Port of Leonardtown Winery

Since it’s Women’s History Month it seems appropriate to end March with an interview with winemaker Lauren Zimmerman of Port of Leonardtown.

If you aren’t following Lauren’s Instagram (@laurenwinegirl), you’re missing out. Her stories are incredibly fun to follow along, whether you’re a wino or not. But in person, she was every bit as fun as her stories are.

My visit was inspired by news of their recent Maryland Governor’s Cup awards, but more broadly because I was curious about Maryland wine in general. Port of Leonardtown had recently earned the Jack Aellen award for the state’s best fruit wine, and best in class for their 2020 Sauvignon Blanc. While that Sauv Blanc made the entire trip worthwhile, there was plenty to love here.

I started with a barrel tasting, chatting with Lauren about the state’s wineries in-between sips. She explained how Maryland has over 100 x wineries and 1000 x acres of grapes, making Maryland something of a ‘little brother’ to Virginia’s own wineries. Since many Maryland wineries are closer to me than Virginia counterparts in Charlottesville or the Shenandoah, I began to wonder why I don’t visit here more often.

But even within Maryland, Port of Leonardtown is a unique enterprise. It’s comprised of 13 x independent vineyards from around the state who banded together to form a winery co-op under one roof (and one winemaker). The wines resulting from this cooperation showcase a variety of terroirs from coastline to mountains to flat farmland.

Unlike most winery tasting rooms, Port of Leonardtown is set in a suburban area. While they have a picnic area and some ‘show vines’ in front, don’t expect the sweeping vineyard views that you might see elsewhere. But not to worry; they make up for it with great wine.

One observation about Maryland wine is since its terroir has a little bit of everything it’s hard to define a signature ‘Maryland’ style. Fortunately, this suits Lauren well. While she comes from Canada (and definitely misses Riesling) Lauren has jumped between wineries all over the world before finding a cute guy and settling here to start a family, so she’s accustomed to dealing with a range of styles and grapes.

Lauren’s most consistent grape is definitely Chambourcin – which she praised for its versatility. She also felt Chambourcin grown in eastern Maryland was richer than what you can find elsewhere. Port of Leonardtown’s vineyards also produce Barbera, Vidal, Albariño, Chardonnay, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Merlot.

Since I had her full attention, I took the opportunity to ask her own favorite wines. The unreleased 2020 Sauv Blanc and her steel-fermented Chardonnay were up there, along with her Governor’s Cup-winning 2015 Barbera.

Since it was Women’s History month I also asked her a few questions about women’s representation in the Maryland winery scene. She agreed that while the field is dominated by men, that trend is dying out. She also pointed out that women generally have better olfactory skills then men, so biology seems to be on her side here.

As for the wine, I enjoyed the entire lineup. We started with the whites, with the 2020 Sauvignon Blanc quickly becoming my favorite – young and juicy, with lots of grapefruit notes. The 2020 Vidal was also good, leaning towards a more citrusy style.

For reds, the Cabernet Franc was bright and peppery, while the 2019 “Old Line” red (Merlot / Cabernet Franc / Petit Verdot) was richer. Finishing things off were the Vidal dessert wine, which Lauren called a ‘porch sipper’ because it wasn’t overly sweet. Finally we had a dry, rich port-style made with Chambourcin.

If you haven’t been to Maryland wineries before, start here!

The Winery at Sunshine Ridge Farm

Sunshine Ridge is Virginia’s newest winery, located along the edge of Lake Manassas and very close to Vint Hill. And I’ll say it out loud – it also has some of the most stunning views of any winery in Virginia.

Owners Maria & Tom Rafferty bought the property with an eye for building a new home, but they felt the space gave them the opportunity to do something hospitality related as well. Fortunately their friend (and future business partner) Tom Schrade was looking to do something similar, so they were able to team up and build Sunshine Ridge Farm.

You can tell that Tom is a landscaper by trade, because the location has great views of the lake and a lot of attention to detail. Tom must also be a carpenter because he helped build the tasting room – using wood harnessed from the property. He did a great job, although Maria can’t help but poke fun at the single support column that is just a little bit crooked. I’m sure he could fit it but she won’t let him because it’s a better story that way.

I particularly loved the garage doors that opened up towards the lake, as well as the fireplace. It was chilly when I visited so the doors remained closed, but I did grab a prime seat near the fire.

I get the sense that Sunshine Ridge is designed to entertain large crowds, both inside the tasting room and on the extensive lawn outside. Maria gave me a tour and I was impressed by the building’s coziness. They also have a large upstairs area for club members and a separate room for the brewery. I can only imagine how this place will be in the summertime, with the breeze coming off the lake and maybe a concert going on.

Right now Ashton Lough of Bull Run Winery makes their wine, and that will continue to be the case for a while. While Sunshine is planting a quarter acre of Vidal Blanc, most of their fruit will come from 11 acres leased from Bull Run’s vineyard in Rappahannock or purchased elsewhere.

Another item that is certain to be a crowd-pleaser is they are a brewery as well as a winery. Right now Cedar Run Brewery is supplying the beer, but Sunshine will brew their own beer in the future. Add some food trucks. music, and maybe lounge chairs near the lake, and this place is a one-stop-stop for all your recreational needs.

I sampled the wine lineup and was particularly taken with the Meritage (nice complexity) and the Chardonnay (which hit the right balance of new and used French oak). They also had a citrusy Riesling, off-dry rosé with strawberry notes, a Pinot Gris, Cab Franc, and a Norton. The last one surprised me; I’m rarely a Norton drinker but I would drink this one again as the 20% Merlot they used cut through the ‘foxy’ characteristics that I don’t like. It was a Norton for those who don’t usually try Norton!

Right now all their wine is from the 2019 vintage so several reds tasted young, but give it some time and they will mellow out. Most of their wine use Virginia fruit, with the exception of the Riesling (100% Washington State) and the Pinot Gris (a mix of Virginia and Washington fruit).

Since I would be remiss not to try the entire lineup, I also tried the beer. My favorites were the Trice Ax Stout (nice coffee and earthy notes), Farmhouse Saison, and the Light Lager, which is served in a room styled after an Irish-style pub.

While I anticipate Sunshine Ridge will a favorite for those planning to meet groups of friends, for the time being they are reservation-only. That said they was plenty of space to spread out. They also have a no-children under 16 years old policy, specifically due to the risk that small kids will wander off to close to the water.

Virginia Governor’s Cup Wrap Up

A compilation of all Gold Medal and Governors Case winners in the Virginia Governor’s Cup, 2012-2021.

Blends are listed when the composition is known.

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