Lots of wineries boast having a secluded, rural tasting room, but Rock Roadhouse might be the winner in this category. Located in Bath County (between Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia), Rock Roadhouse is roughly a 4 hour drive from the DC area. Even so, it’s STILL worth the trip.
Bob and Rhonda Donze purchased this previous civilian conservation corps – turned schoolhouse – property in 2012 and planted vines in 2016. The 3000 foot elevation makes them the 2nd highest winery in the state (behind 12 Ridges and ahead of Ankida Ridge), with a mix of hybrids and vinifera planted. To say the Donzes picked this location for its beauty, not its accessibility, would be an understatement.
That said, Rocky Roadhouse is the perfect location for Bob’s style of winemaking. First, Bob is particularly inspired by the wine from the heights of northern Italy. Second, he insists on making ‘natural wine’.
Defining ‘natural wine’ takes some explanation. Winemaking inevitably requires chemical intervention, both in the vineyard (spraying to protect against disease) and the cellar (adding different strains of yeast to spark fermentation, and sulfites to preserve the wine from spoilage). Natural wine calls for these factors to be eliminated, reduced or replaced with more native factors. It’s not ‘organic’ since honoring that term requires even stricter limitations, but it’s about as close to organic as you can get without taking those (even more expensive and difficult) steps.
So in a nutshell – natural winemaking is hard to practice. But Bob found a way to make it work here. The location’s cool mountain air naturally slows the fermentation process and wards off humidity (and the diseases it brings). He also invested in specialized Italian equipment which protects against oxidation and allows him to avoid the use of sulfites. But his most creative solution is the use of a special low-fermentation yeast called Alpha which extends the fermentation process.
This process preserves microbes which would otherwise be lost, giving the wine with extra character end depth – and closer to the original varietal it came from. The result? Natural wine!
If it sounds like a big science experiment – you’re right. During our chat Bob sounded more like a scientist looking to prove a theory than a winery owner looking to turn a profit. Fortunately, the Donze’s have the financial luxury of running their winery as they see fit, so Bob can indulge in his passion to make wine his own way.
As interesting as the science behind it is, it’s time to talk about the visit!
The location is stunning. You’re not so much looking AT the mountains; you’re IN the mountains. The tasting room – a converted civilian conversation corps building – is loaded with rustic charm. As I chatted with Bob, his wife brought out a great cheese spread. They make it super easy to just hang out with a glass and enjoy the view.
Since they were serving a lot from the 2019 vintage, the wines were young but often had a complexity that went beyond its vintage year. For the reds I liked the 2019 Roadhouse red, a blend with Corot Noir with a peppery nose. Even better was the earth driven 2019 Cab Franc, which lacked any of the ‘green’ qualities a young bottle usually has (this required me to get a bottle for later sampling….for science…). The full Corot Noir was soft with hints of spiciness. Finishing the red lineup was the 2019 Touriga, which was soft and somewhat fruity.
For the others in the lineup, I was especially impressed with rosé, a blend of Merlot and Cayuga which was heavier than I was used to (another item for the cellar). The Vidal Blanc was great substitute for my go-to Sauvignon blanc, with lemongrass on the nose and a palate that was fresh and tart. Rounding things out was the Roadhouse White, which I totally did not guess was a Chardonnay.
If you ever make it to Rocky Roadhouse, let me know what you think!