On Saturday September 15th, the renovated former Sweely Estate Winery now called Early Mountain Vineyards and owned by Steve and Jean Case of America Online, held its formal opening for “friends and family”, the media, and state officials including Governor and Mrs. McDonnell and Secretary of Agriculture Todd Haymore.
Re-Discovering, and Committing to Virginia Wine
Guests enjoyed lunch sourced from local farms and the newly released 2011 pinot gris and 2008 merlot under the Early Mountain label, along with the Thibaut-Janisson sparkling Virginia chardonnay. Jean Case, the winery owner, explained that the couple had lived in Virginia for 30 years, AOL having been founded 27 years ago, and were not impressed with Virginia wines in the 1990s. Through the experiences of joining the high-end wine club of Harlan Estate in Napa Valley, and enjoying wines from around the world, they began to wonder about the current state of Virginia wines, and about two years ago, took a tour of wineries in the Charlottesville area. They were amazed with what they tasted, and seeing the potential for world-class wine in Virginia, began to search for a way to join the industry and make their own contribution.
A year ago, they learned about the Sweely Estate Winery being up for sale and bought the vineyard and winery on Wolftown Road near Madison. While their debut wines are impressive (see tasting notes below), their attitude of comraderie and commitment to the industry is even more so. A key distinguishing feature of the business plan and product line is their “Best of Virginia” program which offers customers wines from top vineyards across the state, selectaed by sommelier Michelle Gueydan, such as Breaux, Linden and Barboursville Vineyards among others. Likewise, they offer items on the menu and for sale in their market sourced from Virginia farms and artisan vendors across the state.
Steve Case explains that there are five pillars (starting with ‘p’s) to Early Mountain Vineyards: the portfolio of top wines from across the state; the place (newly remodeled with 30 acres of vineyards and state-of-the-art processing equipment); the passion of the Cases and their staff for offering the best local food, wine and winery experience to their visitors; the welcome and care shown by their people, and finally, their purpose; in an inspiring attitude of giving back, all of their realized profits will go towards strengthening the Virginia wine industry “and the community’s continued growth, innovation, adaptation and learning.” The Cases explain that Virginia is such an important part of who they are, “we are honored to have the opportunity to give back to a place that has given us so much.”
Governor McDonnell, who with his wife Maureen have been tireless champions of Virginia wine, praised the Cases for their generosity and vision for the potential of Virginia wine.
Some Things Old, Some Things New
Under Jean Case, the large, dark and frankly intimidating tasting room you may remember from Sweely Estate has been transformed. The large stack stone fireplace is gone and the tasting room is open and lighter with a friendlier, more relaxed and airy feel. Frantz Ventre continues as Head Winemaker under the new ownership at Early Mountain, and the vineyard is being fine-tuned with re-plantings of certain blocks. Lucie Morton, renowned viticulture consultant, was hired to assist with evaluation and overhauling of the vineyards. “I was surprised to hear Lucie say when I asked her for what she thought Virginia’s top grapes were, she said ‘we’re still finding out,’” says Jean. She revels the prospect of helping explore and discover what the “new generation” of top Virginia grapes could be.
Early Mountain Debut Releases
- Pinot Gris 2011: A perfect balance between the crisp grigio and fleshier gris styles. Light hints of melon and pineapple on the nose and palate, with a juicy, creamy mid-palate followed by a zesty crisp finish. Elegant and versatile.
- Chardonnay 2011: Very impressive for the vintage. Fine apple and pear fruit on the nose with a dash of lemon/lime citrus. On the palate, solid apple and pear fruit, round and concentrated but without the popcorn and butter flavors so popular in California chardonnay. The broad mid-palate gives way to a long, clean finish. Stylish example of Virginia chardonnay.
- Merlot 2008: This wine was in tank for three years awaiting bottling following its oak barrel aging. It’s a treat, since the other 2008 wines are almost all gone or fading. A fine vintage for Virginia merlot, this wine is a bit slow to start and needs decanting or airing to open it up, but is richly supple with lots of black fruits and a fine mocha finish with crisp clean acidity. I’d like to see this in a blind tasting against fine French St. Emilion and Pomerols.
Clearly, the new Early Mountain Vineyards has made an impressive start on the Virginia wine scene, not merely in their fine wines but in their sharing and generous attitude which other newcomers (and some old timers) can learn from.