Rockbridge Vineyard & Brewery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above Ground Winery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecco Adesso Vineyards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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