Loudoun’s “Pride in the Vines” Wine Trail

Starting June 1st, fifteen participating Loudoun County wineries are celebrating Pride Month with a special month-long wine trail. Passport holders for “Pride in the Vines” who obtain ten different stamps will be eligible to win a prize drawing which includes private wine tastings, bottles of wine, gear, tickets to events, and tours of the vineyards and wineries.

Pride Month has its roots in the Stonewall riots, which started on June 28, 1969. Coincidentally, Pride in the Vines celebrates a movement that was galvanized at a drinking establishment.

Located in New York’s Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn was one of the few local bars that catered to an openly gay clientele despite state laws which made it risky for them to show affection in public. The Stonewall was run by the Mafia, who saw gay bars as a good business opportunity. Police raids against such establishments were common but corrupt officers would typically tip the managers off in advance, allowing business to continue with limited interruptions.

This time was different. Not only was the raid unannounced (possibly due to the police not getting sufficient kickbacks), the patrol wagon responsible for picking up arrested patrons took longer than usual to respond. The gathering crowd became increasingly agitated as they watched the police manhandle those they detained, including those arrested for violating the state’s gender-appropriate clothing statute.

The final trigger was a scuffle between a lesbian woman who was roughly escorted to the awaiting wagon. She fought back, calling on the crowd for support.

The resulting riots (Stonewall veterans prefer the term ‘uprising’) continued for several days. It was a turning point in the gay rights movement, leading to the formation of several new LGBT advocacy groups. The first gay pride parades were held on the 1st anniversary of the riots.

Top left: Paul Armstrong and Warren Richard, Virginia Wine Time

Top right: Paige Poprocky and Holly Richardson, Sips and Trips with Paige

Bottom left: Sydney and Bridgette Smith, Williams Gap and Greenhill wineries

Bottom right: Brian Pace and Chris Sexton, Maggie Malick Wine Caves

How Loudoun’s First Pride Wine Trail Started

The idea behind Pride in the Vines in Loudoun County blossomed with Two Twisted Posts Winery, which has hosted gay pride events since opening in 2014. For the family that owns it, namely Krista Cato, her partner Lynda Dattilo and fellow owners and parents, Theresa and Brad Robertson, the topic is a personal one.

“We wanted to create a safe space for people to gather regardless of their orientation or race,” explained Krista. “From Day 1, we hung a Pride flag. It wasn’t always a smooth journey and we received some hate.

My family decided to host an event to celebrate National Coming Out Day (October 11). We thought about celebrating Pride, but Pride is already a big event in D.C. and we didn’t want to overlap with another important celebration.

We advertised it in a local paper, and they came back to us and asked, ‘Do you really want to publish this?’ And we replied; ‘yes we do!’

So we posted the ad and put out flyers in local businesses. We found a lot of them were afraid to post them out of fear of creating animosity with their customers. But a few did.

Simple things like getting a food truck was difficult. The first two canceled but eventually we found one that would support us.

When the day came, Two Twisted Posts had over 200 people come out from all walks of life. Since it was so well received, we couldn’t imagine not continuing annually.”

More Wineries Involved Than Ever Before

Over time, more wineries joined Two Twisted Posts in celebrating gay pride events. In 2019, Bob and Teri Riggs of nearby Forever Farm Vineyard noticed the Pride flag and asked what they could do to get involved. They were soon joined by Williams Gap Vineyard.

The issue hit home for Bob and Teri, whose son is gay. Teri explained, “My participation is to get families involved. We’re all in it together.”

This trio of wineries hosted an informal Pride trail for several years. But as the world around them became more accepting, the idea of a larger wine trail took shape.

“One of the things we’re learning in this journey is there are other people out there who hear them and see them,” said Bridgette Smith, tasting room manager at Williams Gap Vineyard. “So when I brought it up at the Loudoun Wineries and Winegrowers Association (LWWA) I was surprised how many wineries wanted to participate. I think there are more people out there who are willing to speak out loud to support their neighbors than we realize.”

Krista added, “The support is like 300 times more than when we opened. In the beginning, I don’t remember seeing a Pride flag anywhere. When we started hosting events for National Coming Out Day, we were so focused on the event, we didn’t reach out to anybody.

With the partnership of Forever Farm Vineyard, Williams Gap Vineyard and now so many others, it’s safe to say this year’s Pride in the Vines Wine trail is indicative of the changes that have happened in Loudoun.”

Guests can acquire a passport at any of these participating wineries. For more announcements, see the LWWA webpage at https://www.loudounwine.org/new-events.

  1. 8 Chains North Winery
  2. 868 Estate Vineyards
  3. Bleu Frog Vineyards
  4. Bozzo Family Vineyard
  5. Carriage House Wineworks
  6. Fabbioli Cellars
  7. Forever Farm & Vineyard
  8. Good Spirit Farm
  9. Hillsborough Winery
  10. October One Tasting Room
  11. Two Twisted Posts Winery
  12. Walsh Family Wine
  13. Williams Gap Vineyard
  14. Wine Reserve at Waterford
  15. Zephaniah Farm Vineyard

Opus One At Cheesetique

If you haven’t visited Cheesetique, you’re missing out. While a second location is in Shirlington the OG store is located in Del Ray, part of a row of cute of mom-and-pop restaurants and boutique stores.

One of my favorite evening events are their wine and cheese pairings, which have been on pause since COVID. But while avidly waiting for their return I saw Cheesetique post an event that might be better – the chance to try a flight of Opus One wines.

If you like to drink fancy red wine but never heard of Opus One…you might be living under a rock. For many years an Opus One wine held the record as the most expensive California wine ever sold. Even new releases go for almost $400 a bottle.

So when owner Jill Erber kicked off the event by describing Opus One as “One of the world’s most iconic wines” she wasn’t joking.

While often described as Cabernets Sauvignons, in truth they are left-bank style Bordeaux blends, often using all five noble red grapes. Cab Sauv comprises around 76-86% of the wine, depending on the vintage.

I went in expecting a wine tasting (and some bite-sized snacks). What I didn’t know is that I was getting a full history lesson, as told by one of their brand ambassadors, Emmanuel Padilla.

A Brief History of Opus One

The story of Opus One is really the story of two of the wine industry’s greatest marketers and innovators; Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild.

Both came from famous wine families. Robert was the first person to open a winery in California since prohibition and went on to become known as the ‘father of California wine’. Baron came from the family that owned Château Mouton Rothschild, the only estate to be accepted as a “First Growth” Bordeaux winery after the initial Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855.

But their legacies were cemented by their ability to bring wine to the masses. In an era where it was customary for vineyards to sell to middlemen, both realized they could increase their profitability and control quality by bottling their own wine and selling it directly to the public.

Both also pioneered the use of lower-cost wine brands in conjunction with their premium ones, so people could have a taste of Napa or Bordeaux without breaking the bank. “Luxury should not be unapproachable,” explained Emmanuel.

It was the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” that brought these men together. This event saw a pair of Napa wines take top honors in a blind tasting (beating one of Baron’s own wines), heralding the ‘arrival’ of Napa in the wine world. Baron realized California was a huge business opportunity, so in 1979 he partnered with Robert with the goal of creating an ultra-premium brand.

Opus One was the fruits of their labor, with the first vintage being produced in 1982.

The Difference Between Bordeaux and Napa

After our history lesson, Emmanuel discussed Opus One’s philosophy. This includes being able to drink your wine immediately, not wait years (sometimes decades) for the wine to settle down. “What are we known for in America?” Robert asked the audience. “Impatience!”

Emmanuel spoke about the scores they’ve earned from the fancy wine magazines but he didn’t dwell on them, comparing wine critics with music critics. After all, Led Zeppelin is one of the greatest rock bands of all time. But were they appreciated when they were touring? No!

He also went into detail about wine growing at Opus One and climate change as a whole. Opus One’s vines point true north to minimize the sun exposure, as they want a longer, cooler ripening season than a fast one that will cause their grapes to bake. Listening to this put me in wine-geek heaven.

Fire (and smoke taint) is another growing problem. While Opus One already harvested their grapes before the 2020 Napa fires broke out, they knew the reputation of a ‘smoke vintage’ could damage the brand. While Emmanuel loves their 2020 vintage, he wasn’t optimistic an Opus One flagship wine would be released from it.

It may seem all we did was listen to Emmanuel talk, in truth we were tasting wine the entire time. Four wines were poured over the course of the evening; three of their flagship “Opus One” wines and a wine from their second label, Overture. This being Cheesetique, of course we had small snacks to go with everything.

The wines:

  1. 2012 Opus One. Expressive nose; rich but not overpowering. Lots of dark fruit with a touch of granite. Blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec.
  2. 2017 Opus One. Similar tasting notes but I thought with more complexity. Bottled sold at this particular event were in magnum, which (I didn’t know) increases their age-ability. 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Merlot.
  3. 2019 Opus One. Initially I felt this was an obviously young wine but I quickly changed my mind. Complex but still with a nice fruit profile. Reminded me of what the 2012 would have tasted like in its youth. I later realized it had a similar blend; 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec.
  4. Opus One Overture (NV). More approachable. Rounder. From more ripe fruit. This wine could be aged but is really meant to be enjoyed sooner.

I was really lucky to make this event; it sold out in 2 hours but my name was called from the waiting list. For those who weren’t as lucky there will be another event this summer.

Not only will you have the chance to taste these wines, you’ll be able to buy bottles at a comparative discount (but of course still ridiculously high…because it’s Opus One).

The Diversity of Sparkling Wine Blind Tasting

All of my blind tastings have a theme. France vs Virginia. Virginia Tannats vs The World. Cabernet Franc Comparison; ect ect. But it’s almost always a ‘like vs like’ event, even if the regions involved are different.

This time I mixed things up. It was still ‘like with like’ because all were sparkling wines of some sort. Yet it was a departure from my normal blind tastings as these sparklings were about as different as I could possibly make them.

Of our 9 wines, 6 of the wines were traditional-method and 3 were pet-nats. More importantly, all 9 were made with different grapes. We had everything from Albariño to Voskehat.

The Contenders:

  1. Keush Origins, 60% Voskehat / 40% Khatouni, Armenia (traditional method)
  2. Gomes Vineyard, Albariño, California (traditional method)
  3. Horton Vineyards Suil, Viognier, Virginia (traditional method)
  4. Chestnut Oak Vineyard, Sparkling Petit Verdot, Virginia (traditional method)
  5. Stinson Vineyard’s “Farmer’s Rest”, Mourvèdre, Virginia (traditional method)
  6. Hansen-Lauer, Riesling, Germany (Sekt, traditional method)
  7. Early Mountain Vineyard, Malvasia Bianca, Virginia (Pet-Nat)
  8. Guide Wine Chardonel and Peaches, Virginia (Pet-Nat)
  9. Raza, Trajadura, Portugal (Pet-Nat)

What we didn’t have were Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. That was intentional; I wanted to do ‘non-traditional’ wines, and the ones we brought fit the bill.

Obviously, I had help. I had hoped Rich Sullivan of Guide Wines would join us but he couldn’t make it. On the other hand, I had The Sparkle-ist Champagne Club, TheVAWineGirl, Cheers and Chews, and Kyle and Chris Zimmerman of QuaffwithKyle. They were happy to heed the call to help me compare these wines.

I put the pet-nats in the same flight but otherwise all the wines were randomized. We had two flights of traditional method sparklings and a pet-nat flight at the end.

As always – this event was the product of this day, with this group. We could have repeated it the next day and come up with different results. After the 3rd round, we paused for some charcuterie, sushi, and oysters.

We all voted favorite/next favorite/last favorite. 1st choice got 3 points, 2nd choice got 2 points, 3rd choice got 1 point.

Round 1 / Flight 1

  • Bottle #1: Keush Origins, 60/40 blend of Voskehat and Khatouni (Winner)
  • Bottle #2: Gomes Vineyard, Albariño (tied for runner up)
  • Bottle #3: Horton Vineyards, Viognier (tied for runner up)

Excellent start to the event. Each of the three sparklings had something unique about them. Many of us gravitated to the Armenian Keush from the get-go, so this round was more of a contest for the #2 spot between the Virginia Horton Viognier and the California Albariño.

We couldn’t get over how different these three were. It wasn’t just the tasting profile but the finish and acidity.

We picked the Keush as the favorite mostly because it was the most complex of the trio and reminded us of a blanc de blanc in terms of the complexity and brioche notes.

Bottle #1: Keush Origins. The nose presented notes of brioche, which I think caused us to automatically gravitate towards it since it was familiar to sparkling lovers. I found grapefruit on the palate; others said green apple. As it opened up it also had notes of peach.

It may also have been the oldest of the trio (and the day) which contributed to its complexity. I felt it was also ‘big’, which was mostly a compliment but I could see that as being a distraction as well.

Fun fact – this wine came from one of the highest elevation vineyards (5740 feet) in the northern hemisphere!

Bottle #2: Gomes Vineyard. I thought it had a lemon nose, although I heard everything from grapefruit to orange zest. Definitely grapefruit on the palate, maybe citrus as well.

We were in LOVE with the nose of this one. But at the same time, the finish left us disappointed. There was just nothing on the back end. The bubbles also didn’t last very long, comparatively speaking.

I do have to point something out; when I paired this with oysters (which didn’t happen till much later in the day), this was arguably my favorite wine of the event. Those flavors just absolutely popped out with the right seafood.

Bottle #3: Horton Vineyards. Faint citrus nose. Very lemon-y and maybe some minerality.

This was our crowd-pleaser wine. While the Keush I thought was ‘too much’ for some and the Gomes had nothing on the back-end, I felt this was the easiest to drink through-and-through.


  • Christina: 1/2/3
  • Kyle: 1/3/2
  • Lieven: 1/3/2. Loved the brioche and complexity. Loved the nose of #2 but it dropped off.
  • Lindsay: 1/2/3. Thought #1 was complex and was ‘never bored’ with it. #2 was very bright.
  • Matt: 1/2/3
  • Stephanie: 1/3/2

Round 1 / Flight 2

  • Bottle #4: Chestnut Oak, Petit Verdot (runner up)
  • Bottle #5: Stinston Vineyard, Mourvèdre (winner)
  • Bottle #6: Hansen-Lauer, Riesling (3rd place)

This was a really tough round to pick a favorite. If wines of the first round were different, this was REALLY different. What made it especially difficult is many of us had never tried these wines before, so we didn’t know what to expect.

There wasn’t any chart to rate ‘best’ here; it all came down to personal preference. Stinson came out as the favorite by a tiny hair, but a one-vote change could have resulted in a 3-way tie.

Bottle #4: Chestnut Oak Vineyard. We immediately noticed an orange tint to the color. On the palate there was a lot going on, which made it difficult to identify. Aromatic and flavorful.

Someone said the wine was ‘confused’ as to what it wanted to be, but ironically that wasn’t meant as a bad thing. It was just not what we’d expected from a sparkling.

Bottle #5: Stinson Vineyard. I found grapefruit on the nose and palate. Maybe a little yeasty? Others said they detected notes of white peach and lemon. Balanced. Some brioche notes.

I had lots of opinions on its complexity. Some felt it was well balanced but others felt there was just a lot going on, almost too much.

Bottle #6: Hansen-Lauer. One of the most acidic wines of the day. Mineral-y; someone mentioned it reminded him of a Greek wine. Some brioche notes came out eventually.

Not a lot going on for the nose, but overall a pleasant wine.


  • Christina: 5/4/6. Liked all of them, but for different reasons.
  • Kyle: 5/6/4
  • Lieven: 6/5/4/. Loved the acidity of #6, even if it wasn’t as complex. Thought #5 was good all-around, with depth and complexity.
  • Lindsay: 4/6/5. Felt food impacted the choices here.
  • Matt: 4/6/5. Tough choice. Could have gone for any of these. But since #4 was ‘big’ and different, that put it over the top for me.
  • Stephanie: 5/6/4

Round 1 / Flight 3

  • Bottle #7: Early Mountain, Malvasia Bianca (runner up)
  • Bottle #8: Guide Wine, Chardonel and peaches (last place)
  • Bottle #9: Raza, Trajadura (winner)

This was our pet-nat round. If I had thought about it more carefully I would have done this round first…but it’s a blind tastings, so where’s the fun in that?

Granted, pet-nats are sparkling wines. But make no mistake – there’s a world of difference between a pet-nat and a traditional method sparkling. I wondered exactly how different this round would be from the earlier one, but there was no mistaking the difference.

Pet-nats are fun, easy drinking wines for when you just want bubbles. So putting them at the end of a round of ‘serious’ traditional method sparklings did them tasting notes a disservice. After we took a food break we revisited some of them and enjoyed them more just for what they were.

Bottle #7: Early Mountain Vineyard. Pale gold color. “Pithy” was mentioned. I thought it had a peach cider quality to it.

Bottle #8: Guide Wine. Bold gold color. I swore the nose reminded me of walking into an apple orchard. I thought I detected some faint hops.

Bottle #9: Raza. The cloudiest of the trio. Little bit of peach but more stone fruit. Had some grassy-ness to it initially. The bubbles also lasted the longest.

We seemed to gravitate towards it because it was the most like a méthode traditional sparkling.

  • Christina: 9/7/8
  • Kyle: 9/7/8
  • Lieven: 9/7/8
  • Lindsay: 7/9/8
  • Matt: 9/7/8
  • Stephanie: 9/7/8

Round 2 / Final

  • Bottle #1: Keush Origins, Voskehat and Khatouni blend (winner)
  • Bottle #5: Stinston Vineyard, Mourvèdre (runner up)
  • Bottle #9: Raza, Trajadura (3rd place)

We took a food break after the 3rd round. The wines that didn’t go to the finalist round were finished off with a mix of sushi, oysters, stuffed clams, and charcuterie.

Our palates were getting fatigued at this point so no real tasting notes.

In the end, Wine #1/Keush was the winner of the day. We were enthralled with its complexity and brioche notes. It seems there’s just something about brioche that screams ‘sparkling wine’, so whenever we detected it, that became our favorite.

Wine #5/Stinson Mourvèdre was the runner-up. I asked winemaker Rachel Stinson Vrooman about it, and she explained that the decision to make it was completely based on necessity.

It’s from the 2020 vintage, which was the year they got heavily frosted. Mourvèdre survived since it’s a late-budding varietal so it was the only block they didn’t lose.

Even so, Rachel struggled on what to use it in. She loved the flavors, and the low ripeness made it a good candidate as a sparkling. It was such a hit they’ve been making it ever since.

  • Christina: 1/5/9. Loved the brioche notes of #1
  • Kyle: 1/5/9. Thought #1 was the most complex.
  • Lieven: 1/5/9. Liked the acidity and complexity of #1
  • Lindsay: 5/1/9
  • Matt: 5/1/9
  • Stephanie: 1/5/9

Lessons learned:

It’s tough to write up a ‘lessons learned’ in an event that by default was always meant to be experimental. Most of these wines were brand new to us. I had no expectations what to expect, so there wasn’t really any benchmark meant to be reached.

But breaking it down, I’d say this event demonstrated two things.

First, there *really is* a huge diversity in sparklings. If you’ve never tried an Armenian wine, try it! Mourvèdre; seriously, who would have thought? Sparkling Petit Verdot? Get out of town!!!

Second, for as diverse a lineup we had, our palates seemed to gravitate towards the familiar. Wines that were stylistically similar to traditional method sparklings – especially ‘familiar’ blanc de blanc or blanc de noir nearly always won out over ‘non-traditional’. If it had brioche, it went to the top of the list of favorites.

These factors worked against the pet-nat round. In retrospect I really should have done pet-nats totally separately, but was curious how they stood up in a comparison. Sadly they didn’t – but it’s not their fault.

On their own I think we would have enjoyed them more, but coming off a round that included some excellent traditional method wines we seemed more down on them than they deserved.

Capstone Vineyards

If there was a prize for great neighborhoods to open a winery, Capstone Vineyards would be in the finalist round. With Crimson Lane Vineyards literally next door and Linden Vineyards down the road, this town is something of a winelovers mecca.

These wineries all recognized something crucial; these hills have great soil. New owner Theo Smith put it this way; “With dirt like this, making wine is easy. All I have to do is not screw it up.”

Capstone opened in February 2019, although it’s been so under-the-radar few people knew about it. That was by design; founders Dave Adams and Andrea Baer only made one small batch of wine from their 2015 and 2016 vintages (produced by Jim Law at Linden, no less). All subsequent harvests was sold to Early Mountain Vineyards (EMV). They accepted visitors by appointment only, slowly selling off their remaining stock but not making more.

EMV labeled all of Capstone’s fruit under a series of vineyard-specific bottles. This is high praise; EMV knew this was a quality vineyard, and this limited production seemed to sell out so fast that non-members like myself couldn’t get their hands on anything.

Eventually Dave and Andrea decided to move on. Both Theo and EMV were interested in purchasing the vineyard, but eventually the owners decided to go with Theo. Capstone changed hands in December 2022.

The first thing that visitors experience is a long, steep driveway to the small tasting room which overlooks the vineyard. The vines are south facing, which maximizes sun exposure. The steep slope tops out 1500 feet, so it has excellent drainage. Right now, they have 12 acres of mostly Bordeaux varietals planted (with room to expand), plus some rows of Roussanne, Chenin and Muscat Ottonel.

The tasting room is tiny, but some improvements have been made. One of Theo’s first moves was to install a new deck and put some tables outside. Now it’s a lot easier to take in the fantastic view, which includes a look at Avenius vineyard just a few hills over. Theo expects to eventually build a new further up the hill, but making a wine production facility takes priority.

Theo greeted me and poured a glass of sparkling before running off to take care of another customer. Eventually things settled down enough to take me through a tasting, where I was able to pepper him with questions. Turns out that he’s from Nova Scotia and originally had a job in the cancer research field. But Theo wasn’t so keen on office life and eventually made his way into winemaking.

Local winelovers may recognize his name; until very recently Theo was the winemaker at nearby Rappahannock Cellars for over a decade. Theo described his time there as a fantastic learning experience, overseeing its transition from a 6,000 case/year facility to one making over 30,000 cases/year (plus adding a sparkling program).

But being a winemaker is one thing; being an owner seemed the natural evolution of the job. So when Capstone became available, he jumped at the opportunity.

Right now Capstone is only serving 4 wines; two of the original 2016-vintage red blends (one Cabernet Franc-heavy, the other Merlot-heavy), a sparkling he made from Monticello fruit, and a still-unlabeled Chenin-Chardonnay blend.

Of the lineup, my favorite was the Chenin blend, which had a delicious creaminess to it. The runner up would be either the 2016 Fielder’s Choice but the sparkling was nice as well.

As 2023 will be his first vintage using Capstone fruit, it will likely take a while for them to make their own wines. But the Chenin blend was promising, and I’m hopeful Capstone will have some great whites coming out in another year.

Theo seemed especially psyched about his future sparklings. Rappahannock had a great sparkling program and he learned directly from Claude Thibault. With a background like that, things seemed really promising.

Right now Theo is running the entire tasting room by himself, so things were a little hectic. But he knows he has a great location, so he’ll get more help as the word gets out.

* This is an update to my January 2020 blog on the same location, but with the previous owners.

An Introduction to Virginia’s Nebbiolo

Few grapes are as synonymous with the region they come from as nebbiolo. Indigenous to the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, it’s the source of two of the world’s most famous (and expensive) wines; Barolo and Barbaresco. Powerfully tannic yet possessing delicate aromas and expressive fruit, wine critic Madeline Puckette famously quipped drinking nebbiolo was like “Getting kicked in the face by a ballerina”.

Nebbiolo’s relationship with the mountainous Piedmont isn’t coincidental; even the name is a reference to its home. Many believe the word Nebbiolo comes from the Latin Nebula, which means ‘fog’ or ‘mist’. This fog inundates the region during harvest, helping regulate the temperature of the grapes.

Such conditions contribute to nebbiolo’s reputation as a finicky, terroir-driven wine. Early budding yet late ripening, few places outside Piedmont are thought to have the near-goldilocks conditions to allow nebbiolo to mature to full ripeness. Given Virginia’s erratic weather, this requirement for an especially long growing season gives many winegrowers pause when considering it for their vineyard.

So it’s somewhat surprising that nebbiolo is nevertheless gaining traction in Virginia. According to 2022 data shared by the Virginia Wine Marking Board, 50 acres of nebbiolo is commercially grown in the state. While that’s nowhere near the acreage of cabernet franc or chardonnay, neither is it an outlier found in only a handful of locations.

A growing number of winegrowers seem to think nebbiolo is worth the investment. But why?

Luca Paschina: The OG (Original Grower) of Virginia’s Nebbiolo

Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards is probably the person most responsible for the grape’s introduction into Virginia. His love of nebbiolo is understandable. Not only is Luca a native of Piedmont, nebbiolo is the first wine he’s ever made.

When asked how the difference in growing conditions between Virginia and Piedmont impacts locally-grown nebbiolo, Luca pointed out that elevation is only one part of the equation; Virginia’s weather is hotter and soils are clay-based.

“We planted it in 1995 and originally started with ½ an acre. Our first vintage was 1998, a very good growing season. In 1999 we planted an additional 4 acres and another 4.5 in 2013.

I knew nebbiolo had the potential to age, but I didn’t know whether it could do the same here. But revisiting the 1998 vintage, I can see it ages well.

Our approach is to make it into a single varietal; I never blend it. Others do that to darken the color, but we don’t. I don’t make this wine to drink on the porch. It’s a food wine.

Some are turned off because it’s astringent and assertive than comparable Bordeaux varietals. Its tannins may be astringent but never bitter.

The main threat is it does bud break early so it’s more exposed to frost risk. But nebbiolo is fairly healthy and easy to grow. We drop a lot of fruit, but it’s a good thing since you get to choose how much you want to harvest.

When it comes to disease resistance it has problems with downy mildew but overall isn’t much different than other varieties in Virginia. If it rains towards the end of harvest nebbiolo holds very well. It’s very resilient.”

A Tradeoff of Risk vs Reward

While nebbiolo’s early-budding yet late-ripening nature makes it a risky investment, its reputation is a strong motivator for winemakers to take that chance. Preston Thomas of Stone Tower Winery explained, “It’s a quality wine, and adds diversity to our portfolio. We’ve been able to make a beautiful rosé while still having enough fruit to make a quality red wine.”

When Bill Gadino of Gadino Cellars was deciding what red grapes to plant, he turned to Luca for advice. While Luca pointed out nebbiolo’s challenges, he phrased it like this; “If you’re going to pick one, go for the gold and grow nebbiolo.”

While Luca may have meant this figuratively, the impact for several Virginia wineries has been literal. Since 2014 over a dozen Virginia wines made with nebbiolo have earned Gold at the Virginia’s Governor’s Cup wine competition. Barboursville’s 2010 Nebbiolo and a 2016 bottle from Breaux Vineyards went on to place amongst the top-12 wines in the 2014 and 2021 competitions, respectively.

However, even supporters admit it’s not a perfect fit for Virginia. Multiple winegrowers voice concern over nebbiolo’s risk to frost. Several also pointed out its inconsistent yields, ranging from 1.5 to 4 tons an acre, depending on who and when you ask.

Despite this, a growing number of winegrowers are confident its problems can be addressed.

“Is it worth the trouble? I’d say, yes.” wrote Robert Muse of Muse Vineyards. “Each year when we get it to fully ripen, it gets better. I would say nebbiolo is finicky to the point almost of eccentricity. But we’re glad to have it, and I believe we’re more than halfway to understanding the variety and teasing out its best expressions.”

It’s familiarity to consumers also helps. In discussing Italian reds in Virginia, Josh Gerard of Breaux Vineyards added, “We grow both barbera and nebbiolo. Increased plantings of these two may be due in part to their recognition and familiarity in the marketplace.”

Virginia nebbiolo will never be mistaken for a bottle made in Italy, but it’s not trying to be. But if the results are good, what does it matter where the grapes came from?

Pouring a glass of his 1998 vintage, Luca discussed a blind tasting at a Texas Sommelier Conference where one of his bottles was compared to a nebbiolo from Italy. In terms of picking a favorite, the results were split.

In the end he reasoned, “Why worry about the ‘why’ when you have the proof in front of you?”

Nebbiolo is found across the state. Look for bottles from Barboursville, Breaux, Chestnut Oak, Gabriele Rausse, Gadino, Glen Manor, Greenhill, Horton, Muse, and Stone Tower Winery.

An Introduction To Virginia Wine

Virginia has the distinction of being both one of America’s oldest wine regions and an emerging one. The first wines produced in the Thirteen Colonies were grown in the late 1750s at plantations near the Chesapeake Bay. Decades later, Thomas Jefferson established himself as America’s foremost oenophile due to his love of French wine and doomed attempts to grow vines at his estate in Monticello.

Today, Virginia has over 300 wine brands and almost 4,400 acres of vines. While 82% of these vines are vinifera (mostly Bordeaux red grapes and Chardonnay), Virginia wine is increasingly looking outside Bordeaux varieties to guide the state’s future.

Virginia is also punching above its weight in terms of quality. In 2022 Wine Enthusiast announced it was dropping emerging areas around the country. Virginia made the cut (along with California, Washington, Oregon and New York) despite making less than 0.3% of the nation’s wine production.

Yet relatively few people have heard of Virginia wine, despite these laurels. That’s because of a combination of two intertwined factors; price and production.

Most Virginia wineries make under 3,500 cases/year; only a handful produce more than 40,000 cases/year. The boutique nature of the business means wineries seldom achieve the economy of scale necessary to compete in the $25 and under market. Even if they wanted to distribute, limited production means there’s little to spare.

Fortunately, the industry’s proximity to some of the nation’s wealthiest counties makes agro-tourism a strong driver for growth, which is why most Virginia wine is sold in the tasting room. Over 100 wineries are just over an hour’s drive from D.C. or Northern Virginia. More are located in the scenic Shenandoah Valley, historic Charlottesville, and beyond.

Virginia is geographically and arguably stylistically a middle-ground between California and France, but local winemakers are quick to point out the state’s unique growing conditions makes copying either of these areas nearly impossible.

Probably the most daunting challenge is the state’s hot, humid weather, abetted by copious amounts of rain. The best-performing varieties have qualities which mitigate the resulting rot and disease pressure, so grapes with thick skin and loose clusters are favored. Likewise, vineyards with excellent drainage are a must.

This has resulted in the widespread adoption of hardy grapes, with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot the most planted reds. Ironically, Virginia’s two most popular red varieties are ones Bordeaux considers minor blending grapes.

Other popular grapes tend to be site-specific. Cabernet Sauvignon typically only achieves ripeness when planted on rocky soil, while fragile Pinot Noir is only found in a handful of ‘goldilocks’ vineyards that possess just the right conditions. Fortunately, Merlot does well in Virginia’s clay-based soil, and Chardonnay is a reliable workhorse (as long as there’s no late spring frost).

Meanwhile, many obscure warm-weather varieties are gaining prominence. Two decades ago Virginia helped lead a worldwide renaissance in Viognier, a Rhône grape once threatened with extinction. More recently it became the world’s second-largest home of Petit Manseng, a high acid grape found in southern France. Tannat is gaining recognition in national wine competitions, and sometimes added to give blends color and tannin. Even Albariño is finding a home.

Virginia isn’t tied to any particular style. If it grows well here, someone is likely making a wine out of it.

So – if you’re looking to try a Virginia wine, what should you get?

Old World style expressions of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or Bordeaux blends can be found at Virginia’s better-known producers, such as Barbourville Vineyards, Linden Vineyards, and Michael Shaps. But people looking for something uniquely reflective of Virginia should try its single-varietal Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Petit Manseng, or Viognier, found all over the state.

That said, it’s unfair to pigeonhole Virginia into just a few categories. In the past year alone Barboursville’s Fiano won best Italian White at the 2022 San Francisco International. Muse Vineyard’s Roussanne was Best White in Show at the 2023 San Diego Wine and Spirits competition. Three of the past four years Trump Winery’s sparklings earned Best in Class wins at the San Francisco Chronical wine competition. The list goes on.

If there’s one take away for Virginia wine, it’s this is an industry that knows how to innovate. One local winery remarked how Virginia attracts ‘real’ winemakers, as they’ve learned to adapt to massive weather swings not just year-to-year but even within the same season. Virginia still considers itself a young wine region, but its producing results.

Virginia Tannats Vs The World

If you’re looking for the boldest wine in Virginia, drink Tannat. This densely purple wine is behind some of the state’s biggest reds, as well as a popular addition in blends looking for extra color and body.

Tannat found a home in Virginia in 1998 at Chrysalis Vineyard. It’s since proven to be a good match for Virginia’s terroir and one of the fastest-growing varieties over the past decade, with acreage going up from 32 acres in 2011 to 77 in 2021.

As international grapes go, it’s fairly rare and usually only found in warm-weather areas. While Tannat is closely associated with Uruguay and the Madiran region of Southwest France, it can also be found in Lodi, Paso Robles, and increasingly in Texas.

This grape’s name is a dead-give-away to its most famous qualities. In the Béarnese dialect spoken in Madiran, Tannat means “tanned,” referring to its deep color. But another explain may be its high tannin level; enough so the term ‘tannin’ likely became bastardized into ‘Tannat’.

Several factors contribute to its success in Virginia. Its grapes evacuate water well, allowing them to quickly recover from heavy rainfall. Another plus is Virginia’s hot summers naturally brings the grape’s high acidity down to more manageable levels. Its main deficiency is its vines aren’t winter hardy.

But its most distinguishing factor is its high levels of tannin, a trait caused by having 5 seeds instead of the traditional 2 or 3. Tannat is also strong in antioxidants, although few doctors would call it a health drink (personally…I think they should).

To say that I’m a huge Tannat fan is an understatement. I sampled three Tannat flights with each focused on a theme; a ‘younger’ Virginia flight, an older Virginia flight, and a trio of non-Virginia wines.

I’d like to say it was for science, but mostly it was personal curiosity how the ‘home team’ would perform. My Virginia inventory included Chateau O’Brien’s 2012 Tannat Limited Reserve (the only American wine to medal in Uruguay’s 2019 Tannat Al Mundo competition) and Maggie Malick’s 2017 Tannat (Best of Class in the 2021 San Francisco Chronical Wine Competition). I added a few high-profile Tannats from elsewhere as well, including highly regarded bottles from France and Uruguay.

I do admit one mistake in conducting my science experiment. I accidentally put the 2017 Maggie Malick in the flight of older Virginia Tannats, and the 2015 Horton went into what was supposed to be the 2017 vintage-only flight. Hey, mistakes happen when you’re blindly putting bottles into bags!

As always, a caveat – this event was the product of this day with this group of people with these particular bottles. I don’t pretend my one event proves the superiority of any one producer.

The Contenders:

  1. 2016 Batovi Tannat T1 (Uruguay)
  2. 2015 Chateau Bouscasse Vieilles Vignes (Madiran, France)
  3. 2016 Broken Earth Vineyard (Paso Robles, California) 
  4. 2017 Maggie Malick Wine Caves 
  5. 2012 Hiddencroft Vineyards
  6. 2012 Chateau O’Brien Tannat Limited Reserve
  7. 2017 “Staggerwing” Walsh Family Wine 
  8. 2017 Arterra Wines
  9. 2015 Horton Vineyards Barrel Select

All wines were uncorked for at least 4.5 hours prior to the event and were made with 90-100% Tannat.

Round 1 / Flight 1

  • Bottle #1: 2016 Batovi Tannat T1 (Uruguay) 
  • Bottle #2: 2015 Chateau Bouscasse Vieilles Vignes (Madiran, France) (Tie)
  • Bottle #3: 2016 Broken Earth Vineyard (Paso Robles, California) (Tie)

The first flight was my favorite, which made me feel a bit of a traitor since I love VA Tannats. But trust me – it was a flight of champions.

Uruguay is famous for Tannat and Batovi is one of their most famous producers. The 2016 Broken Earth won Best in Class at the 2020 San Francisco Chronical Wine Competition. While I’m not familiar with French Tannats, I picked up a $50 Chateau Bouscasse Vieilles Vignes which scored 95 points from Wine Enthusiast.

This round ended n a tie between #2 (Bouscasse) and #3 (Broken Earth). Since both were so loved, I eventually gave both a pass to the finalist round.

Bottle #1: 2016 Batovi Tannat T1. Blueberry or chocolate on the nose and notes of stewed fruit. The finish was full of plumb and earthy notes. Several participants noted it was ‘gritty’, which in this context wasn’t a favorable description.

Bottle #2: 2015 Chateau Bouscasse Vieilles Vignes. Tapenade on the nose, grippy tannin. Much was discussed concerning the disconnect between the fruit and tannin; the tannin stayed with you long after the fruit dissipated, leaving you wanting more. But damn, that tannin was still pretty nice and it was smoother than expected.

Bottle #3: 2016 Broken Earth Vineyard. Lots of floral notes were mentioned; fig, jam, red cherry. Liquorish finish. This wine had a fuller body than the others; grippy tannins but not as much as #2.

Perhaps the best description for this wine was it reminded you of a high-alcohol Cabernet (notable as it was from California). “My steak wine” was another descriptor.

Favorites (from most to least)

  • Participant #1: 3/2/1
  • Participant #2: 3/2/1
  • Participant #3: 2/3/1
  • Participant #4: 2/3/1
  • Participant #5: 3/2/1
  • Participant #6: 2/3/1

Round 1 / Flight 2

  • Bottle #4: 2017 Maggie Malick Wine Caves 
  • Bottle #5: 2012 Hiddencroft 
  • Bottle #6: 2012 Chateau O’Brien (Round Winner)

This round was very different from the previous one. The way the nose positively burst from the glasses made the first-round wines relatively muted by comparison. I mistook this round as the ‘young’ Virginia round, because I figured only young wines would be so expressive.

Bottle #4: 2017 Maggie Malick Wine Caves. Although this wine was only 13% (one of the lower alcohol wines of this event) it had a hot note that I associate with higher-alcohol wines. Red velvet cake or coco powder on the nose. Notes of red fruit, plumb, or candied plumb were mentioned.

Bottle #5: 2012 Hiddencroft. I didn’t find this wine as expressive on the palate as the others did, although others had notes of black cherry or blackberry. Green pepper on the nose and palate, good acidity.

Bottle #6: 2012 Chateau O’Brien. Smooth; stewed fruit and green pepper on the palate, smokey. It had an almost barnyard-y quality on the palate, which in this case was a positive attribute.

“Tobacco tannin” was the note that most people agreed with. Someone mentioned it had an almost candied cherry note to it on the palate, as well as good fruit but remained well balanced.

  • Participant #1: 5/6/4
  • Participant #2: 6/5/4
  • Participant #3: 6/4/4
  • Participant #4: 6/4/5
  • Participant #5: 6/5/4
  • Participant #6: 5/6/4

Round 1 / Flight 3

  • Bottle #7: 2017 Walsh Family Wine 
  • Bottle #8: 2017 Arterra Wines (Round Winner)
  • Bottle #9: 2015 Horton Barrel Select 

We all noted the wines of this round had lots of barnyard notes on the nose. You could have fooled me into thinking these vintages were older.

Bottle #7: 2017 Walsh Family Wine. Notes were getting difficult at this point. Not fruit driven like the others we tried.

Bottle #8: 2017 Arterra Wines. Tart palate. Blueberry, cherry, even blackberry notes. Someone noted it has some pyrazines and ripe fruit on the nose. Grippy tannin. That said, the fruit was ‘bright’.

Bottle #9: 2015 Horton Barrel Select. This was all about earthy notes. Fig, earthy, dates, even meat. Some funk and both red and black fruit on the palate. Tart, but not as tart as #8.

  • Participant #1: 8/9/7: Thought #8 was the most approachable.
  • Participant #2: 8/9/7. Another vote for ‘fun’ over ‘cerebral’
  • Participant #3: 8/9/7. Thought #8 was ‘fun’ while #9 was ‘serious’
  • Participant #4: 8/9/7
  • Participant #5: 9/8/7
  • Participant #6: 9/8/7. Liked the ‘weird nose’. Continued to insist #9 (Horton) was the best of the day because it was the most fun to drink.

Finalist Round

  • Wine #2 / 2015 Chateau Bouscasse Vieilles Vignes (France) – Favorite of the day
  • Wine #3 / 2016 Broken Earth Vineyard (Paso Robles, California): #3 of the day
  • Wine #6 / 2012 Chateau O’Brien – #2 of the day; favorite Virginia
  • Wine #8 / 2017 Arterra: #4 of the day
  • Participant #1: 2 / 8 / 3 / 6
  • Participant #2: 2 / 6 / 3 / 8. Madiran had the nose but not the palate. California had the finish.
  • Participant #3: 2 / 3 / 6 / 8
  • Participant #4: 2 / 6 / 8 / 3
  • Participant #5: 6 / 2 / 8 / 3
  • Participant #6: 2 and 3 were tied / 6 / 8 (with a protest vote for #9, Horton).

No tasting notes this time; we sorted the top-4 wines in order of how much we favored them.

Our preferences strongly correlated to the wine’s overall approachability, and I suspect age did a lot to improve that approachability. We did pause for light bites before this round, but for the most part these wines were sampled without a supporting dish that catered to them.

Much to my surprise, France won. I say this because I’d not heard good things concerning the quality of French Tannats found in local wine stores, as (allegedly) Madiran’s best tend not to be exported. But this bottle proves that’s wrong; it was truly outstanding.

After our winning Wine Enthusiast 95-point wine, if you go by critical acclaim then the best scoring or most award-winning wines typically did the best. Not sure if it’s a coincidence or not, but the older the wine was the more we liked it (a 2012 vintage came in runner up, then a 2016 vintage was 3rd, then our 2017 vintage came in 4th).

O’Brien has long been a personal favorite and it was the favorite Virginia wine of the day (#2 overall). This wine’s claim to fame is it was the only American Tannat to medal in a major Tannat event in Uruguay, and I see why. Holding for a full decade took a lot of willpower.

The Broken Earth from California lived up to being a “Best in Show” wine at the 2020 San Fransisco Wine Chronical wine competition, clocking in #3 for the evening.

I wasn’t surprised at all that Arterra made it into the final round. It was also the youngest wine in the final lineup (#4 overall).

Lessons Learned

It’s tough to make observations of a region based on one wine, so I’ll forgo that for another event. But I did walk away with a greater appreciation of Madiran. If you hear someone say “Madiran doesn’t ship their best wines” they’re wrong. This Chateau Bouscasse was almost universally decreed our favorite of the day.

The biggest surprise was the Maggie wine didn’t show as well as I thought it would. I’d tried it before and it was far smoother at the time, so I can’t give a good explanation as to why it came off so ‘hot’ this time. It demonstrated to me how great wines don’t necessarily show well all the time.

But my most important observation is how the older wines nearly aways showed better than their younger compatriots. Granted 2017 was an outstanding year for Virginia reds and 6 years of age is fairly decent maturity. But even then, a 2017 vintage next to something older made it easy to tell the difference.

The older it was the more drinkable it was. The more drinkable, the higher we tended to score it. Age matters for Tannat.

On the Road Again: Good Spirit Farm and October One Vineyard Tasting Room

Over the past year I’d slowed my roll when it came to visiting new places. Between trying to reduce my (overly abundant) wine inventory and revisiting old favorites, exploring took a back seat.

Fortunately, 2023 kicked off with a bunch of new wineries opening in easy driving distance, plus others opened in 2022 that I hadn’t spent much time at. Despite having a rainy Friday, I took the opportunity to get out and try two of them; Good Spirit Farm and the new October One Tasting Room in Leesburg.

First off was Good Spirit Farm, named after the English transition of the owner’s name – Gutermuth.

Located in the town of Round Hill (not far from Bluemont and Purcellville), the winery looks like the bottom point of a triangle-shaped mini wine trail consisting of Otium and Bluemont Vineyards, with Bogadi Winery and Monk’s BBQ thrown into the mix for good measure. Any wine trail that puts me within 10 minutes of good BBQ earns bonus points, so a visit was an easy sell.

This region feels like a blend of modern residential areas and old-time Virginia farm country. If you take Snickersville Pike you’ll pass a mixture of old farm manor homes and cow pastures, with the occasional small home, general store, and Airbnb thrown in for good measure. Eventually the sign for Good Spirit Farm popped up and there I was.

It’s a shame the day was so overcast because my photos don’t do the place justice. The farm was (until a few years ago) a private home sitting on 42 acres. The owners repurposed main building into a tasting room and the hills in their backyard became the vineyard. White dotted posts marking baby vines dot the backyard. There’s an Airbnb coming as well.

Co-owner Mike Gutermuth was behind the bar when I came in; his wife Luanne soon joined us. Their ‘how I started a winery’ story rhymes with what you hear from many owners; both started off by visiting Virginia wineries and telling themselves ‘We can do this too’. As they got closer to retirement, those discussions became more serious until they took the plunge.

Of course, owning a winery is likely a busier line of work than their last gigs. Mike even explained “I don’t think I ever worked so hard!”.

The Gutermuths looked at several wineries currently on the market but ultimately decided to start from scratch and found this location in 2020. Most of the 7.5-acre vineyard was planted in 2021, so it will be a while before they have their own estate wine. The vineyard has many of the usual suspects from Bordeaux, but also includes some Albariño and Pinot Blanc.

Since Good Spirit Farm is just getting started they’re serving a combination of wines from both Virginia and around the world. All of them emulate styles the Gutermuths plan on producing from their (still baby) vineyard. Red and white flights are available. They also advertised some light bites including burrata and charcuterie plates.

Of the Virginia wines available, my favorite was the 2020 Petit Verdot, which was made at Veritas. The other Virginia bottles include a red blend, rosé and Chardonnay. Not surprisingly, I also liked their Galician Albariño.

I was really happy to hear Nate Walsh will make their wine in the future; his custom crush business has been killing it. I had a glass of the PV while enjoying the view outside; I loved the expansive set of windows with a view of the vineyard. Then, off to my next stop – October One.

October One Tasting Room

The namesake October One Vineyard (O1V) is located in Bluemont, but the business of selling wine for years was conducted at both the Leesburg and Cascades Farmers Markets. In good weather and bad, Bob and Loree Rupy grew their business at these venues until they were ready to take the next step of moving into a brick-and-mortar location.

For a small business their wine got a lot of recognition early on. Their 2018 Viognier won the Loudoun Wine Award’s Grand Chairman Award in 2019, and their 2020 Viognier won the prize again in 2021. Nate Walsh is also their winemaker.

That ‘next step’ occurred in August 2022 when they opened a tasting room in Leesburg near the corner of Loudoun and King Street (they still keep up with the markets, though). Their new location is conveniently located right across the street from a parking garage, plus its walking distance of several great restaurants.

O1V doesn’t just sell O1V wine. If anything, it’s probably the most Virginia-centric wine store in Virginia right now. You can find a rotating selection of other Virginia producers from around the state including NOVA, Charlottesville, and the Shenandoah Valley.

They offer both glasses and comparative flights, consisting of an O1V wine and friends. The tasting room even had a Chardonnay from Ankida Ridge, a glass of which I enjoyed while waiting for the event to set up.

Most of their production focused on Bordeaux grapes, but they also have estate Viognier and Albariño. While the former has been killing it at the local wine awards, the latter is probably my favorite. So when they announced a special Albariño and oyster event, it was an easy sell for me.

Oysters and Albariño are a famously great pairing. This grape has a natural saline and minerality quality to it that pairs well with seafood. Bob explained they got the idea from a neighbor at one of his farmer’s markets, and they’d frequently join forces because who could resist either when served side-by side?

This time the event included a trio of Virginia Albariños; their own, plus Cana and Chrysalis. Their event from a few months ago included Maggie Malcik and Boden Young as their ‘guest’ wines. The oysters themselves came from a spot off the Eastern Shore.

Of the three options, my favorite was the house 2021 O1V. But I have to say, the tiny sample I had of the 2022 Albariño was my favorite of the day; it was just very fresh and full bodied.

Anybody else visit these places? Let me know what you thought!

Exploring Northern Neck Wine

My latest article from the Old Town Crier is posted – Exploring Northern Neck Wine

I sometimes joke how I wish some places were closer to me, but the remoteness of the Northern Neck is actually one of its appeals.

It’s also the trifecta of what I look for on a road trip; good wine, history, and a fun local cuisine (in this case, seafood). It’s not just colonial history either; it’s the history of Virginia wine.

2023 Virginia Governor’s Cup Recap

At the conclusion of a packed gala, Governor Glen Youngkin awarded Delfosse Vineyards and Winery the 2023 Virginia Governor’s Cup for its 2021 Screaming Hawk Meritage (50% Petit Verdot/30% Cabernet Sauvignon/10% Cabernet Franc/10% Malbec).

Located in the town of Faber, Delfosse (aka Mountain & Vine) is a good 30-minute drive from Charlottesville and part of the Nelson 29 Wine Trail. It’s a beautiful location, and I’ve long thought Delfosse has done an especially great job with their red blends.

The Screaming Hawk’s dominant component is Petit Verdot. While this grape does great in Virginia as a single-varietal wine, it’s becoming just as popular as the star component of red blends instead of its traditional place as a blending background singer. Over the past decade PV has largely supplanted Cabernet Sauvignon as the variety winemakers rely upon to contribute tannin and body.

2023 Virginia Governor’s Case

  1. Delfosse Vineyards and Winery, 2021 Screaming Hawk Meritage (Cup Winner) (50% Petit Verdot/30% Cab Sauv/10% Cab Franc/10% Malbec)
  2. 50 West Vineyards, 2020 Petit Manseng
  3. Barboursville Vineyards, 2021 Vermentino Reserve
  4. Barren Ridge Vineyards, 2017 Petit Verdot
  5. Jefferson Vineyards, 2021 Petit Manseng
  6. Jefferson Vineyards, 2019 Meritage (45% Merlot/40% Petit Verdot/12% Cab Franc/3% Malbec)
  7. Mountain Run Winery, 2021 Petit Verdot
  8. Paradise Springs Winery, 2021 Petit Verdot
  9. Pollak Vineyards, 2017 Meritage (60% Cabernet Franc/24% Merlot/16% Petit Verdot)
  10. Trump Winery, 2019 New World Reserve (45% Merlot/30% Cabernet Franc/15% Petit Verdot/10% Malbec)
  11. Trump Winery, 2016 Blanc de Noir
  12. Williamsburg Winery, 2019 Petit Verdot Reserve

Albemarle CiderWork’s Orchard Blush, their first cider rosé, took the prize for top cider.

This year’s Governor’s Case focused on varieties which perform exceptionally well in Virginia, especially Petit Verdot (4 entries) and Petit Manseng (2 entries). Around the world these grapes barely get noticed, but they are leaders in Virginia. Notably, all four of the Case’s red blends (from Delfosse, Jefferson, Pollock, and Trump) have at least some PV.

In fact, only 2 wines in the Case didn’t use a grape named ‘Petit’: Barboursville’s Vermentino Reserve and Trump Winery’s Blanc de Noir. The Vermentino made its sixth entry into the Case over the past seven years. Trump winemaker Jonathan Wheeler contributed his third consecutive sparking to the Case in as many years.

Looking outside the Case, this year saw a record 142 Gold Medals spread amongst 614 entries. Half the medals went to red blends (29), Petit Verdot (24), Cabernet Franc (17) and Petit Manseng (11).

Initial Take-Aways

1. Hidden Gems Win Big – Delfosse, Mountain Run, and Altillo: I’m happy to see smaller, sometimes more out-of-the-way wineries get recognized for the great things they do.

Delfosse scored their first Governor’s Cup win. It shouldn’t be a surprise; they’ve earned 6 Gold medals at the Cup in 3 years; 3 of them in 2023 alone. It’s the definition of an ‘underrated’ winery.

Mountain Run also had a big night. Located just outside Culpeper, I believe this was their first-time submitting wines in the Cup. They did fantastic for their first Cup rodeo, scoring 3 Golds and a place in the Governor’s Case for their Petit Verdot.

While the wine is under Mountain Run’s label, the PV that went into the Case was actually produced by Eric Schenkel of Altillo Vineyards in southern Virginia.

Altillo sells fruit and makes many of Mountain Run’s wines (as well as other wineries), in addition to their own estate wine. Few wineries are as off the ‘beaten path’ as this one is.

If there’s a “Lesson Learned” here its winery-lovers need to explore more, or they’ll miss great wineries like these three. It’s all too easy to stick to better known wine trails in Charlottesville and Loudoun or stick with famous producers like Michael Shaps or Mattieu Finot.

But for all their fame, few ‘big names’ wineries that are perineal contenders got into the Governor’s Case. So take a chance to get out to smaller places; Virginia is full of ‘hidden gems’ like these.

2. Petit Verdot For the Win: If there’s a grape that dominated this year’s competition, it’s Petit Verdot. Full Petit Verdot wines took 24 Golds this year, almost as many (25) as the past 4 Governor’s Cup competitions combined. 4 of these wines went into the Case; another record high.

PV was a component of the Case’s 4 red blends as well. The winning Delfosse 2021 Screaming Hawk was made with 50% PV. The other three bottles contained anywhere from 15%-40% PV.

This grape’s popularity has exploded over the past decade. In 2021 Virginia had 173 acres in the ground, but as of 2021 with 445 acres it is now easily the 3rd most planted grape in the state (after Cab Franc and Chardonnay).

3. Petit Manseng is the Cup’s ‘Runner Up’ Grape: 11 PMs took Gold; 2 of these went on to places in the Case. Both were new records.

Much like Petit Verdot, Petit Manseng is a grape that thrives in Virginia’s terroir. With thick skin and loose clusters, Petit Manseng don’t mind the state’s humid weather. A decade ago there was only 68 acres in the state. But as of 2021 that number grew a whopping 161%, making it the 9th most planted variety in Virginia.

Honorable Mentions:

1. Hybrid Grapes: No case entries (yet), but table wines made with hybrid grapes had a banner year.

Chambourcin and Vidal earned three Golds each, and Chardonel took home another Gold. The count is higher if you include dessert and sparkling wines made with hybrid grapes.

Hybrids rarely get a lot of love in major competitions, but I’m hopeful this will change over time. Not only are wine drinkers becoming more accepting of hybrid grapes, but winemakers are also willing to treat them with the same dedication they show vinifera.

2. Diversity of Grapes & Styles: Rosemont Vineyards & Walsh Family: I was really happy to see some favorites of mine get recognized, especially for wines/styles that are new to the Cup.

Walsh’s Chenin Blanc is the first wine of this variety to earn Gold at the Cup. Rosemont’s Chambourcin-based Sparking Extra Brut Sparkling Rosé also took Gold.

I mention these wineries not just because they are great, but they demonstrate the breadth of grapes and styles Virginia has the capacity to produce. I’d never heard of Chenin in Virginia until a few years ago. Now, 5-6 wineries offer one.

Sparkling wine has likewise taken off in the state. While producers including Trump, Veritas, and Thibaut-Janisson produce excellent Methode Champenoise-style wines, the ease of producing Pét-nat and Charmat-style wines has made these styles popular with smaller producers.

3. Cabernet Franc: No Case entries, but 17 Golds isn’t bad. It’s the most planted grape in Virginia for a reason.

4. Gold…Lots of Gold: 142 Gold Medals was a new record. Judges emphasized how every year the quality of the entries has improved.

King Family rocked with 7 Gold medals, Paradise Springs took home 6 Gold (and winemaker Rob Cox made 2 Gold-winning wines for Williams Gap), Pollock and Trump both earned 5 (and spots in the Governor’s Case), and Michael Shaps won a boatload of Golds.

Just as importantly, smaller wineries also got due recognition, including (but not limited to) Narmada (4), Bluestone (3), Delfosse (3), and Mountain Run (3) bringing home major hauls.