Thomas Jefferson would be so pleased with what Steve Case (the founder of AOL) is doing for Virginia wines. Jefferson had wanted the state to developed a viticulture, and indeed wine has been produced in the area since the early days of European colonization in the 17th century, but due to the Revolutionary War, and then the American Civil War, it never really got fully established. In the past few decades Virginia has really matured as a wine state. Several of their wines have won awards over much more established wineries from France and Italy and northern California. This has gotten noticed of the wine enthusiasts everywhere.
Steve Case owns a vineyard and winery at 6109 Wolftown-Hood Rd, Madison, VA 22727, which is located between historical Charlottesville and Washington DC, called Early Mountain. He is taking a different approach than the other local wineries, and is representing many of Virginia’s wine alongside his own. All the proceeds of his winery are being directed toward strengthening Virginia’s wine industry. His tasting room is really like the Ambassador to the world where he is showcasing to the world many of Virginia’s spectacular wines from a variety of different Virginia wineries.
Virginia’s weather can be challenging to viticulture, and only within the last twenty years has the industry developed beyond novelty status. By tonnage, Vitis vinifera varieties represents 75% of total production. French hybrids varieties account for nearly 20% of total wine grape production in the state, while American varietals make up only about 5% of the total. As of 2012, the top 5 varietals produced are Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Vidal blanc and Viognier.
Why are Virginia wines more chic than California, French and Italian wines? Among the UHNW that can have anything it is hard to stand out from their peers. The new chic among the UHNW is to serve excellent small batch wines from boutique wineries and Virginia is the perfect place to find them.
In 2012 there were over 230 Virginia wineries. Almost all of these are small, family-owned vineyards and wineries, and only the very largest have developed distribution networks. As a result, the wineries rely on wine tourism and direct sales for most of their revenue. Dinner parties are made more special with exquisite small batch wines from boutique wineries, instead of the mass produced and distributed wines of the big establish houses that can be purchased in any wine store. Virginia is not growing enough grapes to support the number of wineries and this is forcing the grape prices upward, but still the quality of the wines, at the price point makes them a bargain when compared to the commercialized big brand names with mass distribution. It has become the new chic among the wealthier, to stock their cave’s with excellent, but little known, small batch wines, making them more exclusive.
The UK has always had a symbiotic relationship with the US and particularly the state of Virginia, so it is no wonder that the UK is the second fasted growing country outside of the US for Virginia wine sales.
Early Mountain Vineyard/Winery is a large and beautifully maintained. Steve Case purchased the vineyard (established in 2008) in 2010 and invested $1.6 million mostly in refurbishment. The tasting room is large with lots of small pockets of comfortable conversational seating. It is a marriage between the rustic old and the new contemporary. They have a small store where Virginia items can be purchased from peanuts to wines.
Their tastings are done in flights of 4 wines each with a 2 oz. pour (so about a glass and a half total) and range in price from $12 to $18 with the option of 4 different groupings/flights. One flight was cider (another Virginia product) that is processed in the same way wine is, just using apples instead of grapes. I did two of the four tasting options. I chose the “Fall in Love” Flight because it was the only one that feature exclusively wines from their vineyard. They only have one red (named Handshake Red) which is a Bordeaux blend, due to the young age of the vineyard. In the first flight there was 4 excellent wines. I would give them all a 5 out of 5 ranking. It consisted of a 2011 Chardonnay, 2012 Pinot Gris, 2012 Block 11 which is a blend of two grapes , and 2012 Malbac Merlot Rose. The second flight tasting I did was “Get your Red On!” which I think is very self-explanatory and contained no wines from Early Mountain. They served a Barboursville Nebbiolo Reserve (I did a feature on this winery), a Ankida Ridge Rockgarden Cellars, a Granit Heights 2011 Humility Blend, and an excellent Sunset Hills 2012 Rose of Chambourcin. The extraordinary color and the taste of this second rose was something special and a must try.
The staff was very knowledgeable and had a real sense of pride about working there. They were accommodating and friendly and well trained in customer service . They have a small restaurant that serves only local Virginia produce. It is not a formal restaurant like Barboursville’s Palladio, and it is food cooked onsite and local (not frozen mass produced) so much nicer than Trumps food offerings. In style I would say it is more comparison to Pippin Hill Winery, but the food at Early Morning was even better. I had the Porcini Mushroom Ravioli with Parmesan Cream and the Ham and Brie Panini with the Virginia Spicy Plum Chutney. It was excellent. Everyone was very pleased with their meal. We had one person in our group with a fatal food allergy and the chef accommodated by making up a special batch to ensure it being safe. This level of accommodation is luxury. I was most impressed with the ease in which they accommodated the customer, instead of expecting the customer to mold to their format. This is always a sign of quality.
In the summer months when the tasting room’s hours are longer they get a regular after work crowd. This is unusual for a winery to become almost like a local bar. Most of their patrons on Friday and Saturday nights are either from Charlottesville or Washington DC. The small little clicks have even got their preferred spots at the beautifully appointed venue.
With excellent wine options from all over Virginia, great local food, accommodating staff, beautiful vista and a great cozy place to socialize, there was really nothing not to like. If you had just one day to sample Virginia luxury offerings, Early Mountain, might just be your perfect selection. It is located near several other wineries like historical Barboursville for those wanting to explore multiple wineries.
Kudos to Steve Case for his excellent work to promote the wine industry in Virginia and creating such an outstanding luxury Virginian experience.