Old Westminster Winery

I visited Old Westminster Winery back to back with Black Ankle Vineyards. Both were on my list of ‘must visit’ Maryland wineries, although for different reasons. While Black Ankle makes wine in a more traditional style Old Westminster leans heavy into experimentation; specifically the production of ‘natural wine’.

Natural wine isn’t well defined but most agree it’s a style of winemaking that utilizes natural yeast fermentation, limited to no sulfites, and doesn’t use filtering for clarification (or some combination of these and other methods). It’s an ancient style that’s come back into vogue due to its emphasis on sustainable agriculture (and perceived health benefits, although those are more debatable). While some wineries have a pétillant natural (pet-nat) sparkling or claim their focus on ‘minimal intervention’ Old Westminster takes its ‘natural’ approach to a whole new level.

Personally I find natural wine a love-it-or-hate-it style. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of natural wine out there that’s quite yummy and I would totally recommend visiting Old Westminster to try for yourself. But they can taste ‘funky’ for lack of a better term (although not in a bad way), and the wine itself can look cloudy due to its lack of filtering. Cloudy wine isn’t in any way faulted, but its best to keep an open mind for any visit.

Right now they have 10 acres planted – mostly Muscat. On top of this they have a vineyard at Burnt Hill Farm (also called the Burnt Hill Project) which promises more estate fruit. Otherwise they source fruit from Maryland.

Another cool thing is they have a number of food options available, including several styles of pizza. Some are traditional margarita-style pies, others are (like the wine) on the experimental side. I chose a personal pizza topped off with beats (of all things) but really enjoyed it. They also have Sunday brunch.

As for the wine – a number flight options are available, both for reds, whites, and sparklings. Not wanting to miss anything I did a good cross-section. My server was also kind enough to swap out a few items for others I was more keen on sampling. They also have canned wine (didn’t I mention they were experimental?). Extra points for having tasting notes with QR codes you could scan to get a quick video of the winemaker chatting about the wine.

2020 Albariño: Saline, peach notes on palate. Pineapple and peach on the nose,

2020 Sauvignon Blanc: About as opposite a New Zealand SB as you can get. Neither high acid or perfume-y. I detected some melon notes.

2020 Trio: Chardonnay heavy white blend

2019 Muscat: Apricot all the way. Apparently there is some residual sugar but I couldn’t detect it. No filtering so it has an interesting cloudiness (which is totally healthy)

Frank Fizz: Interesting; 100% Cab Franc pet-nat sparkling. A ‘rustic’ sparking.

Rev 7th Edition: Cedar/Oak. “Molassas” is on the sheet but I can’t confirm it since I don’t know what it tastes like!

Solera Batch 3: A port-style wine. Spicy, with Christmas-y notes. Not sure if I loved it but it was very interesting.

I can’t remember which it was, but one of the wines I tasted has ‘tastes like beet juice” in my notes!

Black Ankle Vineyards

While several Maryland wineries are about as close to me as Virginia ones, unfortunately I’ve never visited them as often. I’ve heard from friends the Maryland wine industry is maybe a decade behind Virginia – but they are catching up fast.

But in asking around, a handful of names came up as ‘must visit’ locations. Black Ankle Vineyards was one of them. Since they were just over an hour away from me, further investigation was in order.

As a smaller state Maryland wineries have less flexibility in sourcing local fruit, so it’s not unusual to find their wine labeled as “American” rather than “Maryland”. Fortunately at 56 acres of vines this location doesn’t seem to have a problem with having estate fruit.

I was quick to discover Black Ankle was at least the equal to any I’ve visited in Virginia (or just about anywhere) both in service and in wine. They even took the difficult path of only growing vinifera, including Albariño (increasingly a Maryland favorite) and Syrah (which is hard to find anywhere on the east coast).

The tasting room is pretty, with lots of outdoor sitting and great views. It’s also dog & children friendly (at least outdoors for the later), and you can bring your own food. They even have a Telsa charger and nice glassware. Black Ankle checked off lots of boxes before I even had my first tasting.

I didn’t have a reservation but it was early so I snuck in anyway. My server Kody was on the spot during my hour-long visit – and she was very kind to let me sample a few bottles not on the tasting menu but happened to be open. I’m thankful for that, because several turned out to be favorites.

Black Ankle seems to have an affinity for Albariño because they had three different versions from three different tracts – and they all expressed themselves differently. But the real treat was the sample of their Black Ankle Estate, which really blew me away. The only thing I didn’t love were the price points were on the higher side, with whites going from $38-50.

All flights were accompanied with tasting notes, although I tended to use my own descriptors.

  • 2019 Chardonnay: Some butter notes. Not necessarily California style but it was somewhat reminiscent of one.
  • 2020 Grüner: Light, lots of mineral notes. Hard to compare since I see so little of this variety locally.
  • 2020 Albariño Verjeo: Aromatic. Heavier than I expected. At first I thought I detected citrus but probably more leaning towards pear.
  • 2020 Albariño Sur: More citrusy than the first, and definitely with some mineral notes.
  • 2020 Albariño Norte: Definitely citrusy and softer than the rest.
  • 2020 Passeggiata (red): A super soft summer red, meant to be chilled. Not sure what the blend was.
  • 2019 Crumbling Rock (Bordeaux blend but leaning towards Cab Franc): Wonderful aromatics!!!
  • 2016 Black Ankle Estate (Bordeaux blend but leaning towards Cab Sauv): Heavier Bordeaux blend. Earthy and dark cherry; a definite winner.

All in all, Black Ankle was a great experience. This place really blew away my expectations for Maryland wine, so I’ll happily go back.

Rockbridge Vineyard & Brewery

Rockbridge is conveniently located not far off I-64 in the southern Shenandoah. I was in the area visiting some of their new neighbors but dropped by since it had been a long time. It helped I was on a mission to buy as many Gold Medal winners from the Virginia’s Governor’s Cup as I could, and Rockbridge’s 2017 V d’Or was on the list.

Founded in 1988 this is one of the oldest wineries in Virginia; in fact their winemaker Shepard (Shep) Rouse is the 3rd oldest tenured winemaker in the state. I suspect he was also one of the early proponents of hybrids, which make more than half of their 17 acres of vines. They also have an assortment of vinifera, including 2 acres of Pinot Noir and some Riesling.

Rockbridge made the leap to becoming a winery/brewery combination several years ago. The barn-styled building is divided between the two operations, with more space outside. According to tasting room manager Dianna Rankin, it’s not unusual for husbands to head to one side of the building for beer while wives stay on the other side. The brewery was closed when I visited but I did peruse their very considerable beer list.

While their wine list is exceptionally long and varied, Rockbridge’s most famous creation is arguably their V d’Or dessert wine, an ice-style wine made from Vidal, Vignoles and Traminette. The V d’Or is especially noteworthy because it was twice selected for the Governor’s Case in the past decade.

Dianna set me up with a generous selection of wine tastings. I immediately noticed that across the board bottle prices are very affordable, even by the standards of the Shenandoah area. I’m accustomed to prices in NOVA and Maryland where whites set you back almost $30 and reds are even more expensive. So it was shocking to see most of Rockbridge’s wines were around $15 and the most expensive ones were $25. They also have a deep bench of library wines available for sale.

For their wines I especially liked the Chardonnay, of which they had several vintages. The 2019 Rockbridge Chardonnay was my favorite; made in steel but using a whole cluster press process to give it more structure and tannin. Despite that process I found it light & easy drinking.

Also very good were the Rieslings. While I’m not often a fan of off-dry wines I’ll make an exception here. One of the best was their 2015 Riesling, which had body and complexity along with 2% residual sugar. I had several stars in my notes so I must have liked it a lot.

After the reds was their 2017 Rosé, made with Chambourcin. It had a Jolly Rancher strawberry/watermelon flavor to it.

Next up were several reds, including a very spicy 2015 Syrah and a Cab Franc which was all smoke & spice.

But the crown goes to the 2017 V d’Or. No tasting notes here, but I know I need to save this for a special occasion.

Above Ground Winery

Above Ground might be a familiar name for those who have spent years visiting Loudoun wineries. Owners Matt and Mary Barbagallo formerly had a tasting room in Purcellville before moving to the Shenandoah. Not only is vineyard acreage cheaper there, they wanted a nice place in the countryside to retire. The Shenandoah offers both. So they planted several years ago and (re)opened this summer.

While nearly all Virginia wineries advertise themselves as a ‘Farm Winery’, this place definitely emphasizes the ‘Farm’ part of that phrase. That’s partially due to their remote location, about halfway between Staunton and Lexington. But it’s also because the Barbagallos put nearly all their effort into the vineyard as opposed to a fancy tasting room.

Don’t get me wrong – you’ll love the drive here and the view from the top of the vineyard is lovely (and yes, they do plan a new tasting area to take advantage of it). But mostly, visitors are here for the wine.

Matt took me on a tour of the vineyard to better explain why they picked this location. With an elevation of 2100 feet and a rain shadow from the surrounding mountains, this is a great place for vines. It helps they planted on Frederick-Christian soil, which offers great drainage with mixes of limestone and other minerals. I admit – I’m a geek when it comes to checking out vineyards, so I was more than happy to test my skills at trying to identify which vines were riesling vs pinot noir (PS – I still stink at guessing).

Right now Above Ground has 7 acres of vines, including several Bordeaux reds, Chardonnay, Riesling, and some Pinot Noir. The last two I’m especially excited about, since Virginia has so little of it.

Above Ground crafts most of their wine according to the local palate, so you won’t find anything fancy. Most of their current lineup is either blended with fruit or made into lighter, juicier styles. People who style themselves wine snobs may wonder about the relative lack of dry wines. But I enjoyed the entire lineup – especially the Chardonnay.

  • “Exit Strategy” 2020 Chardonnay: This was mostly steel and a little bit of oak. Clean, with a nice mouthfeel. I bought a bottle of this to take home.
  • “Dividing Ridge White”: A light white wine/fruit wine blend, made with riesling and apples. This is more of a picnic, porch-sipping wine.
  • “Karma” (Merlot/Cabernet Franc): Light and juicy.
  • “Wild River Red”: Sweet wine made with elderberries and west coast fruit. Definitely a porch sipper.
  • “Dividing Ridge” Red: Blend of raspberries and grapes (Cab Franc?)

Above Ground reminds me the type of tasting experiences that used to be common elsewhere in Virginia but are increasingly rare, where the owners/winemaker pours for you while shooting the breeze. If you’re looking for a laid back, unpretentious experience, definitely visit.

Ecco Adesso Vineyards

New wineries are like magnets to me – as soon as I hear a rumor of one I rush to visit. So it’s no surprise I visited Ecco Adesso during its soft opening in late July. Located in the southern (or upper) Shenandoah Valley near Lexington, its Virginia’s newest winery.

The name is an Italian phrase which means “Here Now”. Owners Cierra & Michael Weatherly explained it was inspired by the idea that when with family, one should avoid distractions and live ‘there’ in the moment. It’s seems a good adage to live by.

The Weatherly’s love of Italy played a big role in the winery’s backstory. Pre-COVID they’d visit Italy yearly and were no doubt inspired by its wine. Unfortunately, COVID caused their 2020 plans to be postponed. The good news for us is that gave them time to think of new ventures, including opening what became Ecco Adesso.

Ecco is a huge property – around 350 acres in total, at an elevation of 1800 feet. You drive down a long driveway to what looks like an alpine chalet. It was once a private residence but the new owners have since converted it into a tasting room. Now Ecco is all decked out for visitors – using wood harvested from the property. There’s even three Airbnbs on the property as well.

GM Janine Aquino gave me a quick tour of the grounds, pointing out their casual hiking trail, future tasting room, and an events area. Put simply, the Weatherly’s picked a great site. The only (temporary) downside is since they planted in late 2020, Ecco won’t have estate wine for several years.

That said, what’s planted is very exciting. They currently have 6 acres of vines (with 5 more planned) including Saparavi (a high acid grape from Georgia), Lagrein (a high-elevation red found in Italy) and Sauvignon Ketos (a hybrid of Sauv Blanc). None of these varieties are common to Virginia, but winemaker/grower Tim Jordan is something of a rebel. He felt given their soil and high elevation, these varieties are good choices for Ecco. I’m stoked to see what he does with them.

Grapes aren’t the only things planted. Ecco produces apples, plumbs, apricots and paw paws (a fruit indigenous to the mid-west/east coast). But the coolest item was their “Vets First” garden.

To understand Vets First, you have to understand the Weatherly’s. I’ve met a lot of winery owners who do good work for charities, but few seem to embrace it as deeply as Cierra & Michael. The Vets First garden is run entirely by military veterans, and the bounty is donated to the local food bank.

While they won’t have their own wine for another year, they do serve a mixture of bottles from Early Mountain, several Shenandoah wineries, and Italy. I even spotted Midland Construction, grown on the Jordan family farm. I sipped a flight on their porch overlooking the vineyard.

The Weatherly’s and Janine were very hospitable and excited about this venture. If you visit them, tell them Matt from Winetrails and Wanderlust sent you!

Merrie Mill Farm & Vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glass House Winery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I tried:

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

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

Virginia Malbecs vs the World

Malbec is a grape that’s grown worldwide but seldom bottled alone. Cahors is its spiritual home but it’s since been adopted by Argentina, one of the few places that bottles 100% Malbec wines. Even Bordeaux considers it something of a stepchild, the least planted grape out of the 5 noble Bordeaux reds.

Out of 3000 planted acres of grapes, Virginia grows only 17 acres of Malbec – in the entire state. Saying its rare in Virginia is an understatement.

The reason for this rarity is simple – it generally does poorly in Virginia’s humidity, struggling to ripen in most years. In all my travels I’ve only seen 7-8 places in Virginia & Maryland which are either willing to put in the extra work to grow large plantings of Malbec, or possess the ‘Goldilocks’ combination of terroir it needs to express itself. More than a handful of wineries have since ripped out its Malbec vines or were forced to replant due to frost damage.

Still, the opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison of Malbec poised an interesting dilemma. Are there any defining characteristics for Virginia Malbec? How will it compare to France and Argentina?

To answer this question, some friends and I tasted 9 wines from three different regions, including Mendoza (Argentina), Cahors (France), and Virginia (mostly central VA but also one from Fauquier).

The contenders:

  1. Argentina (Mendoza) 2017 El Enemigo
  2. Argentina (Mendoza) 2017 Mascota
  3. Argentina (Mendoza) 2019 Phebus
  4. France (Cahors) 2015 Chateau de Mercuès
  5. France (Cahors) 2016 La Caminade
  6. France (Cahors) 2018 Clos La Coutale
  7. Virginia 2015 DelFosse
  8. Virginia 2016 Arterra
  9. Virginia 2016 Horton
  10. Bonus: California 2016 Schweiger

The tasting was done completely blind. We did 3 flights, with each flight consisting of a wine from each region. We conducted a “Finalist’s Round” of the winners from each of the three flights.

First off, nearly all of these wines were nearly the same jet-ink color. A few were slightly lighter than others (possibly because some had some other grapes blended in), but any differences were going to have to be determined by nose and palate.

Flight #1

  • 2015 DelFosse ($26): Earth floor on the nose. Tobacco notes yet fruity. Overall not especially complex but still a well-received wine. (2.5 votes)
  • 2017 El Enemigo ($22): Earthy notes and some funk on the nose. Lighter bodied than the previous one but still strong tannin. Some fruit notes on the palate. Favorite of the 1st flight. (3.5 votes)
  • 2015 Chateau de Mercuès ($28): Blended with Merlot. Raspberry notes but also some bitterness. I picked this up at Total Wine and while it had good reviews it wasn’t well received here. (1 vote)

Flight #2

  • 2016 Arterra ($35?): Spicy and bright. Arterra makes their wines via natural yeast fermentation, which I’ve found is a love-it-or-hate-it quality. I enjoyed it but not the winner of this round. (2.5 votes)
  • 2019 Phebus ($16): This was the youngest wine of the night – and it showed. Despite that, we seemed to really enjoy the fruitiness. A bit tart and minerally as well. Overall it was on point, and twice in a row Argentina takes the win for favorite of the flight. (4 votes)
  • 2018 Clos La Coutale ($18): One of my participants gave it the weirdest tasting note descriptor of the night; “mash potatoes”. Another said notes of herb garden and tart on the palate. I thought it had a ‘weird’ nose and fruit notes. Not a winner for us. (1 vote)

Flight #3

  • 2016 “Cy” La Caminade ($22): I picked this up at a local wine store based on their recommendation. Different participants provided different descriptors, ranging from bell pepper, blackberry, and/or leather on the nose. One participant noted a bit of sourness. Not my favorite but got outvoted! (3 votes)
  • 2017 Mascota Vineyards ($15): One of the most widespread commercial producers in Argentina. Tobacco nose, black cherry palate. (1.5 votes)
  • 2016 Horton ($30): Bright, fruity. My favorite of the night! Words were hard for me by then, but I crowdsourced the tasting notes “Earthy nose and cranberry notes on the palate”. Sadly, this was Horton’s last vintage of this grape. (2.5 votes)

Finalist Round

  • Argentina 2017 El Enemigo: Funky nose. Words were hard by this point so no tasting descriptors. 4 votes
  • Argentina 2019 Phebus: Musty. 3 votes
  • Cahors 2019 La Caminade: Slight must, some fruit, brighter than others. Zero votes.

For our bonus round, we tried the Napa 2016 Schweiger. Very ripe! It was a totally different wine than the rest- and not just because we were lit up by then.

Overall, I’d say our tasting notes were all over the place. I knew this would be a challenging grape for Virginia to compare, but I still think it did well. Notably, Virginia Malbecs were voted in the middle of each flight, while Argentina was consistently #1 and France ended up last.

My personal favorite was Horton but I did like the Phebus as well. I suspect younger, more fruit-driven wines appealed to the crowd I was with so that may have impacted the results.

The winner!

Port of Leonardtown Winery

Since it’s Women’s History Month it seems appropriate to end March with an interview with winemaker Lauren Zimmerman of Port of Leonardtown.

If you aren’t following Lauren’s Instagram (@laurenwinegirl), you’re missing out. Her stories are incredibly fun to follow along, whether you’re a wino or not. But in person, she was every bit as fun as her stories are.

My visit was inspired by news of their recent Maryland Governor’s Cup awards, but more broadly because I was curious about Maryland wine in general. Port of Leonardtown had recently earned the Jack Aellen award for the state’s best fruit wine, and best in class for their 2020 Sauvignon Blanc. While that Sauv Blanc made the entire trip worthwhile, there was plenty to love here.

I started with a barrel tasting, chatting with Lauren about the state’s wineries in-between sips. She explained how Maryland has over 100 x wineries and 1000 x acres of grapes, making Maryland something of a ‘little brother’ to Virginia’s own wineries. Since many Maryland wineries are closer to me than Virginia counterparts in Charlottesville or the Shenandoah, I began to wonder why I don’t visit here more often.

But even within Maryland, Port of Leonardtown is a unique enterprise. It’s comprised of 13 x independent vineyards from around the state who banded together to form a winery co-op under one roof (and one winemaker). The wines resulting from this cooperation showcase a variety of terroirs from coastline to mountains to flat farmland.

Unlike most winery tasting rooms, Port of Leonardtown is set in a suburban area. While they have a picnic area and some ‘show vines’ in front, don’t expect the sweeping vineyard views that you might see elsewhere. But not to worry; they make up for it with great wine.

One observation about Maryland wine is since its terroir has a little bit of everything it’s hard to define a signature ‘Maryland’ style. Fortunately, this suits Lauren well. While she comes from Canada (and definitely misses Riesling) Lauren has jumped between wineries all over the world before finding a cute guy and settling here to start a family, so she’s accustomed to dealing with a range of styles and grapes.

Lauren’s most consistent grape is definitely Chambourcin – which she praised for its versatility. She also felt Chambourcin grown in eastern Maryland was richer than what you can find elsewhere. Port of Leonardtown’s vineyards also produce Barbera, Vidal, Albariño, Chardonnay, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Merlot.

Since I had her full attention, I took the opportunity to ask her own favorite wines. The unreleased 2020 Sauv Blanc and her steel-fermented Chardonnay were up there, along with her Governor’s Cup-winning 2015 Barbera.

Since it was Women’s History month I also asked her a few questions about women’s representation in the Maryland winery scene. She agreed that while the field is dominated by men, that trend is dying out. She also pointed out that women generally have better olfactory skills then men, so biology seems to be on her side here.

As for the wine, I enjoyed the entire lineup. We started with the whites, with the 2020 Sauvignon Blanc quickly becoming my favorite – young and juicy, with lots of grapefruit notes. The 2020 Vidal was also good, leaning towards a more citrusy style.

For reds, the Cabernet Franc was bright and peppery, while the 2019 “Old Line” red (Merlot / Cabernet Franc / Petit Verdot) was richer. Finishing things off were the Vidal dessert wine, which Lauren called a ‘porch sipper’ because it wasn’t overly sweet. Finally we had a dry, rich port-style made with Chambourcin.

If you haven’t been to Maryland wineries before, start here!

The Winery at Sunshine Ridge Farm

Sunshine Ridge is Virginia’s newest winery, located along the edge of Lake Manassas and very close to Vint Hill. And I’ll say it out loud – it also has some of the most stunning views of any winery in Virginia.

Owners Maria & Tom Rafferty bought the property with an eye for building a new home, but they felt the space gave them the opportunity to do something hospitality related as well. Fortunately their friend (and future business partner) Tom Schrade was looking to do something similar, so they were able to team up and build Sunshine Ridge Farm.

You can tell that Tom is a landscaper by trade, because the location has great views of the lake and a lot of attention to detail. Tom must also be a carpenter because he helped build the tasting room – using wood harnessed from the property. He did a great job, although Maria can’t help but poke fun at the single support column that is just a little bit crooked. I’m sure he could fit it but she won’t let him because it’s a better story that way.

I particularly loved the garage doors that opened up towards the lake, as well as the fireplace. It was chilly when I visited so the doors remained closed, but I did grab a prime seat near the fire.

I get the sense that Sunshine Ridge is designed to entertain large crowds, both inside the tasting room and on the extensive lawn outside. Maria gave me a tour and I was impressed by the building’s coziness. They also have a large upstairs area for club members and a separate room for the brewery. I can only imagine how this place will be in the summertime, with the breeze coming off the lake and maybe a concert going on.

Right now Ashton Lough of Bull Run Winery makes their wine, and that will continue to be the case for a while. While Sunshine is planting a quarter acre of Vidal Blanc, most of their fruit will come from 11 acres leased from Bull Run’s vineyard in Rappahannock or purchased elsewhere.

Another item that is certain to be a crowd-pleaser is they are a brewery as well as a winery. Right now Cedar Run Brewery is supplying the beer, but Sunshine will brew their own beer in the future. Add some food trucks. music, and maybe lounge chairs near the lake, and this place is a one-stop-stop for all your recreational needs.

I sampled the wine lineup and was particularly taken with the Meritage (nice complexity) and the Chardonnay (which hit the right balance of new and used French oak). They also had a citrusy Riesling, off-dry rosé with strawberry notes, a Pinot Gris, Cab Franc, and a Norton. The last one surprised me; I’m rarely a Norton drinker but I would drink this one again as the 20% Merlot they used cut through the ‘foxy’ characteristics that I don’t like. It was a Norton for those who don’t usually try Norton!

Right now all their wine is from the 2019 vintage so several reds tasted young, but give it some time and they will mellow out. Most of their wine use Virginia fruit, with the exception of the Riesling (100% Washington State) and the Pinot Gris (a mix of Virginia and Washington fruit).

Since I would be remiss not to try the entire lineup, I also tried the beer. My favorites were the Trice Ax Stout (nice coffee and earthy notes), Farmhouse Saison, and the Light Lager, which is served in a room styled after an Irish-style pub.

While I anticipate Sunshine Ridge will a favorite for those planning to meet groups of friends, for the time being they are reservation-only. That said they was plenty of space to spread out. They also have a no-children under 16 years old policy, specifically due to the risk that small kids will wander off to close to the water.