Alexandria, VA – It’s a misnomer to state that Williams Gap Vineyard is a new NOVA winery. Vineyard owner Jack Sexton is a McLean veterinarian who’s been producing wine for Virginia winemakers for ten years but has grown vines for over 20 years on Sexton Farm, land the family has owned since 1983. On those original 200 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, a short distance off Route 7 in the idyllic town of Round Hill, Dr. Sexton, his wife Jeanne, and three grown children, plus two dogs, have cultivated more than 30 acres under vine. It’s a family affair for which they’ve put out the warmest welcome wagon. And how.
Williams Gap Vineyard officially opened on April 23, the 46th winery open in Loudoun at the time. Z~Oenology was there to help celebrate. That first Friday, the winery was at capacity with sold-out reservations and a packed upper parking lot. Complimentary valet parking was on hand to assist guests in parking a short hike down the hill in the overflow lot.
Given the astonishingly scenic rollercoaster ride driving a short mile up Sexton Farm Lane to the winery, the cordial valets greeting arrivals were a welcome sight. Part of the Snickers Gap wine cluster, there’s nothing quite like Williams Gap Vineyard in Loudoun County and all of Virginia. Bluemont is the most comparable in NOVA, and perhaps Ankida Ridge down in Amherst, both built high on mountainsides with breathtaking views. Yet there’s something indescribably different about Williams Gap.
Turning off Woodgrove Road in the heart of Round Hill, you’ll go through the stone sentry entrance and begin a steep ascent and descent. The road rises to meet you again and again past blocks of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Cab Franc, Petit Manseng, and Vidal Blanc vines interspersed with an upscale housing development. Finally you’ll arrive at a newly built, lodge-style tasting room and pavilion that may transport you to faraway places such as Aspen or Lake Tahoe.
Pairs of Adirondack chairs and four-top café tables flank either side of the tasting room entryway. A hostess greets guests and checks reservations. The open pavilion capped with an endearing wine-loving mermaid weathervane overlooks the valley and distant rolling hills. It’s so diverting, you may regret having to go indoors. But once inside, the ambiance compels you to find a cozy corner and make a day of it. Or an evening.
Williams Gap weekend and Monday holiday hours are noon to 7 pm. Since opening, the winery has become a local watering hole for neighbors and locals. The wine club was initially limited to 50 but filled up quickly, mainly with those living nearby who had watched with interest as Williams Gap expanded from growing grapes for other wineries to producing their own first label in 2019.
At this time, the three 2019 white and three 2019 red labels and the 2020 rosé are made by Rob Cox and Colin Mehaffey, winemakers at Paradise Springs in Clifton. Dr. Sexton hopes to invest in production equipment soon, but for now, the staff is concentrating on establishing a reputation for outstanding wines and stellar hospitality.
Williams Gap hits the bullseye already. Veteran winery manager Bridgette Smith was hired in February to run the tasting room. Bridgette has extensive experience working at Sunset Hills Vineyards in Purcellville and at Greenhill and 50 West in Middleburg. She curated wine experiences for Divine Wine Tours and is WSET Level 2 certified. WSET is a wine educator rating designed for industry professionals and wine enthusiasts using the wine SAT (Systematic Approach to Tasting). They test wines from 22 regionally important varietals across 70 geographical indicators (GIs).
Z~Oenology explored the red selections on the first visit in April. Temps were on the chilly side, but who noticed in such stunning surroundings? Starting with the classic Merlot, working our way to the Cabernet Franc, a Virginia winemaking staple, and a 2019 Red Blend finale, we were impressed.
Forget everything you think you know about Merlot. Not only is it the grape found in many red blends, especially Bordeaux-style such as the Williams Gap 2019, but it stands squarely on its own merits as a go-to red. This Merlot was jammy and smooth as silk, with aromatic notes of wild violet and native woodland florals.
The classic Virginia Cab Franc ideally proves that not all Cab Francs are the same. This one did not disappoint. With notes of kicky spiced chocolate, this wine would hold its own against everything from a BLT made with juicy summer tomatoes to a backyard BBQ or a thick sizzling steak and baked potato, yet would equally complement an unassuming pot of vegetarian chili and cornbread. The 2019 Red Blend, a bold Bordeaux-style and Dr. Sexton’s personal favorite, is what I call a fireside fave: made to be enjoyed alone, invested in a good book, or shared with the ones you love while gathered in front of the hearth.
On a more recent visit to Williams Gap, we were greeted by Bridgette and Allie and the Gap Gal Crew, despite the late hour on a Sunday. It was a sultry summer day that demanded perfectly chilled whites despite the cooling breeze coming down the hilltop vine blocks. The 2019 Petit Manseng and 2019 Vidal Blanc to the rescue.
The Petit Manseng grows well in Virginia’s humid, variably hot and stormy climate. It offered up a floral honeysuckle greeting to the nose followed by flavors of pineapple and apricot chased by a toasty caramel finish reminiscent of finely aged bourbon. The Vidal Blanc was lighter, refreshingly clean and crisp, with subtle notes of stone fruit, lemon zest, and river rock. Don’t roll your eyes. Rock has a definitive taste, a minerality, and the landscape over the 200 plus acres at Sexton Farm is a geologist’s dream.
We took home a bottle of the 2020 rosė, having arrived too late in the day to explore the Rosé Boarding Pass. A popular spring and summer event at Williams Gap, this trip around the world of rosés takes guests on a tasting tour of rosé wine from exotic places like India (where you don’t normally turn to wine tasting), Portugal (better known for Malbec and Port than blush wine), as well as Washington State and California.
The Williams Gap 2020 Rosé is a seductive, soft pink rosé in the French style, made with Cabernet Sauvignon. The notes are reminiscent of rosewater and orange blossom, subtle yet sublime. Imagine opening a bottle to be enjoyed with company and serving a chicken paillard atop a bed of wild mushroom and infused angel hair al fresco. Or finishing what’s left in the fridge (as if) over a Lean Cuisine and some farm-fresh corn on the cob.
After over three months ̶ and ten years ̶ Williams Gap is not a vineyard come lately after all. But it feels like something exciting and new. Venture a bit farther into Loudoun County. Share in the Sextons’ fruits of labors of love and a dream come true. Raise a glass to life, to family, to friendship. Hats off to Jack and Jeanne and family, Bridgette, Allie, and all who are working hard to make a visit to Williams Gap a trip to remember. You’ll be back!