Virginia Is for (Wine and Oyster) Lovers
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Like a growing number of 21st-century travelers, I base vacations around eating and drinking an area’s finest foodstuffs as opposed to getting distracted by predictable tourist traps. So on a recent trip to Virginia, I focused on two of the state’s culinary treasures: oysters and wine. I had no prior knowledge about how diverse the landscape was in each respective industry, and I learned that it would be quite a mission to experience everything the state has to offer in a single visit. And that’s a great thing, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have tons of free time and a strong inclination to sip, slurp, and savor. Let’s get to the specs:
With so many renowned wine regions in the world, it’s tough for relative newcomers like Virginia to get attention. But Virginia winemakers sure are trying. The state boasts more than 230 wineries and nine winemaking regions, from the Heart of Appalachia to Hampton Roads and up to the Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia. To bolster its credibility, the Commonwealth currently contains seven American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), each known for possessing a terroir that contributes to high-quality grapes and wines.
Within each region are winemakers who are pushing the boundaries of creativity with their varietals. Vintners like Kevin Jones and Andrea Kephart of New Kent Winery (about 20 miles east of Richmond) concoct a light chardonnay that goes great with oysters, but also put out unsung styles like white merlot, vidal blanc, and white norton. Drive 10 miles further east and you’ll hit Saudé Creek Vineyards, known for blends like the award-winning Pamunkey Fall (chardonnay plus chardonel) and offbeat single-varietals like chambourcin. In the center of the state near Charlottesville, you’ll discover pinot noir, gewürztraminer and super-Tuscans at Afton Mountain Vineyards and sparkling whites and viognier from Veritas; above the Rappahannock River near the Chesapeake Bay, you’ll find sangiovese, petit manseng and albariño from Ingleside, located on a 50-acre stretch in the Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace AVA that used to be a plantation.
And that’s just the skin of the grape. There are more than 25 wine trails for adventurous oenophiles to hike (tipsy or otherwise) that provide sprawling scenic views of mountains, hills, and lush greenery. Visit in October and early November for the most picturesque foliage, as well as an abundance of events (October is wine month in Virginia and there are oyster festivals aplenty in November). Which brings us to:
Variety was the theme with vino, and it carries over to this category, as well. Virginia has seven oyster regions, each imbuing a different flavor profile into the bivalves growing within them. Some sections produce sweeter shellfish; others yield oysters with a creamier taste. The Seaside and Tidewater regions turn out the strongest in terms of salinity, with the five inner areas of the Chesapeake Bay imparting a moderate level of salt into their oysters.
My first stop in Virginia was to the Rappahannock Oyster Co. farm, located in Topping (about 50 miles east of Richmond and north of Virginia Beach) on the Rappahannock River. Co-owners (and cousins) Travis and Ryan Croxton are pioneers in bringing the Chesapeake back to its former glory as an oyster-producing powerhouse, taking over the family business their great-grandfather J.A. Croxton started in the late 1800s. Going against the advice of their grandfather and fathers, who had witnessed the deterioration of the Bay’s oyster populations and, as a result, its water quality, they decided to team up and makeover the company for a new generation, with the goal of making their Virginia oysters available on a consistent basis.
Running through the Old Dominion, the oyster trail highlights a variety of locally owned establishments like restaurants, wineries, and lodgings, as well as cultural sites and art studios. Most uniquely, the trail features behind-the-scenes tours of agri-artisan businesses where you will help sort tasty oysters directly from the cage and pull crab pots.
Comprised of eight small towns and 465 miles of shoreline, the River Realm isn’t a kingdom from your favorite fantasy series but an area of Virginia carved through its center by the Rappahannock River. This serene region is ideal for sailing as well as sharing a scenic seafood meal starring — what else — oysters.
Oysters grown in Virginia and on the east coast are a species which tends to take on the flavor (called “merroir”) and salinity level of the waters in which they grow and are harvested. This merroir is most apparent when oysters are tasted raw, with no accompaniment or with a bit of lemon juice, vinegar, cocktail sauce, or varied-ingredient oyster sauces often called a mignonette.
Virginia oysters are divided into eight “flavor” regions. The general flavor profiles for oysters from each of these regions are outlined on the website, though oysters harvested less than a half-mile apart can have distinctly different flavors.
Hope Ranch Mussels
- ½ cup olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1-inch piece ginger, peeled
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 quart tomato sauce
- 2 ½ tablespoons ground turmeric
- 2 tablespoons coriander powder
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1 ¾ tablespoon paprika
- 1 tablespoon chile powder
- 2 tablespoon lemon juice
- ¼ cup cream
- 5 pounds mussels
- 1 cup cilantro leaves
Heat olive oil on high in pot. Lower heat and add cloves garlic and ginger, and sauté for 5 minutes. Add yellow onion and salt. Cook onion until soft, 5–10 minutes. Add tomato sauce, turmeric, coriander powder, cumin, paprika and chili powder. Season with salt, to taste. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and add lemon juice and cream. Cook for 5 minutes to merge flavors.
In different saucepan, bring sauce and mussels to full boil and cook until all mussels open. Add water, to thin, if desired. Remove any unopened mussels and garnish with 1 cup cilantro leaves. Serves 4.
Alejandro Medina, Bibi Ji’s managing partner, recommends Lo-Fi 2016 Riesling (Santa Barbara County). “The texture and acidity in the wine balance the saltiness and spice of our mussels,” he says.
“Lo-Fi winemakers Mike Roth and Craig Winchester produce wines in a natural form and work with organically farmed vineyards.”
Tortoise Creek 2017 Cuvée Jeanne Sauvignon Blanc (Central Coast) is a casual option with mellow and refreshing lime, apple and guava notes to balance the spice.
Courtesy Pat Donahue, executive chef, Anthony’s Restaurants, Seattle
Dungeness crab is a Washington delicacy. This hearty fall recipe from Pat Donahue at Anthony’s Restaurants brings a wonderful richness of flavor, with the crab served over a delicate “soufflé,” or pudding, of cornbread. The combination plays perfectly off a Washington State Chardonnay.
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 cob corn, shucked
- 2 tablespoons diced red pepper
- 1½ teaspoons minced basil
- 1½ teaspoons lime juice
- 1½ teaspoons orange juice
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
- ½ cup whole milk
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 1½ cups crumbled cornbread (ingredients and recipe below)
- 4 eggs
- ¼ teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
- 12 ounces Dungeness crab leg meat
- 4 sprigs tarragon or microgreens, for garnish
- 2 cups warm Creamy Lobster Sauce (ingredients and recipe below)
Heat oven to 350˚F. Melt 2 tablespoons butter and brush onto corn. Place on baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Hold cob with pointed top turned down against a cutting board. Carefully cut kernels off and add to bowl with red pepper, basil, lime juice and orange juice. Season with salt, to taste. Toss gently to combine. Extra salsa can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
Reduce oven to 325˚F. Bring milk to boil in small saucepan over high heat. Add cream, then remove from heat and pour over crumbled cornbread. Set aside until liquid is absorbed. In separate bowl, whisk eggs, 1½ teaspoons salt and pepper. Fold into cornbread mixture. Butter 8×8-inch pan with remaining 2 tablespoons butter, pour in batter. Place in larger roasting pan, and fill roasting pan with enough hot tap water to come halfway up sides of small pan. Bake for 20 minutes or until custard is set in center. Remove from oven and hot water bath to cool. Cut into 4 squares.
Divide cornbread soufflé between 4 plates or shallow bowls. Distribute crab meat among plates. Ladle ½ cup lobster sauce around and on top of soufflé. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons roasted corn salsa around pudding and crab. Garnish with tarragon or microgreens. Serves 4.
- ¾ cups all-purpose flour
- ½ cup cornmeal
- ½ cup plus 2 teaspoons sugar
- ¼ cup corn flour
- 1½ tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 1¼ cups plus 1½ teaspoons whole milk
- 1 egg
Heat oven 325˚F. In large bowl, mix together all dry ingredients. In separate bowl, mix together melted butter, milk and eggs. Add to dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Pour into buttered 9×13-inch baking dish. Bake for 20 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven. Gently flip onto cutting board, to cool.
In small bowl, combine ¾ cup water, 4 teaspoons lobster base (like Better Than Bouillon) and 4 teaspoons tomato paste. Whisk until well mixed. In medium saucepan, melt 1½ tablespoons unsalted butter over medium-high heat. Add 6 tablespoons flour and whisk for 1–2 minutes to make roux. Slowly add 3 cups heavy whipping cream, and bring to boil, whisking to keep flour from sticking to pot. Add lobster base mixture and whisk until combined. Use silicone spatula to get roux out from corners of pot, and whisk well. Stir in ⅛ teaspoon sugar, ½ teaspoon Pernod or Sambuca, 3 tablespoons Lillet Blanc, and salt and pepper, to taste. Use immediately or keep warm in double broiler. Makes about 1 quart.
Woodward Canyon 2018 Chardonnay (Washington) is a luxurious wine with lemony acidity that is a perfect counterpoint to the sweet seafood and corn in this dish. A kiss of new French oak adds enough texture to stand up to such rich food, helps compliment the creaminess of the lobster sauce and ensures crab remains the star.
Courtesy Jim Richard, chef/owner, Stinky’s Fish Camp, Santa Rosa Beach, FL
Stinky’s Fish Camp, in beachfront South Walton County on the Florida panhandle, is a prime spot to enjoy “Gulf-to-table” cuisine, including Gulf oysters prepared nine different ways. These oysters are large, meaty and perfect for baking, but you can use any large variety for this recipe.
- 12 Gulf (or other large) oysters on the half shell
- 1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
- 1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
- 1 teaspoon minced shallot
- 2 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
- ¾ cup grated smoked Gruyère
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish
- 4 lemon wedges, for to garnish
Heat oven to 400˚F. Place oysters in a shallow baking dish.
Mix together butter, lemon juice, horseradish, Tabasco and shallot. Divide among oysters (about 2 teaspoons per oyster). Divide bacon and cheese among oysters.
Bake until cheese is bubbling, 7–9 minutes. Serve immediately, with chopped parsley sprinkled on top and lemon wedges alongside. Serves 4 as an appetizer.
Cooked Gulf oysters go beautifully with Gulf-adjacent sparkler William Chris 2018 Pétillant Naturel Rosé (Texas). Though it has refreshingly spritzy bubbles and crisp acidity, it has the expressive fruit and body to stand up to the dish’s bold flavors.
Richard also loves local brew Grayton Beer Company 30A Beach Blonde Ale with these oysters. “It’s crisp and dry with just a hint of sweetness,” he says.
Courtesy Damian Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez, chefs/owners, Chaval, Portland, ME
A classic noodle dish from the coast of Spain is re-envisioned for the New England shore at Chaval in Portland, Maine. Here, married partners Ilma Lopez and Damian Sansonetti interpret classic, bistro-style French and Spanish dishes to show off seasonal local ingredients—in this case, sweet, juicy lobster. Have your fishmonger steam it for you, if you like.
- 2 cups mayonnaise
- 14–18 cloves garlic
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon Sherry vinegar
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 Spanish onions, small diced
- 2 cups chopped tomatoes, excess liquid drained
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika
- ½ cup Sherry
- 3 cups fideos (or thin vermicelli pasta broken into 1-inch pieces)
- 12 ounces Spanish chorizo, small diced
- 2½–3 quarts lobster broth (use store bought, or see ingredients and directions below)
- 4 ounces piquillo pepper, small diced
- 13–16 ounces cooked lobster meat, cut into bite-size pieces
- 1 cup julienned snow peas, for garnish
- 1 small bunch chives, fine chopped, for garnish
One to 5 days before serving dish, mix together mayonnaise, 6–8 minced cloves garlic, mustard and vinegar. Refrigerate.
To cook, heat oven to 350˚F.
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in pan over medium heat. Add 1 onion and remaining 8–10 cloves garlic, and cook until fragrant, 1–2 minutes. Add tomatoes, tomato paste and 1 tablespoon of paprika, and cook, stirring gently to combine, 3–4 minutes. Add Sherry and 1 teaspoon salt, and cook to combine, 3–4 minutes. Remove from heat.
Spread fideos on baking sheet or in shallow, flat-bottomed pot. Toast in oven until golden brown, 6–7 minutes, rotating once halfway through.
In large braising pan, warm remaining olive oil. Add chorizo and remaining onion. Stir in 2 heaping tablespoons tomato mixture and remaining paprika. Add fideos, and stir to coat, then add lobster broth and pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring about every minute. (The less you stir, the more crust or “soccrat” will form on bottom). Cook until almost all liquid is absorbed, adding more broth if noodles aren’t tender. Stir in lobster meat and piquillo peppers, and cook until lobster is warmed through, about 2 minutes. Garnish with snow peas and chives, and either dollop with mayonnaise mixture or pass at the table. Serves 6.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4-6 lobster carapace, cut into medium pieces
- 1 medium onion, large diced
- 8 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 large carrot, large diced
- 2 ribs celery, large diced
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds (optional)
- Zest of 1 orange
- 14-ounce can chopped tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 cup dry white wine
Warm oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add lobster shells and vegetables, and cook until lobster starts to turn red. Add herbs, spices and orange and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Deglaze with white wine and tomato paste, cook for about 3 minutes, then add tomatoes water to cover (about 3 quarts). Bring to a simmer and cook to meld flavors, about 30 minutes. Strain.
Made in Maine from Northeast-grown fruit, Oyster River Winegrowers 2018 Morphos Pétillant Naturel (America) is a barn-fermented pét-nat with a little bit of skin contact that provides just the right structure to stand up to this tomatoey dish. On the palate, it’s light and lemony enough to ensure the lobster stays squarely in the spotlight.
For a richer alternative with some mineral undertones, look to Spain and Avancia 2017 Cuvée de O Godello (Valdeorras).
9 Great Virginia Mountain Wines
The story of vinifera in Virginia begins—and, for a couple of centuries, ends—with Thomas Jefferson. A Francophilic wine buff, the third president planted imported vines that failed, blighted by the parasite phylloxera. Contemporary winemakers have been more successful, while retaining Jefferson’s Continental bent. Indeed, it’s surprising how many Europeans you meet at wineries in the Piedmont and other mountainous Virginia areas—until you check the weather report. “The difference between a good and a great year in Bordeaux is when and how much rain comes,” says Jay Youmans, head judge of the Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition. “Bringing over Europeans with experience with those conditions makes a lot of sense.” Where 30 years ago, red wines here had a vegetal quality, today trellising and other methods that help grapes ripen and inhibit mildew have resulted, in particular, in polished, food-friendly Bordeaux-style blends.
RdV Lost Mountain 2009 ($88) The celebrated new kid on the block, this Northern Virginia winery has worked with a consultant from L’Universite de Bordeaux to create stunning blends in the manner of that French region. This intense cabernet sauvignon-driven red smacks of liquorice and ruby port it would be dynamite with a steak au poivre.
**Trump Monticello Rose 2011 ($14) **A blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot goes into this crisp, minerally rose. An aroma of fallen leaves and underbrush along with a Bing-cherry, slightly floral flavor makes it a lovely bottle for Thanksgiving it can pair successfully with the turkey and fixings as well as the pumpkin pie that follows.
**Potomac Point Richland Reserve Heritage 2009 ($29) **The winemaker is Italian, but the blend (nearly half merlot, with cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, and petit verdot) is all Bordeaux in this soulful red from the banks of the Potomac. Its bacony, meaty character makes it a great wine for barbecued meats.
**Barboursville Malvaxia Passito 2007 ($32) **Modern Virginia winemaking started here in 1976 when an Italian wine scion, Gianni Zonin, established a vineyard (and, later, an inn) on an estate graced with the picturesque ruins of a Jefferson-designed stately home. This lush dessert wine is made with a white Mediterranean variety that is air-dried for four months to concentrate its richness. It tastes deliriously of ripe apricots.
Bluestone Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($30) From the Shenandoah Valley on Virginia’s western border comes this beautiful cabernet, whose character is in perfect poise between bright acidity and dark, oaky tannins between velvety, stewed-fruit flavors and smoky spice. It would be wonderful with a slow-cooked winter stew, especially if you save a few sips to enjoy with a chocolate dessert.
Barboursville Octagon 2008 ($50) Perhaps Virginia’s most prominent bottle, Barboursville’s flagship wine deserves the attention it gets. A big but balanced Bordeaux blend in which the cabernet sauvignon really stands out, it’s full of the energetic black fruit, chocolate, and coffee notes that pair so well with beef.
White Hall Gewurztraminer 2011 ($20)Though it might surprise wine drinkers who think of gewurtztraminer as a cold-climate grape, the aromatic white variety does well in temperate Virginia. This Charlottesville-area winery blends in petit manseng to lift the wine’s acidity. It’s less flinty than Alsatian-style gewurtztraminers, but more versatile: Its subtle, lychee-flower sweetness and hints of sage and spice make it a match for many dishes on the Thanksgiving table.
King Family Meritage 2010 ($28) Having worked throughout his native France, winemaker Matthieu Finot makes Meritage, one of Virginia’s signature Bordeaux-style blends, with an experienced hand. It shows in the bright, red berry flavors, toasty vanilla tannins, and delightful barnyard funk of this lithe red.
Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir 2010 ($35) It’s a tough grape to grow under wet conditions, but this vineyard pulls it off, creating a light-bodied pinot noir that strikes a balance between jammy California fruit and earthy Burgundian flavor. It’s a great wine for pork.
Pairings: Oysters Galore
If the first two rules of pairing wine with food are, one, to drink what you want, and two, to drink the cuisine, then nothing proves the third rule &ndash it&rsquos the accents, not the main ingredients &ndash better than oysters. This pearl of the sea that’s slurped with delight can be eaten raw, fried, baked, or in stew, but one thing’s for sure: It’s an inspiration for chefs and wine-lovers everywhere.
When it comes to the raw material, North America&rsquos best come from Chincoteague Island (Virginia), Chesapeake Bay (Maryland), Prince Edward Island (Canada) and Great South Bay (Long Island), though our friends from Louisiana to Maine might argue.
The best recipe competition is a bit harder, and depends on whether raw, steamed, grilled, or &ldquosouped&rdquo is the preferred method. The oyster&rsquos versatility yields numerous flavors and textures, plus it offers numerous possibilities for wine matching.
Slurp raw oysters from the half shell with Muscadet or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, whose lime accents pair well with the briny flavors of oysters fresh from the sea. Sometimes the raw material is topped with a chef&rsquos own creation, such as the Oysters Ceviche at Sea Catch in Washington, D.C. They&rsquore served with a crown of pico di gallo, a recipe that sings for a dry rosé.
Grilled oysters have grown in popularity and have migrated from their birthplace in the Louisiana and Alabama seaside to the backyard barbecues of the north. The smoky flavors and slight nuttiness acquired through the preparation quickly align with a soft, earthy Pinot Noir.
Far from raw, Oysters Rockefeller relies on a combination of greens with cayenne and bacon to spice up the recipe. Once baked, this dish will fill the room with its succulent aromas and turn even the heads of those who they never eat this little fruit of the sea. The greens, spice, and baked flavors call for a substantial wine like a French Chablis or Napa Valley lightly oaked Chardonnay.
Oyster stew, like seafood gumbo, is a mixing bowl of flavors and spices, with bacon, garlic, tomatoes, and a gaggle of greens all competing for attention. For this explosion of flavors, nothing will do quite like a Pinot Noir from Oregon, Carneros, or Russian River Valley.
Oyster chowder is a soup of a different color. The buttery textures of cream and subtle accents of leeks and thyme point toward Pinot Blanc as the perfect beverage. Otherwise, a steely unoaked Chardonnay works best in this setting.
With this range of flavors, it&rsquos even possible to choose your wine first, then search for the recipe that fits it.
—Virginia is for MUSIC Lovers—
Photo Credit for 18: Todd Wright
16. The Huss & Dalton CM acoustic guitar “is perfect whether you are a songwriter needing an inspirational writing tool or a discerning finger stylist, or perhaps a blend of both.”…Approximately $3389
17. Country music forces join together to pay tribute to the legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions. This collection has been described as haunting, timeless, and powerful. Available at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s store…$19.99
18. This is Fern & Roby’s flagship speaker, the Cube Speakers. Each cube pair is beautiful and has a superior performance…$1650
The Five Best Wine Road Trips in the U.S.
I&aposve been fortunate to travel to many wine regions, but somehow I have never fully explored the one right outside my door: Virginia. After being shut in for months and on the brink of going stir-crazy, though, I decided it was time to escape D.C. for greener pastures—ones that included wine. Virginia wine country is vast, with over 300 wineries and 4,000 acres of grapes, but I narrowed it down with this plan: I would visit only wineries with wines I had never tasted before. After achieving a deep, deep familiarity with the walls of my home, I was definitely in search of something new.
Casanel Vineyards & Winery, my first stop, was a little over an hour from home. Tucked down a winding road near Leesburg, in the heart of Virginia horse country, Casanel is run by the DeSouza family here, Katie DeSouza Henley and Tyler Henley craft some of Virginia&aposs best Petit Verdot. Though the DeSouzas also grow Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Cabernet Sauvignon, they focus on the grapes they feel best serve Virginia: Petit Verdot, Carmenère, and the native grape Norton.
Winemaker Katie DeSouza Henley feels Petit Verdot has the potential to be a signature Virginia wine: "The grapes are smaller, darker, and might not produce as much as Merlot, but it&aposs concentrated. And it&aposs considered an underdog, just like Virginia. People discredit it, but we don&apost. I feel we can take this blending grape and make an elegant varietal wine that is inherently Virginia."
From Casanel, the short drive to Otium Cellars was as scenic as they come: stone and brick homes, winding roads, horses grazing. Otium owner Max Bauer is a rare bird in Virginia because he concentrates on Austrian and German grape varieties𠅋laufränkisch, Zweigelt, Grüner Veltliner, and Grauburgunder (the German term for Pinot Gris). The winery&aposs Blaufränkisch and Grüner Veltliner were particularly delicious, with softer peppery notes than their Austrian counterparts I feel they should be on everyone&aposs radar.
Charlottesville&aposs The Wool Factory is a historic wool mill complex from 1868 recently converted to restaurants, shops, and an event space. Inside, Selvedge Brewing offers craft beers and more casual fare, while Broadcloth (opening soon) will be fine dining from executive chef Tucker Yoder and executive pastry chef Rachel De Jong. The unpretentious lunch I had felt like a home-cooked meal, but one made better by the lineup of wines, such as a crisp Blanc de Blancs Traditional Méthode Traditionnelle (made by acclaimed Virginia winemaker Claude Thibault). Paired with chicken liver mousse, it was a divine combination of fat and salt. And if the smoked mushroom tacos are on the menu, they are a must-try.
After lunch, it was time to head to Gabriele Rausse Winery. Rausse is considered the "father of Virginia wine" and did stints at Barboursville Vineyards and Jefferson Vineyards before branching out on his own in 1997. My wine rack thanks him because his 2017 Baer Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Franc Reserve is now on constant rotation in my glass. I also highly recommend hiring a driver to visit Ankida Ridge. The winery is quite a distance from downtown Charlottesville, about a 75-minute drive, but more than worth the trek. Co-owner and vineyard manager Christine Vrooman will welcome you as a member of the family, and the wines match her personality: vibrant, expressive, and focused.
Listen, I am not a member of the anything-but-Chardonnay club. I love Chardonnay, and Hark Vineyards makes one that truly represents Virginia. It doesn&apost have the warmth-driven richness of California nor the finesse of Burgundy, but it&aposs round and fragrant, with a savory character that lingers. "This is Virginia wine and speaks to Virginia," winemaker Jake Busching told me. "So when you start drinking this Chardonnay, it&aposs complex and interesting because for most people it&aposs an entirely new terroir."
Even so, I admit that at Fleurie restaurant later that night in Charlottesville, I cheated on Virginia with a glass of Champagne Bauget-Jouette, at least until wine director Melissa Boardman suggested a side-by-side comparison of Virginia and a few of the many international wines on her list during dinner. Linden Vineyards&apos Late Harvest Petit Manseng and a Domaine Rousset Peyraguey Sauternes both paired beautifully with chef Jose de Brito&aposs crème brûlພ and proved yet again that Virginia wines can go head to head with wines from anywhere else in the world.
The Quirk Hotel Charlottesville (rooms from $200, destinationhotels.com), where I stayed during my trip, blends modern and vintage touches. A boutique art hotel and a great home base for a Virginia wine trip, it has paintings and sculptures from national and regional artists on display around the property, as well as a substantial gallery. After enjoying a Pink Breeze—vodka, cucumber, raspberry, lime, and Prosecco—in one of the rooftop bar&aposs heated igloos, I headed to dinner at the Pink Grouse restaurant, just off the hotel lobby. After all, I didn&apost want to stay out too late—I still had to pack up all the wine I&aposd purchased before heading home.
2018 Stinson Vineyards Wildkat ($28)
This aromatic Rkatsiteli, an unusual white variety originally from the Republic of Georgia, is thirst-quenching in the best way.
2017 Gabriele Rausse Baer Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Franc Reserve ($34)
Rausse&aposs Cabernet Franc is elegant and ageworthy but also tastes so good that it deserves to be opened now.
2017 Hark Vineyards Chardonnay ($36)
Balanced and complex, this white has a whisper of oak—ideal for less-is-more Chardonnay fans.
2017 Casanel Vineyards & Winery Petit Verdot ($46)
This juicy, darkly fruity Petit Verdot reminds me of blackberry cobbler laced with rich tannins. It makes you wish more people made single-varietal Petit Verdot luckily, Casanel does.
2018 Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir ($52)
Simply one of the best Pinot Noirs coming out of Virginia, this bottle is bursting with red fruit and texture.
A wine drive through Hill Country.
If Napa Valley is California&aposs quintessential wine country, then the Hill Country plays that role for Texas. Getting here is as simple as a quick weekend flight to Austin, and with wildflower season in full swing, late spring is the perfect time to visit𠅌owboy boots and convertible rental car optional.
On a recent trip, I based myself at Camp Lucy, just outside of Dripping Springs. Don&apost let the name fool you: Camp Lucy is a luxe outdoor hideaway on nearly 300 acres of untouched wilderness. With exquisitely decorated cabins and a lengthy menu of amenities and activities (hatchet throwing, anyone?), the place is simply enchanting.
My first morning, I headed out U.S. Highway 290, the central corridor for Hill Country wineries, making my first stop at Ron Yates Wines, where I snagged a shady seat on the outdoor patio. Yates, with his long hair, full beard, and flip-flops, roamed from table to table, doling out splashes of a newly bottled 2019 Merlot. "I grew up in a place where everything was always comfortable and easygoing," Yates, who&aposs originally from nearby Marble Falls, told me. "I wanted to bring that same feeling of casualness to our guests."
Just a few miles away, at Sandy Road Vineyards (run by Yates&apos associate winemaker, Reagan Sivadon), a treehouse platform overlooking the vineyard proved the perfect spot to sip a fruity pét-nat rosé made from the Spanish Prieto Picudo variety.
That evening, I returned to Camp Lucy for dinner at Tillie&aposs restaurant, which was built from a reclaimed 19th-century Vietnamese town hall with towering ironwood rafters that had been transported to central Texas. A plate of orange-chile-sauced fried brussels sprouts followed by an entrພ of red snapper in a creamy Meunière sauce proved a soulful meal, and I strolled back to my cabin beneath the hypnotic humming of cicadas.
Day two brought me to William Chris Vineyards, where, at a shady table overlooking the lush estate vineyards, I lingered over a floral blend of Blanc du Bois, Malvasia Bianca, and Moscato Giallo called Mary Ruth. At Ab Astris Winery, a newcomer located just over the glimmering Pedernales River, I encountered a minerally 2019 Clairette Blanche that made me hungry for fresh oysters. And at Texas stalwart Pedernales Cellars, I stretched out on a picnic blanket on the sprawling lawn and sipped on a tropical 2018 Albariño.
But my last appointment proved to be the most spectacular. Southold Farm and Cellar has one of the most stunning hilltop views in the entire Hill Country. The tasting room sits atop a lofty rise that offers a panoramic view of the region. Surprisingly, the winery got its start in Long Island in 2012 but transitioned to Texas&apos warmer climes in 2016, and winemaker Regan Meador has swiftly garnered a following for his lively, low-intervention wines. As I gazed out over rolling hills from the cozy porch swing of the farmhouse tasting room, I savored his nutty, skin-fermented Sing Sweet Things Albariño and thought to myself that when it came to Southold, New York&aposs loss was definitely our gain.
2018 Pedernales Cellars Texas Albariño ($20)
Fragrant, crisp apple and tropical fruit notes are the heart of this white.
2019 Ab Astris Aurora Rosé ($22)
A deep rosy hue leads to red-berry aromas and broad yet lifted flavors.
2017 Ron Yates friesen vineyards Tempranillo ($30)
This standout single-vineyard Tempranillo has rich dark fruit and tobacco notes.
2018 William Chris La Pradera Cinsault ($32)
An easy-drinking, playful red with cranberry and pomegranate flavors.
2018 Sandy Road Sangiovese ($34)
This earthy Sangiovese is elegantly structured, with rich notes of Bing cherry, mushroom, and savory herbs.
Great lakes and greater grapes.
I may be biasedਊs a native Michigander, but northern Michigan is one of the best-kept secrets in the country. Whenever I need an escape from it all, I head to the upper left corner of my mitten-shaped state to spend time amid the sweeping sand dunes, pristine lakes, and one of the most exciting up-and-coming wine regions in the country. Until recently, Michigan&aposs wines had a reputation for being cloyingly sweet: Think ice wines and super-sugary Rieslings. Now, thanks to a group of ambitious winemakers, there has never been a better time to drink them.
There are two main wine trails in this part of the state: Old Mission Peninsula, which runs up the middle of Grand Traverse Bay, and the Leelanau Peninsula, which runs along the west side of the bay. In the middle, at the bottom, sits Traverse City, an ideal base for winery-visiting. On a recent trip, hotel options were middling at best, but Airbnb options abounded. I rented a renovated farmhouse on the outskirts of the city, a three-minute drive from Farm Club, a photogenic place that&aposs a restaurant, brewery, bakery, and market𠅊nd a great spot to grab snacks like locally made cheese and crackers.
I set off the next morning armed with a hefty chilaquiles-stuffed burrito from Rose & Fern café and a foamy cappuccino from Mundos, a great local roaster, for Mission Point Lighthouse, the northernmost point of Old Mission Peninsula. I worked my way down, stopping off to try several wines from 2 Lads, where Oregon winemaker Thomas Houseman recently relocated. My favorite? A sparkling rosé that made a chilly day feel like summer. I kept driving, at times pulling over just to stare in awe at the breathtaking views of Lake Michigan, and finally arrived at Mari Vineyards. An impressive operation, it feels straight out of a Dan Brown novel thanks to the Knights Templar iconography on the building. This is where winemaker Sean O&aposKeefe spends his time, exploring hands-off winemaking techniques. Mari also happens to be just up the road from Chateau Grand Traverse, the first winery in the region, which O&aposKeefe&aposs father founded in 1974 and his family still owns.
A day of wine drinking, I found, is best sopped up with plates of housemade pasta and clever salads, like one crafted from paper-thin slices of celery and mushroom, from Stella Trattoria, which is arguably the most famous restaurant in the area, and for good reason. I woke up the next morning hungover—not from wine but instead from the sheer amount of carbohydrates I had managed to consume.
But I hauled myself out of bed regardless. It was time to head up the Leelanau Peninsula, which has nearly 30 wineries. First, I headed down a shady lane, to Shady Lane cellars, one of the only operations in the area with a female winemaker. I found their canned wine selection incredibly charming and grabbed a few before heading to one of the best-known vineyards in the area, Mawby. There, brothers Michael and Peter Liang make two labels: Mawby, which is known for sparkling wines with raucous names like Sex, and BigLittle, their younger label, which makes a number of easy-to-drink still wines.
Vineyards dot the landscape all the way north until you hit the towns of Leeland and Suttons Bay, either of which could be the setting of a Hallmark movie. Between them sits 9 Bean Rows, a tiny bakery that makes the best almond croissant I&aposve ever had. Proprietors Nic and Jen Welty also operate a pizza oven out back. I grabbed a fresh pie topped with artichoke hearts and a generous amount of mozzarella: the perfect road trip companion for the drive back down to Traverse City.
2019 Biglittle Open Road Rosé ($17)
Crisp red fruit notes make this easygoing rosé hard to resist.
2017 2 Lads Sparkling rosé ($28)
Winemaker Thomas Houseman crafts this bright, lime-scented sparkler almost entirely from Chardonnay. (It&aposs 1% Pinot Noir.)
2017 Shady Lane Cellars Blaufränkisch ($28)
Black-fruited with velvety tannins, this will win over anyone who&aposs never had Blaufränkisch before (basically, everybody).
2017 Mari Vineyards Simplicissimus ($36)
This bubbly from Sean O&aposKeefe is not quite a pét-nat, but not quite a traditional sparkling wine, either. One thing it definitely is, though? Delicious.
Long Island wines hit new heights.
Potatoes. On Long Island&aposs North Fork, those Cabernet vines you see? That land once grew potatoes. Merlot? Potatoes. Cabernet Franc? Chardonnay? Sauvignon Blanc? Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes. And while I&aposd be hard-pressed to make a choice between wine and french fries as something to strike from my life, I&aposm going to be bold and say that when it comes to a reason to visit a region, wine grapes win over spuds every time.
This assessment crossed my mind while I was sitting in one of the newly erected bungalows at Macari Vineyards, drinking a glass of the winery&aposs tangy Lifeforce Cabernet Franc (so dubbed because it ferments in a concrete egg) and eating truffle mac and cheese from local go-to caterer Lauren Lombardi. The bungalows are snazzy canvas tents where you can relax with your group in a socially distanced way. Like the catered lunch, the decor inside is locally furnished, and if you fall in love with the wool throw tossed over your chair or the serving bowl filled with farro, arugula, and roasted butternut squash salad, it&aposs probably for sale.
So, an admission: I hadn&apost spent a weekend in Long Island&aposs wine country in way too long. For a New York City resident (and a wine writer!), that&aposs unconscionable. But that gap did make me aware of how much has changed here: how the North Fork has drawn in some of Montauk&aposs Brooklyn-by-the-sea cool how its towns are burgeoning with excellent restaurants and boutique hotels how many wineries have popped into existence (or changed hands) and, particularly, how good the wines are right now.
At Rose Hill Vineyards, formerly Shinn Estate Vineyards, I eavesdropped on a local couple who&aposd stopped in after nine holes of golf. They were chatting with Jon Sidewitz, a tasting room server. "I can&apost believe all the homes going up out there," the woman said. The winery&aposs nonvintage red (current offering: a blend between 2017 and 2018) had the distinctive tobacco–sweet cherry scent of Cabernet Franc it was something nice to sip while pondering how one result of plague panic has been a boom in house sales here.
Wineries have done oddly well, too. Every one I visited reported being swamped during the summer of 2020. "By October, we were exhausted," Jerol Bailey, director of sales at Lenz Winery, told me. "We&aposre busy even now." Lenz is acclaimed for its old-vines Merlot, arguably the red grape that does best in Long Island&aposs variable maritime climate, and the 2013 was rich with spice and kirsch notes. But the real surprise for me was a lovely, lychee-scented dry Gewürztraminer, lime-zesty and vibrant. Winemaker Thomas Spotteck said, approvingly, "It&aposs got those punch-you-in-the-face aromatics." It certainly did, if getting punched in the face was a really great thing.
Despite the changes, the North Fork is still nothing like the Hamptons. It hasn&apost lost its agricultural roots, and in the summer, farmstands line the roads, selling sweet corn, ripe berries, leafy greens, and, yes, even potatoes. Local seafood is equally good, and at the Suhru Wines Tasting House in Cutchogue, over a glass of the only Teroldego I&aposve ever seen outside of Northern Italy—inky purple, earthy, peppery, delicious—sales and marketing director Shelby Hearn told me, "At least once a month I find a new oyster farmer. It&aposs like eggs. You stop by the side of the road and pick up a dozen."
Chef Stephan Bogardus uses all this abundance in his superb cooking at The Halyard, located at Sound View Greenport (rooms from $195, soundviewgreenport.com), a 1950s seaside motel recently spiffed up into early 21st-century cool. Bogardus adds depth to a local fluke tartare with miso and hijiki his seared Long Island duck breast was exquisitely tender thanks to six days of dry aging. If you&aposre offered the salty "biscuits with really good butter," say yes—the butter is indeed really good, and the biscuits are even better. Smuggle them out for breakfast the next morning. I did.
Then there&aposs the North Fork Table & Inn, a much-loved local icon recently taken over by exceptionally talented NYC chef John Fraser. Dishes like his mysteriously light tempura squash, decorated with flower petals from the biodynamic farm just down the road, are not to be missed. Nor is beverage director Amy Racine&aposs impressive list, which splits 50-50 between local bottles and international choices. Initially, she planned to skew more toward Europe, she told me, but "the guests were much more interested in local wines than I expected. And I was really blown away by a lot of them, too. Like some of the old Macari Bergen Road reds I tasted and then put on—those wines have aged beautifully."
Fraser is emblematic in a way of how much is going on out here: He&aposs also opening a 20-room hotel this summer just down the road, right on Peconic Bay, and a market-café just down the same road but in the other direction. Yet for all the new ventures, nearby Southold Fish Market still brings in porgies, stripers, day-boat scallops, and more off the fishing boats every morning. And in Greenport, while I loved staying at the boutiquey Menhaden hotel (rooms from $559, themenhaden.com), with its roof deck looking past flitting gulls to the sea I also loved the fact that it was right next to the town&aposs straight-out-of-the-1950s George D. Costello Senior Memorial Skating Rink. As Fraser had said to me: "We&aposre not dealing with the perfectly polished Hamptons thing here. And that&aposs great."
2016 Lenz Winery Gewürztraminer ($20)
With its telltale scent of lychee fruit, this white is one of many fine bottles in the Lenz portfolio. Don&apost miss the winery&aposs graphite-scented Estate Selection Merlot, either.
2019 Macari Horses Sparkling Cabernet Franc ($26)
This lightly fizzy sparkler has lovely red fruit flavors, and the name is a nod to the bluffs at the edge of Macari&aposs property, which suggest the shape of a horse&aposs head𠅊nd were used by 1920s bootleggers as a covert route to the sea.
NV Shinn Estate Vineyards Red Blend ($25)
A classic Bordeaux-style blend, this red is plump with ripe cherry fruit and lifted by a dried tobacco note for this release, longtime winemaker Patrick Caserta blended wines from the 2017 and 2018 vintages.
2019 Suhru wines Teroldego ($30)
Teroldego is an unusual enough grape in Italy, where it grows almost exclusively in the northern Trentino region. So, Long Island Teroldego? If this earthy, spicy red is any indication, the grape has found an excellent second home.
Last summer,ꃞsperate to go somewhere (anywhere!), I rented an RV. 𠊊 visit to the Grand Canyon was on my bucket list, so I made it the starting point for a weekend in Arizona&aposs wine country, which promised to marry an encore of dramatic landscapes with distinct and travel-worthy wines.
I started my jaunt in Verde Valley, one of the state&aposs three wine regions. A morning&aposs drive from the canyon landed me at Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room & Osteria, opened by Maynard James Keenan, the frontman of the rock band Tool turned winemaker of Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars. While digging into pillowy gnocchi blanketed in a sage-scented cream sauce, I sampled a brambly red called Tarzan and a dry rosé called Jane. Stuffy, Arizona is not, I decided𠅊n impression reinforced on the welcoming open-air patio of nearby Chateau Tumbleweed, which makes focused, refreshing wines like a mouthwatering Vermentino that smelled deliciously of lemon peel, and Willy, a garnet-colored Grenache blend with fine tannins. From there, I headed to D.A. Ranch, an estate winery where the inky wines and verdant property felt like a mirage after a day of desert landscapes—though I admit it did make me briefly regret the RV.
For day two, I headed south to the Sonoita region. The towering rock formations of central Arizona had given way to undulating grasslands before I pulled up to llaghan Vineyards, where winemaker Kent Callaghan has been relentlessly experimenting, changing what he grows every year, for three decades now. "The soil here lends itself to ageworthy wines," he said𠅊 claim that his 2014 Lisa&aposs, with its apricot aromas, backs up. Callaghan&aposs innovative approach is reflected in the work of those he&aposs mentored in the region, including Todd and Kelly Bostock of Dos Cabezas. At their tasting room, a wood-fired pizza truck turns out pizzas to pair with their boundary-pushing wines, which included an unlikely but delicious white blend, Meskeoli, made from Albariño, Viognier, Malvasia, Roussanne, Petit Manseng, and Kerner, and a "perpetual cuvພ" containing vintages from 2015 through 2019. "These would not have found love anywhere but Arizona, &aposcause other places got rules," Todd said with a laugh.
The exploratory mindset of the state&aposs winemakers makes Arizona a thrilling place to visit and taste right now. Pavle Milic, beverage director and co-owner of Scottsdale&aposs FnB restaurant, embodies that exuberance at Los Milics, his new winery in Elgin. I stood with Milic among his vines, ringed by mountains, as he described his vision: the tasting room that will immerse guests in the vineyards, the guesthouses that will drink in the star-filled sky. "It will be a little suspension of reality," he said. Then we went inside, and I tasted his vibrant wines straight from the barrels𠅍ry, flinty Grenache and lush Tempranillo𠅊nd promised myself I&aposd be back as soon as they opened this summer. But this time hopefully by plane.
Virginia's Wine Country
Recently, at one of Philadelphia's best restaurants, I got into a conversation with the sommelier about up-and-coming wine regions of the world.
His passion for the subject was as rich as his French accent. The wine guru had cozied up to every wine-worthy region of the world, from New Zealand and Germany to South Africa and Argentina. But I'd be surprised, he said, to hear which part of the planet was piquing his oenological fantasies of late.
More than 200 years ago, one legendary Virginian dreamed of turning a corner of the New World into a wine region to rival those across the pond.
"We could, in the United States, make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good," Thomas Jefferson once said.
In 1774, the former president tried, however unsuccessfully, to harvest European grapes and make fine wine in Charlottesville, VA. And history shows that wine was being made in the Old Dominion as far back as 1608.
But contemporary Virginia is where all things wine-related really get interesting.
Sure, it's no Napa. Nor Sonoma. But when it comes to humble beauty and surprisingly grape-friendly terrain, Virginia is carving its own niche in the little black books of savvy wine lovers searching for the next big thing.
In the past few decades, the wine business in Virginia has grown from a cottage industry with only 6 statewide wineries in 1979 to today's tally of over 130 wineries and growing.
From vineyards overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Southwest corner of the state to viticulture bastions barely removed from the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Virginia's wine world is worth a deeper look.
The state is widely considered the nation's sixth most important when it comes to wine making. And Virginia's neither here nor there locale in the mid-Atlantic lends vineyards flexibility, climate-wise, when it comes to making both New World and Old World wine styles.
The most noteworthy Virginia wines include Chardonnays, Cabernet Francs, Petit Verdots, Viogniers and wines made from the state's native Norton grape.
More than 30 of the state's wineries can be found within a 40-mile radius of Thomas Jefferson's home. Start your tour right in Charlottesville at Jefferson Vineyards, set on the site where T.J. planted his original vines and within eyeshot of Monticello. Then get your designated driver to tour you and your entourage along the Monticello Wine Trail for more tasting fun.
Here's a sampling of the local vineyards that await:
Kings Family Vineyard, Crozet, Virginia
A family-owned boutique winery in Crozet, VA, about 20 miles from Charlottesville, King Family Vineyards is known for its stunning Blue Ridge Mountain views and class-act wines. The vineyards sidle up to a horse farm, and a polo-loving crowd prevails, particularly when a match is on the weekend's agenda alongside wine-tasting (a heady combination guaranteed to conjure a European vibe). King Family's small-production, premium wines have gotten kudos from many a major wine magazine. The Michael Chaps Monticello Viognier, which pairs well with dishes such as seafood risotto, gets particularly big props.
Veritas Winery, Afton, Virginia
About 26 miles west of Charlottesville, where the Blue Ridge Mountains begin their subtle ascent skyward, lies this veritable family-run winery. Veritas Winery is known for its Petit Verdot, Merlot and dessert wines. Owners Andrew and Patricia Hodson and their daughter, son-in-law and various other assorted family members are happy to give vineyard tours. And on a perfect summer day, there's no better perch than the vineyard's sun-soaked porch to indulge in a refreshing glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
One of the grand dames of the Virginia grape-growing industry, Barboursville Vineyards is steeped in history as the home of former 19th-century governor James Barbour. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison once lived nearby in little mansions with some minor name recognition -- Monticello and Montpelier -- and the lads used to pop by Barbour's on their ways to visit each other. Founded in 1977, Barboursville Vineyards is one of the oldest in the state. The scene is reminiscent of a Tuscan farmhouse, and you'll sample wines by an open fireplace during the winter months or toss back the tipple under the cover of a vine-draped loggia come summer. There are usually 15 wines to sample, and you can stroll from counter to counter, wending your way from whites and reds to dessert wines. Then stroll off any tipsiness by exploring the historic ruins of the Barbour mansion, a short walk from the tasting room.