Leoni Farms: Winemaker Jon by Joe Campbell (no relation to Jon)
On many a weekend in the lovely small town of Sutter Creek, California, on Main Street, visitors will walk by the tasting room of Leoni Farms and hear the hearty laugh of Jon Campbell holding court. Conversations will range from television episode recaps of Yellowstone, to politics, to reminding you about how much he detests the Robert Parker point scale. “See this Rolling Rock I’m drinking? It scored a 97,” notes Jon, with a sarcastic smirk. During those summers and long harvests, cheap beer becomes a winemaker’s best friend.
Above the great conversation and Cheers-like ambiance that Leoni Farms provides, a local sense of camaraderie and family permeates the building. After spending ten minutes with Jon, you feel like you have known him for the past 20 years. The Campbells are a fifth-generation family in Amador County. Some of the vineyard plantings on their property go back 50 years.
Jon began his career working in the cellar before moving up to assistant winemaker at Drytown Cellars. He then took a job as a winemaker in Lodi running a processing facility.
Jon would eventually return to his roots in Amador County to start Leoni Farms. Leoni is an old family surname and the farm part of the name is critical as well, because at the end of the day, Jon considers himself a farmer at heart. He indicated he would grow alfalfa if he could make money doing it.
Jon’s wines are a reflection of him: unpretentious and unafraid to try new things. Along with Amador County mainstays like barbera and zinfandel, he has also released interesting varieties like charbono and alicante bouschet.
Blend 16 A blend of 75% cabernet sauvignon, 25% mourvèdre. Released in August. A meaty full bodied wine that is seductive, yet allusive, conjuring up images of sun-drenched Southern Spain while maintaining that beautiful, black-cherry nose. This wine would pair well with a juicy pork loin during a Sunday dinner with family or friends.
Humbug Hill Red 100% Zinfandel. 13.9% ABV. A nice, light, cherry red, and restrained Sierra Foothills beauty at a reasonable price point. Throw a couple of burgers and hot dogs on the grill. The Humbug Red is your casual weeknight grilling and chilling companion.
Leoni Farms Tasting Room 67 Main Street Sutter Creek CA 95685 (209) 256-5175 firstname.lastname@example.org Hours Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday 1:00 pm–5:00 pm Friday and Saturday 11:00 am–6:00 pm Sunday 11:00 am–5:00 pm Closed Tuesday
About Writer Joe Campbell Based out of the Sierra Foothills of California, Joe Campbell, aka Sierra Wine Guy on social media, is an experienced software technology solutions consultant by day while spending his weekends and evenings working on the family farm and ranch properties while providing color commentary as well as insight within the wine industry both from the lifestyle consumer and business segments of the industry. Bio Courtesy of The Vintner Project.
I have visited plēb urban winery in Asheville, North Carolina, three times over the course of the past five months: October 2018, November 2018, and January 2019. I am planning another visit this month, February 2019, so make that four visits. This may qualify me as a plēbeian and that is OK. I am delighted to share my latest wine crush with you, my readers. (See what I did there?)
plēb urban winery opened in September 2018 offering wines from various regions. However, their mission is to produce small-lot NC wines with grapes sourced within a two-hour radius of Asheville. To date, plēb has released three of their 2018 wines: a rare Maréchal Foch rosé from Appalachian High Country (8.8% ABV), a Chardonnay Pét-Nat from Henderson County (10.1% ABV), and an effervescent, Cayuga-based wine in a can called exuberant white (12.2% ABV). I have tasted all three and enjoyed them immensely because they are a palate match to my Hs (Hypersensitive) Vinotype, with their lower alcohol, higher acidity, no added sulfites, and a “less is more” approach to winemaking. The wines are kegged and offered by the glass or growler. The most intriguing of the three for me has been following the evolution of the Maréchal Foch rosé. When I initially tasted it in November 2018, its higher acid was more pronounced. However, when I tasted it again in January 2018, it was like tasting a different wine. The bright fruit flavors and acid were much more harmonious.
What I most love about plēb is that the winery is bringing Western North Carolina wine to the forefront of Asheville’s craft beverage market, especially to a younger generation of buyers, most of whom are likely craft beer drinkers since Asheville is such a beer destination. I also enjoy plēb because they are changing what the vision of a winery is. The vibe is anti-establishment and anti-traditional regarding the varietal wines they make, their winemaking style, their packaging, and their marketing. Different is good for all wine consumers.
To delve into plēb’s philosophy and approach to winemaking, the wine industry, the urban winery environment, and wine marketing, I interviewed the team: co-owner and business manager, Lauren Turpin; co-owner and winemaker, Chris Denesha; and assistant winemaker, Tyler Kay. Below is the story of plēb urban winery in their own words.
What inspired you to get into the winemaking business? Lauren: The surge of craft beer and local breweries had me wondering if a similar local tap room approach and concept could be applied to wine. I wanted to start a business that produced a product, engaged with the community and filled a gap in the market. After doing some research, I believed this could be achieved through an urban winery. And that, while I’m not the winemaker, is how I got into the winemaking business. Chris: It’s the farming and growing aspect that got me into the business. There is something beautiful about working with the land and partnering to make something that has the unique ability to age for a long time and tell its unique story of place and history. Being a part of growing grapes and making wine has more to do with the place and year in which the grapes were grown than anything else. I got into winemaking more as I saw the identity being stripped away from our local grapes and wine to fit a more homogenized and marketable palate. It’s simply not representative of what most people love about wine and we are losing that connection without anyone really knowing that it’s happening. Tyler: Wine sparked my curiosity in college. My “ah-ha” bottle was a 2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir from California. I never tasted anything like it, and I needed to know why. I bought a wine encyclopedia and dove right in. After college, I worked on a vineyard in southern Utah. Then I started my path towards becoming a sommelier. I love to travel, but when you’re balling on a budget, I would study regions and plan a trip. It helped shaped my winemaking style and kept the dialogue of travel alive.
Why and how did you select your location? Lauren: We selected our location in the River Arts District for its size, accessibility and neighborhood. Wine is art and to be surrounded by hundreds of artists throughout the district, it felt like a natural fit. The size of the space allows us to produce and grow. It also enables us to provide a full-production winery and tap room experience to a large audience. Lastly, being two miles from downtown and Biltmore Village and next to West Asheville, we are well situated to serve locals and tourists.
How did you choose the name plēb? Lauren: The plebeian spirit and their admiration for the gods of agriculture, fertility and viticulture led us to select the unique name. Our focus is on local growers, pursuing local vineyards and grapes that will grow well here in Western North Carolina. We seek to pay growers for their crops a rate that enables them to reinvest in their land. Farmers, winemakers, artists, in Roman times these were the plebeians that were the economic backbone and underappreciated of society. We want to put them front and center.
Will you please share with us details about the winery’s design and décor, both the tasting room and the working winery? Lauren: Being in the River Arts District and among the large murals, we wanted to bring that design inside since we have large walls befitting their skills.
What is plēb’s winemaking style or philosophy? Chris and Tyler: We grew up playing baseball, and both of our fathers taught us the old school philosophy of things. I’d say that mentality is carried over in the winery. Old world winemaking with modern technology. This means low intervention in the cellar. Hand destemmed, foot crushed reds. Whole cluster pressed whites and rosés. Only non-competitive yeast strains, or 100% wild spontaneous fermentation. We even used fermenting wine to pitch on new juice to promote fermentation. No sulfur added, no fining or filtering. Just a cold cellar temperature to age, and we’re BIG fans of barrel aging on fine lees. We work in a cold climate and we want to see the reward of patience in time, not heat to showcase these wines.
What kind of vineyard partnerships does plēb seek or have? What are your criteria for selecting partners and vineyard sources? Chris: We manage about 5 acres up in the Boone area. The rest of our grapes are all contract based with an emphasis on new small growers. We’re focused on Western North Carolina, which is generally higher elevation vineyard sites ranging from 2,100-3,400 ft. We want to build a united mentality for the future and longevity of this new wine growing region. Recognizing our temperate rainforest continental climate and acting accordingly with the right varietals. We believe highlighting French American hybrids and native varieties as quality grapes, along with shorter growing season Vitis vinifera.
Why does plēb sell wines by the glass, growler, cans, and/or on tap instead of traditional bottles? Lauren: We have a commitment to be environmentally friendly and sustainable, not just in the vineyard but throughout our operation. Therefore, we do not bottle in mass. Using stainless steel kegs, we keep the equivalent of 78 bottles of wine free from light and oxygen for an extended amount of time. The growler option allows customers flexibility to choose any wine on tap to-go. Our cans are great for three reasons – first, they are recyclable, second, they are convenient for our outdoor enthusiasts, and third, it’s 375mL or two glasses of wine, which is a good size for one person or two to split. If you see any of our wine in a bottle it’s because either the wine or the retailer demanded it in that format.
Does the winemaking team have any favorite wines to make? Why? Lauren: Sparkling because they’re my favorite to drink! Chris: Sparkling because of bottle variation, you never know what you’re going to get! Tyler: Rosés because so much is dependent on the chemistry of the grapes to dictate the winemaking.
Besides the winery, where can we find your wines? Lauren: Select retailers, breweries and restaurants in the Asheville area.
Do you have any additional information you would like to share with the readers, such as forthcoming wine releases, events, etc.? Lauren: I see us as revolutionaries and advocates for WNC grapes and wines and I call upon all those who want to revolt to join us. We will have new single varietal wines and blends coming out on a regular basis throughout the year. Best to check our website and social media for up-to-date information. Tyler: Live life with no regrets, and everybody Wang Chung tonight.
My passion for zinfandel made the way it ought to be was reignited when I tasted this sample from Oakville’s Highlands Winery. It is not often that I use the word lovely and elegant when describing a zinfandel, but this is just that. Black cherry fruit and mouthwatering acidity lead into a subtle peppery finish. Structured, yet restrained, all of this wine’s components, if you will, are woven together quite nicely, resulting in a zinfandel that will complement food, not overpower it. Sharing it with new friends from California, Illinois, and New York was the icing on the proverbial cake. I was delightfully reminded me why I moved to the Napa Valley to follow my dream of working in the wine industry.
Biltmore has been synonymous with quality and hospitality since the estate’s inception in 1895, with its French Renaissance-style château designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted of New York’s Central Park fame. Today, Biltmore continues as a family-owned, self-sustaining 8000-acre estate and world-class destination, with hotels, restaurants, shopping, a plethora of events and activities, and a winery, which replaced the beloved Biltmore Dairy Farms and opened to the public in 1985.
A visit to America’s Largest Home® includes a complimentary tasting at the winery, the most visited in the United States with around 600,000 visitors annually. Biltmore produces over 150,000 cases of wine to meet growing demand and universal appeal. The winery’s wine club has doubled annually the past three years and currently has around 6700 members at the time of this visit. Making around 50 wines for diverse palates and price points might seem like a daunting task, but not at Biltmore. After 32 years of winemaking – first as assistant winemaker, then winemaster – Bernard Delille, who retired in July 2018, along with Sharon Fenchak, who has been at Biltmore 19 years, have honed their craft, creating award-winning wines for everyone. The wines range from sweet to dry and include whites, reds, rosés, and sparkling wines. In addition to the complimentary tasting, Biltmore offers in-depth experiences such as the Premium Wine Tasting, Red Wine & Chocolate Tasting, Behind-the-Scenes Winery Tour & Tasting, Wine & Cheese Hour, and the seasonal Candlelight Winery Tour for an extra fee. With distinct wine collection categories and a Virtual Sommelier, the winery’s website assists online guests with finding wines and food pairing suggestions at all price points. Wines are widely available in the wholesale and direct-to-consumer markets. Biltmore ranks in the top 1% of wine businesses in the United States.
When the idea of a vineyard and winery first came to fruition in the early 1970s, George Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A.V Cecil, realized the challenge of growing wine grapes in North Carolina and led the charge for statewide research. Like other non-traditional, grape-growing regions, Biltmore and other state producers have had to prove themselves time and time again that Vitis vinifera grapes grown in North Carolina can produce high-quality wines. The reality is that not every grape variety is suited to North Carolina’s growing conditions and some consumers prefer the riper, fruit-forward styles produced in winegrowing areas like California. Thus, Biltmore produces wines from its 94 acres of estate vineyards; key winegrowers in Polk County (NC), Arroyo Seco Vineyards (Monterey, CA), Pietra Santa Winery (Ciegega Valley, CA), Tenbrink Vineyards (Solano County, CA); and California AVA wines from Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Napa Valley, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma County. Biltmore makes and finishes AVA-designed wines in those AVAs, per TTB law.
During a recent visit and tasting with Delille and Director of Business Development, Jeff Plack, Delille revealed that the honor of making such a large portfolio of wines from different vineyard locations is what makes winemaking at Biltmore exciting and why he has spent nearly his entire career here. Both he and Fenchak travel extensively to partner vineyard and winemaking facilities to ensure that all aspects of wine production, from vineyard to bottle, live up to Biltmore standards. Plack, a 12-year member of the wine business team, echoed Biltmore’s pledge to wine excellence across styles and price points, as well as took it a step further to emphasize that it is the winery’s renowned model of hospitality which first leads visitors to the winery, where they are treated to tasting experiences led by brand ambassadors empowered to deliver personalized experiences to wine novices and aficionados alike.
A tour of Biltmore’s production facility confirmed a real, working winery, complete with fermentation tanks, caves, and wines ready to be transported to the winery’s own fulfillment warehouse, not outsourced to a third-party company. It was also bottling day for one of Biltmore’s wines. The crew members were delighted to show off the winery’s bottling line, as they engaged in a friendly competition of most bottles produced in a day.
An opportunity to taste three of Biltmore’s estate wines, a Sonoma County wine, and an American AVA designated wine, demonstrated the exemplary breadth and depth of Delille’s and Fenchak’s winemaking talents. The tasting began with their grande dame sparkling wine, the 2015 Biltmore Estate® Château Reserve Blanc de Blancs, North Carolina ($50), which recently earned gold in the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. A favorite of the tasting, this wine showcases a lovely balance of zingy acidity, mouthwatering citrus, and a yeasty, creamy mousse. The second wine, the 2017 Biltmore Estate® Reserve Chardonnay, North Carolina ($24), is an outstanding value. Barrel fermentation, six to eight months of French and American oak aging, and malolactic fermentation gently cradle the wine’s zesty tree fruit flavors. The third wine, the 2016 Biltmore Estate® Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, North Carolina ($25), is proof that Biltmore can grow and make cabernet sauvignon in North Carolina and do it well. Its softer style and lower alcohol (13%) speak to those who think they do not enjoy red wines. In stark contrast stylistically to the first three wines, the 2015 Biltmore Estate® The Hunt, Sonoma County ($40 for the 2016 vintage), inspired by the estate’s former game hunts, is a robust, luscious, Bordeaux-style blend of 40% cabernet sauvignon, 35% cabernet franc, and 25% merlot, calling for rich meat dishes. At lunch in The Bistro, I enjoyed a glass of the NV Biltmore Estate® Blanc de Noir, American ($25), whose effervescence and vibrant red berry flavors paired exquisitely with the salmon dish of the day.
Biltmore’s reputation as a premium destination and lifestyle brand is unrivaled in the hospitality industry, so much so that they offer their own “immersion into luxurious world-class service” program through the International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) accredited Biltmore Center for Professional Development. This pursuit of excellence translates into every aspect of Biltmore, including the winery, which, after 33 years, continues to be a pioneer and a leader in American, East Coast, and North Carolina wine production.
For many, brunch is the earliest meal of the day when alcoholic beverages are deemed socially acceptable. It often conjures up images of Mimosas and Bloody Marys and calorie-laden breakfast and lunch foods, because after all, brunch is two meals rolled into one. People who brunch usually have limitless finances to spend on this leisurely and lavish, decadent meal. However, what if brunch were both more, and less, than that? What would happen if we envisioned brunch as a warm, casual meal for everyone, an educational experience, even a healthy approach to eating and drinking? The latter is the approach that friend, chef, and photographer, Gary Monday, decided to pursue when we planned our intimate brunch with friends.
Both Gary and I have been through major lifestyle changes in our lives, which have resulted in great weight losses and improved health and fitness. We both have learned which foods are good for our bodies. We also both discovered a passion for sparkling wines as standalone or food wines. They are lighter in style, lower in alcohol, available for all budgets, and fit with our newfound lifestyles.
With this vision, I invited sparkling wine producers to contribute to our brunch. We received seven wines at all price points from Italy, California, Michigan, and Virginia. Suggested retail prices ranged from $17 per bottle to $55 per bottle and case production ran the gamut from 109 cases to 240,000 cases. The samples included wines made both in the traditional and charmat methods, the difference being secondary fermentation in the bottle or tank. The wines were made from a variety of grapes: chardonnay, chardonel, glera, muscat, and pinots – noir, gris, and meunier.
Gary created a menu that he called Southern/Pacific Northwest infused food, a nod to both his North Carolina roots and current home in Seattle. His expenses were around $110 to feed six people, a brunch bargain. Food included bacon-wrapped jalapeño peppers; grilled pork loin and salmon; a kale, citrus, and pomegranate salad; a fresh fruit bowl; and biscuits and gravy. Since Gary is dairy free, he made dairy-free sausage gravy and purchased vegan biscuits from Redwing Café in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, along with making traditional milk-based sausage gravy and buttermilk biscuits. While all the food was amazing, the attendees delightfully discovered that the standouts were perhaps the healthiest foods: the grilled salmon; the kale, citrus, and pomegranate salad; the Redwing Café vegan biscuits; and the dairy-free gravy.
Gary learned the kale recipe in a dairy-free cooking class taught by Danielle Premo. Perfect for brunches and holidays, ingredients included kale from Full Circle – a community supported agriculture (CSA) delivery company – clementine oranges, pomegranate seeds, candied pecans, and Danielle’s dressing made from orange juice, vinegar, mustard, honey, salt, pepper, and olive oil. The kale is massaged with the dressing, left to sit for 15 minutes, then the clementine orange slices and pomegranate seeds added. The finished salad is garnished with the candied pecans. The beauty of this salad is that it can be prepared ahead of time without the kale becoming soggy. In fact, the flavors integrate the longer they are together.
For the dairy-free sausage biscuit gravy, Gary used the drippings from cooking bacon, sausage, and pork loins. He added all-purpose flour and cooked on medium heat until he had a thick paste in the pan. He introduced unsweetened cashew milk slowly until the desired consistency was achieved. He reduced the stove to low heat for simmering and thickening, stirring continuously, while adding salt and pepper to taste.
Gary bought vegan biscuits from Redwing Café, which specializes in healthy food options. I contacted the owners to ask what makes these biscuits vegan and they explained that they use olive oil and hemp milk in place of butter and buttermilk. After tasting these, I may never have another traditional biscuit again.
One of our brunch guests was Rhonda Hamlin, biscotti maker and owner of The Art of Crunch. As the dessert finale, in honor of National Biscotti Day, she contributed samples of her handcrafted biscotti, including a special test flavor for all of us to try and contribute our input as to the final recipe. It is not often I veer off my strict eating path, but these biscotti were a delicious way to conclude our brunch. To learn more about The Art of Crunch, visit this link to read my interview with Rhonda.
The beverage stars of our brunch were the seven sparkling wine samples we received. As an educational tasting experiment, we gave our guests an index card for each wine and asked that they take notes on the wines they enjoyed the most and with which foods, then we discussed the results. Below are our collective thoughts.
2017 Adami Vigneto Giardino Asciutto Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco Superiore Rive di Colbertaldo, SRP $22, 3700 cases produced
Across the board, our brunch attendees chose this wine as one of their top wines of the day, two writing “#1” and “Favorite! <3” on their index cards. In fact, someone said, “I didn’t know Prosecco could taste like this!” This floral, fruity, and spicy sparkling wine made from 100% glera, charmat method, was mesmerizing. It was also one of the most versatile food wines, pairing well with nearly everything, especially the fruit salad, biscuits with raspberry jam, even Rhonda’s biscotti.
2015 Enrico Serafino Brut Rosé Alta Langa DOCG, SRP $26, 5000 cases produced
This Brut Rosé, made from 100% pinot nero (noir) in the traditional method, was light in color, but big on flavor, exhibiting clean, bright raspberry and redcurrant flavors cradled in yeastiness. A hint of sweetness was beautifully offset by mouthwatering acidity. This wine was a perfect match for our kale salad.
2013 Frank Family Vineyards Blanc de Blancs, Carneros, SRP $55, 500 cases produced
This is wine that our attendees said tasted “the most like Champagne.” Made in the traditional method and hand riddled, the Blanc de Blancs was the elegant, grande dame of our brunch. Fine mousse, brioche, and freshly cut, tart apples dominated the palate of this lovely 100% chardonnay sparkler, which was the preferred pairing with grilled salmon and pork loin.
2014 Frank Family Vineyards Brut Rosé, Carneros, 2014 SRP $55, 1000 cases produced
I admit, I jumped the gun when I tasted this wine, exclaiming that it was my favorite. I am Brut Rosé gal through and through, and this blend of Carneros-grown 88% pinot noir and 12% chardonnay did not disappoint, bursting with red berries and a pleasantly creamy mouthfeel. One of our guests wrote, “Love it! This is great all by itself!” Our favorite food pairings were strawberries, the kale salad, and biscuits with raspberry jam. Click here to read how this wine gives back during the month of October.
NV L. Mawby/M. Lawrence Sex, Michigan, SRP $17, 246 cases produced
With a name like Sex and a price point of $17, how could you not like this wine? This sparkler, a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and muscat, was dry and crisp, with an interesting juxtaposition of cotton candy and white grapefruit on the palate, making it a fantastic accompaniment to fresh fruit. Exclaiming, “Yes, yes, yes!”, we drank every drop of this wine. Of course, it left us wanting more.
NV Mumm Brut Prestige, Napa Valley, SRP $24, 240,000 cases produced If you want a sparkling wine that consistently delivers palate-pleasing flavors and is and affordable enough to drink anytime you feel like bubbles, Mumm is the wine for you. A blend of 45% chardonnay, 45% pinot noir, and 10% pinot gris and meunier, Mumm’s signature wine is made in the traditional method. On the palate, think pears with a honeyed quality, coupled with soft effervescence. The Brut Prestige complemented rich foods like bacon-wrapped jalapeño peppers, biscuits and gravy, and grilled salmon. With a quarter of a million cases produced, Mumm is most likely available right around the corner from you.
2016 Rosemont of Virginia Brut, Virginia, SRP $25, 109 cases produced This wine was the most unique of all the wines we tasted. The only brut nature (no dosage) of the lineup and made from 100% chardonel (a cross between chardonnay and Seyval) using the charmat method, this wine showed zingy, citrus fruit flavors like white grapefruit, lemon, and lime. The bone dryness and racy acidity cut through the fattiest foods, like bacon-wrapped jalapeño peppers, sausage gravy, and grilled salmon. This vintage is sold out, but next year’s vintage will be released in early 2019.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.