Virginia Wineries Raising the Bar With Premium Experiences
By Matthew Fitzsimmons
Virginia Wineries Raising the Bar With Premium Experiences
Virginia offers wine lovers casual, come-as-you-are wine experiences which are rarely found in other wine regions. Patrons are usually walk-ins who partake in a self-guided wine flight or (more rarely during COVID) enjoy a tasting at the serving bar. Unless you’re planning to stay for a picnic or open a bottle, visits usually take no more than an hour and costs $10-$20.
But local wineries are increasingly embracing Napa-like luxury experiences, which usually include samples from older vintages, vineyard tours, and educational events. Many include comparison tastings of estate wine against high quality bottles from California or France. Others offer heavy bites made by farm-to-table chefs which compliment or contrasts the wine they are paired with.
Until recently these premium experiences were rare, usually only found at older wineries that could showcase their extensive wine library. But as the Virginia wine industry matures these experiences are increasingly available. Wineries founded a decade ago have come into their own, boasting not only top notch talent but picturesque venues that compare well to famous estate wineries elsewhere in the world.
These experiences come at a price, often ranging from $50-$125. But for those who want to spoil themselves with the best Virginia wineries have to offer, here are a few recommendations.
RdV – The RdV Experience ($120)
Owner and namesake Rutger de Vink practically wrote the book on how to operate a premium Virginia winery. Many would argue it’s the most famous Virginia winery in the United States; it’s certainly among the most expensive in Virginia. But put this into context; RdV provides a curated experience with wines that easily match expensive bottles from Bordeaux or California, so you’re getting what you paid for.
Visitors start with a personal tour of the grounds with a guide who explains why this location is so special for viticulture. A great deal of thought went into the location’s design, be it the long underground passageway or the tower/lightwell in the middle of the building.
The RdV team is top notch. Both Rutger and winemaker Josh Grainer were mentored at Linden Vineyards by Jim Law, one of Virginia’s premiere winemakers. It also includes blending master Eric Boissenoit. Wine connoisseurs may recognize this name because he decides the blends of 4 out of 5 “First Growth” Bordeaux châteaus, the premiere wineries of Bordeaux’s Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant Left Bank.
While the crew richly deserves their many accolades, perhaps the key to RdV’s success is…rock.
The winery sits on a large granite hill. This is perfect for a vineyard; granite minimizes water retention and soil nutrients, forcing the vines to struggle. It’s a counter-intuitive way to farm. ‘Happy’ vines don’t produce good wine grapes, but vines that struggle put all their effort into ripening their fruit – which results in great wine.
After your tour you will be offered a glass of prestige cuvee champagne and a comparison flight including their Left Bank-style Lost Mountain, a Second Growth Bordeaux, and a quintessential Napa Cabernet. Also included is a paired charcuterie presentation.
Stone Tower Winery: Estate Experience ($125) and the SOMMinar Series ($75+)
Stone Tower occupies over 400 acres just north of Middleburg. Open since 2013, it’s expanded beyond the original family-friendly Harvest Barn to include an adults-only tasting facility and soon will also have its own building for sparkling wine events.
The drive up Hogback Mountain Road is a study in contrasts. The forested road is often unpaved and dusty, yet when you arrive you are rewarded with one of the grandest wineries in the state. The sweeping views of the vineyard from their deck is equally impressive.
While they have their own estate wine, saying Stone Tower sources fruit from around the world is an understatement. Their Pinot Noir is from a project in Burgundy. They’ve had West Coast Rieslings. Their Wild Boar series includes California Cabernets. It’s like they’ve picked the best wine regions from around the world and decided to use their grapes to make wine alongside their Virginia counterparts.
While visitors can sample flights at either tasting room, Stone Tower recently upped their game with an expanded Estate Experience, in addition to their SOMMinar series.
The Estate Experience is a two hour event which takes you on a golf cart ride where you will do a tasting amongst the vines and chat about viticulture. You finish at their wine library where you’ll sample a paired three course meal with older vintages.
Stone Tower’s “SOMMinars” are a series of wine comparisons designed to be both educational and fun. Each event focuses on a single style or variety of wine, with estate bottles sampled along with examples from the Old and New World. In 2021 alone they’ve had SOMMinars focused on Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Sparkling, Rosé, and Bordeaux-style wines. Attendees can look forward to a history of the varietal and where the guest producers come from.
Pippin Hill is located just outside Charlottesville. Owners Dean Andrews and Lynn Easton know a thing or two about five-star hospitality; both have an extensive background in event planning and hospitality management. They also know how to find the best talent, since winemaker Michael Shaps and vineyard consultant Chris Hill are two of the biggest names in the Virginia wine industry.
Not only is Pippin Hill one of the largest wineries in the Charlottesville area, it’s one of the few with its own farm-to-table restaurant. Seasonal menus include a range of sharable plates designed to go with their estate wine.
Pippin Hill may also be the only winery in the area which has its own cooking school, with classes led by Executive Chef Ian Rynecki. Upcoming events include a Columbiana cooking class and lessons on how to shuck, season, and serve mussels. These events include a tour, hands-on demonstration, and dinner with the chef afterwards (private classes are also available).
The Reserved Guided Wine Experience is 90 minutes of sipping, strolling, and savoring. Guests are greeted with a glass of sparkling wine followed by a walking tour of the vineyards and gardens.
After your tour, it’s all about cheese and wine. Michael Shaps is called “Virginia’s most award-winning winemaker” for a reason, and the pours here are generous. You’ll try an assortment of barrel tastings plus a flight of current and reserve vintages, concluding with a charcuterie picnic.
Have you tried any of these events? If so, let us know!
About the Author: Matthew Fitzsimmons is a blogger who has visited nearly every winery in Virginia – most of them twice. Track his progress at https://winetrailsandwanderlust.com/.