RdV Vineyard

Saying you’re a fan of RdV is basically Virginia wine code for “Yes, I have a taste for very luxurious bottles – and I’m not ashamed to say it”.

Many would argue RdV is Virginia’s most famous winery; it’s certainly the most expensive. But put this into context; RdV provides a curated experience with wines that easily match up to very expensive bottles from Bordeaux or California, so you’re getting what you paid for.

RdV also has an amazing lineage, since owner Rutger de Vink was mentored by Jim Law of Linden Vineyards – one of the few acceptable alternatives for those who don’t point to RdV as the best winery in the state.

“How I found my vineyard”

Rutger comes from a well-heeled Dutch family but in his younger days apparently felt the need for some personal direction – so he joined the U.S. Marines and became a member of their Force Reconnaissance element (the Marine equivalent of the Navy SEALs or Army Special Forces). This background (that, plus an MBA and experience in a tech company) explains his devotion to methodical planning, which no doubt paid off here.

RdV also has perhaps the most famous “How I found my vineyard” story in Virginia. As the legend is told, he was driving on a back road in search of a vineyard site when his car was halted by some sheep crossing the road. After pausing he looked around, only to realize the hills around him seemed to have all the things he needed.

Turns out the property belong to a sheep farmer who only used this location for grazing as it was too barren for farming. Initially this gent wasn’t interested in selling, but not long afterwards the farmer realized his kids weren’t interested in keeping the land so he called Rutger asking for an offer. The rest is history.

Rutger must have gone ALL IN when designing this place; the winery is one of the most picturesque in Virginia. But it isn’t just about looks; a lot of thought went into the design, be it the long underground passageway or the tower/lightwell in the middle of the building. These are just a few of the details that come together perfectly.

The Tour

I’d visited before, but that was before I learned to appreciate Virginia wine in the way I do now. At $75 a person, you aren’t just signing up for a tasting – you sign up for an education.

You start with a personal tour of the building, while the guide explained why this location is so special for viticulture. Put simply – it comes down to rock. Lots of very, very hard rock.

The winery sits on a big hunk of granite. This is actually perfect for a vineyard; granite minimizes water retention and soil nutrients, forcing the vines to struggle. It’s a counter-intuitive way to farm; ‘happy’ vines don’t produce good wine grapes, but vines that struggle put all their effort into ripening their grapes –which results in great wine.

The tour continues through an underground tunnel which doubles as their long-term storage and barrel aging area. The most interesting part of this walk is the bare rock face. While it may have been planned more for show, RdV realized this wall serves a useful purpose – it shows how deeply rainfall has penetrated the ground. That’s the type of info that vineyard managers love, so ‘art’ here serves a purpose.

After that, you finished with a stop by the bottling line and chemistry lab then moved upstairs for a tasting.

The Wine

RdV is known for two wines; it’s Rendezvous (right bank, Merlot-heavy blend) and Lost Mountain (left bank, Cabernet Sauvignon-heavy blend). No white grapes are grown; their 16 acres of vines is entirely composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc (no Malbec either).

RdV does make several other wines, although those aren’t typically sold to the public. The best known is their somewhat cheaper Friends and Family red blend found at wine stores and restaurants – made from grapes that aren’t used for the two main wines. But on rare occasions RdV also makes a single-varietal wine (I’ve had their “Outlier” Petit Verdot at Field & Main restaurant) and even a dry Rosé they serve to club members.

Their blending master is Eric Boissenot. I admit I didn’t know the name, but wine snobs likely do – he decides the blends for 4 out of 5 of France’s “First Growth” wineries. RdV is his only American client – that’s how fancy this place is.

Normally I go into long tasting descriptions of the wine; but here I won’t. Suffice to say, RdV wine is world-class. I tried the 2017 vintages of the Rendezvous and Lost Mountain and both were amazing – although I actually leaned more towards the right bank style than the left bank one (much to my wallet’s relief). I’m actually in deep regret not getting more bottles – it was that good.

Your tasting is accompanied by a small charcuterie board and a serving of Dom Pérignon.

Some would say that this event is overpriced. My response – it depends what you are looking for. If you just want to drink some wine, skip the tour and buy a bottle. But if you enjoy being feted and receiving a full on wine education (that I enjoyed almost as much as the wine), make a visit. You’ll walk away with confidence that Virginia really can make wine on par with the best in the world.

Linden Vineyards 2017 Wine Release

Another Virginia winemaker recently called Jim Law “The guru on the hill”, who’s dedication has elevated the entire Virginia wine industry. The roster of those who’ve worked for him at Linden is something of a who’s-who of Virginia wine royalty, including (but certainly not limited to) Rutger de Vink of RdV Vineyards and Jeff White of Glen Manor Vineyards. Two of Jim’s Chardonnays received 94 points from Robert Parker – the highest score he’s given any Virginia wine. So when the guru speaks – you listen.

I’d been a member for several years, so when Jim announced he would be releasing his 2017 vintages I rushed to get my tickets. In a very socially-distanced event, Jim introduced 3 x Chardonnays, 4 x Bordeaux blends, plus a desert wine. He also treated us to a long discussion about his wine and winemaking philosophy in general.

For background, Linden draws from three vineyards; Hardscrabble, Avenius, and Boisseau. Hardscrabble is their 20 acre estate vineyard located at the winery, primarily growing Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon (although less Cabernet and more Chardonnay than it used to have) but home to several other varietals. Avenius a cooler 5 acre site down the road with soil composed of shale, granite and greenstone; they have a mix of vinifera but the largest planting is 1.5 acres of Sauvignon Blanc. Boisseau is the warmest site near Front Royal, its 4 acres likewise a mix. Many of his wines are bottled according the vineyard they came from; it’s not uncommon to have vertical flights of the same varietal but from different vineyards.

Although most Virginia wineries designate their red blends as their flagship wines, Jim’s first love is Chardonnay so his Hardscrabble Chardonnay is the wine he’s often proudest of. In my opinion, this is the best Chardonnay in Virginia – and I dare anyone to show me otherwise.

Jim explained that 2017 was a great vintage for both reds and whites, which is an unusual combination – usually it’s one or the other. Fortunately they were blessed with cool nights and warm days, particularly in September/October. He actually likes his 2017s better than his 2019s, mostly because the weather in 2017 was more even.

He also discussed climate change and his vineyard replanting project. Regarding the former, he has a small experimental vineyard where he’s planted several hybrids and Italian varietals, and discussed how unpredictable Virginia’s weather has become. Jim even installed several huge solar panels outdoors, in an effort to not be a contributor to the problem of global warming that has beset his own vineyards.

As for his replanting his vineyards, right now Jim is on ‘year 20 of his 15 year plan’. He freely admits to undergoing a long period of education which resulted him in revising his methodology for planting vineyards, and how water retention is the single most important factor in planting vines in Virginia.

He spoke at length about his Chardonnay planting from decades ago; right now there’s only around 10% of the original vines. While he enjoys the freshness that younger Chardonnay vines offer his wines, they lack the depth and character of older vines.

Usually I try to take my own notes for tastings – but the descriptors Jim provided were so dead-on that I decided to use them.

What I tried:

2017 “Village” Chardonnay: Jim’s “Village” is a mixture of all three vineyards, but this year drawing heavily from Hardscrabble. “Creamy” was the optional word.  He said this wine will improve over several years but damn, this was easy to drink now. This was also my favorite wine of the day (which I was rather grateful for, since it was one of the cheapest).

2017 Avenius Chardonnay: This had an almost Sauv Blanc quality to it. Higher acid and mineral notes. Has lots of personality.

2017 Hardscrabble Chardonnay: His flagship wine. Some newer oak to give it some toastiness, which is unusual since he’s usually a fan of neutral oak. Apple notes and long finish.

2017 Claret: Usually half of Linden’s reds are Claret but the 2017 vintage was so great he used most of his fruit for his site-specific vintages. I got currant notes, although his tasting sheet said red fruit (close enough).

2017 Boisseau: Fresh, not as heavy as I would have expected from a Petit Verdot/Cabernet heavy blend.

2017 Avenius: Black fruit notes and the acidity was on the higher side.

2017 Hardscrabble (red): “Rose pedals” was the tasting note. I’d keep this one for a few years though.

Chateau O’Brien and the 2014 Northpoint Red

I started exploring the world Virginia wine in 2013, mostly as a social experience. Don’t get me wrong – during this time I found wine that I liked, but only seldom did I find one that I loved.

That changed after visiting about a dozen locations and I found Chateau O’Brien. After sampling several wines on their tasting menu, my friends and I looked at one another and were like ‘Waaaait a minute…this place isn’t like the others’.

I’m not certain what bottle I loved the best; probably the Tannat (talk with owner Howard O’Brien and he’ll happily explain his love for this grape) but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was his Petit Verdot or Vintner’s Reserve. Whatever it was, it was super smooth – certainly more balanced and integrated than anything I’d found in Virginia thus far.

This is due to how Howard’s reds don’t go on the tasting menu until they’ve been aged at least 2 years in the barrel, then usually stay in the cellar another 3-4 years. With aged reds like that, no matter when I’ve visited I’ve found an ‘average’ tasting at Chateau O’Brien tends to be the equivalent of a special library tasting anywhere else.

Howard O’Brien behind the tasting bar (pre-Covid)

Although he’s best known for his Tannat, Howard offers a full range of single-varietal wines and Bordeaux blends. So when he told me about an extra special wine he wanted me to try, needless to say I was intrigued.

The wine he was referring to was his latest Northpoint Red. This was his premium red blend, made only in 2007, 2009 and 2014. He used all five Bordeaux grapes, fermented separately for 24 months before being co-blended and given further barrel time. Bordeaux blends are common in Virginia but finding one with all five grapes aged for this duration is practically unheard of, so I knew this was something special.

I’d heard about this blend during previous visits but this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to sample it. Only 75 cases of his 2014 vintage were made, priced at $218 a bottle. This price point didn’t surprise me; when he released his 2007 Northpoint, at the time it was the first Virginia wine to be sold at more than $100.

Sampling the 2014 Northpoint Red

Howard explained that 2014 was a ‘perfect year’ for him. Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec are especially difficult grapes to grow in Virginia, so you need perfect conditions for them to make great wine. Fortunately Howard has excellent locations for his vineyards, so he’s one of the few Virginia wineries that can usually grow these grapes to full ripeness.

2016 Cabernet Franc, 2014 Northpoint Red, and 2018 Tannat Rosé

Since this was a special bottle, it needed to be opened for a special event. So I broke out a few bottles from the wine fridge and decided to throw an O’Brien-themed wine dinner, accompanied by his 2016 Cabernet Franc and 2018 Tannat Rosè.

My Chateau O’Brien wine night!

My tasting notes:

2018 Tannat Rosé: Very dry; softer and less fruit-forward than I thought it would be. Tannat Rosés are rare in Virginia, partially because you don’t see a lot of this grape and it’s also hugely tannic. But while this rosé had power, it was still easy-drinking. Lighter fruit notes, mostly strawberry I think.

2016 Cabernet Franc: Howard introduced me to his 2014 Cabernet Franc at an earlier tasting, so I bought his 2016 Cabernet Franc on trust alone. I was well rewarded because I used this in a subsequent blind tasting lineup of six Virginia Cabernet Francs and this was my favorite of the bunch.

This Cabernet Franc had a pale ruby color, and on the nose I detected a tad bit of mustiness that I often associate with older vintages. Nice fruit notes on the palate. But more than anything I thought this wine had an excellent balance of fruit notes, acid, and body.

2014 Northpoint Red: The big gun of the night. The nose started off as reserved despite over an hour of decanting. Long finish, lots of complexity and depth, yet I could still detect a moderate amount of fruit notes. Zero oak; Howard used neutral French barrels to start with but whatever oak notes were once there are now fully integrated. This was a wine that was hitting full stride.

This is not your typical Virginia Bordeaux blend. The great majority of them tend to stay maybe 12 months in barrel and served two years after bottling, so the Northpoint was clearly in a different classification than what I’m accustomed to. There was only one other Virginia wine that I could think of that would be comparable, and my curiosity got the better of me how they compared.

So I pulled out my 2013 RdV Lost Mountain (left-bank style Bordeaux blend with 4 grapes, minus Malbec) and my trusty Coravin and did a blind tasting of the two.

Blind tasting the 2013 RdV Lost Mountain vs the 2014 Northpoint Red

For background, RdV is one of the most famous – and certainly most expensive – wineries in the entire state. When the big-league wine critics visit Virginia, they inevitably visit RdV. RdV even utilizes the same French blending master who blends four of the five Premier Grand Cru Chateaux in Bordeaux. This was what I was putting the Northpoint up against.

To make things fair, I marked two sets of glasses (for my date and I) and we poured the other’s wines. Neither of us knew what was in our glass when we tasted them side by side.

The results:

Round 1: Wine #1 had a bit more fruit, while wine #2 was more concentrated – but otherwise they were evenly matched. But my palate chose wine #1, and the winner was Chateau O’Brien.

Round 2: I still couldn’t get away from the fruit notes that I loved the first time, although both had great complexity and lingering finishes. Ironically, the favorite that round was RdV.

Round 3: Last and final round. I allowed myself a healthy pour to finish off the bottle (and let’s face it; these were two awesome wines). The winner? Chateau O’Brien.

My companion was an even bigger fan of the Northpoint than I was; she picked the Northpoint three out of four times (although I disqualified the first time, since fresh from the wine fridge the temperature of the RdV glass was cooler thus identifiable so it wasn’t a 100% ‘blind’ tasting that round).

So there you have it – the 2014 Northpoint Red is the best wine I’ve had all year.

The 2014 Northpoint Red

Bleu Frog Vineyards

For years I’ve passed what is now Bleu Frog vineyards while on my way to Fabbioli and other local wineries. From the road you can see it’s a pretty location, and once vines appeared on the hills I assumed a winery would be in their future. So when I got word this place was officially open, needless to say I was stoked.

Owners Jan and Joe Kernan bought the property in 2016, not long after Joe retired after a 30 year career in the US Navy. In fact, the name “Bleu Frog” is a nod to his former career as a Navy SEAL. On most days you’ll also find their daughter Shannon running operations at their tasting area.

It always puzzles me when people seek to buy a farm as part of their ‘retirement’. Farming is a tough business and viticulture especially so. But I suppose when you’re already accustomed to the military life, ‘taking it easy’ is tough to do. Plus, the Kernans knew this property was special and wanted to find a way to share it. Before long, they planted vines and had their first crop in 2019.

Right now Bleu Frog is primarily setup for an outdoors-only experience – although there are plans to build a barn in 2021. Fortunately winter firepits are coming, so being outdoors (hopefully) won’t be a big deal.

One thing that I felt really sets them apart from other local wineries is you get a feeling you’re ‘in the vineyard’. Their tables and buildings are literally on the edge of the vines – 9 acres in all, including Vidal, Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. This is a sharp contrast to some of the other vineyards I visit, which have a plethora of signs prohibiting people from wandering amongst the vines.

Speaking of wine – I was thrilled when Shannon told me that Doug Fabbioli was their winemaker. But we shouldn’t give all the credit to Doug; Jan is a chef, so the wines are more of a collaboration with Doug.

Right now they only have four wines. I really liked the Vidal, which reminded me of a nice Sauvignon Blanc. But my Rosè loving girlfriend told me their Rosè is the best anywhere in Virginia. Given how much Rosè she’s bought, that should tell you something.

Zoll Vineyards

Zoll brings a lot to the table, both proverbially and literally. Since I was spending the weekend in the area I had to opportunity to swing by and visit for the first time.

Owner Frank Zoll moved from Boston to Virginia in 2017 and opened his winery not long afterward. But Frank was a chef before he was a winemaker, and opened this winery to utilize both talents.

While not part of the Northern Neck / George Washington Birthplace AVA (which is just north of here) Zoll vineyards shares many of the same conditions, including a large number of frost-free days and sandy soils. Vinifera can grow here, although you have to be smart about what you plant. Right now they have 16 acres of vines in total including Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cab Franc, Pinot Grigio, Sauv Blanc, Albariño, and Traminette. They also grow their own fruit for their mead.

The tasting room is an old school building (they plan on holding events as well). I admit – drinking in a cafeteria that serves wine, cider and mead gave me giggles. I suppose if you ever wanted to tell people you had wine at school – this is your chance.

By far, the hardest part of my visit was…deciding what to eat! Savory and sweet options were available, as well as farm-to-table food and wine pairing options. I tried several dishes, but my favorites were the smoked salmon cream cheese pinwheel paired with rose, and the s’mores for desert. Heck, I’m pretty sure I could eat the s’mores by itself.

I ended up trying a good number of their wines, but only have notes for these:

Little Tart Fresh Apple Cider: The tartness lives up to its name

Hibiscus Sangria:  Made with Chardonnay and hibiscus flowers (Frank called it a girly drink)

Cranberry Cider: Made with heirloom apples

Mariners Blend: “Tastes like Pecan Pie” is a great descriptor.

Cab Franc Reserve: Fruit and oak notes

Carriage House Wineworks

Carriage House Wineworks is (at the time of writing) Virginia’s newest winery, opening in September 2020. Right now they are taking visitors by appointment only, but that shouldn’t scare you off! Co-owner and winemaker Mike Fritze is happy to do a tasting at his vineyard.

Managing a winery is a tough business, but since Mike was already a home winemaker/wine judge and his partner Bruce Beddow is a longtime wine grower, they likely had a fair idea of what they were getting into. Bruce was already selling fruit to other Virginia wineries, so making a full-fledged winery was a logical next step.

Today, Mike owns 5 acres of vines at his property of Quartz Creek, while Bruce owns another 12 at nearby Windhorn Vineyard. Having 17 acres of estate vines (almost all vinifera) is a great way for any winery to start, but for vineyards as well as wineries it’s all about LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION.

It so happens, both the vineyards and winery are in a great spot. Planted on a gentle slope above Catoctin Creek, the vineyard is well positioned to shrug off cold air and excess water. Mike isn’t the only guy to realize this; you can see Staggerwing Vineyard and Bethany Ridge one hill over. Given Nate Walsh’s high praise of those sites, I’m confident Carriage House is in a good neighborhood. It also helps over a dozen other wineries are not far away.

While Carriage House has a tasting room, right now it’s only for club members. Not to worry; Mike is doing tastings by appointment at the vineyard – which not coincidentally is adjacent to his house. Hopefully when the COVID-19 situation is better visitors can do their tastings indoors, but I definitely enjoyed my visit in his backyard looking at the vines.

Mike and his wife Gerri sat us down during a rare brake for a tasting and chat about vines. Mike was especially proud that all his wines were made from fruit produced within a several mile radius of his farm. Following the tasting, we went on a tour of the vineyard.

All of Mike’s wine is on the younger side. That said, 2019 is a great vintage to start with, so no complaint there.

2019 Rosé (Chambourcin, with a little Cab Sauv): Good acid, nice color. The Cab gave it some earthy notes and complexity. I went home with a bottle.

2019 Vidal: Liked it! Dry, herbal notes.

2019 Chardonnay: Citrusy, made in steel.

2019 Petit Manseng: Little bit of pepper, which I found to be unusual. Also unusual is it was lower on the acid levels than I’m accustomed to (which in this case was a good thing).

2019 Merlot: Black currant on the nose. Soft, would be nice chilled.

2019 Cabernet Franc: Savory! Fruit on the nose. Not viscus.

Late Harvest Vidal: Very light and citrusy. Paired well with the rice crispy shared with us by some fellow guests.

Make sure to call ahead for an appointment!

Abingdon Vineyards

I admit; there are days I wish I had a hobby where my destinations are closer. But when I arrive, everything seems magically better. Such was my experience at Abingdon Vineyards.

Abingdon is located in the southwest corner of Virginia, not far from the border of Tennessee. This is definitely Blue Ridge Mountains country, right here. Abington opened in 2001 but was purchased by the current owners Loren and Elizabeth Gardner a few years back, who proceeded to revamp the vineyard and wine menu.

I chatted with Elizabeth a bit and she told me the story of how they were visiting this area with some friends, not expecting to stay – until they accidentally passed a vineyard with a ‘for sale’ sign. Given her background in education and marketing and Justin’s experience in winemaking, the jump doesn’t seem as crazy as it seems.

The tasting room has a log-cabin feel to it, which goes well with the surrounding woodland scenery. They also recently cleared out a lot of space near the stream, so tables to sit outside. Abingdon even rents out kayaks for the more adventurous (note – kayak first and drink later)

Even more exciting were their plans for a distillery and farm-to-table café. I can definitely see the appeal of a distillery here, not just to reach a new demographic but because this is moonshine country.

They currently have 13 acres of vines planted (both here and elsewhere), including hybrids including Chardonel, Chambourcin, Traminette and Norton plus vinifera like Cabernet Franc and Riesling. The Riesling particularly excited me, as this grape is tough to find in Virginia.

I tried the entire wine lineup, but my favorite by far was the “Game Changer”, a well-balanced blend of Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Chambourcin and Norton with good complexity. I also really liked the Pioneer port-style, and the lightly oaked White Oak Chardonnay.

I give Loren a lot of credit on his blending of hybrids with vinifera. Too many places either give up on vinifera because it’s too difficult, or ignore hybrids because they aren’t as commercially popular. But Loren seems to have a knack of how to blend the two, and the results were excellent.

Abingdon is out of the way, but hey – this was my 2nd visit, and I’m pretty sure I’ll visit again. If you do, let me know what you thought of it.

Nicewonder Farm & Vineyards

I’ll say it right now – Nicewonder Farm & Vineyards is the best Virginia wine experience that people don’t know about. A year ago if you had told me a Pippin Hill-esque designation winery was planning to open in the far reaches of the state, I would have thought you were crazy. But Nicewonder is prepared to break the mold of your perception.

Part of the reason people haven’t heard of Nicewonder is because of their location in Bristol – a town literally divided between Virginia and Tennessee. While it’s hubris to think that great Virginia wine can only be found in certain parts of the state, the reality is southwest Virginia is better known for its Appalachian scenery than its vineyards.

The other reason is the winery is only one part of a larger set of properties – not all of which have been unveiled. The centerpiece is The Virginian Golf Club, a luxury course designed by Tom Fazio (PS – he’s a big deal; Fazio has made more top 100 golf courses in the U.S. than anyone else in the business). A more recent addition is Taste, their open walled restaurant/tasting room. In 2021 Taste will be joined by a resort hotel which overlooks their 10 acre vineyard.

Top-notch properties need to be paired with first-rate wine, so understandably they turned to Charlottesville-based winemaker Michael Shaps. Despite only making wine since 2016, their Viognier has already won gold two years in a row in the Virginia Governor’s Cup competition. With their attention focused on a thirsty local clientele and future plans, Nicewonder has been happy to keep a low profile within the larger Virginia wine scene.

Tariq Zaidi, who represents the property, and Chef Travis Milton gave me a tour of part of the property. Travis explained how his goal is to “Change the cultural perception of southwest Virginia”. A native of the area, he knows how to create dishes that will knock your socks off yet remains true to the local cuisine.

While Milton talked food and wine, Tariq gave me the rundown of their longer term goals. The Nicewonder family plans on making The Virginian and Taste a self-contained vacation/event space where patrons can enjoy golf, wine, fine dining, even cooking classes all in one spot. Once the main resort is complete, Nicewonder will be set to become a destination hotspot.

We finished our tour and sat down at Taste – and the real fun began.

Travis is all about food and wine pairings, and his creations were amazing. When setting up pairings most often you see them done in a manner that’s complementary, where the food and wine amplify one another. But Travis alternated between complementary parings and contrasting ones where the two would balance each other out. Normally I only write about wine, but during this visit it was impossible to separate the two.

2016 Chardonnay (and trout dip): Tropical notes on the palate. Paired with trout dip, which provided a strong contrast which balanced out the Chardonnay.

2017 Chardonnay (with Kentucky ham): Lighter, more aromatic than the 2016 with green apple notes and higher acidity. Paired with a fatty Kentucky ham, which diluted the green apple flavors and lowered the perceived acidity of the wine.

2019 Chardonnay (with oysters): Made in steel. I detected notes of melon. Paired with Rappahannock oysters, it was a complementary pairing that intensified both the food and wine. I also loved pairing this with blue cheese.

2017 Viognier (with duck pastrami): This wine had the traditional color and heaviness on the tongue that I’m accustomed to in Viognier, but not the heavy floral notes. We paired it with duck pastrami, which had pepper and fat that rounded out the fat sensation of the food and changed the perception of the wine to something less heavy and more tropical.

2018 Viognier (with beet picked eggs): Softer than the 2017, with more lemon-green apple notes. Paired with beet picked eggs. Seriously – this pairing was delicious. The wine was less round and more tropical with the food.

2019 Rosé (with chorizo): Lots of strawberry notes in this one. Paired with chorizo, which took away the berry notes and emphasized the pepper.

2016 Merlot (with okra): Fairly aromatic as Merlot goes, soft, plus lovely notes of plumb. The wine was definitely rounded out by the food. It was enhanced with pickled okra, then cut by the duck pastrami.

2017 Merlot (with blue cheese): Black pepper and some fruit notes. Paired with blue cheese, which enhanced the fruit qualities while also giving it an almost savory quality.

Before we started, the Chef said that he wanted to “change the cultural perception of southwest Virginia”. Milton – mission accomplished.

Tumbling Creek Cider Company

Virginia has around ‘300 wineries’. But did you know that cideries fall within this number? That’s because under Virginia’s ABC law, ‘cideries’ hold the same license as a winery. Since cideries are (in theory) under the same category as wineries, I’ve been doing my best to knock out as many cideries as I can during my wine travels.

Tumbling Creek Cider came across my radar because it’s sold at nearby Abingdon winery. Not only that, they were about to open a tasting room in town (I missed it by days). Given I was already headed this way, I added them to my ‘to do’ list.

Cider is an up-and-coming beverage in Virginia. With its agricultural tradition, the south-west corner of the state seems particularly well suited for this endeavor. Five years ago I could only find a handful of cideries. But along with the surge in craft beer, cideries are popping up everywhere.

Since the tasting room wasn’t yet open partner Justen Kelly Dick invited me to visit him at their production facility at his family farm of Kelly Ridge Farms. I love driving country roads, but I strongly suspect that Uber Eats doesn’t deliver to this neck of the woods.

The production building looks like a large garage with cider-making equipment everywhere. I admit I’m not particularly mechanically inclined, but even I could appreciate the ‘do it yourself’ engineering that went into putting the operation together. Now that the official tasting room was finished visitors may not need to visit here for their cider fix, but there was still a small sitting area overlooking the farm.

Justen kicked things off by explaining his connection to the farm goes back 10 (!!!) generations. In addition to having an orchard, he grows hops and raises pigs. Wanting to make the farm productive spurred his research into cider making.

Farming is a tough trade for anyone, but with a background in environmental consulting and family ties to a centuries-old farm, the jump wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. Justen and three friends put together a business plan and eventually, Tumbling Creek Cider was born.

Local ties was a recurring theme here, be it family ties to the land, sourcing their apples locally, and wanting to create business opportunities in community they came from. The four were also mentored by the owner of Foggy Ridge, a well-regarded local cidery that has since closed but still sells apples.

After a quick tour, we got down to drinking some cider! What I tried:

Ridge Runner: Bone dry, made about as ‘natural’ as you can make a cider. Definitely my favorite of the lineup.

Moonshot: Semi dry, and their flagship cider. I actually found it closer to ‘dry’ than ‘semi dry’, but that may be because it was very well balanced. It also had more body than the Ridge Runner.

Hellbender Hopped: For lack of a better term, my first thoughts it had a ‘green’ quality to it. Not the color of course! It so happens my palate was spot-on, because I later learned it’s made with fresh green hops which gave it a ‘fresh’ quality.

Whitetop: Grassy nose, with some tartness on the palate.

High Trestle Cherry: Cherry flavored cider. Second favorite of the bunch

I wish I had visited the new tasting room, but this was a great alternative. Look for Tumbling Creek’s ciders anytime you’re in the Roanoke area, or visit their brand-spanking new location in Abingdon.