We attended the officially opening of Early Mountain Vineyards, formerly known as Sweeley Estate Vineyards, this past Saturday. Owners Steve and Jean Case actually re-launched the winery under the Early Mountain name in June; however, this event marked the official debut of the Early Mountain brand and concept with industry experts, journalists, bloggers and state officials (Governor McDonnell and Todd Haymore) on hand to toast the future of what will be a highly successful venture.
A new focus was clearly displayed from the moment we walked into the renovated tasting room. Adjectives such as open, light, and warm came to mind. The already expansive tasting room was resigned with an open concept in mind, and warm earth and neutral tones lightened the walls. Light poured through windows, and mountain views greeted the eye at every glance. We were escorted to the dining room located to the right of the main entrance, and here too the interior design can be described as open, bright, and inviting. Guests were handed champagne flute filled with sparkling wine from Thibaut-Janisson, and Jean Case warmly greeted us to the event.
The day’s events began with a luncheon that showcased seasonal fare from the local area. These included spicy sausage, smoked salmon, artisanal cheeses, and fresh breads. These were paired with the Early Mountain Pinot Gris 2011 and the Early Mountain Merlot 2008. It was at the luncheon that Jean Case addressed the attendees and filled us in on the Early Mountain concept known as Best of Virginia. Jean revealed a lifelong love of Virginia as well as a lifelong love of wine. She became excited about the state’s growing wine industry and wanted to be a part of it; in particular, Jean wanted to bring the best Virginia wines to consumers. The Best of Virginia, then is an initiative designed to “elevate, celebrate and champion the finest Virginia wine to both consumers and the wine industry” with an ultimate goal of increasing consumer exposure to Virginia wine. Therefore, Early Mountain Vineyards will not only feature their own wines in the tasting room but also other Virginia wines from Ankida Ridge, Barboursville, Breaux Vineyards, Chatham, King Family, Linden, and Thibaut-Janisson. Heading the Early Mountain team of experts to identify the Best of Virginia is sommelier Michelle Gueydan who has worked for celebrity chef John Besh; Gueydan travels the state to identify the top wines in Virginia. These selections then become part of Early Mountain’s wine portfolio, and consumers can then purchase these wines in the tasting room.
After lunch, we were then given a guided tour of the vineyard and barrel room by winemaker Frantz Ventre. Frantz had been the winemaker for Sweeley Estate and therefore has intimate knowledge of the vineyard, its soils and microclimate. We were led to a block of Cabernet Franc that looked ripened and about ready for harvest. It was here that Frantz shared with us the advantages of the site’s red clay and quartz soils, and its location allowed the mountains to protect the vineyard from weather hazards such as heavy rain and hail. Mountain breezes help to regulate temperatures while warding off flying pests that can affect the grapes. We also learned that a goal at Early Mountain Vineyards is to move away from heavy chemical sprays with a complete conversion to bio-dynamic practices and products in the near future.
We were guided from the vineyard to the barrel room where we were treated to a sample of the newly released Chardonnay. As we transitioned from the warm outdoors to the cool climate of the barrel room, the crisp Chardonnay proved to be quite refreshing. In the barrel room, we learned that Early Mountain’s focus will be on smaller production of quality wines (about 3000-4000 cases) as opposed to Sweeley Estates’ emphasis on volume. Both the tank and barrel room were spotlessly clean. As we toured the facility, Jean Case commended the Sweeley’s for dedicating their resources to building a quality winery, including the barrel room and the state-of-the art equipment.
Our tour then led us back to the tasting room where we could then taste wines from the Best portfolio and walk about the tasting room. A sumptuous buffet awaited us with wait staff offering oysters on crackers, salmon slices, and mushrooms on toast points. A market shop featured Best of Virginia wines, gourmet food items, and other wine-related products. As we sipped and snacked, we chatted with other bloggers and industry folks such as Annette Boyd, head of the Virginia Marketing Office, Melissa Harris of Flavor magazine, and Claude DelFosse of DelFosse Vineyards.
We were very pleased with the new direction that is being taken by Early Mountain Vineyards. The unique Best of Virginia concept, a sharper focus in the vineyards, and a quality team of passionate experts headed by Jean Case should steer Early Mountain Vineyards to a bright future. We know that we will return to Early Mountain Vineyards in the near future, but readers may want to visit sooner especially with fall colors on the way. Trust me, the views will be spectacular and more so with a favorite Best wine. Be sure to mention, though, that Virginia Wine Time sent you.