The 2022 Virginia Wine Year In Review

As 2022 closes Virginia has (by my count) 267 winery tasting rooms, 31 cideries, and 11 meaderies. It also has over 26 brands that sell their wine/cider/mead to the public but lack a physical tasting room.

11 new wineries (plus 2 tasting rooms from existing wineries) opened in 2022, a number on par with annual growth in the Virginia wine industry. An additional 5 wine brands opened for direct sales or can be found at a partner location (notably Walsh Family Wine, which hosts ‘Bar Takeovers’ for small brands that lack a tasting room).

5 wineries (Castle Gruen, Dry Creek, Hunt’s Vineyard, Thatch and Whitebarrel) closed, will close, or rebranded in 2022.

2022 also saw a number of major wineries being sold, with new owners at Barrel Oak, Sunset Hills/50 West, and Fox Meadow. These come in the wake of the sale of Three Fox Vineyards and 8 Chains North, which changed hands in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

2022’s Major Trends and Events

1. Growing representation in local winemaking: Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyards made history in 2022 by becoming the state’s 2nd female Virginia Governors Cup winner (and its 1st under the Cup’s post-2011 rigorous judging system). Maggie Malick and Rachel Stinson Vrooman also had wines selected for the 2022 Governor’s Case.

Not to let be outdone by its neighbor, Maryland winemaker Lauren Zimmerman of Port of Leonardtown joined Melanie by winning both the Maryland Governors Cup and Comptroller Cup, her state’s two highest wine awards in 2022.

These women are part of a cohort of female head winemakers and assistant winemakers who are gaining major name-recognition. All told, around 15% of all head winemakers in Virginia are female.

Representation by Black–owned wine brands also grew this year. Fifty Leven and Shockoe Wine joined the small but growing group of local Black-owned wine brands, which also includes Delaplane Cellars, Preston Ridge, Sweet Vines Farm, and Vintner’s Cellar of Yorktown.

2. Climate change: Jim Law called 2022 ‘climate change on steroids’. While climate change is hardly a new topic, this year included a number of high-intensity weather events which punctuated the extent of this trend. At worst, the type of dramatic weather fluctuations seen this year portent what Virginia’s ‘new normal’ may become.

For much of Virginia, 2022 see-sawed between hot, sunny days and short but intense summer storms, bookended by frost warnings in April and a hurricane in late September. Winegrowers looking at the rainy weather forecast in July had good reason to be concerned.

Fortunately, mid-summer’s capricious weather gave way to far more favorable conditions in August to September, turning what could have been a tough vintage into a very favorable one for large parts of the state.

Some years – such as 2017 and 2019 – are fondly looked back as strong vintages, while others like 2011 and 2018 are ones most winemakers would prefer to not dwell on.

But the answer regarding the 2022 growing season might be summarized as ‘it depends’, all depending on a vineyard’s specific microclimate.

3. Labor Shortages: Many wineries had significant challenges in staffing. This had a number of impacts, both in the tasting room and the vineyard.

Those hopeful for a return to pre-COVID bar-side tastings were likely disappointed. While health concerns and consumer demand for take-away flights played a part in this decision, this pivot away from bar-side tasting is largely a product of limited staffing, which precludes many wineries from servicing a full bar of customers as they did in the past.

These shortages also impacted vineyard operations. Frequent rain resulted in a high-vigor growing season, so pruning was especially time-consuming. When hurricane Ian arrived, some vineyards struggled to bring in their fruit with the labor at their disposal.

Those with full time labor were able to endure these challenges more easily. Those who did not were forced to compete with neighboring vineyards, resulting delays in vineyard work or harvesting.

4. The Common Wealth Crush Company and “garagiste” winemaking: This November Ben and Tim Jordan announced their new custom winemaking facility, capable of producing up to 30,000 cases/year. This business is especially designed for smaller winemakers who lack their own facilities.

“Contract winemaking” already exists in Virginia, but that term is usually associated with business such as Michael Shaps Wineworks who do the entire winemaking process for their customer.

CWCC differs in that it allows winemakers to make their own wine. As Tim Jordan explained, “People do it at their employer’s wineries and sometimes they can get their friends to let them do it. But what almost always happens is that you grow out of it, or the winery facility grows its production and kicks you out. There’s not really a dedicated facility that allows a winemaker to start a brand, do the project, make the wine they want the way they want and be confident they’ll be able to stay there.”

This business model comes at a good time as the number of ‘small batch’ wines has dramatically increased over the past several years. Winemakers including Jake Bushing, Mattieu Finot, and Ben Jordan have long championed “garagiste” style wines, but they’ve been joined by Jocelyn Kuzelka and Megan Hereford of Daring Wine Company, Tim Jordan’s Star Party, Kent Arendt’s Boden Young, Rich Sullivan’s Guide Wine, and others.

CWCC also plan of having a tasting room at their Waynesboro facility to serve these brands, allowing customer to sample wines from Midland, Lightwell, and Star Party.

5. Small Batch Wines more popular than ever: “Garagiste” winemakers are a large part of this group, but this trend goes beyond independent operators.

I use “small batch wines” as a catch-all term to cover a large group of different wine ventures, including everything from collaborations between different wineries, independent brands that lack a permanent home, to off-brand labels at established wineries.

One recent example is the ‘Sun Room’ collaboration between Corry Craighill of Septenary Vineyards and Nate Walsh, where each winemaker took a batch of Malvasia Bianca grapes but made a wine in their own style, yet sold as a 2-pack. Another is the Odd Bird series by Lee Hartman of Bluestone Vineyards.

The common denominator between these ventures is they tend to focus on the creative aspect of winemaking, often featuring unusual blends, uncommonly used winemaking styles, and/or unique branding.

Expect more of these type of off-brand ventures in the future, as winemakers look for ways to flex their creative muscles.

6. Vermouth gaining traction: Rosemont and Flying Fox have made vermouth for several years, but the field of local vermouth-makers expanded this year with the addition of botanical wines from Artemisia Farm, Walsh Family Wine, and Joy Ting.

While this beverage is usually thought of as a drink mixer for bartenders, local vermouth sales have largely been to customers who use it as a sipping drink. Many of these producers also focus on local ingredients, sometimes expanding beyond wormwood as a bittering agent.

Wineries, Brands & Tasting rooms that opened in 2022:

  1. Artemisia Farm & Vineyard (no tasting room, but found at NOVA farmers markets)
  2. Bluemont Station Farm Winery (Bluemont)
  3. Boden Young (no tasting room, but found at Walsh Family Wine)
  4. Burnbrae Vineyards (Lynchburg)
  5. Caihailian Vineyard (south of Afton)
  6. Chapelle Charlemagne Vineyards (new tasting room in Flint  Hill)
  7. Daring Wine Company (no tasting room)
  8. Droumavalla Farm (north of Leesburg)
  9. Everleigh Vineyards (Mineral)
  10. Kalero Vineyards (Hillsborough)
  11. Lake Front Winery (Buffalo Junction)
  12. Mount Fair Farm (Crozet)
  13. Nookesville Winery (no tasting room)
  14. October One Vineyard (new tasting room open in Leesburg)
  15. Star Party (no tasting room)
  16. The Barn at 678 (Barboursville)
  17. Wind Vineyard at Laurel Grove (Tappahannock)
  18. Woodbrook Farm Vineyard (Orange)

Upcoming Wineries expected to open in 2023

  1. Blevins Family Vineyard (Scottsburg)
  2. Crimson Lane Vineyards (Linden)
  3. Domaine Fortier Vineyard (Loudoun)
  4. Fallen Tree Vineyard (Crozet)
  5. Haunted Winery Vineyard (Amelia)
  6. Seven Lady Vineyards at Dover Hall  (west of Richmond)
  7. Silverdog Vineyards (Linden)
  8. Southwest Mountain Vineyards (Keswick)

Wineries that closed or closing in 2022:

  1. Castle Gruen
  2. Dry Creek
  3. Hunt’s Vineyard
  4. Thatch Vineyard (rebranded as part of Michael Shaps)
  5. Whitebarrel

2022 Loudoun Wine Awards Showcases Both Wine And Teamwork

The Loudoun Wine Awards hosted its 2022 event at the Lansdowne Resort and Spa on Friday, October 14th. Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyards took home the Winemaker of the Year award, while the 2021 Albariño made by Scott Spelbring of Bluemont Vineyards won the Chairman’s Grand Award.

But the evening’s real winner was the Virginia wine industry as a whole. In a business that can be tough and competitive, Virginia wine stands out for its teamwork.

This sense of community was evident throughout the event. While guests enjoyed a 3-course dinner and extensive tasting of Loudoun County wines, they seemed just as eager to rub-shoulders and take selfies with owners, winemakers, and fellow Virginia wine lovers.

Multiple winners including Melanie and 2022 Winegrower of the Year Michael Newland made a point to recognize their coworkers and mentors, with both thanking Doug Fabbioli of Fabbioli Cellars for giving them their start in the industry.

“I am a Loudoun made winemaker and I’m proud of that,” said Melanie during her acceptance speech. “I spoke from the heart to my tribe. I put on a dress because it was a special night, but I wore slippers on my tired harvest feet because I’m home with my people.” Earlier this year Melanie also won Virginia’s 2022 Governor’s Cup, becoming the 1st female winemaker to win the award in the past 20 years.

“This event really showed how communal and convivial Virginia wine is,” said Neal Wavra, owner of Field & Main Restaurant and the event’s Competition Director. “Not only did the awardees thank their teams and mentors, but the people who were thanked were in the room.”

Virginia Wine Increasingly Thinking Outside The Box

Bill Hatch, President of the Loudoun Wineries Association and owner/winemaker of Zephaniah Farm Vineyard, called Loudoun County “D.C.’s wine country”, based on the presence of over 40 tasting rooms just over an hour from the city.

Loudoun wineries entered 139 wines into the competition. 15 Gold medals were awarded to 8 Chains North, 868 Estate Vineyards, Bluemont Vineyard, Cana Vineyards & Winery of Middleburg, Carriage House Wineworks, Doukenie Winery, Maggie Malick Wine Caves, Three Creeks Winery and Williams Gap Vineyard. 112 wines also won Silver.

Loudoun County is nearly tied with Charlottesville in terms of acres of vines planted. While it’s long been associated with grapes traditionally grown in Bordeaux and Burgundy (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and others), relative newcomers Petit Manseng and Albariño are also finding a home in the area.

The rising quality of Virginia wine is largely due to two factors. On one hand, vineyards are increasingly dialing-in on grape varieties and clones that do well locally. On the other, there is a growing level of expertise in the Virginia winemaking community.

To Dominique Landragin, owner and founder of D.C.’s Cork & Fork and one of the wine judges, the evolution he’s seen in Virginia wine from 1993 when he left Prince Michel Vineyard & Winery to today is easily apparent.

“When I look back on the Gold medals earned by Virginia wines, they used to be 100% single varietal. But this time I see a lot of blends, especially Merlot and Petit Verdot. I thought there was an amazing improvement.

I was especially impressed by the Albariños. It takes the humidity very well. Petit Manseng also. I’ve seen a few promising Syrahs as well. The Cabernet Francs here don’t have the vegetal character we find in the Loire; it’s very exciting.

The industry is really coming together, the mom & pop wineries and the professionals. In the beginning there were no professionals. But now, Michael Shaps makes some great wine!”

Neal was also impressed by the growing variety of wines in the region. “A few years ago Albariño wasn’t even a category. Last year was the first time it was its own category, and this year it was the winner.”

Scott Spelbring of Bluemont Vineyard, who took home the trophy for his 2021 Albariño, also had high praise for this grape.

“Albariño is a prolific grower but not a great yielder. We usually get 2-3 tones an acre. It’s one of the first we pick, usually in early September. We’ve grown it since before I started in 2016, and I’ve made it every year.

It has great acidity, but we’re not afraid to experiment. This wine is mostly cold fermented in stainless steel, but we also add in 2 barrels that are fermented using native yeast.

I think a lot of consumers are aware of Albariño but it’s not well known on the east coast. But we’re starting to step outside the box of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Petit Manseng is a grape where sweet or dry, you never know what you’ll get. But Albariño is such a great wine out of the box, because we know what to expect.”

Loudoun Wine Awards Competition Results

GRAND AWARDS

Chairman’s Grand Award | 2021 Albariño from Bluemont Vineyards

Winemaker of the Year | Melanie Natoli, Winemaker, Cana Vineyards

Winegrower of the Year | Mike Newland, Vineyard Manager, Walsh Family Wine

Wine Ambassador of the Year | Nancy Deliso, Owner, 868 Vineyard

President’s Award | Aimee Henkel, Owner, Lost Creek Winery & Echelon Wine Bar

BEST OF CLASS

Best Albariño: 2021 Albariño, Bluemont Vineyard

Best Bordeaux Blend: 2019 Furnace Mountain Red, 8 Chains North

Best Chardonnay: 2020 Chardonnay, Cana Vineyards

Best Cabernet Franc: 2021 Cabernet Franc, Williams Gap Vineyard

Best Hybrid Red: 2018 Three Captains Red, Zephaniah Farm Vineyard

Best Hybrid White: 2020 Mandolin White, Doukenie Winery

Best Merlot: 2019 Russ Mountain Merlot, Walsh Family Wine

Best Petit Manseng: 2020 Petit Manseng, Williams Gap Vineyard

Best Petit Verdot: 2020 Petit Verdot, Carriage House Wineworks

Best Red Vinifera: 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon, October One Vineyard

Best Rosé: 2021 Rosé of Cabernet Franc, Sunset Hills Vineyard

Best Sauvignon Blanc: 2021 Sauvignon Blanc, 868 Vineyard

Best Viognier: 2020 Viognier, 868 Vineyards

This article can also be found on the Old Town Crier website.

2022 Finger Lakes Trip

The Finger Lakes American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a wine region that I can continually return to. There are almost 150 wineries in this region, plus plenty of wine bars and hiking trails. This was my 2nd trip but I’ll be back.

The Finger Lakes is almost certainly the best-known AVA on the east coast. Ancient glaciers widened existing river valleys, creating deep crevices that would eventually become the 11 lakes we know today.

These glaciers also deposited a diverse assortment of rocks and soil around the region. Old rocky soil is especially good for vinifera, as not only is it porous (grapes don’t like wet feet) it forces vines to struggle for nutrition (struggling vines produce good fruit). These deposits of limestone, shale, gravel, and silt play a major role in the area’s ‘terroir’.

Western shore of Keuka Lake

While soil is important, the lakes play an even more central role. These bodies of water act as temperature sponges, absorbing heat during the day and radiating it back to the shoreline. Without these lakes alleviating upstate New York’s cold weather, viticulture here would be impossible.

This combination of moderated weather and favorable soil creates excellent conditions for viticulture, especially cool-climate grapes. The best vineyards are along the edge of these lakes, especially their deepest portions. Not coincidentally, this terroir is similar to that of the Mosel, Germany’s most famous riesling-producing wine region.

My 2019 trip was done with limited knowledge of where to go, so the family & I just meandered from winery to winery. We visited some of the more famous locations, but often as not we just went to the next winery down the road.

This time I planned my trip more carefully, focused on select clusters of wineries around Seneca, Cayuga, and Keuka. Most of these tastings were drop-ins, we also visited a number of reservation-only venues. My family and I stayed at a long-stay residence in Watkins Glen, on the southern shore of Lake Seneca.

While our trip was centered around wine, I was happy to discover an assortment of non-alcoholic options were also available. Many involved activities on lakes themselves, including kayaking and cruising. But my favorite non-winery excursions were hikes in local state parks, especially those that possessed waterfalls.

Over 5 days I visited 21 wineries. It sounds like a lot (and admittedly it is), but the tastings are often so slim that you can visit multiple locations and not get a major buzz. Nearly all had moved to a model of providing self-guided flights (often but not always pre-selected), but a few larger wineries took reservations for guided flights.

My greatest take-away was that riesling has far more range than I anticipated. The most enjoyable visits were locations that had wines from the same vintage but grown at different vineyards, each with their own terroir-driven personality.

It’s difficult to rank-order 21 wineries – especially since some blended together despite my best attempts at note taking – so instead I sorted them in groups. Not coincidentally, my ranking system can be seen in how much wine I purchased (or not at all, in many cases) during a visit.

Except for the top 3 venues, wineries in the same tier are ranked about the same and listed in alphabetical order.

Being in a lower tier didn’t mean I didn’t like them. To the contrary, I can honestly say I didn’t visit any ‘bad’ wineries during my trip (I should note I also planned very carefully, avoiding party-centric locations). I admit I’m biased towards smaller wineries where I had more personalized service. I also was specifically looking for riesling and sparkling wine, so red-focused wineries didn’t get rated as well as they probably should have been.

The Top Tier (#1-3) of my wine-visits are definitely listed in rank order. The downside to these particular wineries was all were in out-of-the-way locations or had limited visiting hours (and Kemmeter was reservation only). But they made up for that with not just outstanding wine but guided tastings which provided a significant educational component.

1. Kemmeter Wines (NW Seneca): This 6-acre vineyard was an amazing find. The tasting room is tiny and only open 3 afternoons a week (and closed Sundays). But I bought more wine here than at any other winery.

They are only open by appointment and have a maximum capacity of 6 guests. Yes – the tasting room is that tiny!

I enjoyed my visit so much I decided to write a separate blog so I don’t miss any details. Because of that I’ll keep this entry short.

Owner/winemaker/vineyard manager Johannes Rienhardt lead a tasting that consisted of 5 wines; a pair of rieslings (dry and off dry), a pinot, a pinot blanc, and a pinot rosé. I bought several of the dry rieslings and the rosé (which didn’t last the evening). The dry riesling was the best of the entire trip.

Johannes also had us play ‘guess the off-dry riesling’ and I guessed wrong. Turns out both were dry, although the one from the 2014 Vineyard could have fooled me. The two are grown on different types of soil and one location produces riper fruit. The density of the wine gives the illusion of sweetness. He fooled me but it was a great learning experience.

You can also order dumplings from his wife at their store outside; order first and pick them up later. Warning – they don’t have a public bathroom!

2. Forge Cellars (East Seneca): One of the smaller locations of my trip, with 40 acres of vines and a production of 10,000 cases/year. I loved the vineyard-specific rieslings (8 at this one place alone!), the view, and overall ambiance.

I highly recommend getting an appointment for a guided flight, which is as much about wine education as it is a wine tasting. But fear not, those who randomly drop-in can still enjoy a self-guided flight while sitting on the patio. They also had great cheese boards, plus excellent jamón.

Their “Classique” riesling is their best-known wine (and was definitely good) but it wasn’t my personal favorite of this visit. But I did leave with 2020 Freese (riesling) and 2020 Tango Oaks (riesling), both of which were among the best wines of my entire trip (right after Kemmeter).

3. Six Eighty Cellars (West Cayuga): A very small (and brand new) producer with only 20 acres under vine. The wines were accompanied by light bites.

One thing that made them unique is their special focus on winemaking using a variety of fermentation vessels. They had your standard oak barrels and steel tanks, but they also had amphoras made of sandstone, clay, concrete, and terra cotta.

The small size of the winery meant we had very personalized service. Highlights included a mineral-driven 2020 Grüner Veltliner (made in a concrete tulip), an outstanding 2019 Riesling, and the flora, soft, and fruity 2020 Pinot Noir (made in sandstone). I left with some riesling.

My second tier (#4-7) wineries are ranked about equally. Every winery in this group had a solid lineup with several standout wines, and usually had other attributes (like food or service) that made it an overall excellent tasting experience. All are definitely must-try locations. All are in alphabetical order, not ranked in preference.

4. Hermann J Wiemer Vineyard (SW Seneca): One of the larger wineries in the area, with 131 acres under vine between HJW and their other property, Standing Stone Vineyards. HJW has their own estate vineyards plus they manage other people’s vineyard. They make around 35,000 cases/year between HJW and Standing Stone.

HWJ’s tasting experience is different from their neighbors in that they don’t have set flights. Every pour was separately charged, so you can get as many or as few as you want. My group didn’t have a tasting room associate with us, but it wasn’t overly busy so we still had lots of attention.

They had an excellent selection across the board, but my favorites were the 2020 Magdalena Cab Franc and an especially outstanding 2009 Cab Franc they brought out just for me. I wanted to like their biodynamic riesling, but just couldn’t get into it.

5. Heron Hill Winery (SW Keuka): This was one of the larger and lovelier venues of my trip. Heron Hill makes 30,000 cases/year, plus have 40 acres under vine between 2 vineyards. They also source fruit from elsewhere.

I admit I’m biased in describing this visit because it gave me a chance to catch up with winemaker Jordan Harris, who I knew from his time in Virginia. Jordan gave my family and I a very extensive tasting, I suspect including several not on the menu.

But my assessment of his 2020 Cabernet Franc and 2020 blaufränkisch needs no special boosting; both were excellent and I left with three bottles of the cabernet franc to show off to my Virginia friends (edit: one was enjoyed with dinner and another went home with mom for her birthday). Also shout-outs to the 2020 Pinot Noir (very fruit forward nose and easy drinking), his rosé, and the 2020 Chosen Spot red-blend.

6. Keuka Lake Vineyards (SW Keuka): One of the most underrated wineries in the area. So good that I made an exception and allowed myself a visit despite having been here in 2019.

Small to mid-sized by FXL standards, they have 40 acres under vine and make 2-3,000 cases/year. Three tasting flights were available, now served in an old barn. I went with the “Terroir Red” and “a mix of the “”Terroir White”.

I LOVED their natural yeast vignoles pét-nat, which was the first wine I opened when I returned home. Their 2017 ‘Rows” dry riesling (complex, mineral driven, maybe lime notes), 2013 dry riesling (peach notes and honey, made with wild yeast), 2018 KLV Red (a table red with hybrids foch, vincent, and de chaunac, very good!), and 2019 cabernet franc were also excellent (some pepper, slightly fuller bodied than I often see.)

They also grow leon millet and make an orange wine. This is one of the few places where I genuinely enjoyed their wines made with hybrid grapes, which are rarely a favorite.

7. Weis Vineyards (East Keuka): Another rare repeat visit for me. It also helped that Dave McIntyre (wine writer for the Washington Post) was aghast at even the possibility I skip it. So back to Weis I went. Reservations recommended.

Weis has 40 acres of vines (mostly hybrids) but most of this estate fruit is sold locally. No word on the number of cases/year they make, but all of it uses locally sourced fruit.

My favorites included their 2021 Dry Riesling (nice and crisp), 2021 Wizner Select K (K for Kabinnet, more mineral-y and a tad sweet), and 2019 Merlot (great balance!). Also good were the 2020 Schulhouse red (an easy drinking blend of mostly Chancellor, plus 10% Cab Sauv, named in honor of the school house the tasting room now occupies), and dry rosé (nice balance).

I felt this tasting experience was more upscale than most other FXL locations. As for flights, out of 15 or so options you can pick 5 but can order more. I liked this method since it was sort of a ‘build your own adventure’ style. We had a tasting room associate guide us through our wines.

The third tier (#8-13) had above average wines in all of them, and oftentimes they had great food, service, and/or an amazing view. All in this group are equally good and listed in alphabetical order, rather than ranked in any order.

8. Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery (SE Keuka): The granddaddy of Finger Lakes wineries. Guided tastings are by appointment only (and go fast, apparently), but you can also randomly visit and stay in their courtyard to enjoy a self-guided flight.

I go more into detail on their background (and the Finger Lakes in general) in my 2019 trip report so won’t repeat too much. But suffice to say that any trip to the Finger Lakes is incomplete without a pilgrimage here.

“Dr. Frank” is one of the largest Finger Lakes wineries, making over 75,000 cases/year. While Dr. Frank has 60 acres under vine at their main estate plus 20 more acres at Seneca, most of their fruit is purchased locally.

This place has a large tasting menu, with all of their bottles being solid in quality and well-priced. I wasn’t personally moved to buy any particular bottle but I did especially enjoy their toasty Celeb (Sparkling Riesling) with brioche notes and their 2021 Dry Riesling.

Small dishes are also available.

9. Red Newt Cellars (SW Seneca): Mid-to-large sized winery. 20 acres under vine but another 100 leased. They make 24,000 cases/year, 1/3rd of which was devoted to their most popular wine, the off-dry ‘Circle’.

They were recommended to me because of their extensive collection of older rieslings. Multiple flight options were available, but I went with the Dry and Riesling flights. I think this is going to need a return visit since there was a lot left off the menu I never tried.

I really enjoyed their especially well balanced 2013 Dry Reserve (no saline notes, oddly enough) and the 2013 Bullhorn Creek, which was unusually for its spice and herbal notes. I noted how the Circle had a ton of action up front.

10. Red Tail Ridge Winery (West Seneca): A mid-sized location with 35 acres of vines planted. This includes several varietals you don’t often see including teroldego and lagrein, red grapes normally found in northern Italy. No notes on their production but was told its mostly estate.

I did the sparkling flight plus sampled a few others. Red Tail seemed to have one of the largest sparkling programs I encountered on the trip, and their pét-nats were especially good. The NV “Rebel With A Cause” (50% Terodego/25% Langein/25% Dornfelder) was probably my favorite, with the terodego red the runner-up.

11. Ryan Williams Vineyard (SE Seneca): This was one of the larger wineries in the area. I didn’t get the number of cases they produce but was told they have 120 acres of vines. They also have a BEAUTIFUL tasting room with a great view of Seneca.

One standout element of my visit is they also have a full-service kitchen. Had I known I would have been brunching here all the time, although their lunch menu looked equally appetizing.

I tried the white and red flights, with my favorites being the very textured 2018 Chardonnay and soft 2017 Cabernet Franc. They also had a pretty good sauvignon blanc that was clean, fresh, and quaffable.

12. Sheldrake Point Winery (West Cayuga): An unexpected gem! Wineries along Cayuga are further away from the main tourist trail so they tend to be smaller, but this location stood out as a very classy venue with a lot of great wine and tasty light bites. The view and service were great.

Their wine is 100% estate, with 66 acres under vine. Ironically, they only make 7 or 8,000 cases/year (most of their fruit is sold).

My family and I shared three flights; ‘All about Aromatics’, ‘Cool Climate Reds’, and ‘Library Reds’. Favorites included the 2017 “BLK3” Pinot and 2013 Pinot, the latter of which was more tannic than I expected.

Mom said their 2012 Gamay (with 17% Syrah) was very much a ‘eat stake and put me to sleep wine’. I though the “Acid Head” riesling had an interesting sauv blanc quality to it, while the 2019 Reserve was very tropical, with notes of passion fruit.

13. Wagner Vineyards (SE Seneca). Part of me wanted to be turned off by their large scale, commercial-winery vibe, but they won me over with great wine and service (and beer! and food!).

Wagner produces 60,000 cases/year and have 240 acres under vine, which makes them the largest grape distributor in the area. They have a very nice (and busy) tasting room as well.

I thought their 2017 Riesling was really good; minerally, light, and easy drinking. Apparently, Wine Enthusiast magazine thought so as well, since it chose this as one of their Top 100 affordable wines. The 2020 Riesling Caywood East Dry was my second favorite.

My fourth tier (#14-18) selections all provided pretty good wines. Some might have a standout I really enjoyed.

14. Atwater Vineyards (SE Seneca): While probably mid-sized by FXL standards, their 50-acre vineyard charges ahead with an exceptionally diverse vineyard consisting of 19 varieties. Among the hard-to-find vines planted are syrah and a bunch of hybrid grapes including reval (a hybrid of chardonnay).

This place should get an award for one of the nicest views of the trip. It’s not that far away from Watkins Glen, so I’d have totally hung out more here on a slow day.

No particular wine sang out to me, but I did like their apple-note 2021 “Bubbles” sparkling riesling and 2020 Pinot Noir, which was made unfiltered and with minimal-intervention. I bought a bottle of the pinot just because it subverted my expectations of what a pinot should be like.

15. Fox Run Vineyards (West Seneca): This was a mid-sized location with 52 acres under vine and a production of 20,000 cases/year. They also had one of the best kitchens in the area, which by itself makes it a must-stop. The family and I enjoyed a great selection of sandwiches, salads, and personal pizzas.

The wine lineup didn’t disappoint either. My favorite was their Reserve Riesling (and I bought a bottle) but I also thought their “Silvan” Riesling was pretty good. Not sampled here, but back home I’ve also had a really nice meritage blend (not on the menu here, unfortunately).

16. Hosmer Winery (West Cayuga): A mid-sized location, making 10,000 cases/year using 72 acres of grapes.

Hosmer is especially known for their dry reds plus their sauvignon blanc. They also have a petit verdot and lemberger (aka blaufränkisch), both of which were hard to find in this area. My favorite wine was a blend of cabernet franc and lemberger.

17. Ravines Wine Cellar (NW Seneca): This was one of my first visits of my trip and helped set the tone of the rest of the visit. Ravines is on the larger side at 30,000 cases/year from 4 vineyards, plus 130 acres under vine.

Several flight options were available, but my favorites were their dry sparkling riesling (which had a tad botrytis which made it interesting), plus their 2020 cabernet franc.

18. Shalestone Vineyards (East Seneca): I feel weird listing Shalestone so low because it’s definitely a nice place, and wine lovers who are red-focused would love it. It’s last in this group simply because of alphabetical order, and in a lower tier because I wasn’t focused on reds on this trip.

When I asked why the focus on reds my server explained “We only make wine we really want to drink”. They were also one of the smaller producers in the area, with only 6 acres under vine and a production of 1,200-1,500 cases/year.

That said their 2019 cabernet franc was one of the best in the Finger Lakes; aromatic with soft pepper notes. They also have a syrah and saperavi.

Last tier (#19-21) didn’t have any particular wines that tickled my fancy. In some cases, this was simply because they were unlucky enough to be the place I visited at the end of the day when my palate was tired.

19. Anthony Road Wine Company (West Seneca): They make 12,000 cases/year and have 100 acres under vine. I don’t have great notes on the visit, but I did notice the Devonian White blend (chard/riesling/pinot gris) and vignoles off-dry.

20. Magnus Ridge Winery (SW Seneca): Another winery on the larger end of the scale. It was unique in that they had cheese/food pairings with their wine flights. The most interesting combination was a traminette paired with wasabi.

21. Missick Wine Cellars (West Seneca): Formerly known as Bellangelo, they rebranded a few years back when the new owner decided he wanted this place to be his legacy. They came highly recommended by Dave McIntyre of the Washington Post, so I had to try it. Missick makes 5,000 cases/year; not sure on the number of acres under vine.

Of the 4 flight options available I went with the “Staff Pick”, with chenin (!) as an add-on. At this point my wallet was in conservation mode, but I did think the ‘Foreword’ red blend made with 5 hybrids (foch, baco noir, marquette, dechaunac, chambourcin) was interesting enough to buy a bottle. It turned out to be my only purchase of a wine made with hybrids the entire trip.

Getting to Know Virginia’s Assistant Winemakers

My article on several of Virginia’s Assistant Winemakers is now published for the #OldTownCrier.

Link below:

When Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyards was handed the 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition’s highest award, Doug Fabboli of Fabbioli Cellars was there to witness the event. Doug had a personal interest in watching Melanie ascend the stage; she was his Assistant Winemaker a decade earlier, one of a long roster of people he’s mentored in the Virginia wine industry.

Melanie’s journey demonstrates how today’s assistants are tomorrow’s leaders. Many also have their own projects which deserve attention.

Not only are these young winemakers introducing new ideas, their progression is changing the industry’s demographics. A number of today’s Head Winemakers such as Chelsey Blevins, Christopher Harris, and Corry Craighill got their start elsewhere in Virginia before moving to their present gigs.

Kent Arendt, Assistant Winemaker for Walsh Family Wine & maker of his private label Boden Young

What drew you to winemaking? “My last job was in data analysis. I was always interested in wine, but I didn’t think much about it until 10 years ago. But the more I enjoyed wine the more interested I became in the details; like how different wine is regionally, why it tastes so different, why different winemakers use different styles.

So in 2016 I decided to give it a try. I’m the kind of person who needs tangible results in his work. I interned in Washington State and worked a harvest at a big facility. When I came back, I realized that’s not the kind of place I want to work at. So I applied to an ad from Nate Walsh and was his first hire.”

Describe your role of an Assistant Winemaker: “Winemaking is 90% organization and cleaning and 10% winemaking. But being an assistant varies depending on the winery. For us, the Head Winemaker becomes more and more hands-off in the cellar work as the business grows.

I do much of the day-to-day cellar work. Nate will have a list of things to do and I work through that list, whether it’s running the lab, checking sulfur and acidity levels, topping up barrels, maintenance of equipment, and getting ready for bottle. And cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.”

What parts of the business are you in charge of? “Anything that happens in the cellar is done by me or scheduled by me. I meet with Nate on almost a daily basis to talk about what’s going on in the cellar.

But the best part is the farming. A big part of what makes Virginia wine special is the farming.”

Do you have any side-projects of your own? “Nate creates an environment that is conducive for small projects. I make a wine named Boden Young. Boden translated roughly as “Soil” in German. Albariño is one of those varieties that I’ve enjoyed for a long time and I’m excited that it’s picked up in the past 5 years. I’ve made 43 cases of albariño and 38 of viognier.”

Katrina Buccella, Assistant Winemaker at Paradise Springs Winery

What drew you to winemaking? “I originally went to Virginia Tech to study veterinary medicine but fell in love with microbiology and food sciences. That led me to their fermentation course.

Five years ago I interned at Rocklands Farm Winery (in Maryland). I had the chance to do every step in the process from planting a vineyard, to harvesting grapes, to making wine, to sales. I’ve also worked in New Zealand and finished my UC Davis winemaking program.

I love the cyclical nature of winemaking. It spoke to something older, and winemaking is so much more soulful.” 

Describe your role of an Assistant Winemaker: “I’m basically Rob’s (Rob Cox, Head winemaker at Paradise Springs) right hand. He makes the decisions in the cellar, but I’m in charge of the estate vineyard. It’s only one acre but it’s a well taken care of acre.

In the production facility I do the barrel maintenance, upkeep of the barrel room, punch down, racking, but most of all cleaning. I also do a lot of the laboratory tasks. It’s a small team so it’s all hands-on deck.”

What has been your career path to become a winemaker?: “I’ve heard of so many different ways to get into this business. But there’s no one way, you just have to be moved to take it. As long as you have the drive and ambition and a little science smarts you can go far.” 

Are there any specific parts of the winery you are in charge of?“Rob asked me if I had any project ideas and I suggested a pét-nat. So we’re planning on making 80 cases using seyval blanc. It will be a cool first for Paradise Springs. 

I’m hoping it will be more of a natural fermentation pétnat, but we haven’t made any final decisions. I’d like to be as intervention free as possible but I won’t know what will happen till I’m in the thick of it!”

Ashleigh White, Assistant Winemaker for Glen Manor Vineyards

What drew you to winemaking? “I was still in school for biology with a concentration in ecology when Jeff (owner/winemaker Jeff White of Glen Manor) opened the winery. After I graduated I was doing different internships but I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Jeff offered me a position in the tasting room in 2014, and the next year I moved to a full time job in the vineyard and then in the cellar.

Being a winemaker blended different parts of my degree; being outside in nature as well as growing into the winemaking. I also got to work in different cellars around the world which was exciting.”

Describe your role of an Assistant Winemaker: “Jeff makes the decisions and trajectory for what will come for the year and I work alongside him learning things like making picking decisions in the vineyard. I’m kinda his shadow, learning his approach to processing the fruit and monitoring the fermentation.”

What has been your career path to become a winemaker?: “I would say do multiple internships; you gather knowledge from different winemakers. I learned you can do the same job 5 different ways and none are wrong but you learn to pick and choose what works for you best.

I’ve worked in New Zealand, Australia, British Columbia, and California. I miss the traveling, I miss learning. But the experience is always worth it. I’d like to keep traveling but I now feel like I need to stay put.”

Are there any specific parts of the winery you are in charge of? “It really depends; every week is a bit different. I’m in charge of managing our Instagram account, and this year I was in charge of blending trials for our 2021 red blends. I’ve also been leading our research into future varietals, like warmer climate reds.

We also did a bit of carbonic maceration for the first time, which was my idea. The color was really pretty. We did the blending trial for our rosé blind and we all ended up liking it. Jeff is open to trying new things.”

Virginia’s Forgotten Winery: Belmont Vineyards

Virginia prides itself as the birthplace of American wine. The first chapter of Virginia’s viticultural history started in 1619 when settlers at Jamestown were instructed to plant grape vines. This story is usually followed by how Thomas Jefferson repeatedly tried but failed to make wine using vinifera (grapes from the Mediterranean region) at his estate in Monticello. But the narrative usually jumps from Jefferson to the 1970s when Barboursville Vineyards and others started making local wine for the first time since prohibition.

Not nearly as well known is the century between these benchmarks, including how in 1880 Virginia was the 5th largest wine producer in the United States. Norton, an American variety discovered in the early-1800s, was the state’s main grape. It was so popular a Norton from the Monticello Wine Company won gold at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873 and silver in Paris in 1878. At the start of the 20th century Charlottesville was calling itself the “Capital of the Wine Belt in Virginia,” although vineyards dotted the entire state.

One of these vineyards was Belmont, located not far from the northern entrance to what is now Shenandoah National Park. Once reaching over 100 acres of vines, at its peak Belmont may have been the largest vineyard in the state.

Belmont wine label. Source: Dr. Carole Nash

Belmont was founded by Marcus Blakemore Buck (1816-1881), a member of a prominent Front Royal family. In 1847, Marcus purchased nearly 2,000 acres in the mountains just outside the city. Half he subsequently sold, but the remaining land he turned into his farm.

According to research by archeologist Dr. Carole Nash of James Madison University, by 1863 the business included 80 acres of vines and 10 acres of sugar cane, farmed by slaves. The end of slavery and destruction of the local rail network led Marcus to diversify his business, adding a distillery that sold whiskey to local pharmacies.

Belmont homestead. Source: Shenandoah National Park

In 1875, Marcus fell on hard times, resulting in the sale of Belmont to his cousin T. A. Ashby, who brought the farm back to prosperity. Virginia cartographer Jed Hotchkiss included Belmont in his 1884 science and business journal, saying, “The Belmont Vineyard, on the Blue Ridge near Front Royal, Warren co., Va., is … probably the largest vineyard in the state, as it has over 100 acres in grapes of various kinds.”

By the 1880s Belmont was producing as much as 20,000 gallons of sweet red wine, port, and dry red. It was also a nursery, selling vines to other vineyards. Newspapers referenced Ashby growing over a dozen grape varieties including Catawba, Concord, Delaware, and Norton.

Belmont wine bottle. Source: Shenandoah National Park

These wines were sold throughout the U.S. According to letters republished in the Front Royal Sentinel, “The reputation of the Belmont wines is attested to the fact that during the last year 6,000 gallons of them were shipped to Minnesota alone, besides large quantities to Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, and other states.”

Belmont’s success was also in part due to good timing. France’s own wine industry was still recovering from the ravages of phylloxera, and the recent completion of the Transcontinental railroad hadn’t yet transformed the American economy. Virginia vineyards had unprecedented market access that allowed them to grow.

These good times couldn’t last forever. By 1900 the business had folded, likely a victim of competition from California wine, economic depression, and the state’s nascent prohibition movement.

Belmont’s remnants were lost to history until a Park Ranger discovered grape vines growing along Dicky Ridge, not far off Skyline Drive. The Park contacted Dr. Nash to investigate further.

Nash and her students explored the farm using advanced geospatial technology as well as old-fashioned fieldwork. Their discoveries included a pair of underground wine cellars, several farmsteads, a road system, and multiple stone walls that marked the vineyard’s boundaries.

LiDAR map of Belmont. Red dotted lines indicate Dicky Ridge Trail, while the yellow lines indicate Skyline Drive. Source: Shenandoah National Park

Her team was also able to trace the outline of several fields. Even over a century later, Belmont’s grapes can be found growing in the wild.

Potential explorers should be warned; this is not an easy hike and its remains are protected under law. The Park Service tore down the remaining buildings in the 1950s. Only stone walls, flattened land, a large pit, and the corner of a building are visible to the naked eye.

While Belmont Vineyards is long gone, it left a legacy that was taken up by future generations.

According to Shenandoah National Park Cultural Resource Program Manager Dr. Brinnen Carter, “I think Belmont showed you that Virginia can do industrial scale production of wine.” During its peak, Belmont produced the equivalent of 8,000 cases of wine a year. That number is even more impressive when Virgina’s population in 1880 was only 1/5th of what it is today.

While vinifera grapes such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chardonnay make up over 80% of today’s Virginia vineyards, hybrid varieties such as Vidal Blanc and Traminette are widely used, primarily to produce sweet wines. And Marcus Buck would be proud to know that Norton is thriving in Virginia today, with over 100 acres planted.

Chrysalis Vineyards is by far the largest producer, but DuCard Vineyards and others are also making red wines with outstanding character using the Norton grape.

Hybrid and American grapes have an important place in the overall Virginia vineyard industry due to their hardiness, an important trait as climate change causes increasingly extreme weather patterns. Their ability to thrive without requiring the same degree of pesticides and anti-fungal spraying also makes them better suited for sustainable agriculture and organic winemaking.

To learn more about the history of Virginia wine, look up The Birthplace of American Wine: The Untold Story behind Virginia’s Vines – Virginia’s Travel Blog.

Women Take Top Honors in Maryland and Virginia

My latest article of the Old Town Crier is now published.

I had the opportunity to chat with the top-winning winemakers in both states; Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyards and Lauren Zimmerman of Port of Leonardtown Winery. Both won their state’s most recent top-wine awards, with Melanie earning the Virginia Governor’s Cup in March and Lauren winning both the 2021 Maryland Governor’s Cup and 2022 Comptroller’s Cup.

For Virginia, it was the first time a female has ever been awarded the Virginia Governor’s Cup in the event’s 40-year history. For Maryland, it was Lauren’s second win of the Maryland Governor’s Cup.

One last fact-oid; only around 15% of Virginia winemakers and 20% of Maryland Winemakers are female.

https://oldtowncrier.com/2022/05/01/women-take-top-honors-in-maryland-and-virginia/

Virginia Governor’s Cup Wrap Up

A compilation of all Gold Medal and Governors Case winners in the Virginia Governor’s Cup, 2012-2022.

Blends are listed when the composition is known.

Don’t forget to follow my Facebook page at: Wine Trails and Wanderlust | Facebook

Or my Instagram Matthew Fitzsimmons (@winetrailsandwanderlust) • Instagram photos and videos

Mixing It Up With Locally Crafted Vermouth

Saying Virginia is known for its craft beverages is an understatement. The state hosts almost 300 wineries, over 200 breweries, roughly 40 distilleries, at least 30 cideries, and nearly a dozen meaderies. But did you know we make our own vermouth as well?

If there was ever a beverage that’s misunderstood, it’s vermouth. It’s not quite a wine, but not quite a spirit either. Most people think of it as a cocktail mixer (think Negronis and Martinis) or aperitif, but vermouth can be enjoyed on its own.

Even defining vermouth is becoming difficult as American producers become more creative in their choice of botanicals. Virginia vermouths are equally diverse.

So What’s A Vermouth?

Put simply, vermouth is an aromatized (flavored with spices, herbs, or other florals) fortified wine. It likely started as a medicinal tonic, as the beverage’s botanical qualities made the medicine go down more easily. The alchemists who made the first vermouths must have realized they were on to something, so a trend began.

Modern vermouth includes a wine base, bittering agent, spirit for fortification, and a sweetener. While traditionally made with wormwood (vermouth is actually the French pronunciation of the word wermut, the German name for this herb), the term vermouth is increasingly applied to any aromatized wine. However, purists would argue that without wormwood, it may be an aromatized wine but it’s not a vermouth.

Vermouth’s popularity is in large part due to its versatility. It provides cocktails an array of flavor profiles without requiring the bartender to add more ingredients. When you narrow it down, there are three major types of vermouth; sweet (red), dry (white), and blanc.

Sweet vermouths are usually paired with richer drinks like bourbon or rum and are a component of Manhattans and Negronis. Dry vermouth goes with lighter spirits. Blanc vermouths are typically a half-way point between the red and white versions, and may be sipped straight.

Virginia Vermouths Gaining Traction

Only a handful of vermouths are made in Virginia, usually by local winemakers. This small scale production means local ingredients play a prominent role, giving mixologists something new and exciting to play with. Virginia vermouth-makers can also boast that these are craft products, with a quality and complexity that allows them to be enjoyed on their own or used in a cocktail.

Kelly Allen and Andrew Napier of Artemisia Farm and Vineyard are amongst this small group of vermouth-makers. Kelly explained, “We want to capture Virginia’s terroir as an abstract essence.” While Artemisia’s current focus is their CSA farm, making bitters, sparkling, and vermouth is a growing project. Members of their Paetreon even receive a small sample of what’s to come.

Vermouth wasn’t one of the products in Rosemont Vineyards & Winery‘s original business plan, but Justin Rose loved the idea of making something new.

“It was really our distributor’s idea. We had some white wine we hadn’t used. But our distributor asked us to make one so we jumped at the idea. We’ve partnered with Capitoline, which has the expertise on the botanicals we should use and how.

Ours is a little different. We use birch bark instead of wormwood as a bittering agent. Traditionally the botanicals are infused into the wine, but we use the botanicals in the brandy first then blend it. We also use local honey instead of sugar as a sweetener, which gives it a nice aromatic profile. So we’ve tried to keep it regional and local.

It’s something that we’re ramping up from a fun little side project to something that now has turned into a bigger project. We’ve used it on the rocks as an aperitif, or occasionally as a gin and tonic.”

For Flying Fox Vineyard, vermouth fits into the winery’s profile as a place for winemaker Emily Pelton to test her more experimental ideas. Their vermouth was inspired by Emily’s exploratory trip to Portugal where she noticed how many people were enjoying it as a drink as opposed to a mixer.

Co-owner George Hodson said that led to a focus on developing a more sippable drink, where the intensity was dialed back so not to be as sweet or bitter, but more in the middle. ”Local botanicals are the key,” George explained. “It was lots of trial and error; especially learning when we add these bittering agents.” Even the brandy is derived from their own grapes.

Flying Fox Vineyards, Sarah Hauser photo credit

Emily’s formula was a hit. While a large portion goes to the local bar scene, over half of their production is sold at the winery. George explained this format, “fundamentally flips the vermouth world. More people are getting used to sipping it on its own.”

Flying Fox makes four vermouths, each with its own seasonal flavor profile. While they make over 1000 bottles a year, they’ve continually ramped up production to meet growing demand.

Dr. Joy Ting is no stranger to experimentation. As the head enologist of the Winemaker’s Research Exchange, she works with winemakers from around the state to identify areas of practical research. She also makes a number of small-batch wines under her own eponymous label, and recently partnered with the Wool Factory to produce a vermouth for their restaurant, Broadcloth.

In explaining how she got into making vermouth, she exclaimed, “It’s a hidden gem! As a winemaker we often don’t get to try multiple things but with vermouth we get to play around with it.” Her vermouth uses brandy from a local distillery, made in a dryer style but with some sugar to offset the bitterness.

Broadcloth was a natural partner because of their bar program and focus on using local, seasonal Virginia ingredients. But her take as to why Virginia vermouth is taking off is due to how Virginia winemakers are by nature focused on small batch, craft creations where they can focus on the small details.

For more local vermouths, also try out Mt. Defiance Distillery in Middleburg, and look out for Walsh Family Wine which is coming out with their own.

Sweet Vines Make Fine Wines

For Black History Month I drew upon a very informative discussion on one of my favorite Facebook groups concerning how to make Virginia wineries more welcoming to Black patrons.

While this article is focused on winemaker Sadie Armstrong and her winery Sweet Vines Farm, it is more broadly about the limited number of Black wine professionals in the industry and some of the experienced faced by Black wine patrons that I wouldn’t have thought about until they voiced those incidents here.

Small Batch Wines Pushing Virginia’s Creative Boundaries

Virginia is ranked #7 in the nation in terms of number of wineries, with over 300 in the state. While this is an impressive figure, it actually undercounts the number of brands available to wine lovers. For those willing to try something more experimental, try one of the state’s small batch wines.

Defining a ‘small batch’ wine can be difficult, especially in a state where few wineries make more than 3,000 cases a year. Many of these operations are colloquially referred to as ‘side hustles’, although that encompasses only part of this trend. However, as a ballpark definition, I’d broadly define ‘small batch’ as smaller brands whose wines are designed to be stylistically ‘different’ in some way.

Being different is something of a hallmark in the Virginia wine scene. As a young wine region, many vintners are still experimenting to find the styles and grapes that work best. While they usually draw more inspiration from the Old World than California, the reality is that only by experimenting will they move the industry forward. These small batch wines are the wine industry’s proverbial front line.

It’s a broad category for sure. Some are made in tiny lots by owners who lack a production facility or tasting room so they make & market their wines wherever they can. Others are crafted by winemakers at established locations who use a private label to play with different techniques or use fruit from a different terroir.

Visit to Midland’s home at Mt. Airy, in the upper Shenandoah Valley

Established wineries are tapping into this trend as well, including Horton Vineyards’ “Gears and Lace” series and Gabriele Rausse Winery’s “Vino dal Bosco” lineup. Both feature wines that are labeled & marketed separately, usually featuring different blends or production methods. In discussing her Pinotage rosé and Tannat sparkling, Caitlin Horton stated, “This is my personality in a glass. Some people see the Steampunk-themed artwork and based on that alone say ‘That’s what I want.’”

All of these ventures have one thing in common; they are creative. Many use different styles of winemaking or natural yeast fermentation. A few use blends that are rarely seen elsewhere. The use of hardy grapes such as Petit Manseng or hybrids that grow well in Virginia are recurring themes. While some of these products are sold at the winery they are made, you are more likely to find these labels at local wine stores.

Odd Birds Make Great Wine

If there was ever a wine where necessity became the mother of invention, it’s Bluestone Vineyard’s “Odd Bird”. “2020 was a bad frost year, so we had less quantity and ripening was shortened by 1.5 months,” said winemaker Lee Hartman. Since weather precluded him from making a traditional Bordeaux-blend, Lee looked outside the box.

Bluestone Vineyard’s “Odd Bird” wine

His solution was to whole cluster press the fruit. Although 93% of the wine came from red Bordeaux grapes, this process allowed Lee to leave the red pigments behind. The result is a fat but balanced white wine, with a citrusy nose and notes of orange and nectarine on the palate.

Working within the scope of their size and budget forced Guide Wine and Quartzwood Farm down a similar path. The final result showed what they lack in quantity they made up for in creativity.

Guide Wine’s “Field Blend” is made with Petit Manseng and Viognier that were picked and fermented together. According to winemaker Rich Sullivan, “My thought was to do something a little different. I chose those two grapes specifically because Viognier is softer and would complement the Petit Manseng by softening the edge of its acid”.

Guide Wine from Ben Seldins

For Ben Sedlins and Sarah Searle of Quartzwood, making wine in a sustainable way is an important component of their business. Sarah explained, “We’ve been long nagged by a sense that Virginia wine shouldn’t only be growing finicky European grapes that might not be suited for many sites nor our climate, and that there are likely some beautiful ferments to be created by stepping outside a narrow conception of what is ‘typical’ or ‘serious.’”

Currently Quartzwood makes three wines; a Noriet pét-nat, a Vidal-heavy pét-nat, and a soon to be released semi-carbonic Tannat. While they don’t use the phrase ‘natural wine’ (which is hard enough to define) to describe their creations, the use of hybrid grapes and limited intervention is in line with that concept. Both Quartzwood and Guide Wine are sold at Walsh Family Wine.

Side Hustles Arriving At Center Stage

Nearly a half-dozen Virginia winemakers have side hustles to various degrees, but Ben Jordan is perhaps Virginia’s king of side hustles. In addition to being head winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards he’s part of two smaller ventures, Lightwell Survey and his family-operated Midland Wine. Both brands emphasize limited intervention and unusual blends, including a Riesling/Petit Manseng named “Riesl-ing”, a Cabernet Franc/Blaufränkisch combo called “Cabernet Frankisch”, and a Cabernet Franc spiced with Petit Manseng named “The Weird Ones are Wolves.” The blends (and names) get weirder from there.

Both brands have received critical acclaim, but Ben isn’t the only winemaker whose side hustles are getting noticed. Wine Advocate recently rated the 2017 “F8” from Hark winemaker Jake Busching’s Jake Busching Wines as one of their favorites in a recent review of Virginia.

One of my favorite wines in Virginia!

The list goes on. King Family’s Matthieu Finot makes wine for Turk Mountain Vineyard and his own Domaine Finot, which includes a Malbec made using carbonic maceration. Enologist Dr. Joy Ting has her eponymous label Joy Ting Wine, where she experiments with whole-cluster fermentation. Maya Hood White, associate winemaker at Early Mountain, makes a Petit Manseng-based appassimento-style wine named R.A.H. More brands are likely to follow as winemakers flex their creative freedom.

But it’s not just about creative freedom – it’s about collaboration. Jake is a big fan of working with his fellow winemakers and winegrowers. He’s also made a few one-off wines, including a Cabernet Franc/Petit Manseng blend named Orphan #3. In explaining the idea behind Orphan, Jake stated, “It speaks to the idea that we always have a barrel of something sitting around. The goal of a collaboration is to experiment”.