The Best of Virginia Wine — Virginia Wine Country Keeps Getting Better
Earlier this month my brother Jonathan and I had an opportunity to visit Early Mountain Vineyards in northwestern Virginia, a couple of hours from Washington, DC. Just a few years ago Jon introduced me to the burgeoning Virginia winemaking scene when we visited few of the other some 200 wineries that dot the region including Barboursville Vineyards, Horton Vineyards and others. I was impressed by both the wines and the tenacity of the vineyard owners and winemakers who, unlike their brethren in Napa Valley and other California wine regions, are challenged with inconsistent climate year after year. In California when winemakers complain about a bad year they tend to forget the string of the previous five great years. As the tasting room crew hustled to bring in cushions from the lounge chairs sitting on the terrace of the expansive tasting room and restaurant, dark billowing clouds moved in briskly and in a crash of thunder our beautiful day of sunshine in the Virginia wine country changed to pounding sheets of rain. At the corner of the tasting room bar, Early Mountain’s assistant winemaker Steve Monson contemplated this years harvest—which comes much earlier in Virginia than on the West coast.
Wine tasting at Early Mountain Vineyards
Wine tasting at Early Mountain Vineyards is unlike perhaps other wineries in the area and perhaps most wineries in California and elsewhere. Instead of bellying up to the bar and trying to capture the attention of a “bartender” to get a pour of the next wine, visitors are prompted to choose from either four different flights or wines, or choose an ala carte sampling of their own desire. Once a decision is made, visitors are invited to sit at any of the tables, comfy club chairs or sofas and a server delivers the wine to the table—the entire flight. This means wine tasters can relax, taste and compare the wines side-by-side. Winemaker notes are provided, but if visitors have questions, servers and even the wineries sommelier is always available to provide more information on the vineyard, winemaking technique or even the owners of Early Mountain, who are Steve and Jean Case. Steve Case was the founder of AOL and the man behind one of the most controversial mergers in US history – AOL and Time-Warner. By the feel, food and hospitality at Early Mountain I assure you this is a winner and clearly a project of passion by the Cases.
Early Mountain Vineyards is not just about making and selling wine. Case understands that to heighten awareness, build credibility and highlight the areas unique viticultural features, it’s important to promote the Virginia wine country. It’s here that Early Mountain truly distinguishes itself from nearly any winery I’ve visited. Not only can visitors taste Early Mountain wines, but also wines from about a dozen other Virginia wineries. Early Mountain calls these alternative offerings “Best of Virginia” partnerships. These are not just different varietals, but many of these wines “compete” with each other. But here’s where Case understands wine even more. By highlighting different partner wineries visitors have a chance to taste differences in microclimates, soil and winemaking techniques. Visitors who have a good experience at Early Mountain will be encouraged to not only consider visiting other wineries in the region, but ideally be more open to choosing a Virginia label on restaurant wine lists.
As noted, the tasting room is spacious and comfortable, with a large fireplace in the middle likening it to a ski lodge. There is even a basket of board games and toys for kids to play while the grownups enjoy food and wine. There is a modest kitchen that prepares tasty paninis, tapas, lamb tacos, and other small plates from mostly local Virginia sourced fresh ingredients. There’s a small and understated retail area that doesn’t get in the way nor make you feel like everything is for sale, but it too focuses on locally produced products and therefore reinforcing the importance of promoting the region.
An outdoor terrace looks out over the vineyards and the surrounding Blue Ridge foothills and a lower level features a large room perfect for special events. Early Mountain even offers a guest cottage for those looking for a getaway in the wine country.
Small plates include locally made cheese and different types of Virginia ham.
We had a chance to taste not only the Early Mountain wines, but several of the partner wines as well. Here are just a few of the highlights:
2012 Early Mountain Vineyards Pinot Gris (323 cases) — crisp, clean and very aromatic with melon and tropical fruit flavors
2011 Early Mountain Vineyards Chardonnay (360 cases)- light, but wonderfully round with nice mouth feel with flavors of green apple, citrus and a hint of oak
2011 Early Mountain Vineyards Viognier — perhaps my favorite wine of the tasting, slightly flinty with depth and body and apricot and fig notes
2012 Early Mountain Vineyards Block 11, Petit Manseng — I never had domestic petit mensang before (many of the wines from France’s Languedoc are made or blended from this varietal), this Virginia Early Mountain Vineyard special bottling of Petit Manseng included about 30% Muscat, and was the most expressive and aromatic of all the white wines we tasted, good acidity and viscosity making for a wonderful mouthfeel and a great food wine.
2011 Barboursville Vineyards Cabernet Franc Reserve — a wonderful fruit forward wine from one of the oldest wineries in the region, flavors of ripe plum, dark cherry and strong but smooth tannins, evidence this wine can lay down for a few years.
The team at Early Mountain Vineyards provided incredible service, attentiveness and yet were noninvasive and let us taste, nibble and discuss the wines as if we were sitting in our own home. If you happen to find yourself in Virginia stop in to Early Mountain Vineyards and say hi to Sally, Sarah and Chris — tell them Allan and Jonathan sent you, they’ll take good care of you.
Much of the wine produced at Early Mountain Vineyards is estate grown. New vines have been planted and production will increase as will diversity of the estate offerings.
Early Mountain Vineyards borrows from industrial manufacturing techniques with a overhead track that allows for more efficient and gentle winemaking.
Assistant winemaker Steve Monson shows Jonathan Karl the Early Mountain temperature controlled barrel room. “We’ve got room to grow.”
Early Mountain Vineyards 6109 Wolftown-Hood Road Madison, VA 22727 540-948-9005