Lake Anna Winery

It had been a while since I’ve visited Lake Anna Winery, but it appeared back on my radar when they won 3 Gold Medals for their Chardonnay, Petit Verdot, and Tannat in the 2020 Virginia Governor’s Cup competition; the Tannat went on to the Governor’s Case. This was a huge coup for a smaller winery; definitely one of the best showings in the entire competition. As I’m a fan of both Tannat and Petit Verdot, I definitely needed a revisit.

It so happened that owner Jeff Heidig and winemaker Graham Bell were available on a Friday afternoon, so I was able to sneak in before the inevitable crowds came down to buy-up all the award winning wine. Both gents still seemed a little dazed at the newfound recognition, to say the least.

Tastes like – VICTORY

I love the location; the winery is only a short drive from the lake it’s named after (the park also has great hiking trails!). Although mid-sized by Virginia standards, the tasting room is very spacious. There is plenty of room for events, plus a cozy fireplace. Jeff explained that the lake is a magnet for tourists, who often congregate here on rainy days.

Jeff also gave me some background on his vineyard; 19 acres of vines, with a mix of vinifera and hybrids. While much of their wine is estate, they still purchase some fruit from places like Horton. One surprising fact is they grow Dornfelder, a rarity in Virginia. While most often it goes into blends, in good years they sometimes have enough to bottle it on its own.

As Lake Anna has a diverse set of customers, their lineup of wines runs the range of dry to sweet options. Graham led me through a tasting while explaining his thought process in the creation of his Gold Medal winners.

For the white and sweet options, I really liked the 2019 Seyval, which was grassy and reminded me of a Sauvignon Blanc. The 2018 Seyval had strong apple notes, like a Granny Smith. The 2017 “Totally White” was an easy drinking semi-sweet that seems a good all-around crowd pleaser. The NV Claret was an easy drinking red blend with a hint of sweetness. I also enjoyed their “Concerto” red wine (enhanced with cherries) and the “Essential”, made in an ice-wine style. Needless to say, anyone partial to sweeter wines will find lots to love here.

From there we moved into the bolder reds. 2017 Merlot had notes of dark cherry and great acidity and roundness (no doubt assisted by the 10% Petit Verdot blended in). The 2015 Petit Verdot was fairly fruit-forward by PV standards. I even had a chance to sample some wines still in barrel; I especially liked the Dornfelder, which is a varietal I almost never see in Virginia.

But the highlight were those Gold-medal reds. I loved that 2017 Tannat; it had more fruit notes than I expected, and an interesting complexity that came from being fermented in neutral barrels but assisted with oaken staves. The 2017 Petit Verdot had strong tannin and acid, but with time this will soften up (plus this is a VERY age-worthy vintage).

If you haven’t been to Lake Anna – GO!

The Tannat Taste-Off at Maggie Malick Wine Caves

One of the joys of being a wine blogger is you get to fool people into thinking you’re smarter about wine than you really are. Such was the case with my invite by Mark and Maggie Malick (of Maggie Malick Wine Caves) to join them in a tasting of Tannat wines from around the world.

The Malicks have a special love for the Tannat grape. High in acid and tannin, I usually see it paired with rich foods like beef or aged cheese. While otherwise known as the national grape of Uruguay, Tannat does well in Virginia as well, as our gradual summers facilitate the kind of slow ripening that Tannat needs to grow well.

Mark guarding his tannat vines

Mark invited a bunch of Tannat winemakers from around Virginia to bring their wines for a comparison; non-winemakers like myself brought bottles from California, Oregon, even Israel. Toping that off were a half-dozen Tannats from Uruguay; the spoils of the Malick’s most recent ‘research’ visit. All told, we had over a dozen people gathered around their dinner table eating cassoulet & cheese and – most importantly – sampling about 20 bottles of Tannat.

While obviously it’s impossible not to have a great time while drinking a lot of wine, the winemakers used this as an opportunity for some cross-talk regarding how they made their wines, what audiences they sell it to, and speculation on Tannat’s place in the portfolio of Virginia wines. Tannat is unlikely to become a top seller in Virginia, but it does serve as an effective replacement to bold California-style reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

In addition to the Malicks and some friends, in attendance were Mark Beckel of Chateau O’Brien, Doug Fabbioli of Fabbioli Cellars, Michael Heny of Michael Shaps Wineworks, Chris Pearmund of Pearmund Cellars, and Scott Spelbring of Bluemont. If anybody could ‘talk Tannat’, it was this crew.

What did I learn? Well, I’d say two main things:

First, Tannats have distinct regional differences. Very often the nose of the Uruguayan Tannats had a mustiness that was a dead give-away, and they trended towards being on the fruitier side. The California & Oregon Tannats were both softer and less tannic than anything else on the table. The short finish of the Israeli Tannat made it something of an outlier. The Virginia selections were the most diverse, with some trending towards tannic and weighty but others more fruit-forward. “Rounder” might be the best single adjective to describe Virginia’s Tannat lineup.

Second, cellar time really does matter. That’s true about wine in general, but I think it’s doubly so with the Tannat grape. Tannin need time to smooth out, and you could easily tell the difference between wines that were 8 years old vs ones that were 3-4 years old. Unfortunately Virginia’s Tannats were almost uniformly young. The good news is if they were good now, they will only get better over time.

Paring #1:

  • 2017 Effingham (Virginia). Smooth but young, with notes of caramel. The super ripe 2017 fruit and the luxurious Virginia Oak (Culpeper!) will only further knit together over time.
  • 2011 Amat (Uruguay): This was one of the hits of the day, and ended up being Mark’s favorite. Chris started off with noting how it had some weight to it but was still well balanced.  The tannins on this one were smooth.

Pairing #2

  • 2016 Garzon (Uruguay): “Ripe” was the key word here. There seemed an underlying mustiness to it with a hint of oak; maybe the wine was made in older barrels?
  • 2016 Michael Shaps (Virginia): The charred oak was noticeable, and we could tell it was a younger wine. Grippy tannins. But overall very enjoyable, and we agreed it will only get better with age.

Pairing #3

  • 2016 Tabor (Israel): This was one of the more unusual wines of the evening.  It came from a vineyard on the Golan Heights, a distinction that caused some to joke they tasted notes of ‘gun smoke and shrapnel’. Doug said it tasted ‘funky’ but in a good way. The musty nose and short finish were noticeable. One taster noted it has “unresolved” tannin (aka firm, tight tannin structure associated with younger wines).
  • 2015 Fabbioli (Virginia). One of higher-acid wines of the night, which along with the delicate fruit character and restrained use of oak made it a welcome contrast to the riper, more heavily extracted examples of the evening. Notably this wine won the 2019 Loudoun County Wine Award’s “Best Tannat”.

Pairing #4

  • 2017 Joy (Lodi, California): A “smaller” wine. We didn’t see any notable flaws to it but neither did it have a lot of oomph, especially in comparison to several bottles we had already enjoyed.
  • 2017 Arterra (Virginia): Black fruit on the nose, but had noticeable acidity and a nice finish. It was one of the more interesting wines of the night, likely a result of having been fermented using native yeast (winemaker Jason Murray’s signature style). The only downside is it tasted young.

Pairing #5

  • 2016 Troon Vineyard (Oregon): I looked this one up and discovered it was also made using native yeast, but the Troon couldn’t be more different from the Arterra. Not a lot going on in the nose. Very soft, made in a lighter style. We suspect this was a Tannat made for Pinot drinkers, and was the least Tannat-like wine of the entire lineup.
  • 2017 Maggie Malick (Virginia): Blended with 5% Petit Verdot & 5% Merlot. Coconut notes from the American oak popped out. Christmas spices on the palate. We liked it but like many of the 2017s on the menu, we felt it was young; the notes needed time to integrate.

Pairing #6:

  • 2016 Batovi (Uruguay): Weak nose, except for some musty notes. Not a lot of weight on the palate; more fruit driven than many of the others we were trying. I looked it up and later saw Wine Enthusiast gave it 93 points, which was a higher rating than I suspect people at the table were giving it. Maybe it’s a stylistic preference that Virginia’s Tannat winemakers are more focus on weight and tannin than Uruguay’s Tannat winemakers are?
  • 2017 Upper Shirley (Virginia) The second entry of a Michael Shaps wine. Good length and roundness on the palate. Not as heavy as we were expecting.

Pairing #7

  • Spinoglio (Uruguay): This one also required some research; I believe it’s a Tannat blend and/or non-vintage wine. It did seem more aged than other offerings, and was easier drinking. Despite its background Doug said it had a ‘monolithic’ taste to it, as if the winemakers tried too hard for consistency over complexity.
  • 2012 Chateau O’Brien (Virginia): Strong, refined and weighty. The acidity dried my mouth up quickly. Although it was 15% alcohol it didn’t taste remotely like it. One of the hits of the night, alongside the Amat.

Pairing #8

  • 2014 Horton (Virginia): Tiny bit of musk on the nose. Leather and dark fruit notes. Tannic, medium-to-long finish.
  • 2017 Bluemont (Virginia) This wine was made with fruit from the Maggie Malick vineyard. Candy finish. Brambleberry notes. Someone noted this wine was a good representation of what a Virginia Tannat should taste like.

Pairing #9

  • 2017 Pippin Hill (Tannat blend, Virginia): Young, easier drinking and less tannic than most others.
  • 2017 Maggie Malick Tannat-Viognier (90% Tannat/10% Viognier, Virginia): Easy drinking, aromatic. This is the kind of wine that doesn’t need a food pairing to enjoy it. It’s also Maggie’s best-selling wine and the only winery in Virginia that sells this blend.

Pairing #10

  • Bone Orchard (port-style): Crushed blackberry notes. It was also…getting more difficult to taste anything at this point, given were now on our 19th and 20th wines of the night.
  • 2011 Vivent de Tannat (Uruguay): Classic port-style. Weight-driven not tannin driven. Christmas spice notes and noticeably high alcohol.

Was there a favorite? Based on what could tell, the consensus was the 2012 Chateau O’Brien and the 2011 Amat were the top two. I thought the O’Brien was the smoothest of the evening, while the Amat was the most complex. Which is better depends on what style you preferred.

PS; I actually learned a third lesson of the night. When doing wine tastings, ALWAYS write your notes down immediately! Because the next morning might be…fuzzy…

Windridge Vineyards

Maryland wineries are the same driving distance as the ones I visit in Virginia, yet somehow I don’t visit them nearly as often. But I really should – Maryland’s wine scene is growing fast; every time I look at my map I find a new winery had popped up. Such was the case with Windridge Vineyards.

Windridge is west of Gaithersburg, somewhere along that invisible boundary where the burbs turns into farm country. It’s also a very new winery, opening in July 2019.

But ‘new’ is relative here; they’ve had vineyards for a while and only recently took the plunge to open a full-fledged winery. The current tasting room is a temporary setup while they build their permanent one. Fortunately that didn’t stop a friend & I from grabbing a seat inside while doing some wine ‘research’.

With the exception of a Riesling, all of Windridge’s wines were made with estate fruit or purchased in Maryland. Currently they have 27 acres of vines planted, including Syrah and Albariño.  It excites me to see wineries planting vines that I don’t see that often; Albariño especially is well suited to the local terroir.

I was particularly taken with the Cabernet Franc and their Seneca red-blend, but across the board I enjoyed the lineup. And if this wasn’t enough, winemaker Nick Maliska poured a sample of their 2019 Cabernet Franc juice taken from a barrel. 2019 is going to be a fantastic year up and down the east coast, and Maryland wines from that vintage will be outstanding.

What I tried:

2018 Rose: Merlot/Cab Sauv/Cab Franc blend, strawberry in color and strawberry-watermelon notes on the palate.

2017 & 2018 Chardonnays: I enjoyed both, but for different reasons. The 2017 had some nice lemon notes, while 2018 had a surprisingly long finish. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, I think I liked the 2018 better even though it was from a horrible growing year.

2017 Chambourcin: This was a full-flavored Chambourcin, without becoming a fruit bomb. Also had some pepper notes.

2017 Ithaca Reserve (Chambourcin): Less pepper and more fruit-forward.

Chardonel: I’m not always a fan of this hybrid but I liked this one quite a bit. It was off dry and its acidity gave it a nice ‘fresh’ quality.

Seneca (red blend): Earthy, mushroom on the nose. Some acidity and fruit that appeared in the finish.

2017 Cabernet Franc Reserve: This was on the lighter side of the Cab Franc spectrum, with some fruit notes.

2016 “The Old Line” port-style: Strong bourbon notes, which I LOVE in my port-styles. One of the nicer port-styles I’ve enjoyed recently. Made with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

Philip Carter Winery

Two of my favorite subjects are history and wine. Fortunately, these things intersect at Philip Carter Winery.

The founder of Philip Carter is a descendant of North America’s the first internationally recognized winemaker, who back in colonial days sent London’s Royal Society of Arts a dozen bottles of wine made at his plantation. Nobody is sure what type of grapes he used, but the Society thought well enough of the wine they awarded him a gold medal. Not bad for a beginner!

Club manager Kristel greeted me as I came in – and took great care of me for the next hour. The tasting room reminds me of a barn, only it’s also surrounded by about a dozen acres of vines. There’s plenty of seating both inside and out as well.

12 acres of vines is mid-sized by Virginia standards, but new vines planted at their sister winery at Valley View Farm will expand its acreage of vinifera. Most of their fruit is estate, with a small portion purchased locally. Although both locations source from the same vines and made at the same location, stylistically speaking the intent is to keep the two separate.

Two things brought me to Philip Carter. One was the recommendation of their former winemaker, Jeremy Ligon (now at Creek’s Edge). The second was a sampling of their signature blend – Cleve.

Calling me a Tannat fanatic might be an exaggeration…but not by much. Cleve is a 50/50 split of Tannat and Petit Verdot; my second favorite grape. I couldn’t tell you why putting two high-tannin grapes together works so well, but they seem to bring the best out of one another. Having had a sample of this once before, I was hooked.

I lucked out as Kristelle allowed me to sample much of their portfolio of wines. While I’m partial to reds – especially red blends – there was something on the tasting menu for all palates. This is one of the few places I’m confident I can bring friends regardless if they prefer sweet or dry wines.

What I tried:

2014 Chardonnay: Apple on the nose and palate; Kristelle explained this was a Chardonnay for non-Chard drinkers. I heartily concurred.

2018 Viognier: Soft as Viogniers go; no honeysuckle on the nose but I found it on the palate.

2016 Valley View (Chardonnay/Vidal blend): Semi-sweet. You can smell the Vidal in it, despite those notes being more subdued.

2016 Governor Fauquier (Vidal): Definitely on the sweet side.

2017 Nomini (Cab Franc): Light in color with some pepper notes.

Valley View Red (Cab Franc/Merlot): Light fruit on the nose but I could taste darker fruit…maybe even cranberry?

2016 Corotoman (Meritage): Must be Cabernet Franc heavy; definitely darker fruit notes.

2016 Cleve: Now we’re talking! 50/50 Petit Verdot/Tannat blend. Much smoother than I was expecting, especially with that chocolate pairing. Mushroom on the nose. My favorite of the entirely lineup.

Sweet Danielle (Vidal desert wine): Sweet (as expected) although the pineapple notes surprised me.

“1762” port-style: Very, very smooth. This brand has consistently been one of my favorites in the state. So good that on a previous visit I almost bribed a club member to buy it for me!

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.

Stinson Vineyards

As one of the smaller Charlottesville-based wineries, Stinson is easy to miss. Located in the woods just outside the city, it doesn’t have the grandiose tasting room that some neighbors have. But it has one key ingredient – excellent vino made by it resident winemaker, Rachel Stinson Vrooman.

Rachael said her winemaking style is inspired by the “garagiste” (garage) wineries of France. There’s likely a double meaning to this as the Stinson tasting room is located in an old garage, plus her consultant Matthieu Finot (of King Family Vineyard) to this day makes wine in his own garage. Hey – who needs a wine cave when you have a wine garage!

Even more astounding is she has no formal training; her previous job was a photo editor in New York. But when her parents purchased an old vineyard in Crozet, she came down to become their winemaker (her first vintage was produced in 2010). Today Stinson produces around 2800 cases/year from 7 acres of vines, plus locally sourced fruit.

I find myself constantly revisiting Stinson because this is one of the very rare wineries that I’ve ALWAYS left with at least one bottle. That’s no small feat; I visit a lot of places so I’m forced to be choosey on where to spend. I’m especially partial to their Sauvignon Blanc and Tannat, but vintage after vintage I always seem to return to their Chardonnay.

Stinson also serves wine from two other vineyards; Ankida Ridge (owned by her husband) and Turk Mountain Vineyard. Turk Mountain doesn’t have a tasting room so they sell their wine here. Unlike Stinson, Turk’s wines tend to have a rustic, unrefined quality to them.

Unlike most wineries that I’ve visited Stinson has several small tasting bars instead of one big counter. I found this adds to the intimacy of my wine tasting as you’re not fighting a crowd. After guiding me through her wines, Rachel gave me a tour of the facility – including a barrel tasting of some outstanding Tannat and Sauvignon Blanc.

We also stopped to discuss their concrete egg, which they used for their Sauvignon Blanc. This ‘egg’ fascinates me. These vessels combine some of the advantages of both oak and steel; it adds depth and mouthfeel but doesn’t leave flavor behind. Given Linden Vineyard (possibly my all-time favorite winery) is one of the few Virginia wineries that also uses such a device, I’d say Stinson is in great company.

What I tried: 

2018 Sauvignon Blanc: Made in the concrete egg and steel. Soft and yeasty.

2016 Chardonnay: Light oak, toasty. I always enjoy their Chardonnay because Rachael always hits the right balance of oak without overpowering the wine.

2016 Wildcat (Rkatistelli): Made with fruit from Horton vineyards. Rkats is a really fun grape that has some bite to it.

2018 Cabernet Franc: Soft, almost herbal qualities but no green pepper.

2015 Meritage: Merlot heavy, black cherry notes.

2015 Tannat: Wonderful! Soft but full. This is up there with the Chardonnay as my favorites of the lineup.

2016 Petit Verdot: Full bodied, notes of plumb.

2015 Le Rouge: 50/50 blend of Tannat and Petit Verdot, which I swear is an up and coming blend in Virginia. My lips puckered up because of the acid (which is always a good sign).