Wine and Spirits Along the Roads Less Travelled
By Kelly MacConomy
“Almost heaven, West Virginia…. Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River. Life is old there. Older than the trees, younger than the mountains blowing like a breeze.” The beloved song made famous by Rocky Mountain High crooner John Denver, written with Hoyas Bill and Taffy Danoff, immortalizes not the state of West Virginia but the mind state of western Virginia in a ballad reverie for its vast beauty and unimaginable, undulating mountainscape: “Dark and dusty, painted on the sky. Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye.” The Virginia wine industry is marking its fourth centennial in 2019. With its rebirth and exponential growth under the leadership of maverick winemaker Dennis Horton, Virginia wine and spirit production has burgeoned from its colonial founding fathers and prohibition moonshine makers to 280 wineries, over 206 breweries, and surpassing North Carolina for the lead with 70 and counting distilleries. September was Virginia Spirits Month, when it was five o’clock for thirty days, boasting some of the finest bourbons, whiskeys, vodkas, liqueurs and modern-day moonshine in the country. Virginia is not only the cradle of American oenology but the birthplace of American spirits. George Washington’s Gristmill and Distillery, still in operation today, made the first batch of whiskey in the New World in 1620. The General’s Distillery was the largest producer of whiskey in Virginia, producing 11,000 gallons in one year. Last month, in honor of Virginia Spirits Month, the Mount Vernon Inn restaurant hosted a Bourbon pairing dinner.
The George Washington Distillery has announced the release of its four-year blend, a first effort to age the rye whiskey longer in the barrel. Local craft breweries Port City of Alexandria and Old Ox in Ashburn have borrowed barrels from the Distillery to create an intoxicating complex brew, rich and earthy with a hint of oak and a flutter of rye. Master Distiller Steve Bashore hopes to partner with a Virginia winemaker to recreate George Washington’s Madeira using the archived recipe from the library at Mount Vernon. Even the immortal Inn at Little Washington, in an ongoing celebration of its own 40th anniversary, was enlisted to participate in a whiskey tasting this past May, with über chef Patrick O’Connell in attendance. George Washington’s Mount Vernon is a mecca for spirit enthusiasts. Not only are there whiskey and brandy tasting events but beer pairing dinners at the Mount Vernon Inn in addition to traditional vertical wine pairings with the Inn’s appetizing menu of both contemporary and colonial-inspired platings. The hugely popular Mount Vernon Wine Festival and Sunset Tour returns for Virginia’s October Wine Month on October 5-7, showcasing an exciting array of the traditional wine festival vintages and varietals along with some festival newcomers.
Of special interest is Pearmund Cellars, bringing the limited edition quadricentennial commemorative bottling of “Virginia’s Heritage” Red Wine, a compilation of 16 Virginia vineyards’ red wine blends: a consortium of Virginia’s finest wineries contributing in unison. Pearmund has been cellaring 28 barrels of the Virginia Heritage Blend in the cellars at Broad Run, planning to expand that amount to 32 barrels for a potential yield of 10,000 bottles of Heritage blend consisting of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot- a classic Bordeaux style wine. The label is an homage to the iconic Virginia Company branding, parchment colored with colonial world meeting new.
Chris Pearmund, who spearheaded the Birthplace of Wine Virginia license plate, is especially proud of the landmark collaboration: “It’s a recognition of true Virginia wine.” The contributing vineyards are Aspen Dale Winery at the Barn Delaplane, Cooper Vineyards in Louisa, Effingham Manor and Winery in Nokesville, Glass House Winery in Free Union, Ingleside Vineyards in Oak Grove, Naked Mountain Winery and Vineyards in Markham, Narmada Winery in Amissville, New Kent Winery in New Kent, Pearmund Cellars in Broad Run, Phillip Carter in Hume, Potomac Point in Stafford, Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly, Rosemont of Virginia Winery in LaCrosse, Vint Hill Craft Winery in Vint Hill, Williamsburg Winery in Williamsburg and The Winery at Bull Run in Centreville. Bottles of Virginia Heritage will be sold at the consortium wineries. Cellar one while they last.
The Blue Ridge Mountains are the backbone of Virginia, running north from the Catoctin Range and the Piedmont down the Shenandoah National Park skyline south to Roanoke, where many wineries such as Little Washington and Chateau Morrisette grow their grapes. The Shenandoah springs with cascading vineyards, world-class wineries, craft breweries and diverting distilleries spinal tapping the mineral rich ancient soil and breathtaking landscape that draws spirit seekers from all over the DMV and beyond from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. Many of the best wineries in the state straddle either side of the Blue Ridge.
Featured Virginia Wine Month winery Sunset Hills in Purcellville and sister winery 50 West, both offering spectacular views of the Blue Ridge foothills, produce many of their varietals from vineyards that owners Diane and Mike Canney own in Woodstock, along the Shenandoah Wine Trail Route. At their Sherman Ridge vineyard they grow grapes which are used to make their popular whites, Vidal Blanc and Petiti Manseng at 50 West. At the Shenandoah Springs vineyard they have planted 23 acres on the silty, loamy soil which, being less clay heavy and not as rocky, yields less flinty varieties such as the Tannat and Cabernet Franc used in the award-winning Mosaic, as well as their best-selling Chardonnay and classic Virginia Viognier- the unofficial state wine.
Muse Vineyards and Winery in Woodstock is a paradisiacal oasis over the majestic mountains set along the Shenandoah River on Serendipity Lane. The tasting room is a contemporary interpretation of the country barn with weathered siding covering vaulted ceilings over expansive glass walls. Area artists have their work on exhibit in the stylishly appointed seating area.
On a picture postcard perfect evening in July, Muse hosted a moonlight madness soirée celebrating the release of the sparking Chardonnay. Guests were greeted by owners Sally and Bob Cowal bearing a basket of Moon Pies just for the special occasion. The effervescent Chardonnay flowed as champagne flutes were filled to the brim in anticipation of the full moonrise over the Blue Ridge starry skyline. The musicians serenading the moonstruck revelers played “Fly Me to the Moon” as the finale to one enchanted evening and night to remember.
Tasting the 2104 Clio class Bordeaux made the 100-mile journey to the Shenandoah Wine Trail all the more memorable. The complex, bold and unabashedly inky elixir astonished even a veteran Virginia vino lover. Rated a 92 by National Wine Review, Clio consists of 50% Cab Franc, 20% Petit Verdot and 10% each Cab Sauv, Malbec and Merlot. Not only does it get Z~Oenology’s two thumbs up, it knocked our socks off!
Speaking of Woodstock, two events occurred this past summer in the backyard of Shenandoah National Park. Winestock, the annual festival of peace, wine and music held at the Little Washington Winery and Skyline Vineyard Inn and Brewery in Washington, Virginia, didn’t let a little rain stop the party. A quick drive down the road from the epicurean nirvana Inn at Little Washington, the winery and inn offer luxurious accommodations with unparalleled views of the Park and surrounding countryside.
Neighboring the Little Washington Winery on Christmas Tree Lane is an unassuming Cape Cod cottage just off the dirt road leading to the winery. LeFay Cottage is an enchanting guest house owned by the beautiful and engaging Sally-Anne Andrew, furnished in a sumptuous English Country style befitting Sally-Anne’s English roots and enchanting accent. No expense is spared in creating an ambiance of luxury for guest comforts. There is a full kitchen stocked with local roasters’ coffee, dairy provisions, non-alcoholic libations and cold beer and complimentary local vineyards wine-tasting vouchers. Perfect for epicureans destined to dine nearby at one of the great dining experiences in the world. A stay at LeFay is the getaway of a dream. Call 703~980~1478. www.lefaycottageatlittlewashington.com
Last month the Inn at Little Washington hosted Innstock, a local retro-sixties celebration of “peace, wine and food” in tie-dyed honor of the 40th anniversary of Patrick O’Connell’s culinary legacy- from the converted gas station eatery hawking $6.89 chicken dinners to the Michelin 3-Star rating it recently earned. Celebrity guest chef José Andrés was in attendance with IALW alumni sous-chefs preparing a tasting menu fit for a sultan. Congratulations to Patrick and all the Innstockers for a fabulous fete and birthday bash. Here’s to 40 more years of fantastic foodie fanfare and fabulousness.
There is no better example, aside from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, of history complementing the pursuit of fine Virginia wine and spirit production than 225 agritourism acres of The Winery at Bull Run in Centreville, now in its sixth year of operation. Heading straight out Route 66 to Route 28 makes it the easiest winery to reach from Alexandria. The winery is literally an integral piece of American history, adjacent to the Manassas National Battlefield Park. The Norton grapevines slope toward the serpentine Bull Run, where the Battle of Bull Run, the first engagement of the Civil War derived its name.
It’s an extraordinary experience to tour the Winery at Bull Run. Al fresco wine-tasting occurs today upon the very picnic tables where in 1863 men, women and children armed with butter knives, forks and baskets of provisions for their own indulgent repast came in carriages across the Potomac to be entertained by the skirmish, not expecting the absolute carnage of the ensuing bloodbath occurring before their horrified eyes. Known as The Great Skeedaddle, the fleeing voyeurs were left stranded in the Virginia countryside as their carriages, food, blankets, all the provisions and possessions they brought including their dogs, were taken by both Union and Confederate troops for use in the battle. The tasting room is a veritable Civil War Museum decorated with display cases filled by the countless artifacts unearthed while planting the vineyards, building the winery and conserving the historic grounds: buttons, stirrups, bullets, canteens, swords and rifles, even the ruins of the forlorn picnicking gone astray- silver flatware, plates and salt shakers.
On September 9 at a formal ribbon cutting ceremony in the vat room, Jon Hickok, a descendent of the famed “Wild Bill” Hickok, with his wife and two young daughters generously donated 90 acres of the ancestral farm and vineyard property to Northern Virginia Conservation trust, preserving in perpetuity the historic and hallowed ground bordering the Manassas Battlefield. For many this land is a sacred place of valor and sacrifice where 112,000 men struggled in battle, casualties mounting to upwards of 22,000 dead, wounded and missing.
When considering the direction of the winery that he wanted to build on the legendary battlefield. Jon and his wife travelled around Virginia and the multitudes of start-up wineries as well as the legacy vineyards of California. Finding an identity to draw inspiration among the diversity of wineries exploding in both states proved to be less overwhelming than they originally expected. Every vineyard owner had a specific impetus for their winemaking which was routinely expressed in the naming, decor, wine label design, choice of varietals grown and vintage blending.
The Bull Run battlefield proved to be a singularly unique asset in establishing a suburban DC winery. Yet treading upon sacred land where countless lives were taken had to be approached delicately. It wasn’t exactly restoring a barn or converting a carriage house. As Jon notes, “It’s the perfect transitional business. You wouldn’t want houses or shopping centers adjacent to the battlefield line. We are about wine. We are about history. We are about fun.” They are also about conservation- of the land and environment, of history and Virginia viniculture.
As a placeholder in Virginia’s history, Jon feels a profound responsibility safeguarding the traditions of winemaking in the Old Dominion- a caretaker of the land here and now, not merely as a farmer but as a visionary beyond this year’s harvest and the latest release of a vintage. Jon grows only blocks of Norton grapes on the Bull Run Winery site, preserving the history of the land and Virginia’s place in winemaking history.
Norton red blend wine is the hallmark of The Winery at Bull Run. They produce and offer a full tasting menu, with an outstanding Viognier, a fun summery peach wine and a surprising Pinot Noir, unusual for a Virginia winery. But those grapes come from their vineyards in Washington, Virginia. Dr. Daniel Norton in 1820 cultivated the first successfully grown wine-making grape in North America. This quintessential Virginia grape was nearly lost when Prohibition virtually quashed wine-making production throughout the state.
In 1983 winemaker pioneer Dennis Horton, who passed away this past June after a long battle with cancer, revived the indigenous Norton vine in Virginia. Taking root stock from his native Missouri, where the Norton vine cultivation and wine production continued to thrive throughout Prohibition via a loophole in the 21st amendment permitting wine to be used for religious practices, Dennis grew his first grapes in the front yard of his home in Madison County, giving birth with his wife Sharon to what is now Horton Vineyards in Gordonsville.
Dennis returned from a trip to Europe passionate about the wines of the Bordeaux Region and the Rhône Valley of France, as well as wines from Portugal and Spain. The result was the progressive production of Old World varietals Cabernet Franc, Viognier, Malbec and Albariño, giving rise to his affectionate moniker “The Father of Modern Virginia Wine Making”. Dennis indisputably earned that title. Working in the vineyard up until a week before he passed, Dennis liked to say he retired decades ago because he loved what he did far too much to refer to it as working. Raise a glass of your favorite Virginia vino to Dennis Horton, the man who helped make Virginia for wine lovers.
Country roads, take me home, To the place I belong. Virginia Vineyards, Mountain moonshine, Take me home, country roads.
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