Can Virginia Be The New Napa Valley?

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Decor at Stone Tower Winery.

By: Kaitlyn Rollyson

I am currently drinking a Bordeaux style blend, with a rich nose of Cabernet Sauvignon, looking over a beautiful landscape that is made of rolling hills, a gleaming lake, and trees changing color as far as the eye can see. This blend, dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, is complex from the moment the wine hits your tongue. With a slight puckering sensation, the flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Merlot make a lasting impression on the palate. This wine, the 2013 Estate Hogback Mountain, is from Stone Tower Winery in Leesburg, VA.

Being a young wine enthusiast, I am constantly in awe of the things that I am learning in the wine industry. The West Coast, of course, is known for the wine that they make. The names Sonoma and Napa Valley are well recognized around the world as great wine producers. As someone who is about to graduate from college, it is not feasible for me, being located on the East coast, to travel to the other side of the country to learn about great wine. To my surprise, I do not have to travel far to do so.

Located just one hour from Washington, D.C, is a place called Loudon County, VA. Virginia is supposedly known for lovers, but that is soon to change. I heard about Virginia wine after immersing myself in the wine industry of Maryland and wanted to experience Virginia’s offerings myself. To further my understanding of what Virginia wine is all about, I am choosing to visit three different wineries: Stone Tower, North Gate, and Sunset Hills. I asked my mother to come explore with me, and without hesitation, she quickly frees up her Saturday.

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Our car is bouncing as we rumble down the barely paved road lined by a worn, wooden fence. There is not one cloud in the sky – a perfect day to go winery hopping. Climbing up to the crest of the hill, I find myself welcomed by rolling hills engulfed in an abundance of trees. At the end of the road we are greeted by a sign that has two large arrows pointing in opposite directions. The first arrow points to he family-friendly tasting room, and the second arrow points to the adult tasting room. My mother and I decide to tackle both.

The sounds of kids playing, birds chirping, and conversation filling the air embrace us the moment we step out of the car. The brightly red – painted barn, where we notice people are cycling through, is the family tasting room. As we take the first few steps into the barn, we are immediately envious. The barn is decorated so eclectically that we want to call it our new home. With two tasting bars, wool blanketed couches, scattered vintage farm-house antiques, and a plethora of seats inside and out, it is a perfect place for a family to enjoy. As we step outside of the barn, we see a beautiful overview of the adult tasting room and begin out journey there.

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The tasting room at Stone Tower Winery.

“Oh my goodness!” are the only words coming out of our mouths when stepping into the adults only tasting room. We look at each other dumbfounded, while our chins fall slowly to the ground. Our eyes scan around the newly-built, beautiful building. Medieval chandeliers are hanging from the ceiling adding an amber ambiance to the room. The words STONE TOWER in blocky, backlit letters are hanging over the main tasting bar, which is jam-packed. A wooden staircase sits across from the main bar leading downstairs and “the tower” which overlooks the breathtaking view of Hogback Mountain.

A man in a Stone Tower hat approaches us, extends his hand, and greets us with a hardy laugh. “Well, you look like you’re on business,” he said. He was right. I had my Nikon camera strapped over my shoulder, a large notepad in my hand and a writing utensil in the other. I extend my hand and tell him that I work in the wine industry in Maryland and that I am here to discover Virginia wine.

His name is Jeremy, and he is the head of Hospitality at Stone Tower. He offers to provide my mom and me an in-depth tour of the facilities, which we graciously accept. Jeremy leads us down to the bottom of the staircase that is across from the main bar where a large room is located. What looks to be a design element in an otherwise basic room, turns out to be the entrance to the wine library. The 5th century doors with steel hinges and handles open with a heavy tug. For a second, I think these doors are going to lead us to Narnia. Instead, they lead us to a small room with built in shelves made of stone along the walls, two wooden tables with black chairs, dim chandeliers, and a small window that allows you to view the barrel room  on the other side.

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Wooden tanks used for fermentation at Stone Tower Winery.

We enter another door, this time small and wooden, that leads us to a narrow tunnel-like hallway that reminds me of a hobbit – hole. The hallway is dimly lit and lined with barrels. We walk to a wide opening that holds the stainless steel tanks. In between the tanks are two wooden tanks that are specialty made – just for Stone Tower. These tanks grant us the ability to view the fermentation process. Beside the wooden tanks sits a concrete egg. I have never seen anything like this before and was intrigued to learn more.

“The concrete egg is pretty cool, huh?” Jeremy says.

We circle around the short, egg-shaped dome.

“The concrete egg was traditionally used in France. We typically age our whites in it to add more complexity and minerality to the wine,” he says. Jeremy sees the puzzled look on my face and continues to explain that Stone Tower Winery is one of the two wineries in Virginia that use a concrete egg. It is a new approach to winemaking that I have never seen, and I am fascinated.

The tour ends and it is time to taste the wine. Walking back up the stairs, Jeremy leads us to a back room, also known as the w. Again, my mom and I find our mouths opening wide and our chins plummeting to the floor. The room is filled with cozy couches, (the owners of Stone Tower are also the owners of Belfordt Furniture, so you can be sure the place was well decorated), a stone fireplace, French doors leading out to the patio, and a flat screen TV where apparently all of the men gather around to watch football on Sundays.

“Can you believe this? I feel like royalty,” my mom says as we look around the room, realizing we are the only ones in here.

We meet Anna, who begins pouring the wine for us. We first taste the Wild Boar Rose Cuvee, a blend of traditional champagne varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier. This rose has an absolute fabulous nose of strawberries and floral notes, with a dry finish. One thing to note is that Stone Tower operates under two labels: Stone Tower Estate and Wild Boar. When planting their first vines in 2010, owners Mike and Kristi Huber did not want to open their own winery, but rather sell their grapes to surrounding vineyards during their years of retirement. Obviously, that plan changed after realizing the success they could have. The wines that are labeled under Stone Tower Estate mean that the varietals are from their property. The wines that are under the Wild Boar label are varietals that are imported from other parts of Virginia, California, and sometimes Oregon.

We try two more whites, a Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc, both light and fruit forward – perfect for an afternoon sip. They offer two Bordeaux style wines, and I am exuberant to experience the distinctive blends back to back. The 2014 Wild Boar Sanglier Noble, the first Bordeaux style, is medium bodied with higher acidity. Although satisfying, the 2013 Estate Hogback Mountain is superior. This wine in particular is Cabernet Sauvignon heavy (about 70 %), smooth and complex through its entirety.

From our experience it is obvious that Stone Tower Winery knows what they are doing when it comes to making wine. They are also skilled in generating a great sense of customer service. My mom and I were impressed the moment we stepped into the door and are now leaving with the same satisfaction. We have high expectations as we set off to the next vineyard, North Gate.

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North Gate Vineyards.

Traveling down a back road, we notice a quaint tasting room with a shade sail covered rear patio. We are excited to be at our second destination as we turn at the sign that reads North Gate Vineyard. The main building has brown and tan panels and a large vine sign that hangs above two wooden doors. Upon entering, we are greeted by two Greyhounds! Wine and dogs? What more could we want? I have a good feeling about this place. My mom and I learn that the owners, husband and wife Mark and Vicki Fedor, are advocates for the Blue Ridge Greyhound rescue group, who visited that day. They are a non-profit organization that rescues Greyhounds that previously lived a life of racing in Florida. I am a huge dog lover myself, so I am thrilled to learn this.

After being greeted with two wet kisses from the dogs, my mom and I decide to explore. The main bar is a mix between granite and mosaic art, with elongated lights dangling from the ceiling, masked in a turquoise shade. There is a stone fireplace surrounded by couches next to the bar and cherry oak tables spread out, restaurant style.  Behind the main tasting bar is a small room with a wine wall that provides wine suggestions depending on whether or not you will have poultry, beef, seafood, or whether you will take a bottle of wine home as a gift to your boss, significant other, or for your third date. The wall is a unique way to showcase their wine and for costumers to get a laugh.

As we approach the main bar, a showcase filled with chocolate stole our attention. Oohing and ahhing in front of it, we are asked by a woman named Karen if we would like to do the chocolate pairing. Wine, dogs, and now chocolate?! Why yes, of course! The three truffles we receive are key lime, chocolate mousse, and caramel filled. There are seven wines total on the tasting sheet, but the pairings go with three wines in particular: Rkatstitell, Merlot, and Meritage blend. The 2015 Rkatstitell, paired with the key lime chocolate, is crisp with light floral notes. The next wine, the 2014 Merlot paired with the chocolate mousse, is my mom’s and my favorite. The medium bodied wine with hints of dark cherries pairs nicely with the bold mousse taste. The last wine, the 2014 Meritage – the winning wine of the Virginia Governors Cup three years in a row and rated one of the top 12 wines in Virginia – is paired with the caramel – filled chocolate. The classic Bordeaux – style blend containing a light aroma of oak and mocha is a perfect pair with the caramel. When the tasting is done, we ask if we can try the Apple wine that is on sale. We learn that for every bottle of apple wine purchased, North Gate donates $1 to the Greyhound foundation – even better!

My mother and I leave North Gate as the pairing is done and there isn’t much else to explore. Sadly, this tasting did not meet our high expectations set forth from Stone Tower Winery. The pairing with our tastings are well worth it though – even if it is an extra $5. It was a great way to learn more about the wines and the flavor profiles of each.

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Sunset Hills Vineyard.

Our last stop is Sunset Hills Vineyard. The moment we step out of the car we are greeted by a view of a gorgeous red barn that was transformed into the tasting room. It is a beautiful farm. Surrounding the barn are picnic tables scattered around the open field and bonfires lit with people huddling around. Stepping over a small white bridge to enter, we are immediately welcomed and begin to look around. Lights hang from the ceiling, wrapped around poles, and placed around cabinets that give the tasting room a cozy vibe only found at Christmas time. A large antique chest is displayed behind the wooden tasting bar that showcases winning wines from various competitions. Above the bar hangs a chalkboard listing future events, written announcements, and information regarding the fundraiser being held for Breast Cancer Awareness. Looking above the sign, there is a large foyer upstairs that holds additional seating. The tasting room barn was renovated a few years back by Amish men. They also hand carved many of the features seen around the bar and up the railings of the staircase. We walk up to the bar and stand next to a couple who is already in the middle of their tasting.

“Can I see both of your ID’s please?” asks Isabel, our pourer for the day.

“Ooh I like her!” says my mother, who is at the beautiful age of 52 and loves when people ask to verify she’s of age.

The signature wine tasting consists of six wines: two whites, one rosè, and three reds. The 2015 Chardonnay is aged in stainless steel before finishing the aging process in neutral oak. Although this isn’t a typical Chardonnay, it is crisp with light floral notes and blends nicely. Rosè has been making a comeback, and the 2015 Sunset Rosè is a perfect off-dry balance of berry and a splash of citrus. It is interesting to experience Sunset Hills’ Merlot, after tasting North Gates, merlot an hour beforehand. This Merlot, in particular, is blended with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot which results in a nice bold flavor profile with a smooth finish.

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Bread and mulled cider at Sunset Hills Vineyard.

Isabel gives the couple next to us a small taste of something with steam wafting from the top. I am intrigued and discover that Sunset Hills makes a mulled cider with its 2015 Chardonnay. My mom and I are fall fanatics and love a good mulled cider. We’ve never had one with Chardonnay in it, so Isabel insists that we try it and we order a glass of it after the first sip. They have a small food menu where we elect for some warm bread and butter to cap our last tasting of the day. The cider is perfect for the crisp day and warms us up for our ride home.

After a long day of exploring, I found what I was looking for. I found that you do not need to travel far to discover premium wine. I found that while the East Coast may be full of shellfish and contain an abundance of Dunkin’ Donuts, it is also headed in a new direction. I found that some of the best adventures can happen an hour away from your home and you can discover something new – as I did in each glass of Virginia wine. My mom and I both have very busy schedules and tend to stick around home on our days off, but this adventure has us excited to explore more. Together we found that Virginia is making a name for itself in the wine industry – and we found out that three wineries in one day is plenty!

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My mother and I enjoying the beautiful day exploring wine!

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