Capstone Vineyards

Capstone Vineyards is one of Virginia’s newest wineries, having opened to the public (still by appointment only) in February 2019. Given the number of local wineries you’d think the marketplace would be saturated, but Capstone demonstrates there’s always room for a new place that’s committed to their craft.

As I drove in the first thing I noticed is the vineyard has a great location. The vines are south facing, which maximizes sun exposure. The steep slope tops out 1500 feet, so excellent drainage. I would later learn they have 12 acres of mostly Bordeaux varietals planted, plus some experimental rows of Roussanne, Chenin and Muscat Ottonel.

Downward shot of the vineyard.

While there is a small tasting room at the top, it was obvious is a working vineyard first and foremost; the appointment only schedule guarantees there won’t be any crowds. Fortunately hospitality was definitely not lacking, as co-owner David Adams greeted me as I parked.

Dave explained not only is Jim Law practically his neighbor, Jim is his mentor and winemaker. That’s right; Capstone’s wines are made by ‘the man’ himself in Linden’s cellar, just three miles away. While Dave insisted that finding farmland near Linden was a total coincidence, I wouldn’t have blamed him if that added a tiny bit more incentive.

Dave pouring for me!

As much as Dave and his wife Andrea Baer enjoy growing wine, they currently don’t have any aspirations to expand the tasting area, open it up to drop-in visitors, or make the wine themselves. I rather like this set up as a visit guarantees you a lot of 1 on 1 time with the owners, which to me is the best part (well…maybe after tasting wine). Plus if Jim Law is willing to make your wines…why not let him?

Capstone’s wine production will likely always be on the small side, as they sell the majority of their grapes. When Dave mentioned Capstone is Early Mountain Vineyard’s largest outside supplier I knew this was a good sign of the quality of the vineyard, since Ben Jordan wouldn’t accept sub-par fruit. Jim Law makes the wine, Ben Jordan buys the fruit. Any vineyard endorsed by these guys is a sure-fire winner in my book.

After picking Dave’s brain for a bit, we got down to the wine tasting. Their wines are very much done in the Jim Law style, with reds focused on good balance and whites that exclude freshness. In fact, Dave was able to point to Shari Avenius’ vineyard (one of Jim’s three vineyards) the next hill over; the two locations share similar characteristics in altitude and composition.

What I tried:

2016 Chardonnay: Very bright on the palate, with a nose that reminded me of fresh fruit. Made in steel. For obvious reasons this reminded me of an Avenius Chardonnay, for those who know Linden’s wines.

2015 Merlot: Dark cherries and plumb, with noticeable acidity in the finish.

2016 Vintner’s Blend (Cabernet Franc heavy): Medium bodied and very well balanced.

2015 Fielder’s Choice (Merlot heavy): Made in new and neutral oak, this had noticeable body and structure. I especially enjoyed the long finish and good tannin.

Go visit! Then visit Linden afterwards!

Riedel Tasting at Tarara Winery

For someone who drinks a lot of wine, I still have a lot to learn about the subject. The use of correct glassware to maximize your wine experience is one of them. So when I found out that Tarara was having a class on Riedel glasses, it was hard to pass up.

Why is glassware important? Because every type of wine has unique characteristics which can be accentuated (or masked) by the shape of your glass. The glass’s lip directs the wine to specific parts of the tongue, thus emphasizing qualities such as acidity or sweetness. A large bowl-shaped glass helps release a wine’s aroma, while a taller, thinner bowl captures it. There’s a science to it, but a lot of it is common sense.

The class was led by winemaker Jordan Harris, who made the event a lot of fun. He spent almost as much time poking fun at himself for his very extensive glassware collection (most of which he never uses out of fear of breakage) as he did teaching us the dos and don’ts about good glassware.

Jordan started with two really great pieces of advice. First, the price of the glasses you use should correspond with the price of the wine you usually drink. If you’re going to pay for expensive wine, then you’d better get the most out of it.

Second…drink your best wines on Tuesdays. Why? Because when you open on a ‘special occasion’, your memories are of the occasion; the details of an expensive wine are wasted on you. So to best enjoy your expensive wine, open it on a slow day so you’ll remember every detail. It’s also a great way to liven up your Tuesdays!

You’d think an over hour-long event about glassware would be boring…but it wasn’t. Pairing it with good wine helps as well.

We used the 4 pieces from their “Riedel Veritas” collection, specifically glasses for Oaked Chardonnay, Riesling/Zinfandel, Old World Pinot Noir, and Cabernet/Merlot. Smaller tumblers were used for comparison purposes. If you take their class, you keep the glassware afterwards; education and new glasses as a package deal!

I didn’t realize Riedel has over a hundred glasses in all shapes and sizes (and price points). Want a glass for Rheingau Riesling? Riedel has one for that. How about a Chablis Chardonnay? Sure thing. Brunello? Got that too! Just about every major varietal or region had at least one glass type dedicated to its maximum enjoyment. 

Glass #1: Flute (served with a Pet Net wine)

Not a Riedel, but this was a great demonstration on the importance of good glassware. Flutes are traditionally the way sparkling is served. But flutes have a major problem – the narrow aperture reduces the aromas you can detect. It pretty to look at and useful for preventing the glass from warming up in your hand, but it detracts from smelling (and thus tasting) the wine. I thought could detect something on the nose, but the notes were subdued.

We took a sip from the flute and poured the rest into the Riesling/Zinfandel glass. Big difference! I’d go with the later in the future when tasting sparklings.

Glass #2: Riedel Veritas Riesling/Zinfandel glass (served with the 2015 “Boneyard Magic Dragon” Viognier):

This longer, narrowing glass is designed for aromatic white wines. The lip directs your wine to the front of your palate, while the smaller aperture concentrates aromas. I found the Viognier to be highly aromatic, with high acidity and some weight to it.

After a sample we poured this into the tumbler. The difference was significant; I just didn’t get the same nose. The Riesling/Viognier glass was definitely the way to go for ‘delicate’ whites.

Glass #3: Riedel Veritas Oak Chardonnay glass (served with the 2017 Chardonnay from their “1987” old vines label)

The Oak Chardonnay glass is big and round, which gives you a lot of surface area for aeration. The lip directs the wine to the sides of your palate, accentuating the acidity and deemphasizing any oaky characteristics.

We tried that same wine in the Riesling/Zin glass and I had a very different experience. The oak seemed more pronounced in taller Riesling glass as the wine hit the front instead of the sides of my palate, giving it more depth.

Glass #4: Riedel Veritas Old World Pinot glass (served with the 2018 Boneyard red)

The Pinot glass aims to the tip of your tongue – the part which accentuates sweetness. I think this type of glass would be exceptionally good for showcasing fruit notes. As a light but fruity red, the Boneyard definitely fit this category.

Glass #5: Riedel Veritas Cabernet/Merlot glass (served with the 2016 Bethany Ridge)

This is your glass for Bordeaux style wines, or tannic reds in general. The shape is designed to aim for the back of your palate and smooth out the tannins. This is my new go-to glass for all red tastings in the future.

The Bethany Ridge seemed to be one of Jordan’s favorite wines, as he was commenting on the quality of the growing site (actually owned by Walsh Family).

Chateau O’Brien Winery & Vineyard

I don’t know what it is about wine tasting, but wine always seems to taste better when the owner is pouring it. Do the stories make it taste better? The setting? Or just the idea you’re getting some kind of special treatment? Well, all of the above was true when I did the cellar tasting at Chateau O’Brien.

Owner Howard O’Brien takes a very hands-on approach to his winery, from blending trials to bottling the wine. But one of his favorite parts of the job is doing cellar tastings, all of which he leads personally. Howard is also a big proponent of my all-time favorite grape in the world – Tannat.

I’d like to think Howard’s Tannat wines helped put this grape on the Virginia wine map. Of the 40-something acres planted in the state, 8 belong to Chateau O’Brien. Not coincidentally, his Tannat won Gold at Uruguay’s Concurso Internacional Tannat Al Mundo wine competition – the only American wine to do so. If you’re going to compete against other Tannat wines, the country whose national grape is Tannat is the place to win.

Located in a refurbished farmhouse with views of the hills of the Blue Ridge, the tasting room has exactly the rustic feel that I look for in a Virginia winery. Although they hold events (I’m especially partial to his St. Patty’s Day celebrations), parties aren’t the centerpiece here – O’Brien is one of the most wine-centric locations I know.

For starters, the wines on the tasting menu are aged longer than possibly any other place in the state. When most Virginia wineries are serving red wines that are 2-3 years old, O’Brien is serving wines that are 7-8 years old.  Their ‘average’ upstairs tasting is the equivalent to a special reserve tasting at most places. To top things off, they serve their wines in Riedel glasses – a touch I rarely see elsewhere in Virginia.

While most of my visits are spent tasting his selection of reds, this time I sampled Howard’s whites and roses. I really enjoyed the easy-drinking 2017 Northpoint White (Chardonnay) and Tannat Rose, but my favorite this time around was April’s Apple Rose – one of the most complex roses I’ve had in a while. Rounding out the white tasting was the Apple Ice Wine, an Apple/Blueberry, and a Petit Manseng.

Then off to the reds! But to make this visit special I wasn’t here for regular tasting; today was a visit to the cellar.

It’s not just the wines that make cellar tastings special. I love the intimacy – and the stories. Howard is a real character who’s owned a number of businesses before opening this winery in 2006. As he pours he tells you about the winery and the particular vintages you’re tasting.

You can tell he has an excellent growing location because the fruit profiles of his reds tend towards exceptional ripeness, even varietals like Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon that aren’t great producers in Virginia. Cellar tastings include at least four wines, although occasionally he throws in a surprise.

2013 Malbec: Excellent! Fruity and complex at the same time. O’Brien is one of the few places in Virginia that consistently produces full-flavored Malbec.

Luigi’s Luscious Red (NV?): I didn’t get the varietals, but my suspicion is its Cab Franc heavy with lots of Bordeaux friends. Spice notes on the nose and palate.

2012 Vintner’s Reserve (Tannat/Petit Verdot/Malbec): Super smooth with a long finish. I mean, George Clooney smooth. It was that good.

2012 Tannat: I’d say ‘save the best for last’ although this was up there with the Vintner’s. Long, long finish, full bodied. You could sense the tannin, but the age allowed them to smooth out.

The Staff (Desert style, Norton/Apple wine blend): This was not part of the cellar tasting but I’ll mention it anyway, since I got it as a treat upstairs. Caveat: I’m not a big fan of Norton. But this was unlike any Norton-based wine I’ve had. It isn’t fortified but it’s exceptionally strong.

Zephaniah Farm Winery

Zephaniah justifiably puts the “Farm” in the name “Farm Winery”. As you drive past the milk shed and grain silo you can see this is indeed a working farm – complete with crops, cattle and sheep. All vineyards are by definition farms, but the term seems especially apt here.

Visiting wineries is about more than the wine itself – it’s about the experience. While I’ve always been a fan of Zephaniah’s wines, what makes their experience truly distinctive is your tasting is done in a 200-year-old manor house, complete with one of the nicest serving experiences in the state. Since you can’t discuss Zephaniah without talking about the history of the house, it’s best to start there.

The home was built by the Nixon family back in 1819; the Hatches purchased it from them in 1950. It has a long, rich history, as you’d expect from a building now in its third century. Ask them about the ghost stories!

Walking into the tasting room I passed antique furniture stacked with old photos and heirlooms. As I was about to introduce myself, the grandfather clock rang out. Everything about my visit gave me the vibe that I was stepping back in time.

If this all makes you feel like you’re entering someone’s home – that’s because you have! The Hatch family (now in its 4th generation here) still live upstairs, although the main floor dining room has been converted to a tasting room. Two smaller sitting rooms are available for visitors to enjoy themselves.

The crowds hadn’t yet arrived, so husband/wife team Bonnie Archer, Bill Hatch and their son Tremain took turns filling me in on their remarkable family history. I think the only adult family member I missed during my trip was their daughter Emily, their assistant winemaker.

Afterwards Tremain walked me out to the vineyard, first planted in 2002. Zephaniah has 10 acres of vines, roughly split between hybrids and vinifera. All told, they produce around or under 2000 cases/year, using only estate fruit. Since I’m a vineyard-geek Tremain took time to explain some of the experimentation they are doing, including the use grapes seldom seen in Virginia including Muscat Ottonel, Muscat Valvin, and Chelois, an older French hybrid.

A “ballerina” trellis system

Going back inside it was time to taste some wine – and the exemplary tasting experience continued. Zephaniah serves their wine tastings in Riedel glasses – a rarity in the state. Not only that, but it’s a seated tasting. No waiting in line at a tasting bar – the will serve you at the dining table.

As for the wines…

Blending is important everywhere, but it seems especially so at Zephaniah. Very few of their wines are 100% varietals; nearly everything has something else mixed in. Even the blending process is a family affair. When it comes to time to decide the makeup of their next wine, all the family members vote on the blend they like the best. It’s the best kind of family get-together!

Most places tend to (virtually) hold your hand by telling you the tasting notes you’re supposed to taste. No tasting descriptions here; they want you to decide what you like on your own.

What I tried:

2018 Rose: Orange color; reminds me of a Provence-style. The 8% Vermentino (another rare grape they grow) adds some punch to this.

2017 Steamship White (white blend): Zesty! Made primarily with Chardonnel.

2016 Viognier: No honeysuckle notes here! Subtle, with a slightly tropical flavor.

2017 Adeline: Aromatic, some honey notes.

2016 Cabernet Franc (with a dash of Petit Manseng): The PM makes it a little more aromatic, but the flavor profile is fruity with strong dark cherry notes. Favorite of the bunch.

2015 Three Captains Red (Red blend). Fruity but not overly so. Blended with Chambourcin and smaller amounts of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

2014 Three Captains Red (Red blend): Not sure what the blend is, but I detected darker cherry than the 2015.

2015 Chambourcin: Fruit forward, not sweet but could appease a sweet wine drinker.

2017 Friendship (50/50 Petit Verdot/Merlot). Long finish, lots of depth. I was surprised by the fruitiness of it, given the blend. Name comes from having received the PV from a neighbor; one of the rare times they don’t have a true estate wine. First time I’ve ever had this one!

Not tried was their 2018 Sparking, Emily’s pet project. Maybe next time?

Va La Winery

I like telling people that the quality of a winery is often inversely proportional to the size of the tasting room. All too often visits to larger wineries are more about the experience than the wine. While I want a good day trip, I want the wine to be the main event, not a sideshow.

But tiny wineries on old farms? Places where the owner is the winemaker? Somewhere that limits the size of your group? Those are something special. At 5 acres of vines and a production of 750-1000 cases/year (all estate), Va La is the definition of an artisanal winery.

Owner Anthony Vietri is a local boy who in the 1990s decided start a winery. But he and his wife were faced with two choices. Option A was to purchase land in California. Option B was to set up a vineyard on his family farm. Unfortunately for Option B…Pennsylvania wasn’t exactly known for its wine. Since vinifera had a limited track record in the state he’d be starting basically from scratch.

Thankfully they chose Option B. Va La experimented with different varietals and growing techniques until they found the right mix, including a trellis system that’s only 48 inches high (!). While Anthony knew his well-drained knob of land had certain advantages, he probably didn’t fully understand the farm is located in a sweet spot for vinifera. Option B turned out to be a better deal than they realized.

I met Anthony upstairs while his associates put out quite a spread. Va La goes all out in their tastings, including using Riedel glasses for their wine and pairing them with an assortment of local cheeses, olive oil, and his mom’s bread. Here, even the food is local or homemade. Heck, even the oak barrels are from Pennsylvania.

Va La typically only has 4 wines at any time, most if not all of them field blends. I emphasize the word ‘blend’ here, because the vineyard has well over 30 varietals planted – and Anthony uses them all. That’s right; over 30 varietals of grapes going into only a handful of wines. ‘Blend’ is an understatement.

Most of the grapes are northern Italian varietals, including ones I’ve never heard of. Pignolo? Sagrantino? Cascetta? I mean seriously – how did he find these? Maybe the real question is how does he blend such a diverse assortment. As someone who got a C+ in high school chemistry, the science of it all astounds me.

Now…the main event!

2017 Silk (Rosato; aka Italian Rose): This is one of the most complex Roses I’ve ever tasted, made with Corvina Veronese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Petit Verdot, Langrein and others. I’d never had an Italian Rose before so this was a huge treat – and I promptly purchased a bottle.

2016 Prima Donna: Whatever you do, don’t call this an “orange wine” despite its amber hue. Tangy, with apricot notes.  Malvasia Bianca, Petit Manseng and others.

2016 Barbera: A rare 100% varietal. Light colored, with a combination of being both gamey with sour cherry notes. Compares well with what I’ve had from Italy.

2016 Cedar: Nebbiolo heavy, but likewise a blend. Tastes like earth and spice and everything nice. I tasted this one with some chocolate which soften the subsequent sips.

Va La is yet another demonstration that the east coast can produce world class wines as long as you do your homework; proper care is done in selecting the vineyard site, vineyard management, and of course the right winemaker. I suspect I’ll be back next time I’m in Philly.

Stinson Vineyards

As one of the smaller Charlottesville-based wineries, Stinson is easy to miss. Located in the woods just outside the city, it doesn’t have the grandiose tasting room that some neighbors have. But it has one key ingredient – excellent vino made by it resident winemaker, Rachel Stinson Vrooman.

Rachael said her winemaking style is inspired by the “garagiste” (garage) wineries of France. There’s likely a double meaning to this as the Stinson tasting room is located in an old garage, plus her consultant Matthieu Finot (of King Family Vineyard) to this day makes wine in his own garage. Hey – who needs a wine cave when you have a wine garage!

Even more astounding is she has no formal training; her previous job was a photo editor in New York. But when her parents purchased an old vineyard in Crozet, she came down to become their winemaker (her first vintage was produced in 2010). Today Stinson produces around 2800 cases/year from 7 acres of vines, plus locally sourced fruit.

I find myself constantly revisiting Stinson because this is one of the very rare wineries that I’ve ALWAYS left with at least one bottle. That’s no small feat; I visit a lot of places so I’m forced to be choosey on where to spend. I’m especially partial to their Sauvignon Blanc and Tannat, but vintage after vintage I always seem to return to their Chardonnay.

Stinson also serves wine from two other vineyards; Ankida Ridge (owned by her husband) and Turk Mountain Vineyard. Turk Mountain doesn’t have a tasting room so they sell their wine here. Unlike Stinson, Turk’s wines tend to have a rustic, unrefined quality to them.

Unlike most wineries that I’ve visited Stinson has several small tasting bars instead of one big counter. I found this adds to the intimacy of my wine tasting as you’re not fighting a crowd. After guiding me through her wines, Rachel gave me a tour of the facility – including a barrel tasting of some outstanding Tannat and Sauvignon Blanc.

We also stopped to discuss their concrete egg, which they used for their Sauvignon Blanc. This ‘egg’ fascinates me. These vessels combine some of the advantages of both oak and steel; it adds depth and mouthfeel but doesn’t leave flavor behind. Given Linden Vineyard (possibly my all-time favorite winery) is one of the few Virginia wineries that also uses such a device, I’d say Stinson is in great company.

What I tried: 

2018 Sauvignon Blanc: Made in the concrete egg and steel. Soft and yeasty.

2016 Chardonnay: Light oak, toasty. I always enjoy their Chardonnay because Rachael always hits the right balance of oak without overpowering the wine.

2016 Wildcat (Rkatistelli): Made with fruit from Horton vineyards. Rkats is a really fun grape that has some bite to it.

2018 Cabernet Franc: Soft, almost herbal qualities but no green pepper.

2015 Meritage: Merlot heavy, black cherry notes.

2015 Tannat: Wonderful! Soft but full. This is up there with the Chardonnay as my favorites of the lineup.

2016 Petit Verdot: Full bodied, notes of plumb.

2015 Le Rouge: 50/50 blend of Tannat and Petit Verdot, which I swear is an up and coming blend in Virginia. My lips puckered up because of the acid (which is always a good sign).

Bluemont Vineyard

Whenever I chat with people who have only been to one or two Virginia wineries, Bluemont is typically been among the ones they’ve visited. The reason is simple; with a view that allows you to see as far as the Washington Monument, Bluemont delivers a pretty amazing daytrip experience.

But focusing on the view alone is unfair. With 50 acres of vines and a production of 8-9,000 cases/year, Bluemont is one of the larger wineries in Loudoun. So a friend & I went on a wintery day to chat up winemaker Scott Spelbring for a closer look.

Things were slow when we arrived but it got busy quickly; even in cold weather it’s still a popular, family-friendly place so you need to grab a table early. In the summertime the outside patio fills up especially fast with people picnicking.

Speaking of food – this is one of the few wineries that has a kitchen. This time around I got a flatbread and the crab dip. But looking at the menu, it’s hard to go wrong on any option.

Eventually I met up with Scott, who explained Bluemont is more than a winery; it’s a group of businesses which also includes a farm, a brewery, and now a cidery. The property covers some 245 acres of land, from the farm at the bottom to vineyards waaaay up at 1300 feet. While I took plenty of pictures, I don’t think it’s fair to not post a summertime photo.

Scott has worked here since 2016. From what I can tell he’s changed the lineup away from sweeter wines and focused on more Bordeaux-varietals.

That said, Bluemont still has sweeter options available. They normally have two tasting options; a “Flagship” tasting focused on lighter, fruiter and/or sweeter wines, and the “Elevation” tasting that is more Bordeaux-grape focused. We ended up doing a mix of the two, plus a few new ones.

It’s hard to beat an experience where the winemaker is pouring and explaining his wines. That said, this day was a lesson learned about timing. Scott was actually holding back some of his best wines so he could meet the entrance quotas for the Virginia Governor’s Cup, still several months away. Sounds like a good excuse for a revisit!

What I tried:

Sparkling Rose: 100% Chambourcin; light and playful.

Merle (Rose): Made with Merlot; dry with strawberry notes.

2017 Merlot: Dark cherry notes, but spreads out nicely.

2016 Assent (Bordeaux blend): Second favorite of the lineup. Nice complexity, fruity nose. A shade on the lighter side of medium bodied.

2017 M3 (Merlot): Another Merlot, AND this one isn’t even properly labeled yet! Dark plumb notes, full mouthfeel. This was my favorite of the lineup and I can’t wait for it to go on sale.

2017 Petit Manseng: Apricot notes

“The Apple”: Apple wine that will satisfy sweet-wine drinkers.

Sorely missed was the Petit Verdot (entrant for the Governor’s Cup competition), and the Albariño (which is sold out).

King Family Vineyard

King Family easily cracks my Top 10 list of favorite Virginia wineries. Even if you’re a novice wine drinker, as soon as you drive in it’s easy to see why I love this place.

With manicured polo grounds set against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the place is STUNNING. They have some indoor space for picnicking, but the optimal time to visit is when the weather allows you to sit outside.

A pic of my previous visit to King Family. I wish I had this view during my visit; instead all I had was fog!

If that’s not enough reason to visit, I have two words for you: Matthieu Finot. Those familiar with the Virginia wine scene likely know the name, as he’s easily one of the best winemakers in the state. Don’t take my word for it; just look at the composition of the Virginia Governor’s Case for the past 8 years. Nearly every one of those years has a King Family wine in them, with their 2014 Meritage winning the cup in 2018.

During my visit I had not one but two hosts; James King and Wine Director Matthew Brown. Matthew teed off with a (very extensive) tasting while James gave me the backstory of how King Family Vineyards came to be.

James gives all the credit to his parents – David and Ellen King. They picked out the land because David wanted to follow one of his passions. If you guessed ‘wine’….you’re wrong! Actually the driving force behind their acquisition of over 300 acres of land west of Charlottesville wasn’t wine – it was polo.

David gave his realtor strict guidelines that their future home needed enough flat land to pursue his hobby. Little did the Kings know their farm was also suited for viticulture. They turned down the first suitor who randomly appeared at their doorstep asking to plant vines, but the idea stuck. King Family planted their vineyard in 1998 and opened the tasting room in 2002.

Today, King produces 20,000 cases/year (5,500 of that Rose), making them one of the largest wineries in the state. While their 50 acres of vines gives them a lot of fruit, they get grapes locally as well. And yes – polo is still played here, from Memorial Day to mid-October.

When the zombie apocalypse hits, you’ll find me here

I soon learned that King Family has a problem that most businesses would love to have – they are so popular, they sell out of their inventory exceptionally fast. When I visited their tasting menu leaned heavily on 2017 and 2018 vintages, and the popular Rose was long gone.

Compounding the problem is King was holding back some of its best wine so it can submit them into next year’s Governor’s Cup wine competition. Even so, I still had a tasting of almost a dozen wines, including several stunners.

We started off with the whites, all of which came out in 2018. This was a tough growing year, but Mattieu still put on a solid lineup. I think my favorite was the very zesty Viognier, which wasn’t overly floral like many Viogniers can be. We also tried their Chardonnay and a Chardonnay-heavy blend called Roseland. Both were easy drinking and very approachable.

Next up were a trio of single varietal reds, starting off with a 2018 Cabernet Franc that was both tart and fruity. After that was their 2017 “Small Batch” Petit Verdot, which caused my lips to pucker up.  I LOVED that PV. Granted I love PV in general, but I especially enjoyed this one.

The third was a Petit Verdot from…Argentina! This is a new initiative, and a good way for King to expand their repertoire of red wines. I liked it but I have to admit; I’ve grown to be a PV snob, and it’s hard to beat the ones in Virginia.

After that were the Merlot-heavy red blends. I sampled the 2012 Meritage, which had a nice mix of earth and fruit (and also was in the 2015 Governor’s Case), followed by their 2017 Mountain Plains red blend. I enjoyed both, but that Meritage was definitely hard to beat…except maybe…MAYBE that small batch Petit Verdot.

Finishing the tasting was their 2017 “Seven” port-style and 2016 Lorely desert wine. The Seven was made with…Petit Verdot! Again – have I mentioned I love PV?

Sadly I never got to meet Matthieu, but I can’t write about King Family without talking more about him. Mattieu arrived in Virginia just do ‘one vintage’ and then move to another assignment. It so happened that year was the very wet 2011, so he stuck around a second year to try again. Then he stayed a third year. While he focuses on King Family, Matthieu makes wines for several other wineries in the area as well.

Barren Ridge Vineyards

My visit to Barren Ridge was in no small part an effort to make up for a lost opportunity. A few weeks earlier I received an invite to the 2019 Shenandoah Wine Cup gala, but couldn’t attend as I had other blog opportunities lined up that I didn’t want to miss (rough life, right?). It so happened that Barren Ridge won the competition. I figured that was enough incentive to add them to my next Shenandoah Valley excursion.

Barren Ridge is on west side of Rockfish Gap, which separates the Shenandoah from Charlottesville. Owners John and Shelby Higgs opened it in 2008, right at the beginning of the great Virginia wine boom. While today this area has a great reputation for viticulture (it’s the driest area in the state), the converting of an old orchard to a winery must have seemed quite a risk at the time. But the Higgs were determined to put their family property to work, and so Barren Ridge was born.

As soon as I walked in I was greeted by a nice older lady with the southern drawl. Little did I know this was Shelby, who still introduces herself to her guests and asks if they are enjoying themselves. Chatting her was a real treat, since I got to learn not just about Barren Ridge but a bit about the wine boom that Barren Ridge was part of. For the next 30 minutes I was regaled with a ton of stories, often ending in “Oh, don’t print that” but also immediately followed by “Oh, never mind go ahead!”.

It turns out that Barren Ridge has ties with folks who are the equivalent of rock stars in the Virginia wine industry. Michael Shaps – likely the most award-winning winemaker in the state – initially helped with their wine making. That job has since been taken over by Jesse Gatewood, who studied under “Godfather of the Virginia wine industry” Gabrielle Rausse. Viticulturist Chris Hill still consults here. With names like that I quickly realized I was in for a treat.

Today, Barren Ridge has 12 acres under vine (plus 3 leased) and produces 4500 cases/year. Almost all the wine comes from these vines except their Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Surprisingly they also grow some Touriga Nationale – a rarity in Virginia.

Eventually we found ourselves at the tasting bar. I enjoyed the whites, especially their citrucy 2017 Riesling (although the nutty 2017 Chardonnay was nice as well). Those with a sweeter tooth might prefer the 2018 Harmony white blend, which while tart could fool you into thinking it was actually sweeter than it was. Ending the white flight was an apple wine – a tribute to Barren Ridges’ origin as an orchard.

Transitioning to reds, the 2017 Cab Franc was light and peppery. The 2016 Merlot was earthy, while the 2017 Touriga was especially smokey. Following this was was their 2017 Red Barren, which was sorta an off-dry wine (and 50% Chambourcin), then their port-style.

The highlight was a vertical of their 2014 and 2015 Meritages. The 14 was medium and rounded out nicely, while the 15 somewhat reminded me of that wild rawness you get in strawberries. Although the 15 was the winner of the Shenandoah Cup, I actually liked the 14 better.

Also a special thanks to Nancy, who poured for me at the tasting bar!

12 Ridges Vineyard

It’s not often I get to visit a brand-new winery. I’ve been on a multi-year quest to visit every winery in the state, making first-time visits are rare. So obviously when a brand new place popped up on my wine app it was as if my phone was making me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

12 Ridges is definitely a destination winery. Not just because it’s in a physically stunning location, but it’s far enough off the beaten path that only dedicated wine connoisseurs (or hikers looking for a diversion) are likely to make the trip.

What sets 12 Ridges apart from the rest of the Virginia wine scene is the tasting room tops out at 3300 feet, making it the highest altitude winery in the state. The soil is a mix of clay and volcanic green rock with excellent drainage. Why is this important? Well, when wine luminaries like Michael Shaps and Jake Busching first examined the site they practically salivated over its growing potential, so you know this place is going to produce great wine.

Besides the view, why did they pick this site? Well, the altitude provides the vineyard with a cool climate and windy slopes, both of which allow its vines to resist disease pressure. Also, mountaintops often have rocky, well-drained soil which facilitate minerality in their grape’s flavor profile, and forces vines to struggle – allowing them to produce berries with high flavor concentration.

It wasn’t a vineyard until recently. Owner Craig Colberg purchased the former event center in 2009, but it took time for this current vision to take hold. Even now when you drive in, you pass a Christmas tree farm before arriving at the tasting building.

That tasting building adroitly takes advantage of the view. Sadly, clouds prevented me from enjoying the scenery, but on a clear day I’m certain it’s amazing. Besides; you’re right off the Blue Ridge parkway, so the drive alone is worth it.

Operations manager Sam Hanny greeted me when I arrived. Sam is a self-described ‘vineyard geek’, which is a trait that I can definitely appreciate. He gave me the low-down of the vineyard as he poured.

As the vines are very young, 12 Ridges doesn’t yet produce its own wines. But in keeping with its theme of a high altitude winery, they serve a variety of wines from other high altitude locations around the world. When I was visiting, a nice assortment including a Tempranillo, Riesling, Malbec, a French high-elevation sparkling, and Pinot Grigio were being served.

But when 12 Ridges’ vines become ready – watch out! Its 12 acres include Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling – all varietals that should thrive in this climate.  I’m especially excited at the Pinot Noir, since it’s a grape you rarely find in Virginia. Their first vintage probably won’t be available until 2021, so a revisit (or several) is a necessity.

See you in another two years – if not sooner!