22 April, 2013

Virginia Wine Country

And now for something completely different... a trip into Virginia's magnificent wine country in the shadows of the Shenandoah.

This past weekend I spent a day tasting, enjoying and learning about Virginia's wines from some vineyards and wineries who, for all intents and purposes, produce their vignettes from vine to bottle.  This visit centered around the city of Charlottesville, which is an independent city surrounded by the county of Albemarle in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains about 20 minutes east of Waynesboro.

Charlottesville is probably best known as home to the University of Virginia, a public university conceived by Thomas Jefferson and built on lands once owned by James Monroe, with courses of study including architecture, economics, law and medicine.

During the course of the day we visited six (6) wineries throughout the area, each with unique and different ideas of what a wine "tasting" should be and the manner in which their wines are produced, marketed and delivered to their customers.  It is my intention here to provide my personal opinion of the "sum of the parts" for each vineyard and give you, the reader, an opportunity to share in my very first tour of Virginia's wine country.

Our trip begins at 7 AM on Saturday morning.  I am moderately hungover and totally exhausted from playing in my rock band at a headlining gig the previous night which put me in my bed somewhere between 3 and 3:15.  Fortunately my wife had volunteered to drive and she and her girlfriend Joyce sat up front while I crashed out on the bench seat in the back.  Coming from Virginia Beach I managed to sleep from Newport News to about ten minutes outside of Charlottesville, so that gave me a little bit more energy for our first stop: Jefferson Vineyards.

Jefferson Vineyards is, as the name suggests, the winery at Monticello. This winery sits in the valley below the manor house designed and occupied by one of America's most revered and prolific patriots, President Thomas Jefferson.

Walking into the tasting room was not the spectacle I would have expected (or was I being overly presumptuous?) from the former President and statesman.  There were a handful of "stations" where sommeliers (guides?  hosts?) were offering tastings to groups of tasters, a cashier's station, and rows of wine bottles arranged as a backdrop for the tastings.  For $10 we were each given a somewhat large (but very finely crafted) Riedel long-stem glass and a list of the wines (also called a "flight") being offered during our particular visit.

My personal preference is for a slightly sweet (apparently between 0.25 and 1.5% residual sugars) white, rosé, and Cabernet Sauvignon.  I only discovered this during later tastings in the day, as most of the wines at Jefferson were VERY DRY (Pinot Gris, Chardonnays) or too bold for my palate.  The guide was knowledgeable and courteous, but the presentation came off as overly scripted, as if straying from it might have been discouraged, perhaps as a consequence of the number of people waiting to be served.

At the Jefferson Vineyard we decided to bring home a bottle of 2011 Viognier (vee-on-yay) and a Pinot Gris which I think my mother would really enjoy.  With Mothers Day imminent, I felt this would be a good time to start thinking about gifts...

Our second stop was at Keswick Vineyards.  Keswick is a personal favourite of Joyce's as they have a wine "club" where you join for free and every visit you receive a free tasting for yourself and a guest, as well as a quarterly offering of selected wines delivered at discount.  Or, if you  like, you can pick them up when you visit the winery... if you happen to visit with that kind of frequency!

On our way in the door there was a handful of picnic tables and Joyce mentioned that they also do a number of pet-friendly tasting events throughout the year, another reason she is partial to Keswick.  At one of the tables was a group of bachelorettes, which explained the Hummer H2 limousine we had to maneuver around just to manage a parking spot.  Pay attention, as the bachelorettes show up again later.

Once inside we were greeted by what I would consider VERY YOUNG faces to be considered wine "experts".  I don't often think of twenty-somethings to have lived or experienced enough to be any kind of authority on anything, much less wines.  I know when I was in my twenties I wasn't drinking anything more gourmet than Miller High Life, the "Champagne of Beers"...

Anyhow, Joyce and my wife (as Joyce is a "member") tasted for free while I paid $10 for a chardonnay tasting glass with the vineyard logo on it.  In my opinion the Keswick glass is the most visually appealing of the six we used, and of the five we brought home (I'll get to that in the next review), though the Jefferson (even without any logo) is by far the "nicest" glass.

We tasted about a dozen wines at Keswick but none of them really spoke to me, except for the Norton chocolate sauce wine.  About 3/4 of the way through our tasting the young lady who was guiding us disappeared to the other end of the tasting room where... the bachelorette party was gibbering about like a bunch of giddy schoolgirls.  Without being overly insulting, these girls looked to me like they were trying just a bit too hard to get into a second-tier sorority.  I still have not been able to figure out what caused our guide to gravitate to the register in the middle of our tasting, but a young man came by to check on us and remarked that it was quite strange that she should do that.  This fellow for some reason thought it was acceptable to very noticeably chew gum while entertaining guests.

We finished our tasting, made our purchases, and went outside to the picnic area to have a sandwich and some snacks to line our bellies for the afternoon's excursion which, if all went according to plan, was to include four (4) more tastings.

Our third stop was at Horton Winery.  Horton is a neoclassical castle-esque looking farmhouse building sitting on a hilltop overlooking a vast expanse of vineyard in the rolling valley below.  It was a beautiful location, probably the most visually stunning of all the wineries that day.

As we walked up there was a van/limousine parked at the door with yet another bachelorette party group unloading and clamoring about for a picture before going in to taste/toast the bride.  We made a hurried entrance in the interest of being "ahead" of a group of giggling schoolgirls.

Inside Horton comes off more as a gift shop than a tasting room.  There were tables and displays of kitschy and generic "wine person" things like shirts with girlie slogans ("If I Seem Like a Bit*h, it's Because I'm Out of Wine"), buttons and logo stemware.  One table in particular caught my eye, laden with items of Southern interest where the vineyard was obviously trying to capitalize on the 150th (sesquicentennial) Anniversary of the civil [sic] war.

There were three (3) wine offerings at Horton which offered the suggestion of some kind of tie to the recent unpleasantness: "Freedom", "South Ridge", and "North Ridge", as well as both stemmed and stemless wine glasses (we call these "tumblers" where I'm from) were conspicuously displayed on a banquet table flanked by flags of the Southern republic.

The tasting at Horton was $3 for up to "10 or so" of the wines on the list and $3 for the souvenir glass.  This is the only glass we did not bring home, as it was emblazoned with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and a quote which read "Those who would deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves".  I almost threw up reading it, I certainly was not going to pay money for it.

The guides throughout this tasting changed as customers came and went.  We were standing at the end of the "bar" closest to the flag display in the accompanying photo.  The wines were described in VERY BRIEF terms on our tasting sheet and the hosts made little effort to expound on the character of the ones we selected.  Much to my dismay, of the three "civil war" offerings, the "South Ridge" was the least appealing, while the "Freedom" was the most.  Perhaps they mixed up the labels by accident...

The next stop on our tour was Barboursville.  If I could choose just one word to describe the tasting room at Barboursville, it would be "clusterf*ck".  $4 got you a souvenir glass and as many tastings as you could manage... if you could get to the counter.  The tasting room was like a medieval banquet hall with a side-room and narrow counters at which to taste.  Our "friends" from Keswick were there, now wearing mustaches for some reason and the lines at each tasting station were ten to fifteen deep.  The hosts had no interest in nor motivation to individually engage the guests.  Several of them were quite surly, barking orders at guests to "take your tasting pour and move to the back" apparently grudgingly considering the addition of "please" to somehow lighten the brusqueness of their demeanor.

Barboursville was, for lack of a better term, a very corporate operation.  There was no personality and no real care taken to individualize the experience: pour, sip, repeat.

That is, until we arrived at the "dessert" wines.  The woman at this counter was obviously less overburdened than her associates and had a simple flirtatiousness about her which I found rather charming.  Above all, she was SMILING.  That alone made her a far superior host than all the rest.

I rightly enjoyed all of the dessert wine selections, but settled on a bottle of Phileo, turning down the Malvaxia largely due to its $32/bottle price tag.

We took a short break at one of the tables and discovered four (4) Barboursville tasting glasses which had been abandoned and decided to collect them for ourselves as we made our exit.  Joyce purchased a couple of bottles herself and we took them back to the car.  Then we drove over and walked up to the ruins of the former Governor Barbour's mansion, from which the "Octagon" label at Barboursville derives its inspiration.  Apparently the "Octagon" is an award-winning vintage, but it tasted like it truly needed to live in the bottle for a while longer, perhaps several years.

At any length, the mansion of Governor Barbour, the only Governor of Virginia who was never actually "elected" to office was designed by Jefferson and construction commenced in 1814.  It was completely destroyed by fire on Christmas day in 1884.  "Damn those candles!" my wife was heard to exclaim, referring, of course, to the ancient practice of suspending lit candles from the firs throughout those grand colonial homes.

After we found our escape from the zoo which was Barboursville we discovered that we were still making fairly good time despite that chaotic scene and would have time to visit at least two more wineries.

Our next stop took us to Burnley.  I cannot say enough to reinforce how far above the rest my experience at Burnley was.  A rickety wooden staircase escorted us to the second floor of an old hillside residence done in farmhouse style with a mid-'70s mansard roof.  Frankly it is not at all what I would think of when I think "winery".

And the initial unimpressiveness did not stop there.  The tasting room at the top of the stairs was a plain, unassuming niche with a bar which more resembled the lunch counter at an old pharmacy, with a little old man and a little old lady and a young woman (perhaps in her late 20s) tending to the dozen-or-so guests.  So begins our odyssey.  We "bellied up" to the bar and the elderly gentleman, who was walking (rather, hobbling) with noticeable trouble grinned broadly at us and asked if we would like to have a tasting.

Well, of course that was what we had come for!  And he did not disappoint.  Not only was he a consummate gentleman, he was a font of knowledge, both informative and trivial.  As we went down the list, my wife even tasting wines of the families she generally avoided (mostly bolder reds) he gave us a mental tour of the heritage of wine in Virginia.  He gave us an in-depth synopsis of the "Norton" grape, one of the only native vines of these shores which was developed by grafting an introduced species with a wild grape and cultivated for over 200 years to derive the unique specie.

Mr. C.J. Reeder (C.J. as we came to know him in the short time) regaled us with stories about a house favorite, the "Dog Gone Red" which features a picture of the winery's mascot, Cooper (a Belgian Shepherd), who appears to enjoy his residency behind the bar amidst the bustle of the host and hostesses.  In fact, we were even invited behind the counter to make a formal introduction and give him a pat behind the ears before continuing on our escapade.

And I do not know if it was because of the richness of the insight and casual demeanor of the host or because the wines were THAT MUCH BETTER, but I thoroughly enjoyed nearly every drop of every vintage.  Of particular interest was the presentation of several of the reds.  At the previous wineries the red wines served were of only 2010, 2011 or 2012 vintage, even though the tasting cards recommended shelving such bottles for up to ten years before uncorking.  At Burnley we were treated to red vintages from as far back as 2005, with the proprietor suggesting that it is nigh-on irresponsible to sell a wine to someone and then expect THEM to keep it for five to ten years before enjoying it.

It is precisely that sort of care and consideration, on top of the wealth of character, knowledge and anecdotal history shared by Mr. Reeder during our visit which truly made it extraordinary.  We purchased several bottles from Burnley.  Unfortunately, during the shuffle of bottles and overnight bags in the back of the vehicle when we arrived at the hotel later in the evening, one of our tasting glasses slipped from its perch and tumbled to the ground, snapping the stem on impact.

My wife was crestfallen, as she had wanted to take home a matching pair from each winery.  Joyce suggested that since we had commandeered an extra bunch from Barboursville (that we weren't terribly interested in anyway) she would give us her Burnley glass, so it all worked out in the end.

It was starting to get late and most wineries advertise that they close around 5 PM.  It was nearly 4:15 when we bid a fond farewell to Burnley and headed north to our final destination: Reynard Florence Vineyard.

Reynard Florence is a "new" vineyard, having planted their first crop in 2008.

The parking lot of this diminutive winery is a mess of crushed stone and shell marl.  Walking up to the tasting room we passed by a few rustic patio tables with chairs and entered a small, however well-lit room with a large round bar-height table in the center of the room and a small counter at the far end with a half-dozen or so bottles lined up for viewing.

A precocious Welsh corgi by the name of T.Rex welcomed us with a cheerful bark and the proprietress (as we came to discover) greeted us and invited us to the tasting counter.  As we were nearing the end of the day, we nearly had the room to ourselves, save for a quartet of ladies who entered just behind us and were hosted around the central table.

The wines were fairly good, and I particularly enjoyed the Petit Manseng (of which I also purchased a bottle) as well as a bottle of Reynard Blanc to pair with the bottle from Jefferson for my mother.  Being a "young" vineyard they had an understandably limited selection of vintages, particularly reds since they have not been operating for many more years than it would take to produce a respectable crop.

Of other interest was the checkout at Reynard Florence.  When we made our purchase with credit card, Ms. Florence "Dee" Allison was using a Smartphone application which had the shop's entire catalog programmed in and a card-reader attached.  I signed using just the tip of my finger.  Ms. Allison explained that she could not provide a paper receipt in this manner but would be able to either email it or send it via SMS to any other "smart" phone.  I gave her my phone number and before I was out the door I received a message on my Windows (8) Phone with the purchase confirmation attached.  Pretty nifty use of technology, I think.

Once we left Reynard Florence we headed into Charlottesville to locate our hotel and find a good local spot to enjoy a steak and glass of wine.  Our hotel was a hot mess, reeking of cigarette smoke (even though it was a non-smoking room) and a bathroom which my wife said she would not feel comfortable bathing in.  Further, the in-room phone would not ring up the front desk and the TV didn't even work.  With this dismal predicament weighing on our minds, Joyce phoned the front desk using her own mobile phone and we told them we would be heading out to supper, that they had an hour or so to remedy the situation.

We drove past the heart of UVA and to a little Bohemian district out past the East End and located a place simply called "The Local".  This restaurant is apparently generally a by-reservation-only venue, but Joyce managed to schmooze the front manager enough to get us a table.  The building is an ex-garment and shoe repair shop crammed into what might pass for a early 20th century brownstone.  If it was twenty feet wide I would be surprised.

Our waiter was dutiful and courteous.  My wife ordered the pork loin special and Joyce and I both ordered the Steak Frites.  It is one of the few places I have had a steak where they truly achieved the "medium" doneness I demand.  The waiter also did not even skip a beat when I asked for a suggestion from the "by-the-glass" wine list to pair with my dinner selection and I was not disappointed by the respectable Cabernet Sauvignon he recommended.  It was (as I alluded earlier) a bit dry for my palate, but went well with a steak cooked nearly perfectly by my standards.

We returned to our hotel to find an ionizer running full-blast but having eradicated none of the stale smokiness from the room.  Joyce phoned the front desk again to inform them that we would not be staying and that she would not be paying for a room so obviously neglected.

We then drove another 30 minutes west to Waynesboro to a hotel in which I had previously stayed, where the rooms were clean (however otherwise unassuming) and came with a "continental breakfast" which included, among other things, a waffle station and biscuits and gravy.  The biscuits were good but the gravy was a little on the mild side for my tastes.  For a continental breakfast it was fair-to-middlin', but likely far superior to whatever half-baked excuse they might have offered at the first location.

To conclude, in order of preference by quality of experience and overall wine selection I would recommend:
  1. 1. Burnley
  2. 2. Jefferson
  3. 3. Reynard Florence
  4. 4. Keswick
  5. 5. Horton and Barboursville (tie)
I hope you have enjoyed my review of what is truly only a FRACTION of the offerings of Virginia's wine country and will be inspired to make your own visit to God's Country.

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