Picnic and Wine at Gray Ghost Vineyards

So we are back from our summer travels and now on the Virginia wine trails again. We decided to resume our quest for summer sippers with a visit to Gray Ghost Vineyards this past weekend.

Ten wines were offered for tasting with five of them from the 2011 vintage. My favorite of these was the crisp 2011 Seyval Blanc with its lemon notes and dry finish. Minimal aging in Hungarian oak provided a bit of roundness to boot. Perfect for summer menus that feature shellfish or any other pairing that might call for a Sauvignon Blanc! Paul favored the 2011 Vidal Blanc with its tropical fruit elements. Another great summer wine, this one should pair well with spicy foods; however, it’s also just fine on its own especially on a hot summer’s day.

It’s never too late to think about Thanksgiving dinner especially if you fear that your favorite Virginia wines might sell out before Mr. Turkey hits the dinner table. The 2011 Gewurztraminer with its tropical fruit flavors and spicy edge would do well with a summer salad topped with fresh ham or grilled shrimp; however, I’d consider this one with herbed turkey and stuffing. Likewise, the very berry 2011 Cabernet Franc with its spicy nuances could be served now with grilled fare but would be a classic pairing with any Thanksgiving meal.

Of course, Gray Ghost Vineyards is known for its dessert wine called Adieu that is made from late harvest Vidal Blanc grapes, and the 2011 vintage delivers rich peach flavors with a honeyed texture. The Adieu is always a crowd pleaser at dinner parties, and I’ve even served it with heavier cheeses.

We always look forward to chatting with Amy Payette, Gray Ghost’s marketing director and daughter of winemakers Al and Cheryl Kellert. Amy was very pleased to inform us that Gray Ghost wines took gold medals in the 2012 NextGen International Competition that was held in California. The wines in this competition were judged by millenials, the up and coming wine consumers who lately have been the focus of attention by the wine industry. Gold-medal winners include the 2010 Reserve Chardonnay and the 2011 Gewurztraminer (which also won best in class.) Amy also shared with us this year’s harvest appears to be on track to be earlier than usual with the Seyval Blanc potentially coming in within the next couple of weeks. This seems to coincide with other reports that we have heard from other winemakers in Virginia, so it may indeed shape up to be an early harvest season statewide.

With our tasting done, we shared a bottle of the 2011 Seyval Blanc with grilled chicken filets, a block of Swiss cheese and melon slices beneath an apple tree. As we sipped and nibbled we spotted gold finches, cardinals, and a quickly fluttering hummingbird. Butterflies of all colors were likewise on full display. We made certain to purchase some of our Gray Ghost favorites before we left (a case in fact). Be sure to pay a visit to Gray Ghost Vineyards to stock up on your own summer sippers, and be certain to mention that Virginia Wine Time sent you.

Annefield 2008 Red

Lately I’ve been enjoying reds on my wine rack. I’ve been looking for wines that are sippers and won’t really need food. I’m trying to take advantage of the idea that red wine has many health benefits by enjoying two glasses each evening. Reds that can be enjoyed without food help with this idea.

I found my last bottle of the 2008 Red from Annefield Vineyards and decided it would be my evening sipper. We have mentioned this wine before but usually with food items in mind. I remembered it’s smooth ending and decided it would be fine for an evening sipper. The 2008 Red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It presents dark berry notes with hints of tobacco with round tannins. It was a perfect sipper! Again it reminded me of why I love the 2008 reds from Virginia. It’s a perfect example of a typical growing season in Virginia. I need to get myself a few more bottles. Luckily Annefield reminded me on Twitter that you can get their wines on their website or from the Twisted Vine Bottleshop and Bistro in Arlington. I will need to plan a trip there soon to stock up on the 2008 Red before it’s gone! If you visit Annefield Vineyards, tell them Virginia Wine Time sent you!

Brownie Wine

As I have mentioned before, I have lots of Virginia red wines on my wine rack. Lately I’ve been randomly selecting red wines to taste and enjoy. One evening last week I was finishing up some brownies that Warren made and thought a red wine would really compliment the brownies. I perused my wine rack and decided on the 2007 Lot 751 Virginia Red Table Wine from Breaux Vineyards Cellar Selection. This wine is only available to Cellar Club members.

Lot 751 is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, petit verdot, and cabernet franc grapes from the 2007 vintage. The dark color and dark cherry nose made me think that maybe this wine was meant for bigger foods. But once I swirled it in my glass and gave it a taste, I knew it would be perfect for the brownies. I noted cherry, extracted fruit, firm tannins, and a relatively smooth ending. With a bite of the brownie, the cherry notes really came through. Since this wine is from 2007 and has some firm tannins, it could benefit from more time on the rack. Or enjoy it now!

I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll say it again. There are benefits to being a Cellar Club member at Breaux Vineyards. I enjoy having access to wines the general public won’t get to purchase. I need to get to Breaux soon to pick up my most recent Cellar Club Selections. And if you visit Breaux Vineyards anytime soon, tell them Virginia Wine Time sent you!

2008 Lomax Reserve Red

I have over 100 bottles of wine on my wine racks. Probably 80% of it is red wine. And probably 98% of it is Virginia wine. There are always lots of choices when it comes to picking out a red dinner wine. Recently we decided to have sirloin steaks and wild rice for dinner. But what red wine would we select? We settled on the 2008 Lomax Reserve Red from Granite Heights Vineyard.

The 2008 Lomax Reserve Red is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc. It’s aged in American oak for eleven months. It’s named after a neighbor of Granite Heights Vineyard. Once we poured a glass and paired it with our meal, we realized it was the perfect selection. We noted the bright fruit, the smooth ending and that it was very approachable. It reminded me of the smooth 2008 reds that I have come to enjoy. I probably could have kept this on the rack a little longer but I do so enjoy my smooth 2008 reds that I couldn’t let this one sit any longer. If you haven’t made it out to Granite Heights yet, plan a trip soon. And tell them Virginia Wine Time sent you!

Think Local For A Summer Getaway

“We view ourselves as a wine country destination.”
Neal Wavra, Innkeeper and sommelier at Ashby Inn and Restaurant

Summer usually means vacation time for most of us; however, gas prices may have thrown a wrench into summer travel plans. Why not consider a trip to more local destinations? The Piedmont area has much to offer including historical sites, postcard-perfect landscapes, and award winning wineries. Plan to stay at a local inn to complete the getaway experience.

Ashby Inn and Restaurant
Vacationers who wish to focus on the museums, monuments, and other historic sites of the nation’s capital yet retreat to a more peaceful rural setting in the evenings may want to consider The Ashby Inn and Restaurant. The Ashby Inn and Restaurant is located in Paris, Virginia and about an hour from Washington DC. It includes ten guest accommodations and offers a view of Paris Mountain, Ashby Gap and Sky Meadow State Park. The building itself was established in 1829, and the inn’s rooms are furnished with period furnishings and antiques. Innkeepers Neal and Star Wavra also operate a restaurant on the property with Neal serving not only as the innkeeper but also the sommelier. While chef Tarver King serves up such delectable fare as popcorn sweetbreads, rockfish seviche and smoked beef rib loin, Neal stocks the wine cellar with an impressive international collection that includes Virginia wines. In fact, a sample dinner menu included a pairing of crab cakes with a viognier from Chester Gap Cellars, the rockfish seviche with a sauvignon blanc from Linden Vineyards, the smoked beef rib loin with a meritage from Glen Manor Vineyards, and a cheese plate partnered with a pear wine from Fabbioli Cellars.

Neal and Star Wavra opt to include local wines on the wine list because they are “distinctive and delicious. Why would any Virginia restaurant not have at least some wine selections from here?” Neal describes Virginia wines as “approachable” with a fruit expression similar to California’s but with more moderate alcohol levels and brighter acidity. Therefore, he finds Virginia wines to be food friendly.

The Ashby Inn and Restaurant is also located near award winning wineries, and museum-weary travelers may wish to take a break from the touristy mayhem and relax with a favorite bottle of Virginia wine. Nearby wineries include Delaplane Cellars, Linden Vineyards, Chester Gap Cellars, and Barrel Oak Winery.

Inn at Meander Plantation
The Monticello area also offers historic landmarks such as Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, as well as the homes of other early presidents such as James Madison and James Monroe. Monticello was also the site of Jefferson’s failed experiments with winemaking. However, Jefferson would be quite pleased with the quality of wines now being produced in this area. Therefore, summer travelers who wish to explore these more distant colonial landmarks may want to factor in a tour of Monticello’s acclaimed wineries. Where to stay? Try the historic Inn at Meander Plantation.

A member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses established plantation in 1726, but at the time it was named Elim. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, winemaker and future president, was a guest at the home. The plantation was later renamed after an adjacent river, the Meander. Meander eventually fell into disrepair and was even slated for demolition; however, current owners Suzie Blanchard and Suzanne Thomas bought the Meander property in 1991 and restored it with a renewed purpose—to operate a country inn that captured the charm and history of colonial and post-colonial America.

In addition to their duties as innkeepers, Suzie and Suzanne also don chef’s hats to prepare a multi-course dining experience with a Virginia wine accompanying each course. Hoping for a bottle of California chardonnay instead? Not at the Inn at Meander Plantation. Suzanne explained that a decision to support the local wine industry was made at the beginning because “it was the right thing to do.” She and Suzie saw the potential of Virginia wine early on and have marveled at the industry’s growth in size and quality over the past two decades. Suzie and Suzanne also conduct a semi-monthly Virginia Wine Academy at the Inn.

The Monticello area is also home to some of the best wineries and winemaking talent in the state. These include (but by no means limited to) Barboursville Vineyards, Blenheim Vineyards, Jefferson Vineyards, Keswick Vineyards, King Family Estate, and Pollak Vineyards.

Sharp Rock Inn
Work-weary vacationers may simply want to get away from it all and not be concerned with mobs of tourists at museums or monuments. Virginia wine country can come to the rescue! This kind of vacationer may want to consider a stay at Sharp Rock Inn bed and breakfast; as an added bonus, the Inn also functions as a working vineyard and winery. Sharp Rock Inn is situated adjacent to the ever-babbling Hughes River and offers a stunning view of Old Rag Mountain. The Inn once functioned as a farm in the late 1700s, and owners Jimm and Kathy East renovated the property and its structures to offer charming accommodations as well as a quaint tasting room.

Jimm opened the Sharp Rock winery in 1998 with a commitment to produce small quantities of quality wines. All Sharp Rock wines are produced from grapes grown on his 25-acre property, and these include sauvignon blanc and chardonnay as well as the red Bordeaux varieties such as cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, and petit verdot. Jimm East’s wines earn numerous national and international awards; however, the most prized accolades come from guests who give the Sharp Rock Inn and its wines rave reviews.

Nature lovers may want to pack a pair of hiking boots for scenic walks on nearby nature trails. Hoping to avoid exercise? Plan to unwind with a favorite book and a glass of Sharp Rock wine to enjoy besides the soothing rush of the Hughes River. Hoping to extend the wine tasting experience? Several other heralded wineries are close by and include Gadino Cellars, Rappahanock Cellars, and Gray Ghost Vineyards.

Historical sites, mountain landscapes, and award-winning wineries are only a short trip away. Use these recommendations to plan a nearby (and affordable) summer getaway that is certain to provide memorable moments.

This article appeared in the Summer 2012 edition of the Piedmont Virginian magazine.

Inevitable Lawsuits

As readers may know, Fauquier County held hearings to debate the merits of passing an ordinance that would restrict certain business practices at Fauquier County wineries. These include limiting the number of events held by wineries and curtailing hours of operation during certain days of the week. According to the details that I gleaned from Swirl, Sip, Snark and other sources, county citizens who demanded the ordinance did so out of frustration over the less than neighborly behavior of Martarella, Oasis, and Pearmund wineries. (Oddly, Marterella is open again, Oasis is defunct, and Pearmund is currently for sale.) However, numerous Fauquier residents actually spoke against the ordinance citing the positive relationships between themselves and other county wineries. Unfortunately for the Fauquier wineries, though, the ordinance passed by a vote of 4-1.

The most shocking development, though, had to be Linden winemaker Jim Law’s decision to speak in favor of the ordinance. We appreciate Law’s decision to forego events, and we do enjoy the quiet, Zen-like atmosphere at his winery. However, we also understand the decision of other winemakers to host events in order to promote their wines; in an industry that may require at least ten years to break even, holding the occasional music event or wedding helps to keep the doors open.

Lawsuits over the matter seem inevitable; however, strained relationships between the highly respected Law and his colleagues may be the other tragic consequence. We will be certain to keep track of these developments to see how thing progress.

In the meantime, enjoy a glass of wine from a favorite Fauquier County winery. Here is a list of Fauquier County wineries to visit:

Aspen Dale Winery at the Barn
Boxwood Winery
Barrel Oak
Capitol Vineyards
Chateau O’Brien
Cobbler Mountain Cellars
Delaplane Cellars
Desert Rose Ranch and Winery
Fox Meadow Winery
Granite Heights Winery
Hume Vineyards
Marterella Winery
Mediterranean Cellars
Miracle Valley Vineyard
Molon Lave Vineyards
Morais Vineyards
Naked Mountain Vineyard
Philip Carter Winery
Piedmont Vineyards and Winery
Rogers Ford Farm Winery
Vintage Ridge Vineyards
Three Fox Vineyards

Visit these Fauquier County wineries and tell them Virginia Wine Time sent you!

Unique Tasting Experience

Over the weekend, Warren and I had the chance to participate in the first John Marshall Tasting Experience at Oak Hill: unique pairings of extraordinary wines with savory snacks designed to bring out the very best in each wine. Oak Hill Estate is the property that used to belong to Chief Justice John Marshall. John Marshall was born in Fauquier County in 1755 and his parents bought the property and built the house in 1773. Brian and Sharon Roeder (owners of Barrel Oak next door) purchased the property in 2010 with the idea of opening the house to the public for the unique tasting experience.

This weekend the John Marshall Tasting Experience will begin for the public at Oak Hill Estate. Tasters can select one of the five flight options available on the menu. From the Oak Hill Estate website:

“The John Marshall Tasting Experience offers our guests the unique opportunity to try rare wines in a historic country setting. Our wine list not only includes our signature label, Chief Justice Cellars, but a sampling from the best wines that Virginia –and indeed the entire world – has to offer.

Each select wine will be paired with an entirely unique food item designed to bring out the extraordinary impact of each vintage. This curated collection of wines juxtaposes, compares and contrasts New World winemaking styles with those of the Old World.
Your tasting choices will range from $25 to $75 and includes a diverse variety of wines and food pairings. All wines sampled will be available for sale in the John Marshall Tasting Experience shop.

Upon completion of the tasting, participants can continue their experience with a picnic on the grounds on Oak Hill. A selection of gourmet meats, cheeses, and crackers will be available for purchase.

Wines will be paired with fine cheeses, charcuterie and fresh fruits; all locally sourced, when in season. In honor of the Great Chief Justice, our wine tastings are named after components of the American judicial structure.

Circuit: Enjoy the local flavor with off-dry and semi-sweet wines of the Virginia Piedmont.

Superior: Savor the unique terroir of dryer reds and whites from the Virginia Piedmont region.

Appellate: Taste the best of Virginia with the most noteworthy award winners.

Supreme Reds: Virginia’s best red wines compared and contrasted with the best examples of world class wines. Bordeaux and Napa will need a good defense.

Supreme Whites: Virginia’s best white wines take the stand as the star witness against New Zealand, Burgundy and the Rhinelands.

All flights will begin with a refreshing sparkling wine, and close with a sampling of fine Madeira.”

I selected the Superior flight and Warren selected the Appellate flight. The last two flights weren’t available during our visit but will be available when they open to the public this weekend.

The Superior flight included the 2010 Desert Rose Hitch Hollow Chardonnay, the 2008 Naked Mountain Raptor Red, the 2010 Philip Carter Meritage, and the 2010 Rappahannock Cellars Cabernet Franc. The Appellate flight consisted of the 2011 Rappahannock Cellars Viognier, the 2010 Jefferson Vineyards Cabernet Franc, the 2008 White Hall Vineyards Cuvee Des Champs, and the 2009 Barrel Oak Petit Verdot. We have tasted and mentioned many of these wines in the past, so we will won’t be including detailed tasting notes at this time. Our tasting took place in what looked to be one of the parlors in the main house. Tastings were being conducted in almost every room of the original home. Each of our tastings included tasting nibbles paired with each wine. They were delicious and paired nicely with each wine. During our tasting we were able to speak with Brian Roeder about the experience and the history of the property. One of the rooms is set up as a purchasing area. Tasters can purchase the wines they enjoyed during the tasting. In the future, wines will be produced under the Chief Justice Cellars label and be offered as part of the tasting experience.

The John Marshall Tasting Experience is definitely unique. Not only will tasters get to taste several Virginia wines in one place, tasters can also enjoy wines from all over the world along side outstanding Virginia wines. When you add in the historic house and the history of John Marshall, the experience becomes even more special. If you are looking for a tasting experience different from the tasting experience you enjoy at most Virginia wineries, consider checking out the John Marshall Tasting Experience at Oak Hill. We’re sure you’ll find as unique as we did. And tell the Virginia Wine Time sent you!

More On California

So with so many wineries to visit in Napa and Sonoma, how does one decide where to visit (and where not to visit.) We sought advice from friends and industry people and made our plans according to their recommendations. We also wanted a balance of wineries with equal treatment of Napa and Sonoma regions, and we were indeed able to achieve this goal. Before I reveal our favorites, though, a few thoughts on our overall experiences and how they compare to those in Virginia.

Our favorite wineries were those that focused on smaller quantities and fewer varieties. (Mind you, a 10,000 case production is considered small in California.) Hanzell Vineyards, for example, is almost laser-like in its focus on limited productions of high-quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. While we adhered to our list of recommended wineries, we also mixed in a couple of spontaneous visits to larger, more commercially driven producers. How did they compare? As you can imagine, the comparison was not very favorable toward the volume producers. There was one advantage to these tastings, though, and that was the price. On the whole, visiting a Gallo-type of winery was cheap with tasting fees usually no higher than $10 and wine prices at grocery store levels. The tasting menus were also more extensive. However, quality was our pursuit, and readers who share a similar agenda should be prepared to pay higher tasting fees that may range from $20 to $45. Needless to say they should also be prepared to pay higher prices for favorite wines. The investment, though, is worth it. We tasted amazing wines that cannot be found at local wine shops, and we found tasting room associates to be very knowledgeable and eager to answer our questions. We also encountered an interest in east coast wines, particularly from Virginia!

What does this have to do with Virginia wine experiences? Virginia wineries, especially the best ones, produce even smaller quantities of wines. Our best winemakers are likewise passionate about making terroir-driven wines that require diligence in the vineyards. As in Napa Valley or Sonoma, Virginia’s best vineyard managers and winemakers know what to grow and not grow in their particular micro-region, and this means a limited focus on growing only a few suitable varieties. The result? Higher fees to enjoy quality wines. Napa Valley and Sonoma wineries do hold one decisive edge, though, and that is consistent quality. Even the “meh” wines produced from the more commercial labels were void of obvious flaws such as volatile acids and full-blown brett. However, Ben Sessions at Hanzell Vineyards recalled that the California wine industry’s transition to world-class quality was preceded by a time in the 1950s and 1960s when wines were flawed and of inconsistent quality. More knowledgeable winemaking and vineyard practices gave way to more consistent quality, and this occurred over time. I believe that we are in a similar state of transition in Virginia as the quality of Virginia wines continues to improve.

Do Virginia wineries have an edge in other areas? Yes. For those who like the full winery experience with food, friends and entertainment, Virginia wineries by and large deliver. Not many of the wineries that we visited in California encouraged a stay beyond the tasting—friendly gatherings with a favorite bottle of wine and a picnic basket were not usually encouraged. Dog bowls for Fido? Kiddie Korners for the twins? Not in sight.

So without further ado, here is a list of our favorite wineries:

Napa Valley
Robert Sinskey: Old World winemaking here with lovely Pinot Noirs that reminded me of Burgundy. I also enjoyed the 2011 Abraxas, a crisp white blend that did not include Chardonnay!

Sawyer Cellars: Our first winery stop as we drove from the airport. (This may become a tradition—this was also our first stop during our last trip to Napa.) Expert wine tasting conducted by Candace, and these were well-balanced wines with red wines aged in French oak barrels. Paul favored the 2005 Merlot; I enjoyed the more complex 2008 Estate Bradford Meritage.

Silver Oak: Cabernet Sauvignon is the focus here. Chuck conducted our tasting, and he was very curious about Virginia wines since he lived in the area years ago. We made sure to update him on the exciting developments! My favorite was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon with its powerful dark fruit flavors, spicy elements and lengthy finish.

Twomey: I just had to sample the 2002 Merlot one more time since it was a favorite from our last trip. Guess what I did? I bought another bottle of it!

Audelssa: Nice tasting room with comfy sitting areas for those who do want to purchase a bottle to enjoy with friends. We both enjoyed the 2008 Tephra, a red blend. (I forgot to note what was in the blend—oops.) Tephra is a Greek word that means ash and reflects the volcanic soils at the vineyard. Fruity and medium bodied, it can be an easy sipper or something to enjoy with simple fare.

J Vineyards: Lots of favorites here. J is known for their Bruts; however, they also produce Chardonnay, Rose and Pinot Noir. I enjoyed the Old World style of the 2010 J Vineyards Chardonnay, and we both bubbled over the J Brut Rose made from Pinot Noir. Guess what I will be pouring for New Year’s Eve?

Limerick Lane: Another favorite from our last trip and a favorite this time around too. Limerick Lane focuses on Zinfandel and Pinot Noir with some vines dating back to 1910. The old vines still produce grapes! I preferred the expressive Pinot Noir 1934 made from vines planted in that year.

Least Favorite?
Yes, we’ll go there. Toad Hollow Vineyards was our least favorite. Mass producer of wine and apparently owned by comedian Robin Williams’ brother. The tasting room is located in Healdsburg, and the tastings are free. The term “fire water” best describes most of what we sampled.

Planning a trip to Napa Valley and Sonoma? Try some of the wineries listed here. Please mention to your tasting associate that Virginia Wine Time made the recommendation.


We are back from our trip to California wine country specifically Napa and Sonoma. This time around we focused our tasting experiences on smaller-production wineries that were recommended to us by others. Our friend Susan McHenry suggested an appointment to Hanzell Vineyards. Readers may recall that we featured Susan’s impressive wine cellar in a video piece, and the mural in her cellar depicts the breathtaking view of Hanzell Vineyards. Susan is also a member of Hanzell’s Ambassador’s Club, and she is an avid collector of Hanzell wines. We trusted her expertise and made an appointment at Hanzell Vineyards; it was hands-down the “Wow” experience of our trip.

Hanzell Vineyards is located in Sonoma, and James Zellerbach planted the first vineyard on what is now called the Ambassador’s Vineyard in 1953. Zellerbach served as the ambassador to Italy under President Eisenhower; hence, the name of the vineyard. In fact, Zellerbach’s interest in wine was piqued during visits to European wine destinations particularly Burgundy. He returned to his Sonoma property determined to make quality wines with a focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and named his vineyards Hanzell, a combination of his wife’s first name, Hana, and Zellerbach.

Our tasting included a tour of the grounds and facility, and this was conducted by Ben Sessions, son of former winemaker Bob Sessions. Ben gave us a driving tour of the vineyards including the oldest Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyards, and in the process filled us in on particular features that allowed Hanzell to produce focused, terroir-driven wines. Higher elevations allow for perfect aeration and drainage while volcanic soils provide a minerality that is a hallmark of Hanzell wines. Vines are planted in either west-facing or east-facing slopes so that they benefit from optimal amounts of sun, air flow, and morning moisture; in particular, the Ramos Vineyard is exposed to morning fog that rolls in from San Francisco Bay. In all, Hanzell Vineyards includes 44 acres of planted vines with a maximum production of 6000 cases per year.

A tour of the facility followed our vineyard tour. Talk about rooms with views! Hanzell Vineyards is located on the mountain slopes of the Mayacamas Range, so most opened windows and double doors offer gorgeous views of mountain landscapes. Wine barrels, though, are stored in a cave. A wine library warehouses vintages that date at least as old as 1965, and a sort of museum exhibits the winemaking equipment, including the tanks, from the 1950s.

However, the ultimate part of the tour concluded in the tasting room with its lofty wood-beamed ceiling. We were given a seated tasting at a dining table, and the three currently released wines were offered for sampling. These included 2010 Sebella Chardonnay, the 2009 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay, and the 2009 Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir. In addition, two older vintages were included in the tasting: a 2004 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay, and a 2001 Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir. All were excellent. The 2010 Sebella Chardonnay was fresh and almost playful with elements of pear, citrus and mineral; aged for six months in French oak barrels, it presented a refreshing mouth feel. It’s older sibling, the 2009 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay was produced from 34 year-old vines and offered more complexity. We noted aromas of pear and lemon zest with similar flavors in the mouth. 30% barrel fermentation and then twelve months aging in 30% new French oak barrels provided a fuller mouth feel. (An interesting side note—Ben suggested decanting the older Hanzell Chardonnays at least two hours prior to serving.) The 2009 Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir was likewise complex with full-on aromatic experience—strawberry and cherry notes were complemented by earthy/spicy aromas of sweet tobacco, anise, cloves and bay leaf. Similar fruit and spicy flavors were observed along with the minerality that characterized the other Hanzell wines. This Pinot Noir spends time in 50% new and 50% one year French oak barrels.

Not to be outdone were the older vintages, and these were indeed quite special. The 2004 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay was probably my favorite with its whiff of honeysuckle and elements of pineapple and butterscotch. The 2001 Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir possessed a faint floral aroma with notes of tobacco and spice; plum and blackberry flavors were savored.

The seated tasting allowed us to proceed at a more leisurely pace, and Ben was more than patient in answering our questions (you know how pesky those bloggers can be.) Ben’s father, Bob, retired from winemaking at Hanzell Vineyards in 2002 and is now the Winemaker Emeritus. Michael Terrien is the current winemaker, and future plans include the production of Cabernet Sauvignon. Hanzell Vineyards did at one point make Cabernet Sauvignon; in fact, I spied a bottle from the early 1990s in the wine library. We also learned that Hanzell Vineyards was the earliest winery in California to use only French oak barrels, and this practice continues today.

Focused vineyard practices along with judicious use of oak barrels resulted in the balanced, exquisite wines that we tasted at Hanzell Vineyards. With our tour and tastings done, we made certain to purchase our favorites Hanzell wines. Ben Sessions was a very gracious host, and thank him for time and attention. Planning a trip to Sonoma? Reserve a tasting at Hanzell Vineyards, and mention that Virginia Wine Time sent you.