Friday, April 5, 2013

Chocolate Cheese and Empty Tombs

Give me a reason for a road trip and a new CD and I'm in heaven.

Today I put the pedal to the floor and headed east to Hague, a place I hadn't heard of, but one which is home to three wineries.

Conveniently, I had an assignment to wrote about all three.

Given the sunny skies and open fields, it was an easy drive despite being unfamiliar territory.

Listening to Twin Shadow's "Confess" and passing rural statements like a church sign saying, "Easter surprise! The tomb is empty!" and a gas station marquee with "Come on, Spring!" made for a most pleasurable hour and a half cruise.

My first stop was the Hague Winery where the owner poured for me and told me about all the interesting places to eat and drink in the neighborhood.

I learned about chardonel, a hybrid varietal with which I was not familiar, tasted the 2009 Merlot along with some Old Church Creamery chocolate cheese (yep, that's what it was alright) and a luscious Meritage reserve I'd have bought a case of if I could have afforded it.

Other visitors came in and joined in the conversation about nearby wineries and what there is to do in the area.

One couple from upstate New York was staying at Westmoreland State Park and making a day of winery hopping.

Another came in and didn't bother with a tasting, cutting right to full glasses and a table with a view.

After chatting for a while, the owner offered to show me their guest house, a place they rent out for visitors.

The 19th century building had been converted to a charming space for a 2-4 and, as I pointed out, you can't go wrong with a winery on the premises.

As I was getting ready to leave, one of the couples asked for directions to General's Ridge Winery a few miles away, coincidentally just where I was heading.

I got delayed by the winery dog, a sweet, old thing who wanted nothing more than to walk beside me where ever I went.

Which was to my car to drive the few miles to my next vineyard.

Walking up to General's Ridge tasting room, I spotted one of the couples from The Hague and they waved hello.

"What took you so long?" they laughed.

Um, going the speed limit?

This winery had far more extensive plantings and two tasting rooms, the smaller of which used old doors from the manor house as the counter tops for the tasting bar.

After meeting the owner inside, we headed down to the smaller tasting room to talk, causing one of the women I'd seen at The Hague to say, "You just walk in a winery and grab a man wherever you go!"

Well, yes, when I can, I certainly do.

It was great fun talking to the owners about their decision to start a winery, with the Mrs. telling me, "I told him we'd only do it over my dead body. But I'm still here!"

They told me how they were originally going to build a boys' school there but when their benefactor died, they regrouped.

We lingered so long sharing stories that I didn't have time for a tasting, so I made sure to get some grape to go, scoring a bottle of their General's Nightcap, a petit manseng dessert wine that was delightfully tropical rather than cloying.

"Have some before bed," the owner suggested. "You'll sleep like a baby!"

I usually accomplish that by staying up until 2 or 3 a.m.

My last stop was Vault Fields, who may have had today's smallest tasting room but because they make their wine on the estate, smelled most like a winery.

I had time for a tasting with the friendly pourer, especially enjoying the 2009 Conundrum, a blend of Chardonnay and Vidal Blanc and the 2008 Meritage Reserve, which would be a thing of beauty with lamb or veal.

After chatting up the owner, I had to hit the road toute suite to make it back in time for my evening's plans.

Keeping with today's theme, I came home, cleaned up and immediately headed to the Library of Virginia for a night of Virginia wine.

"Straight from the Vine: The History of Virginia Wine" was part talk and part tasting.

Arriving after the talk starts means standing in the back of the auditorium since it's pretty packed.

Wine guru Richard Leahy, author of "Beyond Jefferson's Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia" is trying to cover a fraction of what is in his book in this brief talk.

Asking if any of us have heard of RdV Winery, I am one of a dozen or so who raise my hand.

"They're so exclusive you have to make an appointment to go and pay to taste and maybe they'll let you buy some," he says, which gets a big laugh.

What's funny is that The Roosevelt carries RdV wines, so it's much easier to head to Church Hill than make a road trip to Fauquier County and pay forty bucks for a tasting.

Leahy talked about how well represented Virginia wines are in London, while few California wines are available there.

I like to think that Londoners remember the Virginia Company of 1606 and have a soft spot for us.

He got another laugh when he said, "More people would rather own wineries than grow grapes," meaning the actual farming aspect of viticulture is far less glamorous.

"It takes $12,00 per acre to develop a wine crop, without the cost of the land. And that's before machinery and supplies."

Well, no wonder people only want the fun, meeting people and drinking part of being an owner.

Who's got that kind of disposable income these days?

But, honestly, after having spoken to three Virginia winery owners today, I know that plenty of people are willing to do both, own and grow, for the sake of producing the best possible grapes.

After the talk, the large group moved to the lobby for the tasting and reception.

While Leahy signed books, people moved from table to table sampling Virginia wines.

I began with James River Cellars' Petit Verdot since they usually only sell that to wine club members.

Over at the Horton table, I was surprised to see they had a pinotage, a favorite South African grape of mine.

I was surprised to learn that Horton had put in pinotage grapes ten years ago and was working on finessing the flavor profile with each harvest.

Keep up the good work, boys.

Moving around the room, I ran into the Frenchman (who, leaving the talk, had whispered, "Let's go drink!"), saw a familiar wine geek and tried more wines.

There was Jefferson Vineyards' Cabernet Franc and, surprisingly, Barboursville's stellar  "Octagon."

I overheard a woman tell her husband, "I just had the Williamsburg winery's red and it's so good I would actually buy it!"

With praise like that, how could I not go taste their Claret and inform the pourer of the compliment?

As I moved around the room tasting and nibbling hors d'oeuvres, it was obvious from the conversations I overheard that many people were unfamiliar with Virginia wines.

If they were smart, they'd do like me: get a new CD and head in almost any direction to check out some Virginia wineries.

After a nice drive with new music blaring, they might find a wine so good they actually want to buy it.

It's a lot easier than they think.

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