Napa is For Auto Parts...Virginia is for Wine
You may have seen the slogan above stamped onto a few souvenirs. Andrew and I have always known it's true, but this weekend we got an amazing opportunity to see just how much it means to the industry here in the Old Dominion.
This was one of the rare weekends where everything just fell into place. I turned in my first paper for one of my classes, the weather was beautiful, and I had checked my WineCruisers email at just the right time. This past Tuesday, I found that I had received an invitation to a reception at Early Mountain Vineyards. A quick trip to Google maps showed me that it was between Culpeper and Charlottesville. We accepted the invite, happy to have a new place to go and happy that our little blog had registered someone's interest! We set out on Saturday morning, intending to spend the afternoon at Early Mountain with a stopover at Prince Michel.
Prince Michel Vineyards154 Winery Lane
Leon VA 22725
Just as you start getting excited to be getting further south on 29, Prince Michel comes up on your right. I believe it's part of the Monticello wine trail, although it's definitely further north than the other ones.
I considered it to be the Gateway/Welcome Center to the Central Virginia cluster. In fact, since it's just off the road, it does seem a little like a rest-stop pullover sort of deal. I mean that in the nicest way possible. I promise!
This is one of the big ones, and older too. If you can stop gawking at the gift shop long enough, you'll soon make your way to the tasting bar. Our server was friendly enough, but it's definitely a place that caters to crowds, since we rotated through a few more pourers. The staff seemed to be more into complaining about organizational drama than engaging with the customers, which I suppose can happen at a larger and more corporate facility. Anyway, onto the goods.
Prince Michel thoughtfully has many options for tasting. You can choose 10 wines to taste for $5, which is an excellent deal. You can choose from reds, whites, or sweet wines from the blue sheet. Nothing that I chose really "did it" for me, though. I found the Viognier to be kind of flat, and Andrew thought the reds were too fruity. However, I did feel compelled to post on Facebook that I found Nutella in wine form via the Rapidan River Chocolate. Chocolate-infused wines have been a bit overdone, but this is the first one I tasted that wasn't sickeningly sweet. And yes, it did have a nuttiness to it that could only be Nutella! Or maybe I'm just weird, you be the judge. It's a deal at $12.99 a bottle.
We really enjoyed the self-guided tour...there's a walkway through the winemaking facility that has diagrams and outlines of the major winemaking steps, sort of like a museum. It was a great refresher on the process, especially for a visual learner like me. You'll also learn more about the historical figure that gave Prince Michel its name. No, it wasn't founded by royalty. :-( But you might feel like them if you stay in one of their suites! It's worth checking out if Charlottesville seems a bit too far to continue on your journey. We didn't want to be late to Early Mountain (do you see what I did there? *snicker*), so we headed off instead of sticking around.
Early Mountain Vineyards6109 Wolftown-Hood Road
Madison, VA 22727
Driving up to this palatial structure with its "closed for private event" sign, I definitely felt a bit like the nerdy chick from Princess Diaries as I got the door held open for me and greeted with a glass of champagne (which turned out to be an excellent sparkling wine from Thibaut-Janisson. And imagine my surprise when I saw that there was a nametag there just for me, WITH MY NAME SPELLED CORRECTLY! I felt like Steve Martin in "The Jerk" when he furiously rips through the phonebook to see his name in print. I regained my composure enough to sit down in the gorgeous reception area, catered with a delicious selection of local foods.
I had read up on Early Mountain before I went, since I've admittedly been out of the loop for a while. The founders, Jean and Steve Case, are former AOL execs that founded the Case Foundation to further philanthropy and social causes. This made my geeky sense tingle, since I've been slaving away at my Master of Public Administration degree for the past 2 years. (I need to talk to Andrew about putting a graduation countdown on here). Anyway, I'm in the public sector, and many of my classmates in the program are with non-profits. I've learned a lot about how non-profits fill in the gap between the public and private sector in offering public services, so I was pretty tickled to find out that the Cases are using Virginia wine as a way to put us on the map and give back to the community. I couldn't have read a better case study about public-private-nonprofit collaboration, actually. And I've read many.
Ok, geek hat off. After lunch, we toured the vineyard and winemaking facility with Frantz (winemaker) and Jonathan (vineyard manager). If I remember correctly, they were on the staff at Sweely Estate, which was sold to the Cases. I had never been to the facility as Sweely, so I can't comment on any transitions.
I was very impressed with the size of the facility, along with the automation of the fermentation tanks. The staff here can monitor the temperatures remotely via computer. Can you imagine saying "Hey, I think the temp in Tank X needs to be turned down a notch." Press a button and BAM! Amazing.
Early Mountain is only pouring three of their wines at the moment (the Chardonnay was a sneak peek for us). The 2011 Pinot Gris was crisp and an excellent compliment to my mini pulled pork sandwich, and Andrew was crazy about the 2008 Merlot. It smells delightful and soothing. Yes, wine can smell soothing!! Works better than a lavender sachet, if you ask me. The 2011 Viognier had a smooth deliciousness to it, but I didn't get the floral bouquet on the nose that I'm used to. They were also pouring a few wines from their Virginian neighbors, including Breaux and Linden. At that point I had to slow down, since I was driving. There was also the small matter of maintaining my composure before meeting the Governor!
Mr. McDonnell and his wife Maureen were gracious enough to stop by and talk about the mark that Virginia wines are leaving. They had even brought some Barboursville to China. Andrew and I thanked him for that, since the "Great Wall" Merlot we had in Beijing wasn't doing it for us. Not that we go to China a lot, (just once)! but it was a fun conversation piece. I mean, how often do you talk to the Governor?
We winded down on their back porch, complete with hammocks and an outdoor fireplace (not lit at the time). All this for starting a blog! Neat, right? After thanking our hosts, we decided to set out for Nova and call it a night.
Or were we? ;-)
We were just a few feet down route 29 when we realized that we didn't want to leave! At the opening party, we had met several people in the wine biz, many of them giving recommendations to places we hadn't yet tried. Claude DelFosse and Lynn Davis were two of the folks we met who own wineries in Nelson County, a cluster in Central Virginia that I hadn't explored enough of. (Andrew just did a big tour of the breweries, though). We set out for a Charlottesville hotel so we could stay the night and head into Nelson County the next day. The place with more breweries and wineries than traffic lights, according to local legend. Sounded enticing enough.
DelFosse Vineyards and Winery500 DelFosse Winery Ln
Faber, VA 22938
Andrew and I are pretty dorky about visiting wineries as soon as they open. We like to maximize our days. It might also be because Andrew can't sleep past 6am EVER (ugh), and today was no exception. We drove up to the place, complete with the rolling hills, pond, and cute log cabin! We arrived at maybe 10:15, so we just read articles about Early Mountain from their media packet until Claude walked up to us around 10:50 and asked if we wanted to come in. We gratefully accepted like teenagers in line for concert tickets (you know, back when people actually had to STAND IN LINE for that sort of thing).
The tasting room is almost all floor-to-ceiling windows. With a view like this, why not? Gorgeous even on an overcast morning.
We opted for the 5 wines for $5, and our pourer was gracious enough to let me try the oaked Chardonnay since I always seem to let it slip that I'm a huge fan of those. :-) I ended up going home with a bottle of that. Among our favorites was the Cuvee Laurent (which was a 2007 or 2008, I believe), a very lovely Chambourcin blend. They blend really well here. I found a lot of the reds to have cherry notes to them. Either that or I'm getting more of a palate for those lately. A lot of their reds are under $20, which is a great value for the quality.
Their table wines come from an area of the vineyard known as Deer Rock farm, so don't be fooled by the label and thinking it's from a different facility entirely. Their 2011 Deer Rock White is almost a perfectly even Chardonnay/Sauv Blanc/Viognier combo, which has that tropical taste without the excessive acidity. Perhaps the best part was talking with Claude. Yes, there are winemakers in Virginia that are bona fide French! After talking shop with him for a while, we realized just how much we have to learn when it comes to wine. He also showed us this awesome montage of vineyard photos from around the world, where DelFosse is featured at #5. He also took the time to explain the nuances of the various areas shown from each photo. If anyone knows, it's Claude!
Why did we wait so long to visit this place again?!!
Flying Fox Vineyard27 Chapel Hollow Road
Afton, VA 22920
A little bit of a funny backstory on this place...when we met the owner, Lynn Davis, at the Early Mountain reception, we saw "Flying Fox" on her nametag. Andrew mistakenly thought that it was the Fox Meadow Winery of Redemption fame, where we waited forever to be acknowledged and basically were ignored by the tasting staff, including the owner. He was in the middle of saying "I'm sorry, but..." when I hastily interrupted. But I could understand his confusion..."Fox" is a common element of many winery names around here.
Lynn has a scientific background, which drew us in instantly. The owners of North Gate put science into their wines to create the bet possible winemaking conditions, so we were eager to see what Flying Fox had.
We pulled up to their adorable tasting room after leaving DelFosse. I instantly recognized the pourer as Lynn's sister, since she had the same warmth and demeanor. The tasting room is not on the grounds of the actual vineyard, but is shared with the Le Bleu Ridge Bed and Breakfast. I instantly fell in love with the beautiful surrounding gardens. In fact, it reminded me of the cottage in Sonoma County that Andrew and I stayed at in 2010, where we started becoming wine snobs. The B and B even has a cottage in addition to the guest rooms. It's great to know that I don't have to go far to relive those memories. I may just have to use Le Bleu Ridge as my first B and B stay ever!
Flying Fox describes themselves as "the little guys" on the block, and I can appreciate that they like to keep things small. The owners started out growing fruit and selling it to vineyards, and just recently opened their own facility a few years ago. The selection is not huge, and they still source from other local vineyards, but they make the most of what they have. Their 2011 Viognier is peachy and delightful. The 2011 Fox White is a Vidal Blanc, about as sweet as their wines get, with just a touch of residual sugar. We ended up with a bottle of their 2008 Merlot, which was the first single varietal they had bottled for some time because it was that good! It has a gorgeous color and that cherry scent I've been picking up. They also a stellar 2008 "Trio" blend of Merlot, Cab Franc, and Petit Verdot; as well as single varietals of each grape. I believe all the vintages are different years, so make sure you try them all!
The Fox Red and Fox White are their "fun" blends that have the cute label, which changes from year to year. They each have a cartoon fox that is always doing something different to make him airborne. For 2011, he's being carried off by a bunch of balloons like in the movie "Up." Why does he fly? It's actually based off of the weather vane on the Davis' property, showing a leaping fox. However, somebody insisted he was FLYING, not jumping. The name stuck and carried over to the winery.
Leaving was sad, but on the way home we discovered that the Nelson "151" corridor contained all of our most memorable visits: Veritas, Afton Mountain, and now Flying Fox and DelFosse. Not to mention the breweries: Devil's Backbone and Blue Mountain. We may just have to skip the hotel scene and hit up the B and Bs!
New discoveries and rubbing shoulders with the Governor...not bad for our first extended wine weekend in months. Long live autumn!