Grayhaven Winery

“Is everyone happy?” asked winemaker Deon Abrams, as he came out to check on the growing crowd. If there was a theme of the day, this was it.

Grayhaven is one of the more accessible wineries in the state, located roughly mid-way between Charlottesville and Richmond. Not nearly enough people from NOVA head this way, which is a shame because not only is it a great place on its own, it shares a wine trail with 53rd Winery (another favorite) just north of here.

The first thing you notice is the VIEW! Grayhaven looks something out of a Tolkien novel. Walking towards the tasting room you cross a tiny bridge over a koi pond, then approach a pair of doors that would be at home guarding a castle. There’s even a classic merry go round around the corner. With views like this, it’s understandable why Grayhaven has been used as a filming location for music videos and even a movie – including one with the awesome title of Attack of the Vegan Zombies (because why eat flesh when you can feast on wine grapes?).

Grayhaven is also one of the older wineries in the state, planting its vineyard in 1978 and opening the winery in 1994. Small to mid-sized by Virginia standards (translation: still very boutique), it has 9 acres of vines including Touriga Nacional, Pinotage, Frontenac, and a few other grapes you don’t often see in Virginia.

The vineyard-geek in me shouted for joy I heard about the sheer variety of vines. Pinotage is South Africa’s signature grape – a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault that provides a full bodied, low acid red wine. Touriga is the national grape of Portugal, used as the basis for Port. If you’re itching for a Virginia made wine made with these varietals, this is the place to find them.

Another thing that distinguishes Grayhaven is its South African theme – no doubt because it’s Deon’s birthplace. The Pinotage was definitely a nod to that heritage, but they also sell a variety of South African wines to supplement what the vineyard produces, and host an annual South African festival (well…with the exception of 2020).

What I tried:

‘M A N’ Chenin Blanc: A South African Chenin that was a great value-for-your-money wine. High acid, crisp and light.

‘Villiera’ (Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend): Bright and very lemon up front.

‘Blooming White’ (Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Cheinin): Floral, almost spicy notes. Perfect for hot weather.

‘Rendezvous’ (Pinot, Chambourcin and Sauvignon Blanc): This vintage was super light; I detected strawberry notes.

Pinotage: Dion seemed especially happy with this one; fruity, with spice notes on the finish.

Indaba ‘Mosaic’ (South African blend with all 5 Bordeaux grapes): More fruit than I expected. Long finish.

Rivercrest: Touriga/Pinotage blend. Smooth! So good I had to buy a bottle.

I would be remiss in not including a shot of their amazing cheese plate.  The goat cheese with South African chutney was off the charts, but also loved the Tuscan Fontina and Wisconsin Bellavitano. If the South African heritage festival isn’t enough they ALSO host several cheese events every year.

Eastwood Farm and Winery

Eastwood Farm is one of Charlottesville’s newest wineries, opening this past May. I’ve been on their mailing list for a long time and was intrigued by their unique pitch; they have a hiking trail that you can book, in addition to enjoying their wine! It’s a cool idea at any time, but in the midst of a pandemic the idea of a private outdoor walk seems especially appealing.

They serve their own wine (made by Brad Hanson at Prince Michel) but don’t have their own vineyard. But no matter; they make fruit wine out of pears, apples, blackberries, blueberries and sour cherries grown on the property, so they can still boast of having ‘estate’ wine on the menu.

For the time being the ‘tasting room’ is actually an outdoor tent at the top of the hill. Although their main tasting room likely won’t open until October 2020, this location gives them sweeping views of the surrounding area, access to the hiking trail, and lots of outdoor space for social distancing.

My server gave me the lowdown about how family matriarch Athena Eastwood wanted a venture that all their family members could participate in, and after brainstorming the idea they decided on a winery. Dog and kid friendly, ‘family friendly’ is the theme of this location as well.

The tasting menu is on the smaller side, likely due to them being fairly new. My favorite was the Tall Tails fruit wine, which was a blend of apple and pear – that pear shown through even though it had a natural apple sweetness to it. But they were also happy with their Viognier that had hints of honey and a Chardonnay that had a fair bit of (I suspect) new American oak. I was told to expect a Blueberry rosé in the future, which sounds like a good reason to return.

Eventually I sat down and enjoyed a wine slushy while taking in the view.

Three Creeks Winery

Three Creeks Winery demonstrated that no matter how much I (think I) know, one can always be surprised. One day I checked my favorite wine app only to see a new red dot on the map; I scratched my head asking…what is this?!?

Turns out Three Creeks has been operating under the radar for a few years, only opening in late-June 2020. Owners P-J and John Lawrence loved wine so much they were already making their own as part of Vint Hill’s do-it-yourself program, mentored by Ashton Lough (now winemaker at Bull Run). I think they took the mantra ‘go big or go home’ a little too seriously, because they concluded that if making wine by the barrel was good, owing a winery would be even better.

With that in mind, they searched around the state until they found a 30-odd acre old farm just outside Leesburg, purchasing it in 2017. Not only is this a great area for grape vines, it’s surrounded by high quality neighbors (Casanel, Stone Tower, Zephaniah and others are less than 10 minutes away). With Ashton as the full time winemaker, they’re on a roll.

John gave me the full tour, including a ride to the vineyard. Two things stood out; the early 20th century barn, and the fact that three creeks converge here. John and P-J refurbished the ‘bank barn’ (so named because it’s set into the side of a hillside) to become their tasting room, while the creeks provided the name.

I loved the rustic charm of the tasting room, especially how they retained the original wooden floors. But the sitting area near one of the creeks seemed an equally great place to hang out (because of the water, no children are allowed on the property).

Right now they have 8 acres planted, with 2 more on the way. Nothing is producing yet, so for the time being Three Creeks is sourcing all their fruit from elsewhere. Hopefully by next year they’ll be able to produce their first batch of estate wine.

John explained to me the Rhône is his source of inspiration for wine, with Pinot being his all-time favorite varietal. In fact, Three Creeks offers both a GSM-blend (sourced from Oregon) and Pinot Noir to go along with their Virginia offerings.

First up were the whites from the 2018 vintage – which no doubt was the most challenging year of Virginia wine in recent memory. Despite that, Ashton did a great job. I especially liked the Chardonnay, which was accented but not overpowered by the French oak. The Viognier had some honeysuckle on the nose but it wasn’t ‘in your face’ like I sometimes find. This was a great start since if Ashton can do well with 2018 fruit, then he can make great wine with anything.

Next were the 2019 wines. The Rosé had the traditional salmon color you see in Provence-style wines. Although I’m usually not a fan of Vidal wines I really enjoyed theirs, which was crisp and had great apple notes. But my favorite of the day was their Petit Manseng, which I got a bottle of to take home. LOTS of citrus on the palate to the point you might think it had some sweetness, but it was totally dry.

Lastly came the reds. My favorite red was the 2018 Petit Verdot, which was soft, had bramble fruit notes and spread out on the palate nicely. I also liked the Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and their Mélange red blend.

I can’t imagine a tougher year to start a business, but Three Creeks is off to an awesome start.

The Virginia Winery Roster

Virginia is said to have around 300 wineries. As of June 2020 I actually count 252…but if you include cideries and meaderies, we’re at 283. So…pretty close to 300!

Of this roster, I’ve visited a lot. By ‘a lot’…I mean…all but 5 of them. That’s right; I’ve visited 247 wineries, 22 cideries, and 7 meaderies that are currently open to the public. If we include locations that are now closed or rebranded…I’ve visited 275 wineries.

Like a crazed OCD gamer who must perform every quest, pick up every piece of loot, search every room, and interact with every character…I need to visit…ALL OF THEM.

Some commonly asked questions:

1) My first Virginia winery was Casanel Vineyards and Winery, sometime in I think mid-2013.

2) My favorite winery is a toss up; either Linden Vineyards or Arterra Wines. A lot depends on who I visited most recently. But in truth, my favorite VA wine tends to be what I’m drinking at the moment.

3) My favorite grapes are Tannat, Petit Verdot, and Sauvignon Blanc.

4) I’ve visited 247 wineries, 22 cideries, and 7 meaderies that are currently open to the public. You can add in another 28 wineries that are now closed.

5) I’m a member of Linden, Arterra, and Hiddencroft. I tend to do case-clubs, not full on wine clubs (where they usually pick your wines).

Ironically, I’ve also found myself struggling to define what constitutes a ‘visit’. If a winery is renamed, does visiting that same space constitute a ‘new’ visit? What about producers that lack tasting rooms; how does one ‘cross them off’ in a quest to visit every winery? What about wineries that are seasonal or special-event focused; do those get placed in the same visitation bucket as the rest?

OK, so maybe to simply issue, I’ll only focus on wineries that have a physical space to visit (sorry October One!). What about cideries and meaderies? Do they go into the ‘winery’ bucket? Why shouldn’t they, given they also compete in the Virginia Governor’s Cup competition? What about ‘urban’ wineries that sell wine made from out of state fruit; do I include them in the roster?

To narrow the question down of “How many wineries are in the state”, I use the following definition:

For the purpose of visiting every winery in Virginia, a ‘visit’ must include the following criteria; 1) The location visited must produce a fermented beverage described as wine, cider, or mead, 2) it must have a physical tasting location to visit, 3) it must have defined visiting hours or be available via appointment to the general public, and 4) it must use Virginia ingredients (grapes, apples, honey, or whatever ingredients the beverage is primarily composed of).

That excludes some wine labels, but it makes the challenge more easily achievable. I still track visits to wineries that lack a tasting room or non-Virginia fruit separately. But to qualify for this challenge, I’m using the above criteria. I’m also tracking cideries and meaderies as sub-categories, as well as wineries that I’ve visited that have since closed.

SummerWind Vineyard

SummerWind has an adorable little tasting room right outside Norfolk. As you drive up you’d think it’s someone’s home – which at one point, it was! They are also one of the newest wineries in the state, opening their doors in 2018.

The Norfolk area is a challenging place to grow wine. But owner Kim Pugh explained the key to success was using a strict regimen of canopy management to deal with the humidity. Except for their Chardonel all their 11 acres of vines are vinifera – which tells me they’ve been working extra hard in their vineyard.

Kim’s daughter Meagan took me through a tasting while Kim knocked out some paperwork. Meagan explained Michael Shaps is their winemaker, but the ladies are in close consultation with him to ensure their wines are crafted according to the styles they prefer.

With Shaps on their side, you know the wines are well crafted. They make 1500 cases/year, mostly drier styles. A few are ‘fun’ porch sipping wines but others have some really good aging potential.

For the white wines, we started with the Petit Manseng and the Chardonnay/Viognier; the former was citrusy, while the later was tangy with notes of white peach and apricot. Next were a pair of Cabernet Sauvignon-based roses, including a sparkling which I particularly liked.

For reds, I was surprised how light the 2017 Cabernet Franc was in both color and taste, without losing its pepperiness. Next up was the 2017 Merlot that had notes of black cherry. The semi-sweet “Pagan” blend (Merlot/Chambourcin/Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon, named after a local river) was a good porch-sipping wine – and their biggest seller.

But my favorites were their Merlot-heavy “Tormentor” Bordeaux blend, and their Petit Verdot. The Tormentor (again named after a local river) had a nice smoothness to it, balanced by acidity and earth notes. The Petit Verdot was still my #1 pick though.

Hampton Roads Vineyard and Winery

Hampton Roads Vineyard has one of the best marketing ideas I’ve ever seen in the Virginia wine industry. After a long search for a good place to open a winery/vineyard, in 2008 David Sheldon and his wife Dianne found their future home in a rural area halfway between Richmond and Norfolk. He called it a retirement plan, – although I hate calling it that because owning a winery is a LOT of work.

The property had a lot of history, including a house once owned by a famous carriage maker and horse enthusiast. It’s also good for growing alfalfa and raising Red Angus cattle. But you know what David decided it needed to complete things? A goat tower.

Say again? A WHAT?

That’s right – Dave got the idea from a book named “The Greatest Wineries in the World” which included a picture of a goat tower at a South African winery. That planted an idea how he could distinguish Hampton Roads from all the other wineries in the state. The 34-foot goat tower is his own design, and is the largest such structure in the world. Visitors can’t go inside, but they can watch the goats run up and down the steps.

The goat tower is fun, but I was just as taken with the tasting room. Inspired by the trade of his home’s original owners, the building outwardly looks like a carriage house. It’s quite spacious inside, and being decorated with the works of local artists is a nice touch.

While some come for the goat tower – they stay for the wine. Visitors are a mix of locals as well as travelers from Williamsburg and Norfolk. So to satisfy this crowd, Dianne makes an assortment of wines ranging from on the sweet side to bold and dry. All in all they make 2-3000 cases/year using their 15 acres of vines. All their wine is made in steel, although a handful received some oak from wooden staves.

For the white wines, my favorite was the 2017 Chardonnay. Fermented in steel, it was light and easy drinking (I think I detected notes of pear). I also tried the “White Oak White” white blend which had grassy notes and a bigger mouthfeel, the Simply Seyval that was higher in sugar and more citrusy, and finishing the lighter wines was the Norton Blush which had a GREAT nose and color.

Moving on to the reds, I started with the 2018 Merlot and moved to the 2018 Petit Verdot. But my favorite? This sounds odd…but my favorite was their Hog Island Sweet Red – a Norton heavy blend. Now, I don’t typically like either Norton or sweet wines. But you know what? There was something about this that just hit the right spot!

Next time you’re visiting Norfolk or Williamsburg, swing on by. You might even be able to get a tour of the goat pen.

Upper Shirley Vineyards

Wow, what a difference a few weeks makes! I visited here in early March right after I participated in the Virginia Wine Expo in Richmond. Now I’m ‘social distancing’. You have no idea how much I miss this place now!

Upper Shirley Vineyards has a different vibe from other Virginia wineries. While some serve light fare, they have a full restaurant. Many wineries are part of a trail with 3-4 other places; Upper Shirley stands alone. Most tasting rooms are on the small side; this place is huge by comparison.

But you know what? This strategy is spot on! Upper Shirley goes all-out so you don’t have to visit anywhere else. Given what I saw, I don’t know why anybody would want to.

Located on the banks of the James River next to a historic plantation, Upper Shirley is definitely in “the countryside”. That sounds odd given it’s only half an hour from Richmond, yet very true.

Upper Shirley is the brainchild of Tayloe Dameron, who saw potential in putting a winery in an otherwise undeveloped stretch of land outside Richmond. At the top of his ‘to do’ list was to figure out how to make great wine. Fortunately Dameron partnered up with Michael Shaps, who’s likely won more wine awards than anyone in Virginia. So winemaker – check.

Tayloe also researched how to plant a vineyard in an area that’s challenging for vinifera. The local soil is exceptionally vigorous so he planted the vines well apart to ensure maximum sun exposure, facilitating ripening. He also found a gravely plot of land that has great drainage. Through careful growing and site selection practices like these Tayloe managed to get his 22 acres vines in balance. So vineyard – check.

As we chatted you could tell Tayloe is (justifiably) proud of his wine, although he wasn’t shy about talking up his food menu either (try their burger!). Within an hour of opening Upper Shirley’s indoor space was PACKED. Luckily I found additional seating on their patio overlooking the river, which provided me with an amazing view.

Of course this is still a winery first and foremost, so I got down to sampling. The white wines were all from the 2018 growing season, which worried me at first – until I tried them. While many others gave up on the 2018 vintage, I think Michael pulled a hat trick here and made some damn good whites.

I really liked the Viognier, which was light with notes of honeysuckle. Following that was their Sauvignon Blanc; aromatic and reminiscent of a cool-climate wine. The Chardonnay had a great nose and the partial French oak did wonders for its long finish. Finishing up the lineup was a semi-sweet “#2 White”, their Provence-style Rosé, and a very clean & crisp sparkling.

We then moved on to the reds, all from the 2016 harvest. The Merlot had a nice cherry nose and I found it to be very fruit driven. The Petit Verdot had a big mouthfeel, with black fruit up front. Following that was their “Zachariah” red blend, and last but not least a Tannat that was bold but not slap-your-face tannic bold. I loved all of them, but hands down the smooth Zachariah (which has a dash of Tannat) was my favorite.

I came by for a tasting and ended up staying a few hours. Tayloe wasn’t joking when he explained his entire goal is to give you enough that you don’t have to go anywhere else.

868 Estate Vineyards

Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting 868 Estate Vineyards under happier circumstances than what we face today. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to recognize a good news story for a change. Winning the 2020 Virginia’s Governor’s Cup award certainly qualifies!

I’d been trying to visit them for a while, but no particular date seemed to work. Then…they WON THE GOVERNOR’S CUP with their 2017 Vidal Blanc Passito, the first desert wine to ever do so! If that’s not enough reason to rush over, then I don’t know what is.

That’s the Governor’s Cup right there!!!

Not only is 868 a winery, it has a full-service restaurant called Grandale Vintner’s Table next to the tasting room. It’s great synergy because it allows them to serve great light fare options at the tasting room. Probably my favorite is the truffle & wine pairing. New flavors are selected every year with their “Shuffle the Truffle” event, which sounds like a delicious way to pick new favorites.

Nancy Deliso showed me around on a Friday afternoon. 868 has 22 acres under vine (plus some on lease), including a mix of vinifera plus Chardonel, Chambourcin, and some Vidal. I was surprise how little Vidal they actually have planted, all of which goes into their desert wine. All in all they make 3500 cases/year, usually using 100% estate fruit.

As I did my tasting I found myself admiring the art on their bottles. It turned out the tasting room is decorated with works from local artists, and the best of those are picked to decorate next year’s bottles. Had the weather been better I would have loved to sit outside on the expansive patio. Next time I’ll have to revisit Grandale for lunch, which I’d frequented several times (I’m a sucker for their pork shank).

Carl DeManno is their wine maker and the one who came up with the idea of making a “Passito” style desert wine; it’s an Italian style which calls for the grapes to be dried until they are raisin-y. The goal isn’t to make a sweet wine as much as something that is rich in texture (although it does have 8% residual sugar). Carl joked it was a “good experiment”, which is the wine understatement of the year.

Carl in the barrel room

Sadly the Vidal was off the tasting menu, but I did get to sample basically everything else. I started with their 2017 Chardonel and Chardonnay; the first was light with notes of grass and citrus, the later I could sense was dry with a tad of oak. The 2017 Canvas White was semi-sweet (their only sweet option, besides the desert wine) with good acidity.

Moving on to the reds, I REALLY liked that 2017 Cabernet Franc. Like many of their reds, it was a blend (this time using Cab Sauv and Merlot), which went a long way. The 2017 Merlot was also lovely, with a nice roundness on the palate.

Before I left I had one more place to visit: the barrel room. It so happened Carl was sampling two wines for their members. I tried their 2017 Petit Verdot, which while young was coming along VERY nicely. It seemed smooth up front but spread out nicely. I also tried their 2017 Chardonnay again, this time with some Swiss cheese which definitely mellowed it out. The 2017 vintage kick a@$, and these were great examples.

I’m SO tired of staying indoors already. I want to go out and visit again.

Doing my own truffle pairing

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!