Reviews

Villa Maria Estate: Taylors Pass Vineyard and an Interview with winemaker Helen Morrison

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On June 16, 2011, I began this website, writing about wine, travel, and the combination of the two. Almost a year later, on May 22, 2012, I wrote about Villa Maria Estate for the first time. I cannot believe it has been seven and six years, respectively. It feels like we have grown together like longtime friends and family, so I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Villa Maria Estate wines.

In light of these milestones, I thought a great way to celebrate would be to interview Villa Maria’s Senior Marlborough winemaker, Helen Morrison, about the wines that we will be tasting for the summer edition of Villa Maria’s annual First Sip of Summer tweet-up scheduled for 5:00 p.m. Pacific/8:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, June 20. This time around, we are so fortunate to be tasting three of Villa Maria’s Taylors Pass, single-vineyard wines, the 2017 Sauvignon Blanc ($26), 2016 Chardonnay ($42), and 2015 Pinot Noir ($42). Below are my sneak peek reviews interspersed with my interview questions and Helen’s answers.

1. How long has Villa Maria been making these single-vineyard wines?

Taylor Pass Vineyard was planted in 1999, the first Taylors Pass Chardonnay was released in 2002, with Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc joining the range in 2003.

2. Does Villa Maria own Taylors Pass or source the fruit? If not, any direct involvement in the vineyard and grape growing? How does Villa Maria ensure growing standards and grape quality?

The vineyard is owned by Terra Vitae group, of which Sir George Fistonich (owner and founder of Villa Maria) is the largest shareholder. Villa Maria employed staff fully manage the vineyard, growing grapes to our requirements. Vine yield is balanced carefully to the site to achieve desired flavours and ripeness levels required.

3. How large of a vineyard is Taylors Pass? How many acres are devoted to the three grape varieties, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and pinot noir? Any other varieties grown there?

Riesling and Pinot Gris are grown there which are often used in our Cellar Selection tier of wine. The vineyard is 14 acres of Pinot Noir, 14 acres of Chardonnay, 120 acres of Sauvignon Blanc—however only a very small portion of the highest quality of grapes from these acres is made into our Single Vineyard wines.

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2017 Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (sample, $26)
I have a palate that craves sour fruit flavors, usually associated with someone that Tim Hanni MW calls the hypersensitive Vinotype, which makes perfect sense as I am also a highly sensitive person (HSP) with a Myers-Briggs INFJ personality type. I was the kid that used to eat lemons, limes, and grapefruit, without sugar added, and loved them. When I taste this sauvignon blanc, it immediately triggers these childhood memories. This wine is squeaky clean and crisp, with steely tartness and minerality.

4. What makes Taylors Pass such a special vineyard? Tell me more about the location, climate, soils, and growing season.

Villa Maria has been on the forefront of defining sub-regions from the word go. By keeping parcels separate in the winery at harvest time, we gain valuable knowledge about the vineyard sites and the differences in flavor profile. Showcasing the different terroir—the sense of place—has always been important to Villa Maria. The Awatere Valley is colder and stonier, and this reflects in style of this wine as well.  One very special parcel that delivers exiting wines year in and year out is the Taylors Pass Vineyard. Located in the Awatere Valley it sits on very picturesque terraces on the northern bank of the Awatere River. With each terrace the soil type changes; stony gravels are nearest the river, whereas the mid terrace has silt over gravels, and the highest terrace is deeper silt over clay-papa base.

5. Do you have a winemaking style? If so, please share your philosophy.

It really depends on the wine. Pinot Noir is the most transparent of the grape varieties, it showcases exactly where it was grown, how the vines were cared for, and needs to be carefully respected in the winery to craft great wines. We try to be hands-off where possible, allowing native yeast from vineyards to take care of the fermentation process, and once pressed, the wines rest in barrels for the next 9-14 months. It takes years of practise not to jump in and “interfere” too much, it’s best to sit back and be confident the wines will express themselves given time. Whereas with Sauvignon Blanc winemaking, we have very close attention to detail, starting right from the harvesting of grapes, protecting aromatics at every stage, very closely monitoring ferments to achieve the desired aromatics and highly focused wine assessment and blending session to ensure we get the best blends to bottle. Chardonnay is a very contested varietal in the Villa Maria group of wineries, with examples made from Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, and Marlborough—so we always keep focused on delivering a style of Chardonnay that truly represents the vineyard. We want consumers to almost feel the stones beneath their feet when tasting this wine.

6. Besides being single vineyard, what makes the Taylors Pass wines different from the other Villa Maria wines that we have sampled in past tastings?

At this price point, the wine expression is more about the texture, complexity, and overall palate weight rather than simple fresh fruit flavours (which is what we expect at Private Bin level). The Single Vineyard wines are an invitation to the consumer to come on a journey to discover the diversity of Marlborough.

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2016 Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyard Chardonnay (sample, $42)
Another confession: I am picky about chardonnay. In fact, I usually limit my chardonnay to Chablis and Champagne because I do not enjoy hot-climate, overripe, “sweet fruit” flavored chardonnays (another example of my hypersensitive palate). This chardonnay exhibits cool-to-moderate climate fruit characteristics like grapefruit, green apple, and stone fruits, which allows it to tolerate oak fermentation and aging, as well as naturally occurring malolactic fermentation.

7. Most of us recognize New Zealand as a producer of sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, so why make chardonnay?

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir originate in the similar area in Burgundy, so naturally any soil or micro-climate suited to Pinot Noir will often grow great Chardonnay. But also, Chardonnay is a very popular variety with New Zealand consumers, second only to Sauvignon Blanc, with demand continually increasing at all price points.

8. Does Villa Maria have a location (or locations) where consumers can taste before purchasing, like a winery or tasting room? If not, how (or does) Villa Maria provide public tastings?

Yes, we currently have two cellar door locations, one at Auckland our head office, restaurant, and conference facility, and the other one in Marlborough (where these wines are made). We also have plans to open a cellar door in the Hawkes Bay in the future.

9. Since Villa Maria does not have a wine club or allocation model, where can we find these wines in the retail market in the United States?

You can find these and any of our other wines on villamariawine.com. Click on Where to Buy at the top of the page and add your zip code for a list of local retailers.

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2015 Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyard Pinot Noir (sample, $46)
Although I live in California, I am not a fan of the “sweet cherry cola” style of pinot noir. Thankfully, this is not that style. This wine shows dark, ripe fruit flavors, such as black cherry, cranberry, and plum. A hint of spiciness from the mix of new and seasoned French oak, along with some mouthwatering acidity and black tea-like tannins, complete the package. This wine was lovely accompaniment to a baked chicken thigh I had for lunch, so I am sure it would pair with other poultry as well.

Celebrating #VAWineChat 50 and Founder Frank Morgan

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Photo courtesy of Frank Morgan and #VAWineChat

Those of you who have been following my writing for the past seven years know that I am relatively new to the wine industry and wine writing world. My first “wine moment” was in 2008. A couple of years later, I visited my first Virginia winery, and in 2011, I attended my first Wine Bloggers Conference held in Charlotteville, Virginia. It was at that conference that I truly discovered Virginia wine. In late 2013, #VAWineChat founder, Frank Morgan, invited me to participate in my first #VAWineChat. Here we are, five years and 50 episodes later. For this momentous occasion, Frank inteviewed Kirsty Harmon, winemaker at Blenheim Vineyards, Ampelographer Lucie Morton, winemaker Katie DeSouza of Casanel Vineyards and Winery, and Maya Hood White, Viticulturist and Assistant Winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards. Those of us who participated tasted the following wines.

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2016 Chatham Vineyards Steel Fermented Chardonnay, Church Creek, Eastern Shore, SRP $20 (sample)
Although I lived in Virginia for over two decades, regretfully, I never had the chance to visit the Eastern Shore. This steel-fermented chardonnay was an ideal choice for my inaugural wine from this area. The boldness and ripeness of the fruit was surprising. I did not expect the palate to have what I call warm climate characteristics. What a clean, crisp, tropical delight.

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2017 Veritas Rosé, Monticello, SRP, $20 (sample)
A blend of cabernet franc, merlot, and touriga nacionale, this is a bone-dry rosé, a little weightier than some due to some neutral oak fermentation and aging. It is replete with red fruit flavors like strawberry and watermelon, but especially juicy, raspberry deliciousness, which popped on the nose and palate. This should be your go-to Virginia rosé this summer.

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2016 Blenheim Vineyards Cabernet Franc, Virginia, SRP $22 (sample)

Cabernet franc is one of my favorite varietal wines and especially when it hails from Virginia. I love the tart cherry, earthiness, and lower alcohol. What a delicate, lovely, and elegant wine. I am also a big fan of the screw cap closure. Only $22? Holy moly. I’ll take a case or three. Thank you, Blenheim, for the overdue, Virginia cabernet franc fix I was craving.

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2015 Casanel Vineyards and Winery Petit Verdot, Middlesburg, SRP $42 (sample)
Petit verdot is my other varietal wine sweetheart. I love it much more than cabernet sauvignon. (Don’t tell anyone here in Napa.) Flavors like blackberries, blueberries, and bitter chocolate dominate the palate. It is dark and delicious, but lower in alcohol than the West Coast versions, a veritable balance of depth and restraint. This is how petit verdot should be. Be still, my heart.

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Photo courtesy of Frank Morgan and #VAWineChat

Shortly after the event, I virtually sat down with Frank via email, who has become a great friend and supporter, to learn why he began #VAWineChat and what it really takes to pull off these tastings. Details about all 50 chats can be found at this link.

1. Congratulations on 50 episodes of #VAWineChat! Share with us the “#VAWineChat” history and story: when and how it began and why you created it.

Thank you!  I very much appreciate you (and everyone) who has participated and helped make Virginia Wine Chat successful. Although the first official Virginia Wine Chat episode was in early 2013, the idea for a monthly virtual tasting series focused on the wines and winemakers of Virginia came a couple years prior.  In 2011, I helped the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office organize several Twitter tastings to help raise awareness of local wines leading up to the Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville in July of that year. Those three or four Twitter tastings in early 2011 were more popular than I expected. I received a lot of positive feedback about the wines and requests for similar tastings focusing on Virginian wines. I started Virginia Wine Chat in early 2013 as a way to connect notable Virginia winemakers with online wine influencers (a group many local winemakers would not have connected with otherwise).

2. What has inspired you to continue producing episodes?

Good question. I continue with Virginia Wine Chat because I appreciate the time these tastings provide with local winemakers, learning more about their backgrounds, philosophies, and of course their wines. And, I like connecting them with wine folks who are curious and enthusiastic about Virginian wine. This is a labor of love for sure; I do not charge for organizing and hosting the ‘chats. With the cost of camera and mic and the time spent traveling to the wineries plus hotel if I stay over, my wine income statement is always in the red. 🙂 At some point, I would love to find a way to at least cover the cost of Virginia Wine Chat.  Perhaps one day…

3. Take us behind the scenes of #VAWineChat from start to finish, to give us an idea of the logistics involved in bringing together the producers, the wines, and the participants.

Thankfully there’s no shortage of local winemakers interested in connecting with curious and engaged wine folks online via Virginia Wine Chat. Logistics of scheduling a monthly Virginia Wine Chat — oy! Selecting a date that fits in to the winemaker’s schedule and my work travel schedule may be the biggest challenge.  Once a date is set, I reach out to a few regulars and a few new folks that have asked to participate. Confirming 10 — 12 online participants (and then re-re-reconfirming) on the given evening is time consuming. If the ‘chat includes a live winemaker interview (streamed live via the Va Wine Chat Ustream channel or via Twitch), I have to drive to the winery.  Since most wineries are located about 2 ½ hours from my home, I usually have to arrange a place to stay if I don’t drive back that late evening. Staying in the Charlottesville area, or points west, on Sunday evening means a 4am wake up call on Monday morning to drive home and to work by 8am.

4. What makes #VAWineChat different from other virtual tastings?

Virginia Wine Chat is the only virtual tasting series (that I know of) focused on the wines and winemakers of Virginia.  It’s one of the few online virtual tastings that is focused on a small, emerging region. With 50 monthly episodes complete, I believe Virginia Wine Chat is one of the the longest continually running virtual tastings in the wine world.

5. Any idea how many Virginia wineries have participated since the inception?

In total, we’ve had about 65 Virginia wineries and five cideries participate since 2013.  Some months we feature three to five different wineries or cideries.

6. Do you measure the success or impact of the chats? If so, how? Quantitatively and/or qualitatively?

Success is measured in several ways.  The first measure is logistics success: did all participants receive the wines on time; did I make it to the winery on time; did the winemaker I’m interviewing show up on time; is the internet connection at the winery strong enough for video feed? Positive comments from participants about the wines and engagement from the winemaker following the chats are a measure of success, though hard to quantify.  Articles written about the wines are another measure of success. Though the total number of tweets is not a measure of success, it is cool to see the #VaWineChat hashtag trending #1 or #2 on Twitter ahead of big events like football games or the latest political scandal.

7. Which chat(s) have been the most popular?

In terms of overall number of tweets, online engagement, and in-person attendees, the 50th episode featuring the Women of Virginia Wine was by far the most popular. A close second was the November 2017 ‘chat featuring Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider (where she announced Foggy Ridge would no longer produce cider under the Foggy Ridge Label).  The January 2017 ‘chat featuring Virginia cider was very popular as well.

8. Have any of the chats been controversial?

Not really.  Because the #VaWineChat hashtag usually trends on Twitter, we do get some interesting spam during the chats. Occasionally there is an attention-seeker in need of a fix but otherwise, no controversy.

9. Are the chats saved for later viewing?

I have recorded most of the 50 Virginia Wine Chat episodes.  I have posted a few for viewing but am saving them to use as part of a larger project that’s been a few years in the making.  Stay tuned…

10. What is the future of #VAWineChat?

As Virginia Wine Chat has grown in popularity, I’ve received interest from wineries in other regions especially those in the eastern U.S.  Beginning last month, I expanded Virginia Wine Chat to include other notable eastern regions — like Maryland, New York, Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania.  I’ve named this series East Coast Wine Chat (#ECWineChat). The eastern U.S. as a ‘region’ is exciting and overlooked by most wine media.  I believe East Coast Wine Chat will bring (at least a little) much-needed attention to the many deserving winemakers growing world class wines the eastern U.S.  I have some really cool East Coast Wine Chats planned — like a focused discussion of east coast Cabernet Franc, Pet-Nats, and ciders — that I hope will foster some collaboration between winemakers in the the eastern U.S.

 

Greenwood Ridge Vineyards

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On the drive to the kickoff event at Greenwood Ridge Vineyards for my inaugural Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association Aromatic White Wine Festival, I was nervous. It was billed as a winemakers’ media dinner and was not sure what the dress code was. I finally decided to dress neatly, but also casually and warmly, because it was a cold, February night. Dressed in my comfort zone to mentally combat my first-time attendee jitters, I was ready to experience my first Anderson Valley winery.

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Founded in 1980 by Allan Green, Greenwood Ridge Vineyards is one of the original Anderson Valley wineries. Today, under the ownership of Wilson Artisan Wines, it still produces only around 1500 cases of premium wines, including riesling, late-harvest riesling, sauvignon blanc, merlot, pinot noir, and zinfandel.

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I parked my car and walked confidently to the famed, octagonal-shaped tasting room, designed by Allan’s father and associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, Aaron G. Green, and constructed from one, 400-year-old redwood tree. Someone outside immediately welcomed me and gave me a glass.

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As I opened the door and heard the friendly laughter and chatter, I felt a huge sigh of relief. Allan Green himself was pouring (and sipping) a vertical of aged rieslings from 1985, 1988, and 1996 (prices unknown), which were mind-blowingly delicious. More guests arrived, more wine appeared, and the noise level grew with lively conversation and music. Dinner was a fantastic barbecue buffet, not a fancy, sit-down dinner, and in that moment, I realized that the staff of Greenwood Ridge and the Anderson Valley producers in attendance were my kind of people.

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As the evening progressed, I found myself among friends, new and old. At some point, dinner turned into a party, and the crowd trickled outside into the cold, where we huddled near heaters and fire pits, sipping beautiful Anderson Valley wines and getting to know each other.

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When the cold air won, chilling me to the bone, I made my way back inside. My friend, Sommelier Christopher Sawyer, introduced me to Stacie Lynch, the winery’s manager, who warmed us up with a taste of the Jaxon Keys Winery & Distillery Jepson Signature Reserve Alambic Brandy ($395), simply exquisite.

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Next, she poured the exceptional 1999 Greenwood Ridge Mendocino Merlot (around $24 at release), another showstopper. I was smitten with both Greenwood Ridge and Stacie. She was a consummate host. And, as I was leaving, she gave me a couple of wines to take home, a 1995 Late Harvest Riesling (price unknown) and the 2016 Mendocino Ridge Riesling ($20). The former is awaiting a special occasion. My thoughts about the latter are below.

Rieslings

The Greenwood Ridge Vineyards 2016 Mendocino Ridge Riesling showcases how the cool, maritime influence of the nearby Pacific Ocean benefits grape growing. With only 1.6% residual sugar, this wine is a lovely, mouthwatering play of zippy acidity and delicate, ever-so-slight sweetness. Fruit flavors run the gamut from tropical to stone to tree to citrus, surprising and delighting the palate in every sip. Pair this riesling with nearly anything, but especially spicy Asian cuisine. I would also put a few bottles in the cellar for later, because if the 1985, 1988, and 1996 are any indication, this will be fantastic to try with age.

I have kept in touch with Stacie and she sent me a few more wines to taste. I am sure they will find their way into my heart, too, and be delectable reminders of my first visit to Greenwood Ridge Vineyards and Anderson Valley, a place that feels like a home away from home.

Excellent Hospitality Shows Direct Impact on Wine Sales

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Photo courtesy of Wine Industry Network

At the annual U.S. Wine & Beverage Expo in Washington, D.C., the conference theme, “In Pursuit of Excellence”, found its way into all of the sessions, including “Staff Training: Your Best Investment”, moderated by George Christie, President and CEO of Wine Industry Network, and led by panelists, Tammy Boatright, Founder and President of VingDirect, and Jeff Plack, Director of Business Development at Biltmore Wines in Asheville, North Carolina.
*CLICK HERE TO READ AT WINE INDUSTRY ADVISOR*

Top 90 Wine Blog List

Top 90 Wine Blogs 2018
I am excited to share that my website made Amsterdam Diary’s Top 90 Wine Blog List. This is the first list I have made since I re-branded, so this wonderful news. The author writes, “If you are looking for the perspective of a professional who specializes in wine, check out elizabethsmithconsulting.com. This website will open doors for you to a world you could never have imagined, and this is why it’s worth checking out.”
*CLICK HERE FOR THE LIST*

Domaines Schlumberger Les Princes Abbés Pinot Gris 2015

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It was not my first Domaines Schlumberger moment. That took place seven or eight years ago at Bouchon in Asheville, North Carolina, and I fell in love. This recent moment, a blind, comparative food and wine tasting of international gewürztraminer, pinot gris, and riesling at the Anderson Valley Winegrowers’ 13th Annual Aromatic White Wine Festival, was sublime. Prepared and led by chefs Lars Kronmark and Christie Dufault of the Culinary Institute of America at Copia, in Napa, California, the stage was set for an incomparable sensory experience, and that it was.

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As I tasted, then revisited the pairings, my palate kept gravitating towards the final pairing of mystery wine #4 and the soft, Munster cheese with apricot mostarda and toasted caraway seeds. I must confess, as soon as I tasted this wine, I knew it was the Domaines Schlumberger. I am afraid I cannot adequately convey the pleasure of this pairing, but it was exquisite. Ripe, sweet tree and stone fruit flavors meshed lovingly with the contrasting flavor and texture of the cheese as well as the similarly sweetness of the apricot. The Les Princes Abbés Pinot Gris (SRP $21) was all at once bright and rich, juicy and creamy. At the festival’s grand tasting, which followed the morning educational tastings, I searched for this beautiful wine to taste again. I left my heart at that table, longingly looking forward to my next Domaines Schlumberger moment. Do not hesitate. Find this wine, I know I will.

Firehouse Wine Cellars

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Firehouse Wine Cellars is aptly named, of course, after the 1905-era, former fire station purchased by some Rapid City, South Dakota, locals in 1991 to create a local brewery, Firehouse Brewing Company, South Dakota’s first microbrewery. From this venture came the idea of opening a winery beside the brewery. The entire operation – brewery and winery – is still owned and operated by the original partners and family members.

On the back label of Firehouse Wine Cellars’ The American Marquette, I discovered this lovely description from Michael L. Gould, whose Old Folsom Vineyard is the source of the winery’s South Dakota grapes:

Nearly 100 years ago, my grandfather, Antonio Finco, emigrated to this country on a ship called America from the port of Genoa, Italy. Like many others, he left his home and all that was familiar to start a new life in a strange new land. His few possessions he carried in a small suitcase, his traditions he carried in his heart.

Like his fathers before him, Antonio made wine and continued that tradition in his new country. Even now, we continue this family tradition from our own estate grown Marquette grapes, harvested from Old Folsom Vineyard, just south of Rapid City. Like my grandfather, this remarkable grape has made its start in America. Genetically, the Marquette and I are both grandsons, it is a grandson to the noble Pinot Noir. Together we have found our roots under the South Dakota sun.

It is in this spirit of tradition and family that I present to you Firehouse Wine Cellars and three of their wines: one made from Nebraska brianna and edelweiss grapes (my first Nebraska wine) and two made from South Dakota marquette (my first South Dakota wines).

Brianna Edelweiss

NV Brianna Edelweiss, American, $24
(Sample; 235 cases produced)

While this wine is sold as non-vintage and is sometimes a blend of South Dakota and Nebraska grapes and different vintages, winemaker Adam Martinez confirmed that all the grapes in this offering are from Nebraska and the 2017 vintage. However, it was easier to keep the label consistent with previous releases. (Those who have submitted wine labels to the TTB understand.) Cool fermented at around 55 degrees, fined and clarified, and aged in stainless steel, this semi-sweet white, a blend of 50% brianna and 50% edelweiss, is a light gold in the glass. On the palate, the .08% residual sugar meets its match with the 10.4% total acidity, rendering a bright, integrated play of honeysuckle, sweet tropical fruits, tree fruits like apple and pear, and a lime finish. With an ABV of 11.1%, sip away without the guilt. Pair this with spring, summer, salads, and seafood.

The American

2016 The American Marquette, Old Folsom Vineyard, South Dakota, $30
(Sample; Only 27 cases produced due to a summer of hail and bird damage)
This 100% marquette wine, whose grapes are sourced from Mike and Marnie Gould’s 10-year-old vineyard just south of Rapid City, goes through a cool fermentation and manual punch downs, which, according to Martinez, creates more skin contact. This does not increase tannins, but rather, higher phenolic compounds. It is aged in for nine to twelve months in a blend of 60% French and 40% American oak barrels. With lower alcohol (13.6% ABV) and high total acidity (11.2%), this medium, brick-colored wine is replete with tart blackcurrant, cranberry, plum, and peppery spice, begging for rich, fatty foods like hearty, meaty pasta dishes and charcuterie.

Tradition

NV Tradition Marquette, Year Two, $29
(Sample; 60 cases produced)
Tradition is Firehouse Wine Cellars’ take on a fortified, port-style wine made from South Dakota marquette grapes and bottled every two years. During fermentation, Martinez adds a neutral brandy spirit made from distilled syrah grapes. The finished wine has 8% residual sugar and 20.5% ABV. Martinez uses a solera-style system’s fractional blending and aging regime. The first vintage was aged in barrel and the second vintage added to that barrel. Year One was the first year of bottling and this is Year Two. The original vintage and the newest vintage will always be part of future blends. As a result, going forward, the youngest part of the blend will be two years and the oldest is five or more years. This Year Two selection is dark and opaque in the glass, more brown than red, and tastes like someone spiked the homemade, chocolate-covered, black cherry cordials. In fact, chocolate-covered cherries are exactly how I imagine pairing this wine, although Black Forest cake isn’t out of the question.

For more information about Firehouse Wine Cellars and to purchase their wines, visit their website, or better yet, visit both the winery and brewery for a complete, South Dakota craft beverage experience.

Cheers!
Beth