Saturday, February 18, 2012

Day One: Virginia’s Monticello Wine Trail – the Birthplace of American Wine

As a couple living just outside Washington, DC who both enjoy wine and American history, there really isn’t a more obvious local destination to spend a holiday weekend.  This, however, was our first visit to Charlottesville together, and our first visit to the many destinations on our itinerary to the central Piedmont area.

The Monticello region is one of six American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) in Virginia.  And believe it or not, this is one of 24 trails across the state of Virginia, now home to over 200 wineries.  Monticello itself, one of our destinations, was the home of Thomas Jefferson and where he first attempted (yet failed) to grow vines for making his own wine over 200 years ago.  Today, over half of Virginia’s 2000 vineyard acres grow within the Monticello AVA.  Given the breathtaking views edging the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the rich culture and history at every turn, this is not only considered the birthplace of American wine, but also referred to as the ‘crown jewel’ of Virginia’s wine industry today.

From the Northern Virginia/Washington, DC area, it’s just under a two hour drive before you reach the northern point of the trail.  For this weekend trip, we didn’t have the time to drive the entire trail.  There are, after all, 25 wineries dotting the Northern, Eastern, Western, Southern, and Northern Gateway stems.  We down-selected to seven that we thought we could fit into the weekend were so happy with our selections!

Prince Michel
Our first stop was at Prince Michel [pronounced Michelle].  We have enjoyed tasting their wines at some of the frequent festivals in Northern Virginia, so were excited to check out their winery in person.  Not only that, but given their location directly off of Route 29 South, it is a really convenient destination if you’re continuing your drive south like we were.

On this particular Saturday, the tasting room was lively and fun, but not overly crowded.  We took a peek at the large party room off to the side and the fun artwork and furniture in the sitting rooms.  The tasting room is large, with an oval shaped tasting station in the middle and a good sized bar surrounding it.  In addition to the bar, this winery sells a multitude of fun wine accessories and chocolate covered fruit and nuts made by a local vendor.  Just beyond the tasting room is their barrel room, where they offer a fun, easy, and educational self-guided tour.

The tasting menu at Prince Michel, I have to say, has to be the best deal I have experienced to-date in Virginia.  We were first offered to select a dry or sweet menu (we went with dry) and for $5 we could select 15 red or white wines to taste.  Yes, 15!  Given this was our first stop of the day, we split one for 7ish tastings a piece.

The woman pouring for us told us she was the tasting room manager.  She was laid- back, friendly, and super knowledgeable on all the wines.  The first one I selected was the Prince Michel Sparkling wine (love me some bubbles!) which was a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  It had a peachy color, refreshing finish, and was honestly my favorite of all of them.  But, at the $39 price point, I didn’t end up buying a bottle.  The vineyard designate wines on the menu were the Mt. Juliet Petit Manseng, Mt. Juliet Petit Verdot, Quaker Run Syrah, Crown Orchard Cabernet Sauvignon, and Mountain View Cabernet Franc.  [Note:  Cab Francs are a popular wine within this region, and they were a favorite of ours at just about all the wineries!] After our tastings, we took a walk around to view the items for sale and do the self-guided tour.

My Experience Rating (relative to other Virginia wineries):  Convenience: 10, Knowledgeable Staff: 10, Wines: 7, Tasting Room and Amenities: 10, Scenery and Ambiance: 6, Value: 8

Prince Michel Winery: self-guided tour, looking over the barrels back into the tasting room, and beautiful grounds
Prince Michel Winery: Historical photo of men 'airing' the grapes and collage of former U.S. Presidents who lived in the area

King Family Vineyards 
I’d read a lot about this winery, and given that nearly everyone RAVES about the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I was really looking forward to our visit here.  The winery is about a 15 minute drive outside of Charlottesville.  Once you leave I-64, it’s a few more turns through a neighborhood and farmland until you reach the entrance.  This part of the drive has a very ‘tucked away’ feel, as you pass Tanglewood and Folly Farms.  As is typical in this area, black picket fences line the edges of the roads to mark the farm properties.  On this particular day, we pulled into a packed parking lot.  Walking around, you instantly fall in love with the sprawling property, views of the polo fields, and Blue Ridge Mountains in the background.  

The tasting room was cozy – a woodburning fireplace and leather furniture were the centerpieces, surrounded by additional seating areas and wine displays. The tasting menu featured six wines for a tasting fee of $5 each.  We sipped two 2009 wines – a Meritage and a dessert wine called Seven – and four 2010 wines – a Viognier, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and second dessert wine called Loreley. We felt more of the 'college town feel' here as many of the other customers appeared to be students from UVA.  The gentleman pouring our wines was very knowledgeable on the wines, and also worked at a local bistro in town.  He told us he was in the process of applying to wine school in France.  My favorite of the day was their Chardonnay, made in 2/3 new oak barrels.  Their Seven dessert wine was probably the most interesting on the list – a good wine for after dinner paired with chocolate.  They use Kentucky Woodford Reserve barrels for this wine which gives it a bit of a bourbon kick.  While the wines were good, price points sit at $22 and above. Due to the crowds, we actually made a second trip back here before heading north, and ordered two glasses of the chardonnay, a freshly baked baguette, and some cheese which we enjoyed immensely while soaking up the scenery and the warmth of the fireplace.

My Experience Rating (relative to other Virginia wineries):  Convenience: 7, Knowledgeable Staff: 10, Wines: 9, Tasting Room and Amenities: 10, Scenery and Ambiance: 10, Value: 7

King Family Vineyard:  Views of the polo field, patio, and grounds
King Family Vineyard:  Inside the tasting room area
Veritas Winery

Veritas was another winery I was excited to visit, not only for their wines, but for the mountain views.  I quickly learned that there probably isn’t a winery in this area that doesn’t benefit from this factor!  The drive from King Family involved some very steep and windy turns – certainly not good for anyone who may be out tasting several other wines beforehand!  We made our way into another crowded parking lot.  Rounding the corner of the property, we had amazing views of the property and happened to catch some phenomenal sun rays which were fantastic for what could have otherwise been a very chilly winter afternoon.  Unfortunately, the main tasting room was closed this day as we were told they were re-doing the floors.  Instead, everyone was directed to their main event room, which looked to be decorated for a wedding, but we found out they were decorations from a New Year’s Eve party.  Tables, chairs, and couches were scattered around the large space and we found it to be very noisy and disorganized.  There must have been close to 100 people here at this point.  The UVA students were in abundance here as well.  We made our way onto a couch, as one of the pourers told us she could fit us in.  We sat down next to another couple, which was a little TOO close to be and a bit awkward at first.  Our pourer was friendly, but distracted with the crowds and seemed unsure of the process herself.  Another couple soon joined in next to us.  They were from northern Virginia as well, and had been in town for a wedding. 

On this day we paid $5 each to taste quite a range of 10 wines:  Scintilla (a 80% Chardonnay Brut), Sauvignon Blanc 2011, White Star (80% Viognier), Rose 2010, Cabernet Franc 2010, Merlot 2010, Red Star (Cab Franc, Merlot, and Chabourcin), Petit Manseng 2010, Othello 2009 (port), and Kenmar 2009 (Traminette, similar to Ice Wine).  Our favorites that we purchased were the Cab Franc, Rose, and the Petit Manseng.

Veritas is definitely a winery I would like to return to – when the main tasting room is back open, and hopefully on a less crowded weekend.

My Experience Rating (relative to other Virginia wineries):  Convenience: 6, Knowledgeable Staff: 6, Wines: 9, Tasting Room and Amenities: 10, Scenery and Ambiance: 10, Value: 8

Veritas Winery:  Beautiful outside scenery
Afton Mountain Vineyards
Most wineries in Virginia close at 5pm sharp.  On this day, we were arriving around 4:30, so just as they were preparing to wind down.  The property had a very peaceful feel – and the pond out back was a nice addition to the surrounding mountain views.  The inside was very cozy – somewhat of a family room feel with another wood burning fireplace.  All the seats here were taken with a group enjoying wine with some food.  The crowd on this day was older than what we encountered at Veritas.  Out back was a lovely patio with views of the pond.

There were two options for tastings  - $8 for their reserve tasting menu of seven wines, or $5 for their house tasting menu of seven wines.  I personally am not a fan of these types of menus – it leaves you with a “Do I want to try their good wine, or their not-so-good wine?” feel.  We decided to do a tasting of each menu, and share the wines.  This tasting room was smaller than others we’d visited, and our pourer on this day was new, so not as informed on the wines.  Apart from their dessert wines, prices range from $17 - $30.  We tasted a mix of Tete de Cuvee Brut, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Festa di Bacco (blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cab Franc), Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, semi-sweets, and dessert wines. Our favorite was the 2009 Cabernet Franc Reserve.

My Experience Rating (relative to other Virginia wineries):  Convenience: 6, Knowledgeable Staff: 5, Wines: 8, Tasting Room and Amenities: 8, Scenery and Ambiance: 10, Value: 6

Afton Mountain Winery: Tasting room and vineyard

Afton Mountain Winery:  Tasting room fireplace, wine awards, and views of the patio

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