Wine Matching Holiday Food on the Monticello Trail

Dec 22

The week before Thanksgiving, Blue Ridge Wine Excursions (URL) hosted a media tour with myself and participating bloggers Dezel Quillan ( and Frank Morgan (, and Mary Ann Dancisin of the Virginia Wine Gazette (  We visited three Monticello AVA wineries; Blenheim Vineyards, Montdomaine Cellars and Well Hung Vineyards (the last two of which are closed to the public but open to Blue Ridge Wine Excursions’ “Virginia Wine Expert Tour”). We were in search of wines that would pair especially well with turkey and traditional trimmings.

We met to carpool in Charlottesville, and departed in extreme comfort in a Cadillac Escalade SUV. Our first stop was Blenheim Vineyards (close by the now-defunct Kluge Vineyards). Owned by Charlottesville native rock star Dave Matthews, the Blenheim winery is a sustainably-designed winery with gravity-flow processing for energy savings and gentle wine processing, cathedral ceilings, and no obvious trumpeting of its famous owner, a rare example of low-key celebrity in today’s hyper-celebrity culture.

By coincidence, the day we visited there were parking attendants on duty and far more than the usual number of cars even though it was only noon; the Dave Matthews Band was performing at JPJ Arena in nearby Charlottesville that night and the winery was well-prepared for the crowds. (Blenheim usually gets some 300 visitors on the weekend; this time they got some 1500).

Winemaker Kirsty Harmon met us outside to avoid the tasting room crowd, and poured the wines for us while quickly describing them. She describes her house style as “fruit-forward, dry, ready to drink and consumer-friendly”. There is a consistent purity of fruit expression in all the wines. The quality of the 2009 vintage for Virginia white wines was evident; I liked the viognier particularly (rated 87 by the Wine Spectator). My favorite though was the top-of-the-line “Painted White”, which will be a proprietary blend varying each year depending on vintage conditions and available grapes. The 2009 version is completely made of white Rhone Valley grape varieties grown in Virginia; some 62% viognier but also with Roussanne and Marsanne. The wine has a rich texture and a spicy prickly pear quality dominated by these last two grapes, an excellent and exotic food wine.

The 2009 reds are just being released, as the 2008 vintage is starting to sell out. There were two real standouts for me with Blenheim’s reds; the amazingly prototypical syrah ’09 (actually including Grenache and mourvedre), and a juicy, rich, yet elegant Meritage; the Painted Red 2009. Much more approachable and juicier than most of the ’09 Virginia reds now coming out on the market, this drinks well now but will get better over the next 1-3 years. Both wines will be a good match for turkey, chicken or beef. A fun part of the Painted wines is that owner Dave Matthews sketched the old farm boots on the label himself.

We escaped Blenheim before it was overrun by rock/wine fans, and drove south just a few miles to Montdomaine Vineyards (not open to the public). The Montdomaine name may be familiar to those who have been following Virginia wine since the 1980s; it was the most consistently performing label for vinifera wines in the mid to late 1980s, and the 1987 vintage of reserve merlot and cabernet sauvignon were highlights of the early years of Virginia red wines. The chardonnay vines, the first ones planted on the property off Rt. 20, were the first in Albemarle County; the 1985 vintage of same was served at a White House dinner under the first George Bush.

Proprietor Michael Bowles and his gracious wife Lorie met us at their house, with a large picture window view of the chardonnay vines below. Loree served homemade hors d’ouevres brilliantly paired with the wines. He doesn’t make the wines himself; they’re made by Michael Shaps at neighboring Virginia Wine Works. We tasted the ’09 chardonnay (brilliant and resembling petit Chablis, with no obvious oak, lime peel and lots of minerality), then the ’08 viognier (fruit from a vineyard near Bedford) which was as complex and mineral-like as any viognier I’ve tasted outside Condrieu. This is one of the few Virginia viogniers of the ’08 vintage that is not only holding but getting better; a great match for chicken or turkey.

We tasted the current release of ’08 merlot, which was very Right Bank (St. Emilion/Pomerol)-like; subtle, black fruits combined with earth and sage/herb hints, smooth and supple yet dry and crisp. A great match for dark turkey or beef for those who like red wine on an Old World model without gobs of vanilla or oak. We were then treated to a pre-release taste of the brand new label for Montdomaine; the reserve (black label) cabernet sauvignon 2009.

While 2009 was generally a lean vintage in Virginia for reds (especially disappointing for cabernet franc), the late-ripening cabernet sauvignon fared much better. This example was very smooth; not much flavor in its young state, but with firm and smooth tannins, and hints of cassis and spice. Naturally it’s very young now, but surprisingly smooth, supple and accessible, but still firm. It will open nicely over the next year, and provide fine Left Bank (Medoc) drinking pleasure over the next 5-7 years.

We were especially honored and excited to be served a bottle from Michael’s library, a reserve cabernet sauvignon from the legendary 1987 vintage. It was very Bordeaux-like; a bouquet of classic Bordeaux markers like tea leaves, cigar box, cedar and sweet cassis, and smooth tannins with a crisp finish. This isn’t available retail, but shows you what could happen with cabernets from the fine 2007 or 2010 vintage laid down for 20 years or so. It was inspiring to see that this veteran Virginia wine grower is making cabernet sauvignon today as good (probably better) than it was made 33 years ago.

Heading west of Charlottesville, we ended the tour at the Well Hung Vineyards (it was hard to tell; the grapes had already been harvested). Proprietors Bill and Amy Steers met us at their house, located on a ridge running east/west, with the late autumn sun setting over the Blue Ridge Mountains. They are both medical professionals (Amy is a nurse and Bill is also Dr. Steers at the UVA Health Sciences Center; the joke with the name of the vineyard is that he is also head of the Urology Department), and Amy is also the vineyard manager of their five acres of chardonnay and cabernet franc.

They also use Virginia Wine Works’ custom crush services to make their wines. Like Michael Bowles, they are French classicists; the chardonnay (there are two labels) is more Burgundian than West Coast (the regular is like Macon; the “very well hung” is more like Meursault), and the cabernet franc is very Loire Valley-like. The petit verdot/merlot from the ’09 vintage is deep, smooth and rich but still very young. These are very much wines in the European tradition; fresh fruit, bright flavors and crisp acidity to complement food. The petit verdot/merlot wine really seems to epitomize the Virginia wine experience; midway between the West Coast and the Old World, with a blending model you don’t see in that way in either of those places. The ’08 Private Select (only just now released after 2 years in oak) is a ripe, full bodied, rich and ready to drink blend of cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot that is robust yet still elegant; another fine interpretation of Virginia balancing the best of East and West.

I recommend the “Very Well Hung” chardonnay ’09 with turkey or chicken, and the reds with any beef dish or vegetarian with the same kind of sauce/seasoning. The ’09 petit verdot/cabernet franc especially needs to be decanted for half an hour at least to let it evolve and open up but should be more ready by early spring.

We finished tasting the Well Hung wines as the sun set over the Blue Ridge, and took the time to admire the view over a taste of their fine wines as our media tour of wine and food matchings from select Monticello AVA wineries ended.

Here are the tour members thoughts on the best wines for holiday fare:

Mary Ann Dancisin: “My favorite red as a holiday food wine was Blenheim Vineyards Syrah 2009. This crisp, cherry-drenched wine was accented with generous notes of white pepper, making it a great choice for both sweet and savory holiday menus.

For a unique white wine, Montdomaine’s Viognier showed more character and complexity than one usually finds in today’s fashionably easy-to-drink expressions of this grape. Overlapping sensations of apricot, honeysuckle, and melon are balanced by suble almond notes and a minerally tinge that leads into an ultralong, stylish finish. Versatile, and NOT bland!”

Dezel Quillan:”Wines from our trip that I think will work best with holiday fare (ham, poultry, turkey, etc) are as follow:

Blenheim: The Red Table Wine (NV) and Cabernet Franc 2009 are both light and bright with good food friendly acidity and fruit flavors that would compliment holiday dinner fare and not overwhelm. I recommend these wines with anything from poultry, ham, as well as vegetarian dishes.

Montdomaine: The 2008 Merlot has nice up front complex fruit with a silky mid palate and smooth tannins that follow through for a nice clean finish. This wine is well-balanced, very approachable, and its brightness makes it a perfect match for a number of food dishes.

Well Hung: The Cabernet Franc 2009 is a medium bodied wine with moderate acidity that offers dark cherry, spice, and violet notes with raspberry streaks. The palate is round and smooth and would compliment dark meats (turkey) and game dishes.

Here are links to some of the writers/bloggers on this tour and their impressions:;

To experience this tour yourself (in case you’re wondering how “well hung” these grapes were), visit for more information on how to book a “Virginia Wine Expert” tour for you and your friends.

MN Grape Growers Association Enlists Services of Richard Leahy, Bob Mignarri, Tom Payette and Lisa Smiley for their 7th Annual Cold ClimateGrape and Wine Conference February 17-19, 2011

Oct 28

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – Thomas W. Martell, President of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association (MGGA), is pleased to announce the services of four seasoned, experienced and respected wine industry professionals for their upcoming Cold Climate Grape and Wine Conference.The Cold Climate Grape and Wine Conference is a major event for the wine industry in the cold climate states and Canadian provinces.It’s exciting to witness the growth of the cold climate grape & wine industry and the contributions of this conference to that growth trajectory,” says Martell. “The addition of industry luminaries Richard Leahy, Bob Mignarri, Tom Payette and Lisa Smiley bring professionalism and style, plus a tremendous educational opportunity for our conference attendees.” Leahy joins the Cold Climate Grape and Wine Conference with 13 years of experience coordinating the seminar program for Wineries Unlimited. Martell adds, “It was satisfying to witness the rapt attention to the keynote address Leahy gave at the 2010 Cold Climate Conference. Richard Leahy is well-known and respected throughout the wine industry through his former position as the East Coast Editor for Vineyard & Winery Management. We are thrilled to bring his experience and expertise to our conference.”

“I’m very pleased to work with my accomplished colleagues Lisa and Bob, with the MGGA Board and the Board’s Conference Co-chairs Terri Savaryn and Rudy Jungwirth,” says Leahy. “When I gave the keynote address this year and every seat was taken at 8:30 a.m., I knew this conference was a must-attend for the many members of the cold climate wine industry. Their energy and enthusiasm are inspiring, and I’m glad to contribute my skills and experience to build the reputation of this conference.”

Bob Mignarri, owner of Quality Event Management, has more than 28 years of experience producing trade shows.  He formerly collaborated with Leahy on the well-known Wineries Unlimited Conference as its Trade show manager. His dedication helped grow the trade show from 34 exhibitors in 1994 to 221 exhibitors last year. “We became aware of Bob’s professionalism within the wine industry and among its suppliers through his work with Wineries Unlimited. We’re confident that his networking and expertise will help take our trade show to the next level,” says Martell.

Lisa Smiley, member of the MGGA, and a Board member of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture, Eastern Section, is no stranger to the Cold Climate Grape and Wine Conference, serving as conference director in 2006 and 2007.  “Lisa is a familiar leader in the cold climate grape and wine industry,” explains Martell. “She is enthusiastic about sharing her expertise. She and Richard complement one another in terms of ideas, energy and their passion for the wine and grape industry.”

The MGGA is also excited by the debut of a day-long workshop Thursday, Feb. 17 on “Starting Your Winery Successfully Step-by-Step”, chaired and moderated by winemaking consultant Tom Payette. A frequent speaker at the Wineries Unlimited trade show, Payette is well-known and respected in the Eastern wine industry, and writes a technical column for Vineyard & Winery Management magazine.

About the Cold Climate Grape and Wine Conference:

The focus for the three day Cold Climate Grape and Wine Conference is on the opportunities and challenges facing growers and vintners in the Upper Midwest and other cold climate growing areas. It features three concurrent seminar tracks covering viticulture, enology and marketing plus a trade show and a half-day evening program for those new to or just entering the wine industry. The 2011 Cold Climate Grape and Wine Conference will be held at the Sheraton Bloomington Hotel from February 17-19.  Last year’s 450+ conference attendees represented 16 states, WashingtonD.C. and three provinces. Attendance is expected to grow 15% in 2011. Online registration and more conference details will be available at

About the MGGA:

The Minnesota Grape Growers Association was founded in 1976 and is dedicated to advancing the art and science of growing grapes and producing wine in cold climates. Current membership is over 700 and represents growers, wineries, suppliers and enthusiasts from Minnesota, the upper Midwest, eastern USA and Canada.  In addition to its annual Cold Climate Grape & Wine Conference, the Association sponsors educational workshops, tours, and tastings, and co-sponsors the International Cold Climate Wine Competition. For more information visit:

Virginia Makes a Major Impression on Influential Circle of Wine Writers

Oct 12

A montage of photos from the circle visit courtesy of 'Photography by'.

During the second week of September, ten members of the respected and influential Circle of Wine Writers visited Virginia wine country on a carefully pre-planned trip. The Circle is an association of wine media professionals organized and headquartered in the U.K. but with members worldwide (including this writer). The itinerary included 11 winery visits, two regional tastings with over 150 wines, several dinners with exquisitely matched food and Virginia wine, and 600 miles of driving through the idyllic Virginia countryside, including visits to Monticello and Williamsburg.

The Circle members comprising this delegation were all from the U.K. except one Canadian, but have a variety of writing venues and industry disciplines. They included: David Copp (journalist and author), Quentin Sadler (educator and writer), Peter F May (writer and author), Steven Morris and Mick Rock (wine-theme photographers), Irvin Wolkoff (writer and broadcaster), Kathy Burk (writer and author), Christos Ioannou (lecturer), Neville Blech (Director, “Wine Behind the Label”), and Susan Hulme MW, panel chairman of the International Wine Challenge wine competition.

Virginia wines made an official debut in the U.K. in 2007 with the Virginia Wine Experience in London, attended by Circle members who got the word out to their colleagues. Christopher Parker, who worked on the organization of this Circle visit, owns New Horizon Wines which exports Virginia wine to the U.K. The Circle has an official annual trip to a wine region each year, and thanks to the increasing reputation for Virginia wine in the U.K., Virginia was chosen as the destination this year. Parker and Annette Boyd, Executive Director of the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, collaborated in organizing the trip (with assistance from this writer) after getting approval from the Virginia Wine Board.

A Busy Itinerary
The Circle members flew into Dulles airport, spending the first few nights at the Westin Hotel in Reston, and visiting wineries in Northern Virginia Monday and Tuesday September 6th and 7th  which included Veramar, Boxwood, Breaux, Rappahannock, Linden and RDV (opening this spring).  Following a regional wine tasting at the Ashby Inn in Paris, VA Tuesday evening, they drove to Central Virginia, visiting wineries around Charlottesville including White Hall, Barboursville, Veritas and Kluge, with another regional dinner at Keswick Hall September 8th, attended by the First Lady Maureen McConnell and Secretary of Agriculture Todd Haymore. Thursday between vineyard visits they toured and had lunch at  Monticello, then drove to Wedmore Place, a luxury hotel in Williamsburg, visiting the Williamsburg Winery on Friday and finishing by touring the restored colonial area.

Twenty-plus area wineries poured one white and red wine each at the regional tastings. These wines were not pre-screened, yet this writer tasted no duds; in fact I was amazed at the consistently high level of quality across the regions and the grape varieties and vintages. The dinners at these tastings featured several courses carefully matched with Virginia wines from the local region, and were among the best food and wine pairing dinners I’ve ever had.

Lots of Praise for Virginia Wines and the Industry
Because the English have a preference for classic “Old World” wine styles with bright acidity, low alcohol and moderate oak, trip organizers felt the Circle members would appreciate, as I described to Circle members, that “Virginia is stylistically and geographically between the Old World and the West Coast.” Our hunch was borne out well; the Circle members remarked on the freshness and balance in the wide range of wines they tasted from norton to petit manseng and everything in between.

Writer Peter May commented on Virginia’s search for the best varietals to match its terroirs; “Viognier and Petit Manseng are the white stars, while Bordeaux varieties are making excellent blends and the two most successful–Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot – are shining as varietal wines. And honorable mention must be made to Virginia’s own variety, Norton.” Remarked Neville Blech, “It was interesting to note how Cabernet Franc, Viognier and Petit Verdot are producing benchmark wines in the Virginian style which is what I believe that you wish to be noted for, but we certainly came across a number of good Chardonnays, Merlots and Bordeaux blends which would have done credit to producers in many other parts of the world. And Petit Manseng might do for Virginia what Malbec has done for Argentina, for example, by giving it a lift out of the dull and ordinary that you might find in France.”

While vintners were proud to show off their Petit Verdot wines and blends, the Circle members enthusiastically embraced varietal Cabernet Franc, being familiar with it from the Loire Valley in France. A variety of styles from the cool Loire-like 2008 vintage, to the rich and opulently extracted 2007 vintage, all found favor with the Circle members. Continues Blech, “Certainly, we have appreciated the differences in the wines between yourselves and your cousins in California and the emergence of a particular Virginian ‘style’ that embraces the best of both the European and Californian genre.”

While Circle members found many wines they liked, even more impressive was the high consistency of wine quality, and the sense that they were discovering a fine wine region largely unknown on the world stage until now. In addition, their positive impressions of the Virginia countryside and historical sites led them to be impressed with Virginia’s potential for European-oriented wine tourism.

The only thing he knew about the Virginia wine industry prior to the trip, revealed Irvin Wolkoff of Toronto, was “that it existed.” Expecting a feeble imitation of West Coast style or “nice try” wines as he’s seen elsewhere in the East, instead he found “A wave of consistently good (and, frequently, excellent) wines with lovely European structure and elegance.  Add the good food, the lovely Edenic countryside and the warm hospitable people, and you’ve got an irresistible tourist destination.  Nice work!”

A Future for Wine Tourism in Virginia
Writer David Copp declared “We were both surprised and delighted at the sheer quality of many of the wines we tasted.  Some of which were not just good, they were outstanding and herald a great future for the region which, in terms of its vinifera vineyards, is yet so young.  We also enjoyed visiting Monticello and Williamsburg.  There is a lot to report on and hopefully we can support your tourist board in attracting visitors to Virginia to see for themselves.’

Writer Peter May had similar impressions: “I was utterly captivated by Virginia: its scenery, history, people and wines.  Up to now the natural destination for those interested in American wines has been California.  However Virginia has the advantage–for Europeans–of being much closer and having wines that are restrained and elegant. Virginia’s wine industry is very young, despite a history leading back to [Colonial times]. Now it has the feeling of a region on the cusp of a huge presence on the world stage.”

Christopher Parker of New Horizon Wines felt the trip was very successful in having achieved its goal of impressing the Circle members with the many fine qualities of the Virginia wine industry. “I started planning this trip one year ago after discussions with Steven Spurrier, John Radford, and other members of Circle of Wine Writers,” he explains. “I am delighted that with the support and commitment from the Board, all of the wineries involved in this tour, Keswick Hall, Westin Reston Heights, The Ashby Inn, 1804 Inn, and Wedmore Place, we have succeeded in telling a very rich story. This is an important stepping stone in the development of the international market.”

This article is part of national “Drink Local Wine” week. For more information, visit to hold 3rd Annual Regional Wine Week October 10-16

Sep 15

Regional Wine Week is set to feature some of the best writing about regional wine from some of the best wine writers in the country.  This year, for the first time, Regional Wine Week will include a haiku contest, in which wine drinkers from across the United States can submit haiku about their favorite regional wine.  The winning entries will be posted on the Facebook page.  Let’s face it…who doesn’t have the urge to “Un Cork and Haiku” when the seasons begin to change.

During Regional Wine Week, writers from across the US post musings and discoveries about their favorite regional and local wines, wineries and events to their blogs, websites, magazines and newspapers.  Then, the DLW website aggregates all that information, giving consumers a one-stop-shop to see what’s cutting edge in regional wine.  Over the past two years, writers from across the country have covered dozens of states.  Check out posts from 2008 Regional Wine Week and 2009 Regional Wine Week.

The only rule?  That the blog or article be about something that isn’t from California, Washington or Oregon.  Anyone, whether professional wine writer or not, can submit a story to be linked to on the DLW website.

The haiku contest is equally as simple.  Just write a haiku — three lines of poetry with five, seven and five syllables in each line — about your favorite regional wine, winery, event or personality and email it to DLW.

Drinking Texas wine
leaves me with a feeling that
much is possible.

- Jeff Siegel, DLW co-founder &
proprietor of the top 100 blog, The Wine Curmudgeon

While this invitation may seem informal and you’re having a hard time making the connection between Japanese tradition to Norton, we say ‘Give it a try!’  The other “new release” to be celebrated is the invite to “MEET US IN ST LOUIS” for the 2011 Conference.  If being the first to know doesn’t inspire a Haiku, we don’t know what will…
For more information about Regional Wine Week or to submit a story link or haiku, email DLW at or call 978.276.9463.

35th VA Wine Festival This Weekend 9/18-19

Sep 13

The Virginia Wine Festival has grown to become the #1 tasting event in Virginia-featuring over 400 varieties of wine, paired with gourmet food offerings, a juried arts show, and unbeatable musical entertainment.
As the longest-running wine festival on the East Coast, the Virginia Wine Festival has become a Grand Commonwealth Tradition and a wine enthusiasts’ paradise.

The Virginia Wine Festival takes place this weekend September 18-19 at the centrally-located Bull Run Park Special Events Center. For more information, visit

Two New VA Wineries Open

Aug 13

Two Saturdays in a row (August 7th and 14th) saw the official public openings of two new Virginia wineries; DuCard Vineyards in northern Madison County, near Old Rag Mountain; and WindSong Winery, in Columbia, VA, between Richmond and Charlottesville.

DuCard’s owner and winegrower Scott Eliff describes the operation as “A hobby gone wild”, and sold grapes to neighboring wineries for the past decade before deciding to become a winery. The tasteful chalet-style winery is spacious, welcoming and relaxing, with an outdoor patio furnished with wrought iron tables, chairs and umbrellas with views of the green slopes of the Shenandoah National Park with Old Rag nearby.

The product line focuses on strong suits for Virginia; two versions of viognier, a red Bordeaux blend of cabernet franc and petit verdot, a norton, and a dessert vidal (all except the vidal are estate grown on the winery’s 7 acres of vineyards). There’s an emphasis on sourcing materials locally and on sustainability. Some examples include sustainable farming with as little chemical spray use as possible (“lutte raisonee”), use of reclaimed hardwoods through Mountain Lumber Co. in Ruckersville, and use of foster dogs through the SPCA to keep the deer away during harvest. Eliff also points out that DuCard is the first Virginia winery to be 100% solar powered.

Eliff also teaches a canopy management course through Piedmont Va. Community College using his vineyard as the classroom, for their Workforce Services wine industry professional development program. Aspiring winegrowers “adopt a row” to manage through the growing season.

WindSong’s ownership team includes Jim and Sherry Ramey, Bob Blansfield and David Terrill.  The winery’s first releases include Dornfelder (a red German crossing), a light bodied peach wine as well as a round plum wine. By focusing in small production lots, the winemaker uses old school techniques to extract the full flavor profile from the grape.

The tasting experience at both DuCard and WindSong is laid back and peaceful, designed to integrate the visitor with the gentle landscape.

DuCard Vineyards is roughly halfway between Sperryville and Madison off Rt. 231, following Rt. 643 from Etlan then briefly on Rt. 719. DuCard is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays plus Monday holidays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and by appointment. For more information visit or call 540.923.4206.

WindSong is located 50 miles west of Richmond and 40 miles east of Charlottesville. Starting August 14th, WindSong will be open weekends from 11 am to 5 pm. For more information visit or call (804) 457-2865.