Merrie Mill Farm & Vineyard

It’s not often that a brand-new Virginia winery makes such a huge splash among my wino-friends, but Merrie Mill did just that. I had no idea they even existed until my Facebook feed was filled with photos of a spectacularly decorated brand-new winery in the town of Keswick.

Merrie Mill opened the end of May, making it one of the latest of a series of excellent wineries to open around the state. Owners Guy and Elizabeth Pelly were inspired by a 2017 visit to Charlottesville from their home in the U.K., when they fell in love with the area. The purchased the property a year later, and the building (and planting) began.

I asked my friend (and expert winemaker/winegrower) Jake Busching about the property and he had nothing but praise for the vineyard site. Their soil is largely maneto with spots of granite. This mixture allows them the flexibility to plant different grape varieties, as different grapes have different soil needs. Manento also drains very well – hugely important in a state who’s vineyards struggle with excess rainfall. It’s much the same soil shared by their neighbor at Keswick Vineyards, whose winemaker is praised for the quality of his Cabernet Sauvignon.

As soon as you walk in, you are blown away by the tasting room. I feel like that statement is easily overdone, because let’s face it – Virginia wineries are almost always pretty (it helps that grapes don’t grow in ugly places). But seriously…I’ve been to 300 plus wineries. Even with that background, I was STILL blown away.

Bright, eclectic and whimsical are they key words here. This isn’t your stereotypical Virginia barn-turn-tasting building; Merrie feels more like an art gallery whose owners shopped curio shops from around the world, and was able to tastefully put their findings together.

Instead of rustic wooden planks, the walls are a soft blue. Photos and other artwork greet you as you go upstairs. Every table has differently-designed chairs. A replica of a sea lion floating from pink balloons (I kid you not) hangs from the wall. The vibe was modern-meets-Alice in Wonderland.

In the middle of the room over their mantelpiece is a painting of John Pelly, Guy’s great-great grandfather. I lucked out and even got to chat with Guy, who gave all the decorating credit to his wife. While he is new in the wine business, he’s also an entrepreneur with experience running some clubs in the U.K., which is a stronger background than many new winery-owners have.

I sat outside and enjoyed a flight from True Heritage wine. While Merrie has 12 acres of vinifera planted (with space for more), the 2020 frost did a number on them so they lost nearly all their first vintage.

Fortunately True Heritage is not only a great brand (made by Emily at Veritas, who is Merrie’s winemaker as well) it’s actually grown next door. If this is reflective of their terroir, then they would be lucky indeed. I was very partial to their Petit Verdot, although given the heat I stuck with their Rosé.

It wasn’t planned, but I also ran into a few other Virginia wine-Instagramers (shout-outs to @anolaloveswine, @vineyardingacrossvirginia, and @miss_alk). It’s always nice to look up and see someone you ‘virtually’ know and get to meet them in person.

Glass House Winery

My last visit to Glass House demonstrates to me why I need to revisit wineries more quickly. My previous trip was around 2015, and the tasting I remember the most was their chocolate wine. This time around they had a remarkably diverse array of reds and whites to satisfy any palate, but the oasis-like tasting room was every bit as cute as before.

The place’s name is very suitable. While most wineries go for a ‘rustic barn’ style or perhaps a ‘cute/contemporary’ setup, Glass House is a tropically-themed glass walled tasting room. I promise, you really will think you’re in a botanical garden.

Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge about 30 minutes from Charlottesville, Glass House is….somewhat off the beaten path. Fortunately they also have some great neighbors. I visited Hark just up the road, who picked their location based on the great terroir. I presume many of the factors that they decided makes it great for them likely applies here.

The original owners opened Glass House in 2010 but recently sold to a friend, who’s continued the vineyard and styles of wine. They also have a bed & breakfast on site, although I’ve never had the chance to stay there.

The outdoors were nearly as scenic as the indoors. This must have been a popular place at the height of COVID when everyone wanted to be outdoors, since there were tables everywhere along the pond.

Catherine was my server, and I’m not sure which of us was more thrilled to actually be able to chat with a stranger at a winery tasting bar. I mean seriously – it’s been so long! Sit-down flights are OK, but since the crowds had yet to arrive I was able to get the low-down from her on all her wines.

Their winemaker seems to have a thing for steel-fermented whites, and I’m HERE FOR IT. I was also surprised by their different Chambourcin wines, a varietal I’m often meh about but I liked theirs.

But the biggest surprise was their Barbera, an Italian grape rarely seen in Virginia. They even have a “Brose Rosé” made with Barbera, in a not-so-subtle attempt to get dudes to drink more rosé (fortunately I’m confident enough I can drink whatever I like).

My biggest regret though was not trying their chocolate pairing, which are made in-house. I occasionally see places with truffles, but those are almost always outsourced. Had I not had an appointment at another winery I definitely would have stayed for a chocolate-and-wine pairing.

What I tried:

  • 2019 Chardonnay: Made in steel. Lychee notes, but otherwise fresh and clean
  • 2018 Chardonnay: Lighter than the 2018; also made in steel
  • 2019 Chardonnay/Viognier blend (60/40%): I lack specific tasting notes but…very nice! Why can’t we find this combo more often?
  • 2020 “E-Ville” Rosé (Cab Sauv): Good fruit notes; made with Cab from Wolf Gap Vineyard in the Shenandoah
  • 2017 C-Villian (100% Chambourcin): Definitely a fruit-forward Chambourcin
  • 2017 Estratto (another 100% Chambourcin): I can’t find my notes!
  • 2015 Barbera: Sour notes on the nose? Definitely sour cherries on the palate
  • 2017 Audace: Described as an Amarone-style wine, made with Barbera. Dry, but it had a thick, strawberry syrup quality to it.
  • 2019 Cabernet Franc: Good fruit quality, lighter color. Hardly any pepper notes until the very end, and even then it was more white pepper than green pepper.

All in all it was a great visit to a little oasis in wine country. If you’ve been there, tell me your thoughts!

Meet Northern Virginia’s Newest Wineries

I’m very happy how this article came out, focusing on Firefly Cellars, Williams Gap Vineyard, and The Winery at Sunshine Ridge Farm.

The continued growth of the Virginia wine industry never ceases to amaze me. Even in a pandemic we opened 20 wineries/cideries/meaderies in 2020, and another 9 more this year (with more to come!). Not only that, it seems every new location is better and better.

Meet Northern Virginia’s Newest Wineries – Old Town Crier