Consumer trends that impacted the Virginia Wine Industry in 2020

2020 was a chaotic year in Virginia wine, with records good and bad. On the positive side Virginia saw a near-unprecedented number of winery/cidery/meaderies opening all across the state. Many locations – especially those further away from Coronavirus hotspots or were able to provide ample outdoor seating – saw record breaking summer sales, largely driven by new customers fleeing to the countryside. As 2020 draws to a close, it currently has a total of 264 wineries, 26 cideries, and 11 meaderies of various sizes and business models, with more on the way.

The downside is this came at a huge emotional and financial cost, especially in the early days when the industry was reduced to curb-side sales and online events. For large parts of Virginia, these woes were compounded by an unprecedented Mother’s Day frost which wiped out their vineyards. Unruly customers who refused to conform to social distancing regulations didn’t help.

“Pivot” was the key theme for dealing with these challenges. Outdoor seating, virtual events, shipping deals and self-guided wine flights (often in disposable cups) became the norm. A number of locations shifted to a reservation-only policy. As the weather became cooler, fire pits and outdoor plastic ‘bubbles’ also became customary.

While the dust from 2020’s tectonic shift hasn’t settled, many of these trends are here to stay. For several years there has been growing demand in the U.S. for lower-alcohol, more diverse, ‘healthier’ beverages; this movement is now easily visible in the Virginia wine scene. Online events are also now the norm; some wineries openly wondered why they didn’t think of doing them sooner.

Here’s my take of the key consumer trends that impacted Virginia wineries in 2020:

1. Virginia’s Sparkling Wine Market Continues to Grow: Veritas Winery / The Virginia Sparkling Company deserves a lot of credit for this trend, as their opening of a major sparkling wine facility in Charlottesville has enabled other wineries to make sparkling using their own fruit without the high start-up cost of bottling on site. In northern Virginia alone, roughly a dozen wineries have bubbly on the menu, usually in partnership with Veritas or Michael Shaps.

But it’s not just Veritas. There has been a growing number of wineries doing pétnats or other casual sparkling wines, and Casanel, Rappahannock Cellars and others are killing it with sparklings that range from ‘fun to drink’ to downright ‘serious’ Champagne-like bubbly.

2. Cideries & Meaderies Gaining Steam: Cider and mead consumption has likewise grown, in line with consumer demand for lighter, fresher beverages. Out of the 23 new ‘wineries’ to open in 2020, 1/3rd of them were cideries or meaderies. In addition to these, many wineries are offering ‘guest’ ciders, or a house cider to complement their wine.

3. Growing number of ‘Multi-Beverage’ Wineries: The number of wineries that serve beer has grown by leaps and bounds, sparked by a 2015 change in what ABC qualifies as a ‘farm enterprise’. Quattro Goomba and Barrel Oak helped pioneer this concept, but now there are at least 18 x wineries that have taprooms as well.

Likewise, the number of wineries that serve spirits is about to double. Davis Valley, Old House, Rappahannock, and Vincent’s Vineyard will soon be joined by distilleries at Abingdon, Iron Heart, and Triple V. Add cider, mead, and sparkling to the equation, and Virginia’s wineries have never had such a diverse lineup.

4. Virtual Events & Online Sales: This is one of the better things to come out of COVID; being able to enjoy a winery event from the comforts of your own home. Walsh Family Wine and Keswick still host weekly or bi-weekly virtual tasting events; other wineries hold similar events periodically. Barboursville and Chateau O’Brien also conduct weekly customer outreach events where the owner or manager takes 10 minutes or so to do a ‘behind the scenes’ look at their winery or taste some wines.

These events usually feature wine deals that range from new releases, library wines, to ‘guest wines’ from Virginia or abroad. It’s a fun way of doing comparative tastings of the same varietals from different locations or vintages, or expose consumers to new wines they may not have otherwise tried.

Wineries that closed in 2020

That a number of wineries closed in 2020 is hardly surprising; the entire food & entertainment industry took a huge hit. While it would be easy to blame COVID for these closings, many closings were either planned prior to the pandemic, were due to the retirements/deaths/illnesses of their owners. Fortunately, Winery 32 looks like it will reopen in March, so it’s not on this list.

  1. 612 Vineyard
  2. Desert Rose Winery
  3. Giles Mountain
  4. Hartwood Winery
  5. Hunters Run Winery (rebranded to Firefly Cellars)
  6. Mountain View Vineyard
  7. San Soucey Vineyards
  8. Tomahawk Mill Winery
  9. Vault Fields Vineyard
  10. Weston Farm Vineyard
  11. Winding Road Cellars

Wineries that opened in 2020

Fortunately the roster of wineries that opened far exceeded the number that closed. Several more planned to open, but deferred to 2021 due to the pandemic. Even so, 23 new openings in a year is likely close to a record, especially considering the years of growth that preceded it.

  1. Altheling Meadworks (Roanoke)
  2. Backporch Vineyard (Northern Neck)
  3. Bleu Frog Vineyards (Leesburg)
  4. The Capital Hive Meadery (Leesburg)
  5. Carriage House Wineworks (Waterford)
  6. Chapelle Charlemagne Vineyard (soft opening; Front Royal)
  7. The Cider Lab (Sumerduck)
  8. Eastwood Farm & Winery (Charlottesville)
  9. Great Valley Farm Brewery and Winery (Natural Bridge)
  10. Honey & Hops Brew Works (Front Royal)
  11. Iron Will Winery & Vineyard (no tasting room but selling their first vintage, Waterford)
  12. Jolene Family Winery (Richmond)
  13. Mount Alto (no tasting room but selling their first vintage, south of Charlottesville)
  14. Nicewonder Farm & Vineyard (opened tasting room early 2020, Bristol)
  15. Reserve (tasting room for VinoWine) (Lynchburg)
  16. Rivah Vineyard at the Grove (Northern Neck)
  17. Rock Roadhouse Winery (Hot Springs)
  18. Saga Meadery (Front Royal)
  19. Sugar Hill Cidery (Norton)
  20. The Estate at White Hall Vineyard (Northern Neck)
  21. Three Creeks Winery (Hamilton)
  22. Triple V Farm (Northern Neck)
  23. Tumbling Creek Cidery (Abingdon)
  24. Woodbine Vineyards (Buffalo Junction)

Upcoming wineries

Some of these wineries have firm opening dates; other are in various stages of being built.

  1. Above Ground (Middlebrook)
  2. Crimson Lane (Linden)
  3. Firefly Cellars (Hamilton)
  4. Hillcrest Vineyard and Winery (Charlottesville)
  5. Kalero Vineyard (Purcellville)
  6. Lakefront Winery (Buffalo Junction)
  7. Smithfield Winery (Smithfield)
  8. Stag and Thistle Meadery (Fork Union)
  9. Skjald Meadworks (Charlottesville)
  10. Williams Gap (Round Hill)

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

Cabernet Franc Blind Tasting Showdown

You might say that Cabernet Franc is a grape that ‘gets around’ in more ways than one.

First off, it’s the most planted wine grape in Virginia. Just over 1,000 acres of Cabernet Franc is grown in the state – slightly more than Chardonnay and leaps and bounds more acreage than any other red varietal.

Second, Cabernet Franc is one of the parents Cabernet Sauvignon. Back in the 17th century, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc got feisty in a French vineyard and produced an offspring which took parts of both parents’ names. Now, Cabernet Sauvignon is the world’s most popular grape varietal.

Internationally, Cabernet Franc is better known as a supporting player in red blends; often paired with any combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot or sometimes Malbec (aka; the five Noble Grapes of Bordeaux). Bordeaux particularly relies on it during cool weather vintages when Cabernet Sauvignon fails to fully ripen. Added to a blend, Cabernet Franc adds pepper notes, color, and complexity.

But on the eastern coast and particularly in Virginia, Cabernet Franc is increasingly viewed less as a blending grape and more the main event. Since 2016 Cabernet Franc has earned over 10% of the gold medals awarded at the Virginia Governors Cup – more than any other single varietal shown at the competition.

The rational is understandable – Cabernet Franc possesses a lot of great qualities yet shows them in moderation, including good but not high tannin and acidity, medium body and alcohol, and a floral aroma. This makes it a versatile wine able to be paired with a variety of food options or enjoyed on its own. It’s also a hardy grape in the vineyard, able to ripen in cooler weather and offer good disease resistance.

As a Virginia wine aficionado I’ve tried Cab Francs from basically every winery in the state (that’s not an exaggeration – I’ve visited every tasting room in Virginia and nearly all of them have Cab Franc as a varietal or in a blend). During this time I found many were beset with overly-strong bell pepper notes – a problem caused by poor ripening. I admittedly almost gave up on this varietal, resigned my future tastings would routinely include a wine that I would deem “OK” but never truly love.

Well, recent vintages caused me to revisit my less than stellar opinion of this grape. So in an effort to narrow down the qualities enjoyed the most, I embarked upon an experiment.

The Contestants:

I picked out 6 x wines from different years and geographic regions from some of my favorite Virginia producers. Cab Franc strongly reflects the local terroir, so this cross-section would allow me to experience a variety of expressions.

2016 Chateau O’Brien: Located in Markham, just off of I-66 on the way to Front Royale. Owner and vigneron Howard O’Brien isn’t the winemaker but he’s closely involved in the winemaking process, including choosing the final blends (I keep offering to help but he hasn’t accepted so far). O’Brien is best known for his Tannat, but his reds in general are outstanding. I got hooked on his 2014 Cabernet Franc, so on blind trust I bought his 2016 and included it in the contest.

2017 DuCard Vineyards: DuCard is not far from Old Rag Mountain, on the slopes of Shenandoah National Park. DuCard has unique microclimate and an excellent winemaker in Julien Durantie, who makes some of my favorite Petit Verdots. I tried his Cabernet Franc on a whim and found it to have an exceptional amount of depth and tannin – qualities I rarely find in Virginia Cabernet Francs.

2017 Hark Vineyard: Hark is a newer winery but winemaker Jake Busching has worked all over the state until (proverbially) setting down here. Hark is on the slopes of the Blue Ridge, in the woods west of Charlottesville. He told me he was particularly proud of his 2017 vintage; so much that I bought a pair of bottles at his suggestion. He was right – I finished one on election night and it made the evening go…much smoother….

2018 Rock Roadhouse: This was an odd selection that I threw in for variety, from all the way west in Bath County (past the Shenandoah). 2018 was an exceptionally wet year and truthfully I didn’t find many reds I loved from that year. But Rock Roadhouse does things differently. They make ‘natural wines’; that is, wines with minimal intervention and little to no sulfites, which is made possible by an exceptionally long fermentation process. I visited them in October 2020 and was surprised how much I enjoyed this style, so I purchased a bottle on trust alone.

2019 Stinson: Stinson Vineyard is in the Crozet area of Charlottesville, and part of one of Virginia’s best wine trails. Winemaker Rachael Stinson Vrooman has been their winemaker since 2010, and I’ve always loved her Tannat, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnays. This was another bottle I picked up on trust alone.

2019 Carriage House: Carriage House Wineworks is Loudon County’s newest winery, not far from Leesburg. Winemaker Mike Fritze was a long-time amateur winemaker before he made the leap with a friend who’s a grape grower to open their own place. When I sat down with a tasting with him I remember enjoying everything on the menu, but his fruity, savory Cab Franc was especially a standout.

Blind Tasting My Favorites:

To keep it honest I tasted these wines blind using my trusty Coravin, poured into a marked glass. After pouring, I randomly moved the glasses around as much as I could without spilling so I couldn’t track which glass was which (PS – be careful when grabbing a Riedel glass!). I did a re-taste of them all to double-check my palate and found my notes were still dead-on.

The results:

Wine #1 (later identified as the 2017 DuCard): Muted nose, medium purple color. Notes of raw strawberries. After sampling it I had to wait a few seconds before the fruit came out, but when it did it hit me. Medium plus acid. Solid overall wine that especially benefited from aeration, although in this case it didn’t reach my top picks.

Wine #2 (later identified as the 2017 Hark): Medium purpose color, some jammy notes on the nose. It tasted lighter and more delicate than I was expecting. On my second try I detected some raspberry notes. I really liked this wine; not my favorite of the night but it was up there.

Wine #3 (later identified as the 2018 Rock Roadhouse): Pale ruby, almost garnet. Strawberry notes on the nose. On the palate it felt fuller and fruitier than the other wines. There was also something less identifiable about it that I couldn’t place (I later realized this quality as likely an after-effect of the ‘natural wine’ winemaking process). Definitely a winner; tied with the Hark.

Wine #4 (later identified as the 2016 Chateau O’Brien): Pale ruby color. I detected a tad bit of mustiness that I often associate with older vintages. Nice fruit notes on the palate, although I couldn’t identify any particular fruit. But more than anything else it had an excellent balance of fruit notes, acid, and body. Outstanding!

Wine #5 (2019 Stinson): A bit of pepper and strawberry on the nose. On the plate it was lighter, more elegant, and a tad less fruit-forward than my other options. It was also notably younger; while 2019 was a great year in Virginia wine I was initially worried this may have the bell pepper or other ‘youthful’ characteristics that I noticed elsewhere. So I was pleasantly surprised when this had none of those. Definitely an easy-drinking wine.

Wine #6 (2019 Carriage House): Pale ruby color, a bit more intense on the nose by comparison but by no means aromatic. Pomegranate maybe? I should have picked this out because I detected the savory elements immediately, but not as fruit-driven as I would have expected a younger vintage. I did get the tiniest hint of bell pepper on the finish, but by no means did it undermine my enjoyment.

I did one last sampling and made my decision. To my delight, the 2016 Chateau O’Brien turned out to be my new favorite Cabernet Franc in Virginia!

What did I learn? For one, bottle age matters. I don’t think of Cabernet Franc as a hugely age-worthy wine, but I did suspect that this was hitting peak at 4 years – while some of the others hasn’t yet reached that potential. Even being a year older works to its advantage.

I also was surprised by how complex Cab Franc can potentially be. I’d grown so accustomed to wines that were either just black or bell pepper, maybe with some fruity notes. But in 2020 I’d found expressions ranging from earth-driven Cabernet Francs from Glen Manor, fruit driven options from Gabriele Rausse, relatively tannic ones from Charlottesville, and light and peppery Cab Francs from basically all over.

So once again, Chateau O’Brien has one of my favorite wines!

Virginia Wineries Breaking The Mold On Sparkling Winemaking

Have I mentioned how much I love ‘researching’ new articles? This was another back-breaking article that required loads and loads of sampling.

When people think of sparkling wine they usually think of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But Virginia’s terroir requires a different route, so many local wineries opt for hybrids instead. It’s actually a great fit – hybrids are popular here, and their naturally high acidity makes a great match for sparkling wine.

Click this link for my December article on sparkling wine: Virginia Wineries Breaking the Mold On Sparkling Winemaking – Old Town Crier

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.