Exploring Virginia Wine Country: The Birthplace of American Wine

Virginia, the fifth largest wine producing state in the U.S., now has over 193 wineries in production and 22 wine trails to explore. And what better place to start your tour than where it all began? In 1807 Thomas Jefferson, often called America’s first wine connoisseur, planted grapes at Monticello imagining his home state would make great wines to rival those of Europe. Now you can visit the Monticello Wine Trail around Charlottesville in central Virginia, the Birthplace of American Wine.

On Saturday morning 23 July, as part of the North American Wine Bloggers Conference, we hit the trail. Attendees boarded numbered buses, not knowing their destination, to visit wineries on the Monticello Wine Trail. My bus #3 turned out to be a fantastic pick giving me the chance to visit two favorite wineries and a new discovery just 10 miles south of Charlottesville.

* Virginia Wineworks 

Our first stop was Michael Shaps and Philip Stafford’s warehouse in the country, home to Virginia Wineworks and Michael Shaps Wines. Michael, who trained in France and currently has a winery there, came to Virginia in 1995 as winemaker for Jefferson Vineyards. After five vintages he started consulting and began his own Michael Shaps label in partnership with King Family Vineyards before moving his wine making to Virginia Wineworks.

Michael and Philip started Virginia Wineworks in 2007 to meet the need for value oriented Virginia wines. They produce a Chardonnay, Viognier, Rosé, Cabernet Franc and Red (65% Cabernet Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon), and now the only ‘bag in a box’ wine in the state, equivalent of four bottles at a cost of $30. Michael’s Michael Shaps label is higher end Virginia wines. He believes ‘wine is made in the vineyard’ so he naturally ferments using no yeast. The label has a Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Meritage and Raisin d’Entre. No vineyards to see here. Michael believes in finding the best location for the right wine variety so they buy by the acre and work with the owners and growers.

The winery is also the first in Virginia to offer a custom crush operation allowing individuals and other wineries to produce their wines here. Of the 15,000 cases produced by the winery annually, 13,000 are custom crush.

In their rustic tasting room, so rustic in fact you can sip and spit right onto the floor drain, we had a good time as Michael tasted us through the full line of both labels. My favorites?

  • Michael Shaps Viognier 2008: great example of Virginia Viognier done well, $32
  • Wineworks Rosé: nice pink fruit forward picnic wine; blend of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot; $12
  • Michael Shaps Petit Verdot 2008: up and coming grape variety in Virginia; heavy tannins, earthy, floral; $32

You can visit their tasting room daily 11am to 5pm.

* First Colony Vineyards

For our second stop just down the road from Virginia Wineworks, Jason Hayman, the 26-year-old winemaker, greeted us for a tasting in their tasting room of six wines: 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009 Petit Verdot Estate Reserve, 2008 Meritage Blend, 2010 Seyval Blanc and 2009 Chardonnay. The winery produced their first vintage in 2002, and after apprenticing here, Jason has made the 2009 vintages forward. My favorite?

  • Petit Verdot Estate Reserve 2009: 100% fruit from their vineyards; black pepper and wild blackberry taste; $24

Their welcoming tasting room is open Monday-Friday 10am to 6pm, Saturday-Sunday 11am to 6pm.

* Blenheim Vineyards

Our last stop is my favorite winery! They rolled out the red carpet for us with a mid-day wine tasting, tour and lunch. Kirsty Harmon, Winemaker and General Manager, and her team happily greeted us at the barn with their fantastic Rosé and a snack of gazpacho with fresh made bread and goat cheese. The perfect welcome on a hot summer day!

Blenheim was started in 2000 by Dave Matthews (yes, the Dave) and the first grapes were planted in 1999. The winery and vineyard are a gorgeous! Dave and his mom, an architect, designed the a-frame wooden structure with upstairs tasting room and downstairs cellar. You can see the cellar’s barrels and tanks from the tasting room thanks to glass flooring. From the deck you can enjoy sweeping views of the Albemarle countryside. The winery makes 5,000 cases per year from their ten acres and they get 50% of their grapes from growers across the state.

Kirsty joined Blenheim in 2008. Her winemaking philosophy is to make wines that are approachable, balanced and drinkable now. She also introduced the screw top bottle to all their wines when she joined. After training in New Zealand and France, she was exposed to early 1990 wines aged in screw top that were all fabulous. No risk of cork tainting. She was sold.

Why is this my favorite? First, every wine I’ve tasted of Kirsty’s is great. You don’t often have that experience with a winery. No matter what you like, they have one for your taste. Second, Kirsty is super cool, knowledgeable, a University of Virginia graduate and apprentice of Gabriele Rausse, the father of modern Virginia wine.

We tasted six more Blenheim wines over a bbq lunch in the library with special guest Gabriele: the 2009 Blenheim Farm Chardonnay, 2010 Viognier, 2009 Seven Oaks Merlot, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and just bottled 2010 Syrah. My favorites?

  • Rosé 2010: 100% Merlot; bright pink color, fragrance of banana and rose with light, crisp taste, $14
  • Chardonnay 2010: aroma and taste of pear and honey, very little oak, $15

When on this part of the Monticello Wine Trail, you can also stop by Jefferson Vineyards.

While you’re here, why not make a weekend of it? Central Virginia, only 2 1/2 hours south of Washington, DC, is beautiful with over 20 wineries on the Monticello Wine Trail and Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia. I love to stay at the Boars Head Inn. The Omni is a central point close to great restaurants like Brookville Restaurant (225 Main Street) and Maya (633 W. Main Street). And definitely make time to visit Jefferson’s home, Monticello, the namesake of the wine trail. They have a great wine weekend itinerary on their site as well.

Two other clusters of the Monticello Wine Trail have great wineries worth visiting…King Family Vineyards, Veritas Winery and Afton Mountain Vineyards west of Charlottesville and Barboursville Vineyards, Keswick Vineyards and Horton Cellars to the north.

Cheers to Virginia, the Birthplace of American Wine!

* This is the second in a series of articles I wrote for Snooth as winner of their Wine Itinerary Contest held in July for attendees of the Wine Bloggers Conference.