Glen Manor Vineyards Winemaker Tour

There are many good wineries in Virginia. There are a few great ones. But if Virginia had a “Premier Grand Cru” or “First Growth” category, that’s where you’d find Glen Manor.

Owner/winemaker Jeff White didn’t plan on becoming a winemaker, or even growing grapes. His vineyard is actually his family farm which goes back 4 generations. But a summer working with viticulturist Tony Wolf gave him an appreciation of Virginia wine, and that lead to an internship with Jim Law. The rest is history.

Glen Manor has one of the prettiest vineyard views anywhere in Virginia. Its 17 acres of vines tops out at 1400 feet, right below the northern entrance of Shenandoah Park’s Skyline Drive. I’d always wanted to visit the vineyard and this November finally had my chance when a friend invited me on a members-only tour.

The vineyard is so steep that Jeff’s insurance won’t permit him to allow visitors there, so I had to rent a 4 x 4 vehicle to traverse the slope and sign a waiver as a condition of doing the tour. Well trust me – the view was worth it.

While doing our wine tasting Jeff talked at length about the vineyard and his family history, even pointing to a tree that he once climbed as a kid. Since he’s nearly always in the vineyard or cellar (often working at night) visitors including myself rarely have the chance to meet him one-on-one. But that’s ok – his wife Kelly is an amazing hostess, although I admit I miss the focaccia bread she’d leave on the counter, pre-COVID.

On the topic of legacy, Jeff mentioned how his niece Ashleigh White had recently gotten into the winemaking (and winegrowing) business. She’s still young and has the travel bug, so her path in life isn’t set. But one can hope there will be a 5th generation on the farm.

The vineyard’s westward orientation makes it a ‘hot’ site, which guides his farming practices. Jeff picks his fruit at night using headlamps, along with a vineyard team/family unit that emigrated here from Mexico. The story of how Jeff assisted the Morales family emigrate to the US and José’s own life story is amazing, but that’s probably a discussion for another time.

Jeff explained “I would say this was a pretty typical vintage in very untypical climatic times”. The reds seem to be pointed towards finesse rather than power, while the whites and future rosé show a lot of promise. Of course, that’s all in the future and blending trials haven’t started. At this point the whites seemed more like raw apple cider than wine.

My companion and I sat outside for a special library flight which focused on their Hodder Hill (Cabernet-dominant red blend), St. Ruth (usually Merlot-dominant), and Petit Manseng.

One of the Petit Mansengs was a tad too sweet for me, but their Petit Mansengs have otherwise been consistently stellar.

Don’t ask me to pick a favorite red; that question is too hard, and I didn’t take detailed notes regardless. Glen Manor’s reds have a very distinctive earthiness to them that I love. I made sure to get their 2017 St. Ruth.

After that it was time to return home. Hopefully in another year I’ll be a member and do this tour again.

Revisiting Philip Carter Winery

This was far from my first visit to Philip Carter Winery (PCW) or even my first blog here. But I happened to run into owner Philip Carter Strother at PCW’s sister winery of Valley View Farm and he insisted I make a new trip, so an update was in order.

A discussion of wine isn’t supposed to be preceded with a history lesson, but in the case of PCW I can’t help myself. It helps that Philip loves to discuss his family history. And you can’t blame him – you would too if you were able to trace your family’s lineage to America’s first winemaker.

While Thomas Jefferson is America’s most famous wine connoisseur, the truth is he failed when it came to growing wine. Few realize that almost 20 years earlier the Carter family succeeded where even Jefferson failed.

The Carters were among the Virginia colony’s most influential landowners. In 1762 Charles Carter sent a dozen bottles of wine made from vines at his plantation of Cleve (located in today’s King George County) to London’s Royal Society of Arts. Impressed with what they sampled, the Society awarded him a gold medal for his “spirited attempt towards the accomplishment of their views, respecting wine in America.”

Replica of the certification validating the Carter family was growing a vineyard w/both vinifera and American vines, dated Aug 6, 1763

But getting back to PCW, a few things had changed over the past several years. For one, Valley View’s vineyard is now in full production, which gives PCW access to high-quality fruit. Another change was their new winemaker, Tony McDonnell. Lastly, PCW’s tasting room went through a major upgrade. Philip brought me up to speed on all these.

Valley View is owned by PCW but operates as a separate winery (although all winemaking is done at PCW). It’s only 10 miles north but the site is much better situated for wine growing, with higher elevation and excellent soil. 5 acres of vinifera vines are planted there, with more on the way.

The importance of a really good vineyard site can hardly be overstated, especially given the extreme weather variations that’s becoming apparent in Virginia. Smart vintners are adjusting by either replanting with hardier grape varietals or finding better vineyard locations. Philip is doing both. PCW’s estate “Ten Vines” vineyard will likely see more hybrids in the future, while Valley View is poised to become their prime source of vinifera.

Philip also talked extensively about his new winemaker, Tony McDonnell. Tony previously worked at a large commercial winery in Pennsylvania but was looking for something more artisanal. Philip wisely offered him a job here. While only the newest wines in PCW’s lineup had his touch, everything he had a hand in I was impressed with.

Lastly, PCW has gone all-in on upgrading their indoor and outdoor spaces. We chatted at a new upstairs club area. Their outdoor space was recently completed. While COVID is almost certainly the main rationale behind this new patio, it’s an upgrade that I’d welcome in any case.

I had the full lineup of PCW wines, with a cider thrown into the mix. Occasionally Valley View Farm and PCW may share a wine, but for the most part they are kept separate.

If I had to pick a favorite it would have been the 2019 Cleve, which was young but outstanding. The Viognier and cider were worthy runners up, and the Chambourcin/Norton blend was shockingly good – and I say that as someone who rarely loves either grape.

For whites and lighter wines:

  • 2020 Chardonnay: Fermented half in steel & half in oak, this would appeal to those who love both styles.
  • 2020 Viognier: Floral, honeysuckle nose with a nice smoothness to it. I’ve been on a Viognier kick lately and thought this was exceptional, so I brought a bottle to go.
  • Noble Pome: A dry cider infused with honey. While Valley View is their main cider location, occasionally you can find ciders here as well. I often find modern ciders too overwhelming but this was much more wine-like in style.
  • 2020 Roswell Rosé: Chambourcin, smelled like strawberries. Fruit notes but dry.

For reds & dessert wines.

  • 2020 Cabernet Franc: Little bit of spice with some fruit notes.
  • 10 Vines Cabernet Sauvignon: “10 Vines” is a label used by PCW for more experimental wines, namely from out of state. This was a California Cab Sauvignon which I certainly enjoyed, even if it was a stark difference to what I’m used to elsewhere in the state.
  • 10 Vines Merlot: Ripe is the key adjective here. I’m used to California Cabs so a Merlot was a nice change of pace and I really enjoyed it.
  • 2019 Cleve: 50/50 Petit Verdot and Tannat. Not as young as I would have thought; well integrated oak, nice balanced overall.
  • 2020 Chambourcin/Norton blend: Norton dominates the notes but it doesn’t have the ‘foxy’ characteristic I’m used to. Fermented in steel then neutral oak.
  • Sweet Danielle: Late harvest Petit Manseng.
  • 2015 vintage “1762”: Port-style with Chambourcin.

I’m really looking forward to seeing Tony’s upcoming wines (and ciders – he makes those too). Have you been to PCW lately? What do you think of the changes?

Morais Vineyards & Winery

Most of my wine blogs are easy to write, mostly because the format is the same. I visit, try some wine, and write about what I liked (or more rarely, what I didn’t). In that respect my visit to Morais vineyards was a success. It helped I also got to caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen since pre-COVID.

But what makes this visit different is any discussion of Morais would be incomplete without talking about owner José Morais and Portugal’s distinct style of winemaking, because these things are intertwined. So let’s start at the beginning.

José is the definition of a self-made man. Born in Portugal, he came to the U.S. at the age of 17 and made his fortune in the construction industry. For years he acted as a liaison between Portugal’s American consulates and the Portuguese government. This led their President to award him the title of “Comendador” – an honor only bestowed upon those who perform great acts of service.

Little did I realize Manassas has an active Portuguese community, complete with its own Community Center. For José, everything seems to circle back to this community and his Portuguese roots, and his winery is no different.

Morais is inspired by the wines and winemaking styles of Portugal (although with a Virginia twang). Portugal makes a refreshing style of wine called Vinho Verde; Morais has its Battlefield White. Portugal is famous for fortified Port wines; Morais has its own Port-style. Even their winemaker, Vitor Guimarãis, is from Portugal.

They likewise use several grapes found in Portugal, including Touriga Nacional, Verdelho, and Alvarinho (call it Albariño and you’ll likely be corrected). While Morais has almost 7 acres of vines they also use fruit from outside Virginia, oftentimes blending it with what they source locally. I’m admittedly skeptical of the use of non-VA fruit at a Virginia winery, but it made sense here since many Portuguese grapes aren’t cold hardy enough for Virginia’s climate.

GM Alexandria Chambers and I caught up on life while enjoying a few flights. Until then I never realize exactly how many wines Morais makes; the must have brought out several club wines because I definitely felt like a VIP during this visit.

For whites we started with Battlefield, a light, bright 50/50 blend of Alvarinho and Vidal with a touch of carbonation. It wasn’t a sparkling but it did give it a bit of zest that I liked.

From there we went to the Verdelho, a grape native to Portugal and famous for use in Madeira. It had lime and grassy notes on the nose but apple on the palate. I enjoyed it and don’t think I’ve ever had one before to compare it with.

I would have been disappointed not to try their Alvarinho, and they didn’t let me down. It was made in stainless steel tanks, with lemon notes on the palate. We finished the whites with a Chardonnay that you could tell benefited from the restrained use of oak, and a dark, dry Cab Franc/Cab Sauv rosé made in the Portuguese style.

Moving to the reds, when I saw the “2018” vintage on their Merlot I privately despaired but was soon impressed. 2018 was a wet, difficult year for Virginia, so good reds were an exception and this was one of those exceptions. It was fruity but not overly so.

Next up was another pair of 2018s; the Comendador (red blend) and Cabernet Franc. The first is a Cabernet Franc/Merlot/Touriga blend that had a hint of vanilla, while the later had a spice note.

The last of the regular line up was a 2018 Touriga that was a real standout, and one of the favorites of the day. Medium to full bodied, earthy, and big tannins.

I thought the tasting was finished – but then they brought out the big guns. Have I mentioned how wonderful Alex is?

Part II started with the Touriga/Syrah “Manassas City” blend which was young but still drinking nicely. We went to try three more red blends; a cellared 2017 Comendador, the 2019 Souzão, and a 2019 Tourão.

I liked Comendador but loved the last two. Both use grapes native to Portugal, so there likely isn’t anything close to them in Virginia (the fruit was mostly west coast). The Souzão was a little spicy while the Tourão had an amazing nose and great complexity, blending Virginia and non-Virginia fruit. As overflowing as my wine cabinet is, I had to take the Souzão home.

But wait – there’s more!

Finishing the lineup was a series of dessert wines, including their ruby port-style (Touriga & brandy), Jeropiga (Vidal & Chambourcin), Moscatel, and (my favorite) a cherry wine. I’m a sucker for a great presentation and the cherry wine has one of the best methods of delivery – they pour it into a tiny chocolate cup and you devour it whole.

For as many wines as I tried, there was actually more in the works I never got to sample. Vitor is collaborating with John Davenport of Three Crosses Distilling Company and both have products using the other’s barrels.  John is aging his rye whisky in barrels used to make port-styles wines. Vitor is aging his 2021 Ruby port-style in Three Crosses’ rye barrels.

It was a great visit, which I finished sitting on the patio looking at their park.

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 Saperavi (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 is praised for 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!