Archive for May, 2011


Virginia Wine Factory Debuts

Posted on May 31 2011 | By

Virginia and International Wine Bar Comes to Brambleton Town Center

Wine sales in the United States are surging.  Last year, the U.S. surpassed France as the world’s largest wine-consuming nation.  Here in Virginia nearly 200 wineries are in operation, up from zero in 1974.

Sounds like a good time to get into the wine business, hey?

Michael Matthews and Michael Sawyers clearly think so.   After nearly three years in the planning, the Virginia Wine Factory started uncorking bottles on May 27 at their tasting room in the Brambleton Town Center, Ashburn, Virginia.  The extensive wine list will reflect the tastes of Northern Virginians by showcasing offerings from both the Old Dominion and points worldwide.

The entrepreneurs are engineers by trade. Matthews is a virtualization web architect and Sawyers a geotechnical expert.  Both believe that Virginia wine is fast approaching the “tipping point” of national recognition.

The vision for their tasting bar is a comfortable—almost living room-like setting—where the best of the Commonwealth’s wines can be tasted alongside noted global producers.  “The quality of Virginia wine has risen dramatically in the last decade.  I think local wine lovers are going to be impressed when tasting Virginia side-by-side with other leading regions,” says Matthews. “We’ve worked hard to bring the best of Old Dominion wines to the Factory,” he explained.

And the gentleman does know quality.  He planted his first vineyard in 2003 on Virginia’s central peninsula near Tappahannock.   Shortly thereafter, he met Sawyers, a home winemaker whose passion equaled his own.  “Our mutual love of wine led us to Michael’s basement a few weeks later and the collaboration produced our first wine, Isabel’s Revenge.  Since we were full-time engineers, our nascent winery, Vino Curioso, was a small operation producing just a few hundred cases a year.  We couldn’t afford a traditional tasting room so my mother offered us the use of a garage and an old spring house on her property in Winchester.  The deal was if we cleaned it up, we could use it.  We renovated and turned the spring house into the ‘World’s Smallest Tasting Room’,” says a smiling Sawyers.

It’s an apt description since the facility was all of 120 square feet in size.  What wasn’t small, however, was the caliber of wines the men were producing.  After Vino Curioso was launched, the pair began to connect with some of the leading names in Virginia wine.  The industry is known for its camaraderie and willingness to share production and marketing advice among fellow winemakers.  “We owe a lot to some of the best wine talent in Virginia.  Now we hope to repay them by showing the greater Washington area what the state is achieving,” emphasizes Matthews.

Michael Matthews & Michael Sawyers

While he knows Virginia’s top tier wines are impressive, he also thinks many of the state’s producers are still honing their marketing skills to gain traction in the hyper-competitive world of wine sales.  “Many Virginia wineries are tightly focused on producing a quality product.  Where the industry could use some help is in developing a wider audience.  The state supported Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office is fast tracking business development and the results are impressive.  With the Virginia Wine Factory, we hope to further expand both Vino Curioso and Virginia wine sales,” says Matthews.

The Tasting Room
The enjoyment of wine is enhanced with the proper setting and food. The décor of the Virginia Wine Factory will be anything but “factory”.  The name of the business was selected to emphasize the laser-like focus on wine.  “We’re striving to create a warm and down-home atmosphere.  A Brazilian wood floor and an impressive 22 foot hand-crafted tasting bar will be augmented with nooks and alcoves of chairs and couches, in addition to conventional dining tables.  When guests stop by, we want them to enjoy the wines in a relaxed setting,” says Sawyers.

Light fare will be served, including gourmet soups, Panini sandwiches and similar foods suited to accompanying wine

The Wine List
There will be about fifty wines available on opening day, 25 Virginia offerings and some 25 selections from the other USA and international regions.  The emphasis will be on wines that accompany food.  Virginia wines will hail from around the state and include Tarara, White Hall, Rappahannock Cellars, Ingleside, Mont Fair, Jefferson, Virginia Wine Works, Blenheim and others.  Additional wineries will be added over time.  Various selections from California, New York, Washington and Oregon will round out the domestic list.  Internationally, the focus will be on France, Spain, Italy, Australia, South Africa and other well-known regions.

The focus of the tasting format will be on wine “flights”; four to six wines in categories of white, red, bubbly, sweet, and others.  They will be matched or contrasted with wines from various regions, or the same region by varietal.  “Guests will select from flight menus or create their own flights.  At any given time, we will have over forty open bottles of wines to taste.  Wine vibrancy will be assured since we are employing state-of-the-art gassing systems to block oxygen from opened bottles.  From the first taste to the last, all wines will display a ‘just opened’ freshness in the glass,” explains Matthews.

The flight format will be the center piece for tasting Virginia.  “We really want to spotlight the state by positioning it with wines worldwide and have guests tell us how they stand up in ‘blind’ competition.  The format will make the experience not only fun, but educational.  For instance, a wine drinker can choose to taste four different Viogniers from around the globe; they will rate the wines and we will archive them in our online rating system.  We’ll have all wines by the glass, bottle or available for shipping to family or friends,” says Matthews.

Michael Shaps

Michael Shaps, proprietor and nationally and internationally known winemaker at Virginia WineWorks says, “Michael Matthews is an imaginative and creative guy.  He has developed a solid business concept at the Virginia Wine Factory.  My personal experience is that anytime you position quality Virginia wines against the global competition they show exceptionally well.  People are going to be impressed at what Matthews and Sawyers have created for Northern Virginia wine lovers.”

Once the Brambleton venture is up and running, the men will turn their focus to opening a 4,500 square foot urban winery in Gainesville.  The expansion effort will house Vino Curioso’s own winemaking operations, creating a winery similar in feel to a city brew pub but located in the middle of thriving Northern Virginia.  Their current portfolio of Vino Curioso wines in Brambleton will include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and their signature wines Chardontage and 954, a Bordeaux style blend.

The Virginia Wine Factory is located at 22855 Brambleton Plaza, Suite 104, in the Brambleton Town Center, Ashburn, VA.  They are open seven days a week from 11am till 11pm.  Visit them at   703.542.5659

Published in the May 26, 2011 edition of the Loudoun Times-Mirror.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Hiking to the Tasting Room

Posted on May 16 2011 | By

Creating Great Memories by Linking Two of Virginia’s Pastimes

With hundreds of miles of hiking trails and almost 200 wineries, Virginia offers a cornucopia of options for spending a day on the trail then rewarding yourself with a glass of wine.

Appalachian Trail

This year Shenandoah National Park, SNP, celebrates its 75th anniversary.  On July 3, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park, creating one of our more scenic national treasures.  In the early years, the park was very popular, drawing large number of visitors, but attendance has dropped.

While each year over a million visitors still enjoy the park’s beauty, there’s been a decline in tourist traffic of over twenty-five percent in the last decade.  Some posit the internet might be partially to blame.  It’s conjectured the park could be having a hard time competing with videos games and social media that seem to generate more excitement among our younger citizens than the out-of-doors.

If true, it’s a pity.  Not only are great memories being forfeited but that much needed commodity—exercise—is not being provided to a generation of Americans sorely in need of it.

The good news?  Over 500 hundred miles of lightly travelled park trails await wine lovers out to enjoy another healthy habit in addition to drinking wine.  While hikes such as Old Rag Mountain and White Oak Canyon are still on everybody’s favorite list, dozens of other hikes are pathways to a peaceful walk in the woods.

The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, PATC, and the SNP are rich sources of information on what to do and where to go in the park.  PATC’s web page identifies numerous hikes and sells a comprehensive set of maps and guidebooks to get you safely in and out of the mountains.  But the club’s portfolio is not limited to park hiking.  It also lists numerous hikes available throughout the state, many in flatlander country for those more eager to get to the tasting room than climbing a mountain.

Intersection of AT & Upper Thornton River Trails

If you choose to head to the high country, finding your way around SNP is simple.  Its trail obelisks and blazed trees easily guide a hiker from trailhead to trail’s end.  There are basically three color-coded trail blazes: white identifies the historic Appalachian Trail which runs 101 miles through the park; blue pinpoints side trails for hikers only; and yellow welcomes both hikers and horses. The park boundary is identified by red markers.

Since SNP encompasses a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains and runs north to south, starting at Front Royal and ending near Waynesboro, it acts as a backdrop to most of the wineries in Virginia.  If hikers hit the trail by 10am and are back in their vino vans by mid-afternoon, visiting a couple of wineries on the way home is a snap, especially with most of the state’s wine cellars opened till 6pm on Saturdays and 5pm on Sundays.

The web site Virginia Wine provides information on every winery in the Old Dominion and enables ramblers to plan their visits.  The site also features an events link listing numerous activities such as wine & food pairings, live music performances, barrel tastings and more.

So is it legal to pack so much fun into a single day?  No convictions have been recorded.  With the return of our glorious spring weather time’s a wasting.  Head to the hills and recap the day’s events in your favorite tasting room.

Published in the 2011 Harvest edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.





Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Is Virginia on the Wine List?

Posted on May 04 2011 | By

Travel Away From Wine Country and Your Restaurant Selections Diminish

You’ve chosen the restaurant with care.  After all, it’s an important occasion for your spouse or significant other, be it a birthday, anniversary or promotion celebration.  You’ve also braced yourself for the cost of a bottle of fine wine to accompany your celebratory dinner.  It will add a hefty amount to the final bill.

So here’s the question.  You’re seated at your table, the subdued lighting frames the face of your companion who is waiting eagerly for the announcement of your wine selection and your server is poised with pen and pad. Would you order a bottle of Virginia wine?

It might well depend on where the restaurant is located.

The cost of enjoying wine with a restaurant meal is fraught with mixed emotions.  Many restaurants charge up to three times their wholesale purchase price for a bottle.  Wine is a valued source of income for dining establishments but shelling out hard earned cash for the same wine that is three or four times less expensive at your local wine shop can feel like a shakedown.

Perhaps more importantly, the evening’s success or failure could depend on you picking a winner.  Select an indifferent wine and your unfortunate decision will be staring at you during the entire meal.  How romantic.

But Virginia wine is increasingly being applauded for its quality and diversity. It can compete when positioned against wines from around the world.  If given a chance.

Recently, this writer devoted a few days to chatting with sommeliers, wine buyers and restaurant managers at upscale establishments located in the Piedmont region of Virginia, the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland.  And an interesting pattern emerged.  As Virginia wine moves further from its birthplace, the lonelier it tends to get.

And that’s a shame.  Because a vast number of the region’s diners are not getting a chance to experience Virginia wine when dining out.

Virginia Professionals Supportive
It’s instructive to start our restaurant tour in the heart of Virginia wine country.  At Foti’s in Culpeper, owner Frank Maragos features one hundred wines on his list, including twenty state bottlings. “Many of our guests are out of state visitors and they are intrigued with the idea of Virginia wine and eager to try it.  It can require what we call a ‘hand sell’—that is, describing the wine in some depth—because many people are not familiar with the state’s rising reputation. But it must be priced to sell.  Anything above $50 a bottle and resistance sets in, he says.

Liza Kaiser, Dining Room Manager at the Hazel River Restaurant in Culpeper, echoes Maragos thoughts saying, “Virginia has a rich history and visitors and tourists want to experience local wines. We also feature farm to table cuisine and locally produced wines complement our fare. Fifty percent of our wine sales are Virginian.”

Rosalee Lysaght, Restaurant Manager at the Blue Rock Inn near Little Washington, has a list of sixty wines, ten of which are Virginia. “Many diners are curious about Virginia wines but still reserved.  I think it’s because the wines are relatively new, unfamiliar, and in some cases expensive.  It can be perceived as a gamble purchase compared with selecting a California wine.  However, people are very receptive to Virginia wines by the glass.  It provides an opportunity to evaluate the wine without the commitment of a bottle purchase,” she emphasizes.

Christopher Roberts, Manger at The Restaurant at Potowmack Farm in Lovettsville, has assembled seventy wines on his list, twelve of which are Virginia. “We have significant interest in local wines given our proximity to wine country. Virginia has a wide range of quality so I focus on the top tier wineries. The wines fit nicely into our locally produced meats and produce theme.  And we price them competitively,” he says.

DC Diners Are Tougher Sell
As we cross the Beltway and head toward the Nation’s capital, the Virginia story begins to weaken.  David Tomaselli, Manager at the Carlyle restaurant in Arlington states, “We have fifty selections on our list but no Virginia wines. In my two years here I can’t recall any request for them.  While I enjoy Virginia wines myself, our guests don’t think Virginia when ordering.  I think the state’s industry needs to do a better job of self-promoting.  They need to get the word out to a broader audience about the rising quality.”

Jim Ross, Wine Buyer for The Prime Rib on K Street in DC says, “We have two hundred selections on our wine list but none from Virginia. Past experience has shown us they don’t sell. For whatever the reason our distributors never show us any offerings. I think Virginia could compete with other wine regions but I simply haven’t been exposed to many of them. There’s not a lot of interest in Virginia among our guests.”

Brent Kroll, Sommelier at The Oval Room on Connecticut Avenue, oversees two hundred selections on his list but only two are from Virginia. “Most wine regions have earned reputations for a single varietal such as Napa Cabernet, Oregon Pinot Noir or Washington State Rhones.  Virginia is too diverse and needs to focus on its best grape, such as Viognier. Many diners simply don’t know what level of quality to expect if they order a Virginia wine.  It’s taking a chance to buy it,” he cautions.

Min Kwon, Wine Director at Addies in Rockville, MD, manages a 127 bottle list with five selections from Virginia.  “I find Virginia wines are of greater interest to people focused on locally grown fare.  Otherwise, most diners ignore them. Hand selling is required and we simply don’t have the time for that type of sale. I think the state needs to generate more positive press coverage in magazines such as Wine Spectator to convince buyers to consider Virginia,” he says.

Steve Uhr, General Manager, J&G Steakhouse just a block from the White House, shepherds a wine list with 250 choices, six of which are Old Dominion bottlings.  “Most DC restaurants have just a small placement of Virginia on their lists.  I think the state could parallel Chile’s experience.  For years, Chile had a quality issue and then things improved dramatically.  Today, their wines generate a lot interest.  Virginia’s quality is improving and our list reflects it.  But the focus on quality must continue and awareness among wine drinkers must grow to produce greater sales,” he opines.

The Virginia Conundrum
In listening to wine professionals from upscale dining venues, its clear Virginia is advancing its cause but at a slow pace.  There are many challenges for the industry and its limited production is one of them.  With most wineries selling a majority of their wine in tasting rooms, there is little incentive to hire an expensive sales force to increase placement on high-end restaurant wine lists.

It’s also clear most distributors are not devoting significant time to showcasing the wines. Without a professional marketing organization touting your product, little other than personal experience or word of mouth will advance the cause of Virginia to a broader audience.

The good news in all of this?  Virginia wine drinkers can be secure in the knowledge that the wines they know and love are readily available throughout the state.

Perhaps being a best kept secret is its own reward.


Categories : WINE ARTICLES