I don’t think it’s fair to not post a summertime photo.

Scott has worked here since 2016. From what I can tell he’s changed the lineup away from sweeter wines and focused on more Bordeaux-varietals.

That said, Bluemont still has sweeter options available. They normally have two tasting options; a “Flagship” tasting focused on lighter, fruiter and/or sweeter wines, and the “Elevation” tasting that is more Bordeaux-grape focused. We ended up doing a mix of the two, plus a few new ones.

It’s hard to beat an experience where the winemaker is pouring and explaining his wines. That said, this day was a lesson learned about timing. Scott was actually holding back some of his best wines so he could meet the entrance quotas for the Virginia Governor’s Cup, still several months away. Sounds like a good excuse for a revisit!

What I tried:

Sparkling Rose: 100% Chambourcin; light and playful.

Merle (Rose): Made with Merlot; dry with strawberry notes.

2017 Merlot: Dark cherry notes, but spreads out nicely.

2016 Assent (Bordeaux blend): Second favorite of the lineup. Nice complexity, fruity nose. A shade on the lighter side of medium bodied.

2017 M3 (Merlot): Another Merlot, AND this one isn’t even properly labeled yet! Dark plumb notes, full mouthfeel. This was my favorite of the lineup and I can’t wait for it to go on sale.

2017 Petit Manseng: Apricot notes

“The Apple”: Apple wine that will satisfy sweet-wine drinkers.

Sorely missed was the Petit Verdot (entrant for the Governor’s Cup competition), and the Albariño (which is sold out).

King Family Vineyard

King Family easily cracks my Top 10 list of favorite Virginia wineries. Even if you’re a novice wine drinker, as soon as you drive in it’s easy to see why I love this place.

With manicured polo grounds set against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the place is STUNNING. They have some indoor space for picnicking, but the optimal time to visit is when the weather allows you to sit outside.

A pic of my previous visit to King Family. I wish I had this view during my visit; instead all I had was fog!

If that’s not enough reason to visit, I have two words for you: Matthieu Finot. Those familiar with the Virginia wine scene likely know the name, as he’s easily one of the best winemakers in the state. Don’t take my word for it; just look at the composition of the Virginia Governor’s Case for the past 8 years. Nearly every one of those years has a King Family wine in them, with their 2014 Meritage winning the cup in 2018.

During my visit I had not one but two hosts; James King and Wine Director Matthew Brown. Matthew teed off with a (very extensive) tasting while James gave me the backstory of how King Family Vineyards came to be.

James gives all the credit to his parents – David and Ellen King. They picked out the land because David wanted to follow one of his passions. If you guessed ‘wine’….you’re wrong! Actually the driving force behind their acquisition of over 300 acres of land west of Charlottesville wasn’t wine – it was polo.

David gave his realtor strict guidelines that their future home needed enough flat land to pursue his hobby. Little did the Kings know their farm was also suited for viticulture. They turned down the first suitor who randomly appeared at their doorstep asking to plant vines, but the idea stuck. King Family planted their vineyard in 1998 and opened the tasting room in 2002.

Today, King produces 20,000 cases/year (5,500 of that Rose), making them one of the largest wineries in the state. While their 50 acres of vines gives them a lot of fruit, they get grapes locally as well. And yes – polo is still played here, from Memorial Day to mid-October.

When the zombie apocalypse hits, you’ll find me here

I soon learned that King Family has a problem that most businesses would love to have – they are so popular, they sell out of their inventory exceptionally fast. When I visited their tasting menu leaned heavily on 2017 and 2018 vintages, and the popular Rose was long gone.

Compounding the problem is King was holding back some of its best wine so it can submit them into next year’s Governor’s Cup wine competition. Even so, I still had a tasting of almost a dozen wines, including several stunners.

We started off with the whites, all of which came out in 2018. This was a tough growing year, but Mattieu still put on a solid lineup. I think my favorite was the very zesty Viognier, which wasn’t overly floral like many Viogniers can be. We also tried their Chardonnay and a Chardonnay-heavy blend called Roseland. Both were easy drinking and very approachable.

Next up were a trio of single varietal reds, starting off with a 2018 Cabernet Franc that was both tart and fruity. After that was their 2017 “Small Batch” Petit Verdot, which caused my lips to pucker up.  I LOVED that PV. Granted I love PV in general, but I especially enjoyed this one.

The third was a Petit Verdot from…Argentina! This is a new initiative, and a good way for King to expand their repertoire of red wines. I liked it but I have to admit; I’ve grown to be a PV snob, and it’s hard to beat the ones in Virginia.

After that were the Merlot-heavy red blends. I sampled the 2012 Meritage, which had a nice mix of earth and fruit (and also was in the 2015 Governor’s Case), followed by their 2017 Mountain Plains red blend. I enjoyed both, but that Meritage was definitely hard to beat…except maybe…MAYBE that small batch Petit Verdot.

Finishing the tasting was their 2017 “Seven” port-style and 2016 Lorely desert wine. The Seven was made with…Petit Verdot! Again – have I mentioned I love PV?

Sadly I never got to meet Matthieu, but I can’t write about King Family without talking more about him. Mattieu arrived in Virginia just do ‘one vintage’ and then move to another assignment. It so happened that year was the very wet 2011, so he stuck around a second year to try again. Then he stayed a third year. While he focuses on King Family, Matthieu makes wines for several other wineries in the area as well.

Barren Ridge Vineyards

My visit to Barren Ridge was in no small part an effort to make up for a lost opportunity. A few weeks earlier I received an invite to the 2019 Shenandoah Wine Cup gala, but couldn’t attend as I had other blog opportunities lined up that I didn’t want to miss (rough life, right?). It so happened that Barren Ridge won the competition. I figured that was enough incentive to add them to my next Shenandoah Valley excursion.

Barren Ridge is on west side of Rockfish Gap, which separates the Shenandoah from Charlottesville. Owners John and Shelby Higgs opened it in 2008, right at the beginning of the great Virginia wine boom. While today this area has a great reputation for viticulture (it’s the driest area in the state), the converting of an old orchard to a winery must have seemed quite a risk at the time. But the Higgs were determined to put their family property to work, and so Barren Ridge was born.

As soon as I walked in I was greeted by a nice older lady with the southern drawl. Little did I know this was Shelby, who still introduces herself to her guests and asks if they are enjoying themselves. Chatting her was a real treat, since I got to learn not just about Barren Ridge but a bit about the wine boom that Barren Ridge was part of. For the next 30 minutes I was regaled with a ton of stories, often ending in “Oh, don’t print that” but also immediately followed by “Oh, never mind go ahead!”.

It turns out that Barren Ridge has ties with folks who are the equivalent of rock stars in the Virginia wine industry. Michael Shaps – likely the most award-winning winemaker in the state – initially helped with their wine making. That job has since been taken over by Jesse Gatewood, who studied under “Godfather of the Virginia wine industry” Gabrielle Rausse. Viticulturist Chris Hill still consults here. With names like that I quickly realized I was in for a treat.

Today, Barren Ridge has 12 acres under vine (plus 3 leased) and produces 4500 cases/year. Almost all the wine comes from these vines except their Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Surprisingly they also grow some Touriga Nationale – a rarity in Virginia.

Eventually we found ourselves at the tasting bar. I enjoyed the whites, especially their citrucy 2017 Riesling (although the nutty 2017 Chardonnay was nice as well). Those with a sweeter tooth might prefer the 2018 Harmony white blend, which while tart could fool you into thinking it was actually sweeter than it was. Ending the white flight was an apple wine – a tribute to Barren Ridges’ origin as an orchard.

Transitioning to reds, the 2017 Cab Franc was light and peppery. The 2016 Merlot was earthy, while the 2017 Touriga was especially smokey. Following this was was their 2017 Red Barren, which was sorta an off-dry wine (and 50% Chambourcin), then their port-style.

The highlight was a vertical of their 2014 and 2015 Meritages. The 14 was medium and rounded out nicely, while the 15 somewhat reminded me of that wild rawness you get in strawberries. Although the 15 was the winner of the Shenandoah Cup, I actually liked the 14 better.

Also a special thanks to Nancy, who poured for me at the tasting bar!

12 Ridges Vineyard

It’s not often I get to visit a brand-new winery. I’ve been on a multi-year quest to visit every winery in the state, making first-time visits are rare. So obviously when a brand new place popped up on my wine app it was as if my phone was making me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

12 Ridges is definitely a destination winery. Not just because it’s in a physically stunning location, but it’s far enough off the beaten path that only dedicated wine connoisseurs (or hikers looking for a diversion) are likely to make the trip.

What sets 12 Ridges apart from the rest of the Virginia wine scene is the tasting room tops out at 3300 feet, making it the highest altitude winery in the state. The soil is a mix of clay and volcanic green rock with excellent drainage. Why is this important? Well, when wine luminaries like Michael Shaps and Jake Busching first examined the site they practically salivated over its growing potential, so you know this place is going to produce great wine.

Besides the view, why did they pick this site? Well, the altitude provides the vineyard with a cool climate and windy slopes, both of which allow its vines to resist disease pressure. Also, mountaintops often have rocky, well-drained soil which facilitate minerality in their grape’s flavor profile, and forces vines to struggle – allowing them to produce berries with high flavor concentration.

It wasn’t a vineyard until recently. Owner Craig Colberg purchased the former event center in 2009, but it took time for this current vision to take hold. Even now when you drive in, you pass a Christmas tree farm before arriving at the tasting building.

That tasting building adroitly takes advantage of the view. Sadly, clouds prevented me from enjoying the scenery, but on a clear day I’m certain it’s amazing. Besides; you’re right off the Blue Ridge parkway, so the drive alone is worth it.

Operations manager Sam Hanny greeted me when I arrived. Sam is a self-described ‘vineyard geek’, which is a trait that I can definitely appreciate. He gave me the low-down of the vineyard as he poured.

As the vines are very young, 12 Ridges doesn’t yet produce its own wines. But in keeping with its theme of a high altitude winery, they serve a variety of wines from other high altitude locations around the world. When I was visiting, a nice assortment including a Tempranillo, Riesling, Malbec, a French high-elevation sparkling, and Pinot Grigio were being served.

But when 12 Ridges’ vines become ready – watch out! Its 12 acres include Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling – all varietals that should thrive in this climate.  I’m especially excited at the Pinot Noir, since it’s a grape you rarely find in Virginia. Their first vintage probably won’t be available until 2021, so a revisit (or several) is a necessity.

See you in another two years – if not sooner!

The Ben Jordan Experience: Lightwell Survey and Midland Construction Wines

Ben Jordan is a busy guy. You’d think being the winemaker for one of the largest wineries in Virginia would be enough. But wait – there’s more!

Ben is also involved with two separate wine ventures; Lightwell Survey and Midland Construction. Both labels use Shenandoah Valley grapes; the former utilizing fruit from different parts of the valley (and maybe some red grapes from Early Mountain’s Quaker Run vineyard), the later from his family farm in Ft. Defiance, just north of Staunton.

The two lines mostly use somewhat similar grape varietals. But both share one big similarity – both are WEIRD, and I say that in a very good way. Ben has a flare for blending and demonstrates his talent here. It’s rare to see Riesling and Petit Manseng made together, but both Lightwell and Midland have bottles made in that style. But things get doubly weird with Lightwell’s Syrah-Riesling “Los Idiots” and Midland’s Cabernet Franc-Blaufränkisch blend.

Unfortunately neither label has a dedicated tasting room, so you have to watch their social media feeds for events where they are being served. Lucky for me, I was able to taste both Lightwell’s and Midland’s wines barely a week apart.

My experience with Lightwell came when Ben was visiting Walsh Family Wine. Walsh has a cool program where they invite winemakers who lack tasting rooms to pour their wines during special ‘bar takeover’ events; needless to say, I got my tickets as soon as they were available.

The combo of wines from Nate Walsh and Ben Jordan is a totally win-win scenario. I feel they could have placed their entire lineup on the counter, let me grab a random bottle blindfolded, and I would have been happy with whatever I got. I’m saving Nate’s wines for a future blog, so I’ll just concentrate on Lightwell.

Lightwell’s tasting descriptions are lighthearted and whimsical – like several of their wines. Ben was even behind the counter pouring. What I tried:

Goodbye Horses: A dry Riesling, which I found to be exceptionally rich and yummy.

EMV 2018 Young Wine: OK, NOT a Lightwell wine but nevertheless made by Ben. BIG fruit notes; seemed to live up to its name. Beaujolais style, perhaps?

2017 Los Idiots: Interesting blend of 59% Syrah/41% Riesling. Light, with the cherry notes very apparent.

2017 Weird Ones Are Wolves: 90% Cabernet Franc but dashes of Syrah, Petit Manseng and Riesling. Bright and spicy at the same time, with noticeable acidity.

My visit to Midland Construction occurred just a week later at their farm in Ft Defiance. Ben is also the winemaker but he runs the business with his brothers Tim and Grayson. The family roots go beyond the wine business; this was their grandfather’s farm, and the wine is named after his former construction company.

The farm has 10 acres planted; 6 of vinifera and 4 acres of hybrid. The location is very non-descript as vineyards go; wandering around I almost walked into the family home next door. The ‘tasting room’ must have been an old garage, with a paper sign announcing that you have arrived.

As I walked in I saw Ben and Tim pouring at the tables. It was a bigger event than I had expected; I guess they have a pretty decent social media following for so many to take this hike. I didn’t ask what their production is, but it’s most certainly a smaller operation.

The lineup included a trio of wines plus a selection of his aperitif “War & Rust” series. Ben must have recognized me because I got a “Hey, I know you!” look as I walked by. See what happens when you drink a lot of Virginia wine? Even the winemakers recognize their regular lushes!

What I tried:

2017 Riesl-eng: (69% Riesling/31% Petit Manseng): Think of a regular Riesling, but less apple-y and fuller. Different but liked it.

2017 Chardonnay: My favorite of the lineup. It had enough oak to make it noticeable but didn’t overpower it. I ended up with a glass of this as I walked around.

2017 Cabernet Frankisch (75% Cab Franc/25% Blaufränkisch): Spicy notes dominate here. Ben explained this was a product of necessity, as he didn’t have enough fruit to make wines from either varietal so he blended them together. I liked it but again it’s definitely different – but in a good way.

War & Rust series: Not sure how to describe these wines. Ben called them aperitifs, which is as good a description as any. Not sure what grapes they used either; apparently there are many. And it’s impossible to give you a vintage year since they are fermented solera-style, meaning every series is made of juice from multiple batches. Its sort of like a port-style, but not really.

I CAN tell you the flavors are bitter and heavy on the herbs, although the older bottles are more fruit-forward. I personally preferred the older bottles for that reason, but to each their own.

And so there you have it!

Enjoying the firepit at Walsh Family Wine