Archive for April, 2014


Complexity reigns at Chateau O’Brien

Posted on Apr 26 2014 | By

 Big reds lead the way at Markham winery

When Howard O’Brien sees red he’s not angry. He’s simply looking at a glass of one of his red wines. And the more intense the color and flavor, the more relaxed the man becomes.

O’Brien is the loquacious proprietor of Chateau O’Brien at Northpoint. The man loves to chat; especially about his wines. And when you focus on the product in the glass you understand why his mantra is quality, quality, and quality.

Like numerous Virginia winery owners, O’Brien entered the wine industry after a successful but unrelated career. In his case, it was circling the globe building his international trade show business. “Because of my work, I traveled 200,000 miles a year for twenty years. My clients included the UN, NATO, NASA, and the Pentagon among other large organizations. Now I want to live a simpler life,” he says.

A simple life centered on complex wines. During his former whirling dervish career, O’Brien found ample opportunity to visit wineries worldwide and began collecting wine thirty years ago. Today, his personal wine cellar contains 3,000 bottles of some pricey wines. “I have no bottle less that $100 in my collection.”

Thirteen years ago he sold his trade show firm and opened Chateau O’Brien. While he has homes in Northern Virginia, the Outer Banks, and Florida, most weekends find him living and working at the winery.

To further his wine knowledge he is currently studying to become a Master of Wine. The Institute of Masters of Wine is headquartered in England and is regarded as one of the highest standards of professional wine knowledge. Certification requires passing multiple written and tasting exams and completion of a 10,000 word dissertation. To put the title in perspective there are only thirty-four Masters of Wine in the United States today.

“I anticipate in three months I’ll be done. I am a sponge for knowledge,” says O’Brien explaining why he chose to pursue the most rigorous wine accreditation in the world.

The winery & wines
O’Brien credits his staff with playing an important role in the success of his winery.

“Staff training is an ongoing thing. They are involved is all aspects of the operation from the vineyard to the bottling line. My tasting room staff are educated people; lawyers, doctors, school teachers. It’s not for the money. They enjoy it and I want to give kudos to them,” he says.

027His vineyard manager and winemaker is Jason Murray who has been with O’Brien from the beginning. “Before coming here Jason worked with the Virginia state extension office and Tony Wolf, who is Professor of viniculture with Virginia Tech. Jason has a Master in Horticulture and is certified in some forms of biodynamic and organic grape growing.

“You make ninety percent of your wine in the dirt,” says O’Brien underscoring the importance of having an experienced professional tending the vines. “A winemaker cannot create quality. If you are growing your own grapes, the fruit is the most important part of your operation.”

A somewhat controversial aspect of Chateau O’Brien is the signage you encounter as you approach the winery: “No person under twenty-one allowed on property.” The policy rankles some visitors.

“We want our guests to concentrate on the wines when they come here. I got tired of telling people not to let their kids run around and scream. I’m not their babysitter. My best customers don’t want to see kids in the winery. Ultimately, a winery really doesn’t have anything for kids to do,” explains O’Brien.

Today, the Chateau is in the process of converting more of its vineyards to the production of red wines. Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Viognier vines are being removed to provide more acreage for the classic red grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Syrah.

Case production has also declined to 2,200 cases annually as O’Brien seeks to reorder his tasting lineup with more reds. During the growing season fruit is dropped from the vine to intensify flavor. The goal is to harvest only one to three tons per acre. Maximizing tonnage generates more fruit but can lead to weaker, less concentrated wines.

The strategy also increases the cost of a typical bottle. Wines range from $22 to $79. An additional cost factor is that all wines undergo wild yeast fermentation. Such fermentations must be closely monitored to prevent off flavors. Most wineries use commercial yeasts to protect against serious problems in the cellar.Tasting Wine

“You are not going to get good in life unless you take a chance. Yes, you have to be on top of fermenting wines with wild yeasts. I don’t know of anybody in the mid-Atlantic region that is doing 100% wild yeast fermentations. It can take over a year to complete the full fermentation process,” states O’Brien.

Critical acclaim is the benchmark in judging fine wines. O’Brien underscores his success by saying Bartholomew Broadbent—who was listed in the 2013 edition of IntoWine as #48 of the 100 Most Influential People in the U.S. wine industry—stopped by the winery last year. After tasting the lineup Broadbent said, “I don’t believe these wines. Every one of the reds are to another level.”

Guests might keep that assessment in mind when ascending the steep driveway to Chateau O’Brien; both the winery and the wines may well lead to the next level of their wine enjoyment.

For information on hours of operation and special events visit

John’s Pick of the Month 

Chateau O’Brien 

2009 Limited Reserve Tannat


Virginia wines continue their inexorable climb in price and this month’s selection is no exception. But if you are looking for a dense, inky, full-bodied red, redolent of black fruit with a silky finish, this will be your choice. It is a special occasion wine that rivals a top end Napa red. It is simply delicious.


Published in the April 24, 2014 edition of the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES