Capstone Vineyards

Capstone Vineyards is one of Virginia’s newest wineries, having opened to the public (still by appointment only) in February 2019. Given the number of local wineries you’d think the marketplace would be saturated, but Capstone demonstrates there’s always room for a new place that’s committed to their craft.

As I drove in the first thing I noticed is the vineyard has a great location. The vines are south facing, which maximizes sun exposure. The steep slope tops out 1500 feet, so excellent drainage. I would later learn they have 12 acres of mostly Bordeaux varietals planted, plus some experimental rows of Roussanne, Chenin and Muscat Ottonel.

Downward shot of the vineyard.

While there is a small tasting room at the top, it was obvious is a working vineyard first and foremost; the appointment only schedule guarantees there won’t be any crowds. Fortunately hospitality was definitely not lacking, as co-owner David Adams greeted me as I parked.

Dave explained not only is Jim Law practically his neighbor, Jim is his mentor and winemaker. That’s right; Capstone’s wines are made by ‘the man’ himself in Linden’s cellar, just three miles away. While Dave insisted that finding farmland near Linden was a total coincidence, I wouldn’t have blamed him if that added a tiny bit more incentive.

Dave pouring for me!

As much as Dave and his wife Andrea Baer enjoy growing wine, they currently don’t have any aspirations to expand the tasting area, open it up to drop-in visitors, or make the wine themselves. I rather like this set up as a visit guarantees you a lot of 1 on 1 time with the owners, which to me is the best part (well…maybe after tasting wine). Plus if Jim Law is willing to make your wines…why not let him?

Capstone’s wine production will likely always be on the small side, as they sell the majority of their grapes. When Dave mentioned Capstone is Early Mountain Vineyard’s largest outside supplier I knew this was a good sign of the quality of the vineyard, since Ben Jordan wouldn’t accept sub-par fruit. Jim Law makes the wine, Ben Jordan buys the fruit. Any vineyard endorsed by these guys is a sure-fire winner in my book.

After picking Dave’s brain for a bit, we got down to the wine tasting. Their wines are very much done in the Jim Law style, with reds focused on good balance and whites that exclude freshness. In fact, Dave was able to point to Shari Avenius’ vineyard (one of Jim’s three vineyards) the next hill over; the two locations share similar characteristics in altitude and composition.

What I tried:

2016 Chardonnay: Very bright on the palate, with a nose that reminded me of fresh fruit. Made in steel. For obvious reasons this reminded me of an Avenius Chardonnay, for those who know Linden’s wines.

2015 Merlot: Dark cherries and plumb, with noticeable acidity in the finish.

2016 Vintner’s Blend (Cabernet Franc heavy): Medium bodied and very well balanced.

2015 Fielder’s Choice (Merlot heavy): Made in new and neutral oak, this had noticeable body and structure. I especially enjoyed the long finish and good tannin.

Go visit! Then visit Linden afterwards!

Riedel Tasting at Tarara Winery

For someone who drinks a lot of wine, I still have a lot to learn about the subject. The use of correct glassware to maximize your wine experience is one of them. So when I found out that Tarara was having a class on Riedel glasses, it was hard to pass up.

Why is glassware important? Because every type of wine has unique characteristics which can be accentuated (or masked) by the shape of your glass. The glass’s lip directs the wine to specific parts of the tongue, thus emphasizing qualities such as acidity or sweetness. A large bowl-shaped glass helps release a wine’s aroma, while a taller, thinner bowl captures it. There’s a science to it, but a lot of it is common sense.

The class was led by winemaker Jordan Harris, who made the event a lot of fun. He spent almost as much time poking fun at himself for his very extensive glassware collection (most of which he never uses out of fear of breakage) as he did teaching us the dos and don’ts about good glassware.

Jordan started with two really great pieces of advice. First, the price of the glasses you use should correspond with the price of the wine you usually drink. If you’re going to pay for expensive wine, then you’d better get the most out of it.

Second…drink your best wines on Tuesdays. Why? Because when you open on a ‘special occasion’, your memories are of the occasion; the details of an expensive wine are wasted on you. So to best enjoy your expensive wine, open it on a slow day so you’ll remember every detail. It’s also a great way to liven up your Tuesdays!

You’d think an over hour-long event about glassware would be boring…but it wasn’t. Pairing it with good wine helps as well.

We used the 4 pieces from their “Riedel Veritas” collection, specifically glasses for Oaked Chardonnay, Riesling/Zinfandel, Old World Pinot Noir, and Cabernet/Merlot. Smaller tumblers were used for comparison purposes. If you take their class, you keep the glassware afterwards; education and new glasses as a package deal!

I didn’t realize Riedel has over a hundred glasses in all shapes and sizes (and price points). Want a glass for Rheingau Riesling? Riedel has one for that. How about a Chablis Chardonnay? Sure thing. Brunello? Got that too! Just about every major varietal or region had at least one glass type dedicated to its maximum enjoyment. 

Glass #1: Flute (served with a Pet Net wine)

Not a Riedel, but this was a great demonstration on the importance of good glassware. Flutes are traditionally the way sparkling is served. But flutes have a major problem – the narrow aperture reduces the aromas you can detect. It pretty to look at and useful for preventing the glass from warming up in your hand, but it detracts from smelling (and thus tasting) the wine. I thought could detect something on the nose, but the notes were subdued.

We took a sip from the flute and poured the rest into the Riesling/Zinfandel glass. Big difference! I’d go with the later in the future when tasting sparklings.

Glass #2: Riedel Veritas Riesling/Zinfandel glass (served with the 2015 “Boneyard Magic Dragon” Viognier):

This longer, narrowing glass is designed for aromatic white wines. The lip directs your wine to the front of your palate, while the smaller aperture concentrates aromas. I found the Viognier to be highly aromatic, with high acidity and some weight to it.

After a sample we poured this into the tumbler. The difference was significant; I just didn’t get the same nose. The Riesling/Viognier glass was definitely the way to go for ‘delicate’ whites.

Glass #3: Riedel Veritas Oak Chardonnay glass (served with the 2017 Chardonnay from their “1987” old vines label)

The Oak Chardonnay glass is big and round, which gives you a lot of surface area for aeration. The lip directs the wine to the sides of your palate, accentuating the acidity and deemphasizing any oaky characteristics.

We tried that same wine in the Riesling/Zin glass and I had a very different experience. The oak seemed more pronounced in taller Riesling glass as the wine hit the front instead of the sides of my palate, giving it more depth.

Glass #4: Riedel Veritas Old World Pinot glass (served with the 2018 Boneyard red)

The Pinot glass aims to the tip of your tongue – the part which accentuates sweetness. I think this type of glass would be exceptionally good for showcasing fruit notes. As a light but fruity red, the Boneyard definitely fit this category.

Glass #5: Riedel Veritas Cabernet/Merlot glass (served with the 2016 Bethany Ridge)

This is your glass for Bordeaux style wines, or tannic reds in general. The shape is designed to aim for the back of your palate and smooth out the tannins. This is my new go-to glass for all red tastings in the future.

The Bethany Ridge seemed to be one of Jordan’s favorite wines, as he was commenting on the quality of the growing site (actually owned by Walsh Family).

Chateau O’Brien Winery & Vineyard

I don’t know what it is about wine tasting, but wine always seems to taste better when the owner is pouring it. Do the stories make it taste better? The setting? Or just the idea you’re getting some kind of special treatment? Well, all of the above was true when I did the cellar tasting at Chateau O’Brien.

Owner Howard O’Brien takes a very hands-on approach to his winery, from blending trials to bottling the wine. But one of his favorite parts of the job is doing cellar tastings, all of which he leads personally. Howard is also a big proponent of my all-time favorite grape in the world – Tannat.

I’d like to think Howard’s Tannat wines helped put this grape on the Virginia wine map. Of the 40-something acres planted in the state, 8 belong to Chateau O’Brien. Not coincidentally, his Tannat won Gold at Uruguay’s Concurso Internacional Tannat Al Mundo wine competition – the only American wine to do so. If you’re going to compete against other Tannat wines, the country whose national grape is Tannat is the place to win.

Located in a refurbished farmhouse with views of the hills of the Blue Ridge, the tasting room has exactly the rustic feel that I look for in a Virginia winery. Although they hold events (I’m especially partial to his St. Patty’s Day celebrations), parties aren’t the centerpiece here – O’Brien is one of the most wine-centric locations I know.

For starters, the wines on the tasting menu are aged longer than possibly any other place in the state. When most Virginia wineries are serving red wines that are 2-3 years old, O’Brien is serving wines that are 7-8 years old.  Their ‘average’ upstairs tasting is the equivalent to a special reserve tasting at most places. To top things off, they serve their wines in Riedel glasses – a touch I rarely see elsewhere in Virginia.

While most of my visits are spent tasting his selection of reds, this time I sampled Howard’s whites and roses. I really enjoyed the easy-drinking 2017 Northpoint White (Chardonnay) and Tannat Rose, but my favorite this time around was April’s Apple Rose – one of the most complex roses I’ve had in a while. Rounding out the white tasting was the Apple Ice Wine, an Apple/Blueberry, and a Petit Manseng.

Then off to the reds! But to make this visit special I wasn’t here for regular tasting; today was a visit to the cellar.

It’s not just the wines that make cellar tastings special. I love the intimacy – and the stories. Howard is a real character who’s owned a number of businesses before opening this winery in 2006. As he pours he tells you about the winery and the particular vintages you’re tasting.

You can tell he has an excellent growing location because the fruit profiles of his reds tend towards exceptional ripeness, even varietals like Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon that aren’t great producers in Virginia. Cellar tastings include at least four wines, although occasionally he throws in a surprise.

2013 Malbec: Excellent! Fruity and complex at the same time. O’Brien is one of the few places in Virginia that consistently produces full-flavored Malbec.

Luigi’s Luscious Red (NV?): I didn’t get the varietals, but my suspicion is its Cab Franc heavy with lots of Bordeaux friends. Spice notes on the nose and palate.

2012 Vintner’s Reserve (Tannat/Petit Verdot/Malbec): Super smooth with a long finish. I mean, George Clooney smooth. It was that good.

2012 Tannat: I’d say ‘save the best for last’ although this was up there with the Vintner’s. Long, long finish, full bodied. You could sense the tannin, but the age allowed them to smooth out.

The Staff (Desert style, Norton/Apple wine blend): This was not part of the cellar tasting but I’ll mention it anyway, since I got it as a treat upstairs. Caveat: I’m not a big fan of Norton. But this was unlike any Norton-based wine I’ve had. It isn’t fortified but it’s exceptionally strong.

Zephaniah Farm Winery

Zephaniah justifiably puts the “Farm” in the name “Farm Winery”. As you drive past the milk shed and grain silo you can see this is indeed a working farm – complete with crops, cattle and sheep. All vineyards are by definition farms, but the term seems especially apt here.

Visiting wineries is about more than the wine itself – it’s about the experience. While I’ve always been a fan of Zephaniah’s wines, what makes their experience truly distinctive is your tasting is done in a 200-year-old manor house, complete with one of the nicest serving experiences in the state. Since you can’t discuss Zephaniah without talking about the history of the house, it’s best to start there.

The home was built by the Nixon family back in 1819; the Hatches purchased it from them in 1950. It has a long, rich history, as you’d expect from a building now in its third century. Ask them about the ghost stories!

Walking into the tasting room I passed antique furniture stacked with old photos and heirlooms. As I was about to introduce myself, the grandfather clock rang out. Everything about my visit gave me the vibe that I was stepping back in time.

If this all makes you feel like you’re entering someone’s home – that’s because you have! The Hatch family (now in its 4th generation here) still live upstairs, although the main floor dining room has been converted to a tasting room. Two smaller sitting rooms are available for visitors to enjoy themselves.

The crowds hadn’t yet arrived, so husband/wife team Bonnie Archer, Bill Hatch and their son Tremain took turns filling me in on their remarkable family history. I think the only adult family member I missed during my trip was their daughter Emily, their assistant winemaker.

Afterwards Tremain walked me out to the vineyard, first planted in 2002. Zephaniah has 10 acres of vines, roughly split between hybrids and vinifera. All told, they produce around or under 2000 cases/year, using only estate fruit. Since I’m a vineyard-geek Tremain took time to explain some of the experimentation they are doing, including the use grapes seldom seen in Virginia including Muscat Ottonel, Muscat Valvin, and Chelois, an older French hybrid.

A “ballerina” trellis system

Going back inside it was time to taste some wine – and the exemplary tasting experience continued. Zephaniah serves their wine tastings in Riedel glasses – a rarity in the state. Not only that, but it’s a seated tasting. No waiting in line at a tasting bar – the will serve you at the dining table.

As for the wines…

Blending is important everywhere, but it seems especially so at Zephaniah. Very few of their wines are 100% varietals; nearly everything has something else mixed in. Even the blending process is a family affair. When it comes to time to decide the makeup of their next wine, all the family members vote on the blend they like the best. It’s the best kind of family get-together!

Most places tend to (virtually) hold your hand by telling you the tasting notes you’re supposed to taste. No tasting descriptions here; they want you to decide what you like on your own.

What I tried:

2018 Rose: Orange color; reminds me of a Provence-style. The 8% Vermentino (another rare grape they grow) adds some punch to this.

2017 Steamship White (white blend): Zesty! Made primarily with Chardonnel.

2016 Viognier: No honeysuckle notes here! Subtle, with a slightly tropical flavor.

2017 Adeline: Aromatic, some honey notes.

2016 Cabernet Franc (with a dash of Petit Manseng): The PM makes it a little more aromatic, but the flavor profile is fruity with strong dark cherry notes. Favorite of the bunch.

2015 Three Captains Red (Red blend). Fruity but not overly so. Blended with Chambourcin and smaller amounts of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

2014 Three Captains Red (Red blend): Not sure what the blend is, but I detected darker cherry than the 2015.

2015 Chambourcin: Fruit forward, not sweet but could appease a sweet wine drinker.

2017 Friendship (50/50 Petit Verdot/Merlot). Long finish, lots of depth. I was surprised by the fruitiness of it, given the blend. Name comes from having received the PV from a neighbor; one of the rare times they don’t have a true estate wine. First time I’ve ever had this one!

Not tried was their 2018 Sparking, Emily’s pet project. Maybe next time?

Va La Winery

I like telling people that the quality of a winery is often inversely proportional to the size of the tasting room. All too often visits to larger wineries are more about the experience than the wine. While I want a good day trip, I want the wine to be the main event, not a sideshow.

But tiny wineries on old farms? Places where the owner is the winemaker? Somewhere that limits the size of your group? Those are something special. At 5 acres of vines and a production of 750-1000 cases/year (all estate), Va La is the definition of an artisanal winery.

Owner Anthony Vietri is a local boy who in the 1990s decided start a winery. But he and his wife were faced with two choices. Option A was to purchase land in California. Option B was to set up a vineyard on his family farm. Unfortunately for Option B…Pennsylvania wasn’t exactly known for its wine. Since vinifera had a limited track record in the state he’d be starting basically from scratch.

Thankfully they chose Option B. Va La experimented with different varietals and growing techniques until they found the right mix, including a trellis system that’s only 48 inches high (!). While Anthony knew his well-drained knob of land had certain advantages, he probably didn’t fully understand the farm is located in a sweet spot for vinifera. Option B turned out to be a better deal than they realized.

I met Anthony upstairs while his associates put out quite a spread. Va La goes all out in their tastings, including using Riedel glasses for their wine and pairing them with an assortment of local cheeses, olive oil, and his mom’s bread. Here, even the food is local or homemade. Heck, even the oak barrels are from Pennsylvania.

Va La typically only has 4 wines at any time, most if not all of them field blends. I emphasize the word ‘blend’ here, because the vineyard has well over 30 varietals planted – and Anthony uses them all. That’s right; over 30 varietals of grapes going into only a handful of wines. ‘Blend’ is an understatement.

Most of the grapes are northern Italian varietals, including ones I’ve never heard of. Pignolo? Sagrantino? Cascetta? I mean seriously – how did he find these? Maybe the real question is how does he blend such a diverse assortment. As someone who got a C+ in high school chemistry, the science of it all astounds me.

Now…the main event!

2017 Silk (Rosato; aka Italian Rose): This is one of the most complex Roses I’ve ever tasted, made with Corvina Veronese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Petit Verdot, Langrein and others. I’d never had an Italian Rose before so this was a huge treat – and I promptly purchased a bottle.

2016 Prima Donna: Whatever you do, don’t call this an “orange wine” despite its amber hue. Tangy, with apricot notes.  Malvasia Bianca, Petit Manseng and others.

2016 Barbera: A rare 100% varietal. Light colored, with a combination of being both gamey with sour cherry notes. Compares well with what I’ve had from Italy.

2016 Cedar: Nebbiolo heavy, but likewise a blend. Tastes like earth and spice and everything nice. I tasted this one with some chocolate which soften the subsequent sips.

Va La is yet another demonstration that the east coast can produce world class wines as long as you do your homework; proper care is done in selecting the vineyard site, vineyard management, and of course the right winemaker. I suspect I’ll be back next time I’m in Philly.