The Delightful Story of Joe Juniper and Vermilion Valley Vineyards

Meeting and tasting with Joe Juniper at the 2018 Unified Wine and Grape Symposium

To be a wine farmer is to be a smile farmer. ~ Joe Juniper

The last weekend of March 2019, my chosen brothers, Gary and Ben, and I hosted one of our Seattle wine tastings, this time with a fantastic lineup of six wines provided by winemaker, vintner, and co-owner, Joe Juniper, of Vermilion Valley Vineyards. I met Joe at the 2018 Unified Wine and Grape Symposium and found myself immediately intrigued as to how this young man found his way into Ohio’s wine industry.

Ready to blind taste the wines

We had the best laid plans: choose the food pairings, blind taste the wines, take notes, discuss the wines, reveal the wines, discuss the wines further, and take lots of photos. I must confess, though, that nothing went as planned with regard to note and photo taking, and perhaps Joe might be disappointed that this article is not going to be as much about the wines individually, but more about them collectively, the camaraderie we shared at the dinner table, and most importantly, Joe’s story. Truth be told, nothing inspires me more than to discover a brilliant, spirited entrepreneur with a passion-filled story to share.

Our main course of pork, asparagus, and kale salad

Eight of us came together on a Sunday night to taste the wines blind as part of a multi-course dinner. As usual, my brothers Gary and Ben outdid themselves purchasing and preparing the food: spicy bacon-wrapped jalapeños, shrimp and grits, kale salad, grilled asparagus, grilled pork, and chocolate cake, all dairy free and healthy. We hid the wines in tissue paper, rather than paper bags, which added a festive touch.

The dinner lineup from Joe Juniper and Vermilion Valley Vineyards

What happened next is how wine is meant to be enjoyed. Instead of sticking to the plan, the dinner evolved into something much less structured and formal. We began the evening with the pétillant naturel in celebratory sparkling wine glasses, as a toast to my new career. This wine was by far the most unusual of our tasting, aptly described by Joe as a “kitchen sink” blend of grapes. Throughout the evening, we tasted (er, drank!) the Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin (the first for all attendees except me, I think!), and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Gewürztraminer was an ideal pairing with both the bacon-wrapped jalapeños and the shrimp and grits, while the four reds elevated our enjoyment of the pork. I do not think anyone at the dinner but me had tasted wines from Ohio. Because I live in Napa, California, a few guests assumed that the wines were from here, and remarked they had never tasted similarly balanced, elegant, lower alcohol, and food-friendly wines from California. Others commented that the wines were Old World in style, comparing them to wines from the Loire Valley, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. Some tried to guess the grape varieties and were surprised to discover what they were during the reveal. A testament to the deliciousness of these wines was that not a single drop remained at the conclusion of dinner.

Ben’s wonderful shrimp and grits

Once I revealed the grape varieties and that the wines were from the Lake Erie AVA, located outside of Cleveland, Ohio, I was hammered with questions from the dinner guests. We had experienced an authentic and genuine wine moment and were eager to learn more. Everyone wanted to know more about the Joe, the guy behind these wonderful wines. I immediately jumped on my iPhone, messaged him, and relayed his answers to the dinner guests. Below is the conversation.

Me: Questions! Minds blown!

Firstly, I told everyone that you were young! How old are you?
I’m 27 years old.

TTB approved, pét-nat label

What grapes are in the pét-nat?
Pét-nat is mainly Pinot Noir dominant, with Muscat Ottonel being around 25% and other grapes like Lemberger and Müller-Thurgau at just a few percent each.

Kristi, Gordy, and Joe Juniper

What is your background in winemaking? Any family history?
I am 100% self taught (though perhaps it shows at times). I do not have family in the industry. I was raised as an inner-city kid from a lower-class household. I have always had a love of plants, and at age 13, was given the opportunity to work in a local vineyard, pruning, and harvesting. I started working in the cellar when I was 16 years old, helping make the wine, and by age 18, I began at the new startup winery, Vermilion Valley Vineyards. My role was to grow grapes and make wine. In 2013, when I was 22 years old, the partnership at Vermilion Valley Vineyards folded and allowed my wife, Kristi, and me to assume ownership. We acquired a partner two years ago that is allowing for our expansion.

Vermilion Valley Vineyards Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon

Do you grow all your grapes? How many cases do you produce annually and how many cases of each of the wines we tasted? We are 100% estate grown and are trending to 160 acres over the next few years. Our current production is around 3,000 cases. We are building out our new production facility to 55,000 cases. As to the wines you tasted, Pét-Nat – 245 cases, Gewürz – 185 cases, Pinot Noir – 125 cases, Cabernet Franc – 285 cases, Chambourcin – 190 cases, Cabernet Sauvignon – 65 cases.

Joe and Kristi enjoying some rare time away from the winery

What wines inspire you?
I love whites with structure. Typically lees aged and perhaps a bit of skin contact. We drink California Chardonnay more than anything. With reds I like rich, powerful wines, but with finesse and complexity. High-alcohol fruit bomb doesn’t cut it. We drink primarily Italian reds like Super Tuscans.

Everyone enjoyed the wines! You might get some friend requests and Instagram follows. One suggested you should be making wine in the Loire.
I am glad to hear it. The feedback is greatly appreciated and thank you for taking the time to show them off. The Loire is a dream trip.

How many grape varieties do you grow? Which ones?
Above is the full list. Some are to be planted this season, so not all in production yet. Thirty varieties in total. It a lot but we have an extremely variable climate here so it helps us spread out our risk to allow us to have a number of exceptional wines in every single year. That, and for blending purposes.

Joe and Gordy Juniper

Any events you would like to share with my readers?
GORDY’S 4th BIRTHDAY PARTY (6/9/19)
Gordy, our vineyard pup will be turning four and will be having a huge birthday bash on Sunday, June 9th, from 1 to 4 in celebration. 
This is a pet friendly event so bring your dog to help celebrate Gordy’s birthday. There will be music, people food trucks, a puppy food truck, 50/50 raffle, and basket raffles. This is a benefit to raise money for Partners With Paws Of Lorain County, Inc., an organization that distributes funds to many Lorain County animal rescues. There will be a $10 entry fee and all raffles and T-shirt proceeds will be donated to the cause. 
Radio Stations WOBL & WDLW will also be there broadcasting live.
Mark your calendar and save the date now: SUNDAY, JUNE 9TH, 1:00 TO 4:00 PM AT VERMILION VALLEY VINEYARDS.
(All dogs must remain on a leash)
Please share with all of your animal loving friends!

Who doesn’t love another photo of Gordy?

More about Joe Juniper
In addition to his ownership and duties at Vermilion Valley Vineyards, Joe serves on the board of directors for the Ohio Wine Producers Association. He holds degrees in viticulture and agriculture business from Missouri State University and The Ohio State University. Follow Joe on Instagram at @myvinesmywines.

Vermilion Valley Vineyards
11005 Gore Orphanage Road
Wakeman OH 44889
Main Number: 440-965-5202
Sales: 419-239-1259
General Inquiries and Weddings, Parties & Meetings (Kristi Juniper): vermilionvalleyvineyards@gmail.com
Sales (Joe Juniper): myvinesmywines@gmail.com
Facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/VermilionValleyVineyards/

Photos Credits: Elizabeth Smith and Joe Juniper/Vermilion Valley Vineyards

plēb urban winery

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2018 Maréchal Foch rosé

I have visited plēb urban winery in Asheville, North Carolina, three times over the course of the past five months: October 2018, November 2018, and January 2019. I am planning another visit this month, February 2019, so make that four visits. This may qualify me as a plēbeian and that is OK. I am delighted to share my latest wine crush with you, my readers. (See what I did there?)

plēb urban winery opened in September 2018 offering wines from various regions. However, their mission is to produce small-lot NC wines with grapes sourced within a two-hour radius of Asheville. To date, plēb has released three of their 2018 wines: a rare Maréchal Foch rosé from Appalachian High Country (8.8% ABV), a Chardonnay Pét-Nat from Henderson County (10.1% ABV), and an effervescent, Cayuga-based wine in a can called exuberant white (12.2% ABV). I have tasted all three and enjoyed them immensely because they are a palate match to my Hs (Hypersensitive) Vinotype, with their lower alcohol, higher acidity, no added sulfites, and a “less is more” approach to winemaking. The wines are kegged and offered by the glass or growler. The most intriguing of the three for me has been following the evolution of the Maréchal Foch rosé. When I initially tasted it in November 2018, its higher acid was more pronounced. However, when I tasted it again in January 2018, it was like tasting a different wine. The bright fruit flavors and acid were much more harmonious.

What I most love about plēb is that the winery is bringing Western North Carolina wine to the forefront of Asheville’s craft beverage market, especially to a younger generation of buyers, most of whom are likely craft beer drinkers since Asheville is such a beer destination. I also enjoy plēb because they are changing what the vision of a winery is. The vibe is anti-establishment and anti-traditional regarding the varietal wines they make, their winemaking style, their packaging, and their marketing. Different is good for all wine consumers.

The plēb urban winery team
The plēb urban winery team. (Photo Credit: https://mountainx.com/food/small-bites-pleb-urban-winery-opens-in-the-rad/)

To delve into plēb’s philosophy and approach to winemaking, the wine industry, the urban winery environment, and wine marketing, I interviewed the team: co-owner and business manager, Lauren Turpin; co-owner and winemaker, Chris Denesha; and assistant winemaker, Tyler Kay. Below is the story of plēb urban winery in their own words.

What inspired you to get into the winemaking business?
Lauren: The surge of craft beer and local breweries had me wondering if a similar local tap room approach and concept could be applied to wine. I wanted to start a business that produced a product, engaged with the community and filled a gap in the market. After doing some research, I believed this could be achieved through an urban winery. And that, while I’m not the winemaker, is how I got into the winemaking business.
Chris: It’s the farming and growing aspect that got me into the business. There is something beautiful about working with the land and partnering to make something that has the unique ability to age for a long time and tell its unique story of place and history. Being a part of growing grapes and making wine has more to do with the place and year in which the grapes were grown than anything else. I got into winemaking more as I saw the identity being stripped away from our local grapes and wine to fit a more homogenized and marketable palate. It’s simply not representative of what most people love about wine and we are losing that connection without anyone really knowing that it’s happening.
Tyler: Wine sparked my curiosity in college. My “ah-ha” bottle was a 2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir from California. I never tasted anything like it, and I needed to know why. I bought a wine encyclopedia and dove right in. After college, I worked on a vineyard in southern Utah. Then I started my path towards becoming a sommelier. I love to travel, but when you’re balling on a budget, I would study regions and plan a trip. It helped shaped my winemaking style and kept the dialogue of travel alive.

Why and how did you select your location?
Lauren: We selected our location in the River Arts District for its size, accessibility and neighborhood. Wine is art and to be surrounded by hundreds of artists throughout the district, it felt like a natural fit. The size of the space allows us to produce and grow. It also enables us to provide a full-production winery and tap room experience to a large audience. Lastly, being two miles from downtown and Biltmore Village and next to West Asheville, we are well situated to serve locals and tourists.

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My tasting flight

How did you choose the name plēb?
Lauren: The plebeian spirit and their admiration for the gods of agriculture, fertility and viticulture led us to select the unique name. Our focus is on local growers, pursuing local vineyards and grapes that will grow well here in Western North Carolina. We seek to pay growers for their crops a rate that enables them to reinvest in their land. Farmers, winemakers, artists, in Roman times these were the plebeians that were the economic backbone and underappreciated of society. We want to put them front and center.

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Inside the winery space

Will you please share with us details about the winery’s design and décor, both the tasting room and the working winery?
Lauren: Being in the River Arts District and among the large murals, we wanted to bring that design inside since we have large walls befitting their skills.

What is plēb’s winemaking style or philosophy?
Chris and Tyler: We grew up playing baseball, and both of our fathers taught us the old school philosophy of things. I’d say that mentality is carried over in the winery. Old world winemaking with modern technology. This means low intervention in the cellar. Hand destemmed, foot crushed reds. Whole cluster pressed whites and rosés. Only non-competitive yeast strains, or 100% wild spontaneous fermentation. We even used fermenting wine to pitch on new juice to promote fermentation. No sulfur added, no fining or filtering. Just a cold cellar temperature to age, and we’re BIG fans of barrel aging on fine lees. We work in a cold climate and we want to see the reward of patience in time, not heat to showcase these wines.

What kind of vineyard partnerships does plēb seek or have? What are your criteria for selecting partners and vineyard sources?
Chris: We manage about 5 acres up in the Boone area. The rest of our grapes are all contract based with an emphasis on new small growers. We’re focused on Western North Carolina, which is generally higher elevation vineyard sites ranging from 2,100-3,400 ft. We want to build a united mentality for the future and longevity of this new wine growing region. Recognizing our temperate rainforest continental climate and acting accordingly with the right varietals. We believe highlighting French American hybrids and native varieties as quality grapes, along with shorter growing season Vitis vinifera.

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exuberant white wine in a can (Photo Credit: G Social Media)

Why does plēb sell wines by the glass, growler, cans, and/or on tap instead of traditional bottles?
Lauren: We have a commitment to be environmentally friendly and sustainable, not just in the vineyard but throughout our operation. Therefore, we do not bottle in mass. Using stainless steel kegs, we keep the equivalent of 78 bottles of wine free from light and oxygen for an extended amount of time. The growler option allows customers flexibility to choose any wine on tap to-go. Our cans are great for three reasons – first, they are recyclable, second, they are convenient for our outdoor enthusiasts, and third, it’s 375mL or two glasses of wine, which is a good size for one person or two to split. If you see any of our wine in a bottle it’s because either the wine or the retailer demanded it in that format.

Does the winemaking team have any favorite wines to make? Why?
Lauren: Sparkling because they’re my favorite to drink!
Chris: Sparkling because of bottle variation, you never know what you’re going to get!
Tyler: Rosés because so much is dependent on the chemistry of the grapes to dictate the winemaking.

Besides the winery, where can we find your wines?
Lauren: Select retailers, breweries and restaurants in the Asheville area.

Do you have any additional information you would like to share with the readers, such as forthcoming wine releases, events, etc.?
Lauren: I see us as revolutionaries and advocates for WNC grapes and wines and I call upon all those who want to revolt to join us. We will have new single varietal wines and blends coming out on a regular basis throughout the year. Best to check our website and social media for up-to-date information.
Tyler: Live life with no regrets, and everybody Wang Chung tonight.

Beth’s Smart Sip: 2014 Highlands Winery Zinfandel

2014 Highlands Zinfandel
2014 Highlands Zinfandel, Oakville, Napa Valley

My passion for zinfandel made the way it ought to be was reignited when I tasted this sample from Oakville’s Highlands Winery. It is not often that I use the word lovely and elegant when describing a zinfandel, but this is just that. Black cherry fruit and mouthwatering acidity lead into a subtle peppery finish. Structured, yet restrained, all of this wine’s components, if you will, are woven together quite nicely, resulting in a zinfandel that will complement food, not overpower it. Sharing it with new friends from California, Illinois, and New York was the icing on the proverbial cake. I was delightfully reminded me why I moved to the Napa Valley to follow my dream of working in the wine industry.

Only 200 cases made and a handful of bottles remaining of this 2014 vintage. Winemaker: Bradley Smith. SRP $45. Available at the end-of-vintage price, $30, at this link.

Ten Questions for Gary Lipp of COHO Wines

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Recently I had the opportunity to attend one of Sommelier Christopher Sawyer’s first Somm Sessions, an intimate tasting experience with winery owners, at Feast It Forward in Napa. After the tasting, Gary Lipp of COHO Wines graciously allowed me to ask him questions about his winery and wines. Below are his answers in his own words.

What is the history and story of COHO Wines? Why did you choose the name COHO?

I started COHO in 2002 with winemaker and former COHO partner Brooks Painter. The goal was to produce balanced, supple wines, priced to be relevant for the market. Both of us had been working for other California wineries since 1980-81 and wanted to use the expertise we had acquired into producing our own wines. The name was inspired by an old Celtic legend, “The Salmon of Knowledge.” It is about the wisdom to do the right things in the vineyard to promote the long-term health of the soils and all the creatures with which we share the vineyards.

What do you think makes COHO Wines different than other wineries in the Napa Valley?

Our approach to extended maceration, post-alcoholic fermentation is a bit out of step with many of the highly regarded wines produced in Napa Valley. It has become popular to leave the wine in contact with the skins and seeds for two to four weeks, drawing out color, tannin, and varietal character. At COHO, we are pressing the wines six to eight days after the completion of the alcoholic fermentation. I feel we achieve all the elements we need without the density.

How much wine does COHO produce? How many wines and what grape varieties?

The biggest crush we had was in 2012 and we made a little more than 5,800 cases. The last few vintages due to the loss of some vineyard (some our choice, some the vineyard getting a lot more money per ton) we are making between 2500-3000 cases. The current wines we produce are Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a red blend comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot.

Do you have a favorite grape variety? If so, why?

I guess it would be Merlot, but Pinot Noir is a close second. As to why, it is two-fold. Firstly, I love that when grown in the right conditions, Merlot can have the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon with more finesse and elegance on the palate, displaying blue and red fruit flavors. The second reason is that in the United States, Merlot is still a stepchild. Many consumers and some retailers do not want to hear about it. As a producer of what I consider an exceptional Merlot, I love the challenge of changing their minds and delighting the palates of those that do appreciate how delicious a Merlot can be.

What are your favorite vineyard sources in the Napa Valley and why?

All the vineyards with which COHO sources are in the cooler-climate areas of Napa Valley: Coombsville, Los Carneros, and the hillsides southeast of downtown Napa. I love the spicy flavors and aromatics, and resolved tannins are characteristics of the cool climates in which our fruit grows.

Do you have a wine club or allocation model?

No. With only four wines, there is not enough choice to make for an interesting club. Instead, we send newsletters several times a year that offer our new releases to our direct customers.

Tell us about Feast It Forward and why you decided to become a partner.

Feast It Forward has so many interesting components: a nice lineup of wineries, a cooking studio that broadcasts on their internet station, lots of music, the charitable component, and a fun place to enjoy it all. Also location, location, location: being across the street from The Oxbow Market in Napa has the potential to expose our wines to several million visitors per year.

In addition to Feast It Forward, where does one find and purchase your wines?

COHO wines can be found in fine wine shops and restaurants in fifteen markets around the country and directly from us through our website.

Are there any new wines on the horizon?

I hope to revive a second label wine that we produced in 2012-2014 called Old Poodle Dog. The Old Poodle Dog is named for a notorious San Francisco restaurant of the same name that dates to the city’s Barbary Coast days. We made a Cabernet Sauvignon using the fruit that did not quite fit into the other programs. The wines were very good and would sell quickly. Unfortunately, because of the small harvests in 2015 and 2016, there was not enough fruit to pull from the COHO wines to make any. By 2017, prices for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have gotten too expensive to make the wine. I am searching for appropriate vineyards and a winemaking facility outside of Napa where we can revive Old Poodle Dog again.

How do you envision the future of COHO Wines?

In 2014, Phillip Carollo-Titus began making the wines, giving us access to several new, exceptional vineyards that are already elevating the quality of the wines. The other side of it, though, is that the price of quality fruit in Napa Valley continues to rise. As a small winery that tries to keep our retail prices accessible and reasonable, I have decided to reduce the total quantity of our wines to be able to pay my growers and not bust the bank. However, I really like the quality of what we are producing and am convinced that our friends will continue to enjoy the wines we are offering.

Villa Maria Estate: Taylors Pass Vineyard and an Interview with winemaker Helen Morrison

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On June 16, 2011, I began this website, writing about wine, travel, and the combination of the two. Almost a year later, on May 22, 2012, I wrote about Villa Maria Estate for the first time. I cannot believe it has been seven and six years, respectively. It feels like we have grown together like longtime friends and family, so I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Villa Maria Estate wines.

In light of these milestones, I thought a great way to celebrate would be to interview Villa Maria’s Senior Marlborough winemaker, Helen Morrison, about the wines that we will be tasting for the summer edition of Villa Maria’s annual First Sip of Summer tweet-up scheduled for 5:00 p.m. Pacific/8:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, June 20. This time around, we are so fortunate to be tasting three of Villa Maria’s Taylors Pass, single-vineyard wines, the 2017 Sauvignon Blanc ($26), 2016 Chardonnay ($42), and 2015 Pinot Noir ($42). Below are my sneak peek reviews interspersed with my interview questions and Helen’s answers.

1. How long has Villa Maria been making these single-vineyard wines?

Taylor Pass Vineyard was planted in 1999, the first Taylors Pass Chardonnay was released in 2002, with Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc joining the range in 2003.

2. Does Villa Maria own Taylors Pass or source the fruit? If not, any direct involvement in the vineyard and grape growing? How does Villa Maria ensure growing standards and grape quality?

The vineyard is owned by Terra Vitae group, of which Sir George Fistonich (owner and founder of Villa Maria) is the largest shareholder. Villa Maria employed staff fully manage the vineyard, growing grapes to our requirements. Vine yield is balanced carefully to the site to achieve desired flavours and ripeness levels required.

3. How large of a vineyard is Taylors Pass? How many acres are devoted to the three grape varieties, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and pinot noir? Any other varieties grown there?

Riesling and Pinot Gris are grown there which are often used in our Cellar Selection tier of wine. The vineyard is 14 acres of Pinot Noir, 14 acres of Chardonnay, 120 acres of Sauvignon Blanc—however only a very small portion of the highest quality of grapes from these acres is made into our Single Vineyard wines.

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2017 Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (sample, $26)
I have a palate that craves sour fruit flavors, usually associated with someone that Tim Hanni MW calls the hypersensitive Vinotype, which makes perfect sense as I am also a highly sensitive person (HSP) with a Myers-Briggs INFJ personality type. I was the kid that used to eat lemons, limes, and grapefruit, without sugar added, and loved them. When I taste this sauvignon blanc, it immediately triggers these childhood memories. This wine is squeaky clean and crisp, with steely tartness and minerality.

4. What makes Taylors Pass such a special vineyard? Tell me more about the location, climate, soils, and growing season.

Villa Maria has been on the forefront of defining sub-regions from the word go. By keeping parcels separate in the winery at harvest time, we gain valuable knowledge about the vineyard sites and the differences in flavor profile. Showcasing the different terroir—the sense of place—has always been important to Villa Maria. The Awatere Valley is colder and stonier, and this reflects in style of this wine as well.  One very special parcel that delivers exiting wines year in and year out is the Taylors Pass Vineyard. Located in the Awatere Valley it sits on very picturesque terraces on the northern bank of the Awatere River. With each terrace the soil type changes; stony gravels are nearest the river, whereas the mid terrace has silt over gravels, and the highest terrace is deeper silt over clay-papa base.

5. Do you have a winemaking style? If so, please share your philosophy.

It really depends on the wine. Pinot Noir is the most transparent of the grape varieties, it showcases exactly where it was grown, how the vines were cared for, and needs to be carefully respected in the winery to craft great wines. We try to be hands-off where possible, allowing native yeast from vineyards to take care of the fermentation process, and once pressed, the wines rest in barrels for the next 9-14 months. It takes years of practise not to jump in and “interfere” too much, it’s best to sit back and be confident the wines will express themselves given time. Whereas with Sauvignon Blanc winemaking, we have very close attention to detail, starting right from the harvesting of grapes, protecting aromatics at every stage, very closely monitoring ferments to achieve the desired aromatics and highly focused wine assessment and blending session to ensure we get the best blends to bottle. Chardonnay is a very contested varietal in the Villa Maria group of wineries, with examples made from Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, and Marlborough—so we always keep focused on delivering a style of Chardonnay that truly represents the vineyard. We want consumers to almost feel the stones beneath their feet when tasting this wine.

6. Besides being single vineyard, what makes the Taylors Pass wines different from the other Villa Maria wines that we have sampled in past tastings?

At this price point, the wine expression is more about the texture, complexity, and overall palate weight rather than simple fresh fruit flavours (which is what we expect at Private Bin level). The Single Vineyard wines are an invitation to the consumer to come on a journey to discover the diversity of Marlborough.

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2016 Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyard Chardonnay (sample, $42)
Another confession: I am picky about chardonnay. In fact, I usually limit my chardonnay to Chablis and Champagne because I do not enjoy hot-climate, overripe, “sweet fruit” flavored chardonnays (another example of my hypersensitive palate). This chardonnay exhibits cool-to-moderate climate fruit characteristics like grapefruit, green apple, and stone fruits, which allows it to tolerate oak fermentation and aging, as well as naturally occurring malolactic fermentation.

7. Most of us recognize New Zealand as a producer of sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, so why make chardonnay?

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir originate in the similar area in Burgundy, so naturally any soil or micro-climate suited to Pinot Noir will often grow great Chardonnay. But also, Chardonnay is a very popular variety with New Zealand consumers, second only to Sauvignon Blanc, with demand continually increasing at all price points.

8. Does Villa Maria have a location (or locations) where consumers can taste before purchasing, like a winery or tasting room? If not, how (or does) Villa Maria provide public tastings?

Yes, we currently have two cellar door locations, one at Auckland our head office, restaurant, and conference facility, and the other one in Marlborough (where these wines are made). We also have plans to open a cellar door in the Hawkes Bay in the future.

9. Since Villa Maria does not have a wine club or allocation model, where can we find these wines in the retail market in the United States?

You can find these and any of our other wines on villamariawine.com. Click on Where to Buy at the top of the page and add your zip code for a list of local retailers.

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2015 Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyard Pinot Noir (sample, $46)
Although I live in California, I am not a fan of the “sweet cherry cola” style of pinot noir. Thankfully, this is not that style. This wine shows dark, ripe fruit flavors, such as black cherry, cranberry, and plum. A hint of spiciness from the mix of new and seasoned French oak, along with some mouthwatering acidity and black tea-like tannins, complete the package. This wine was lovely accompaniment to a baked chicken thigh I had for lunch, so I am sure it would pair with other poultry as well.

Celebrating #VAWineChat 50 and Founder Frank Morgan

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Photo courtesy of Frank Morgan and #VAWineChat

Those of you who have been following my writing for the past seven years know that I am relatively new to the wine industry and wine writing world. My first “wine moment” was in 2008. A couple of years later, I visited my first Virginia winery, and in 2011, I attended my first Wine Bloggers Conference held in Charlotteville, Virginia. It was at that conference that I truly discovered Virginia wine. In late 2013, #VAWineChat founder, Frank Morgan, invited me to participate in my first #VAWineChat. Here we are, five years and 50 episodes later. For this momentous occasion, Frank inteviewed Kirsty Harmon, winemaker at Blenheim Vineyards, Ampelographer Lucie Morton, winemaker Katie DeSouza of Casanel Vineyards and Winery, and Maya Hood White, Viticulturist and Assistant Winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards. Those of us who participated tasted the following wines.

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2016 Chatham Vineyards Steel Fermented Chardonnay, Church Creek, Eastern Shore, SRP $20 (sample)
Although I lived in Virginia for over two decades, regretfully, I never had the chance to visit the Eastern Shore. This steel-fermented chardonnay was an ideal choice for my inaugural wine from this area. The boldness and ripeness of the fruit was surprising. I did not expect the palate to have what I call warm climate characteristics. What a clean, crisp, tropical delight.

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2017 Veritas Rosé, Monticello, SRP, $20 (sample)
A blend of cabernet franc, merlot, and touriga nacionale, this is a bone-dry rosé, a little weightier than some due to some neutral oak fermentation and aging. It is replete with red fruit flavors like strawberry and watermelon, but especially juicy, raspberry deliciousness, which popped on the nose and palate. This should be your go-to Virginia rosé this summer.

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2016 Blenheim Vineyards Cabernet Franc, Virginia, SRP $22 (sample)

Cabernet franc is one of my favorite varietal wines and especially when it hails from Virginia. I love the tart cherry, earthiness, and lower alcohol. What a delicate, lovely, and elegant wine. I am also a big fan of the screw cap closure. Only $22? Holy moly. I’ll take a case or three. Thank you, Blenheim, for the overdue, Virginia cabernet franc fix I was craving.

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2015 Casanel Vineyards and Winery Petit Verdot, Middlesburg, SRP $42 (sample)
Petit verdot is my other varietal wine sweetheart. I love it much more than cabernet sauvignon. (Don’t tell anyone here in Napa.) Flavors like blackberries, blueberries, and bitter chocolate dominate the palate. It is dark and delicious, but lower in alcohol than the West Coast versions, a veritable balance of depth and restraint. This is how petit verdot should be. Be still, my heart.

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Photo courtesy of Frank Morgan and #VAWineChat

Shortly after the event, I virtually sat down with Frank via email, who has become a great friend and supporter, to learn why he began #VAWineChat and what it really takes to pull off these tastings. Details about all 50 chats can be found at this link.

1. Congratulations on 50 episodes of #VAWineChat! Share with us the “#VAWineChat” history and story: when and how it began and why you created it.

Thank you!  I very much appreciate you (and everyone) who has participated and helped make Virginia Wine Chat successful. Although the first official Virginia Wine Chat episode was in early 2013, the idea for a monthly virtual tasting series focused on the wines and winemakers of Virginia came a couple years prior.  In 2011, I helped the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office organize several Twitter tastings to help raise awareness of local wines leading up to the Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville in July of that year. Those three or four Twitter tastings in early 2011 were more popular than I expected. I received a lot of positive feedback about the wines and requests for similar tastings focusing on Virginian wines. I started Virginia Wine Chat in early 2013 as a way to connect notable Virginia winemakers with online wine influencers (a group many local winemakers would not have connected with otherwise).

2. What has inspired you to continue producing episodes?

Good question. I continue with Virginia Wine Chat because I appreciate the time these tastings provide with local winemakers, learning more about their backgrounds, philosophies, and of course their wines. And, I like connecting them with wine folks who are curious and enthusiastic about Virginian wine. This is a labor of love for sure; I do not charge for organizing and hosting the ‘chats. With the cost of camera and mic and the time spent traveling to the wineries plus hotel if I stay over, my wine income statement is always in the red. 🙂 At some point, I would love to find a way to at least cover the cost of Virginia Wine Chat.  Perhaps one day…

3. Take us behind the scenes of #VAWineChat from start to finish, to give us an idea of the logistics involved in bringing together the producers, the wines, and the participants.

Thankfully there’s no shortage of local winemakers interested in connecting with curious and engaged wine folks online via Virginia Wine Chat. Logistics of scheduling a monthly Virginia Wine Chat — oy! Selecting a date that fits in to the winemaker’s schedule and my work travel schedule may be the biggest challenge.  Once a date is set, I reach out to a few regulars and a few new folks that have asked to participate. Confirming 10 — 12 online participants (and then re-re-reconfirming) on the given evening is time consuming. If the ‘chat includes a live winemaker interview (streamed live via the Va Wine Chat Ustream channel or via Twitch), I have to drive to the winery.  Since most wineries are located about 2 ½ hours from my home, I usually have to arrange a place to stay if I don’t drive back that late evening. Staying in the Charlottesville area, or points west, on Sunday evening means a 4am wake up call on Monday morning to drive home and to work by 8am.

4. What makes #VAWineChat different from other virtual tastings?

Virginia Wine Chat is the only virtual tasting series (that I know of) focused on the wines and winemakers of Virginia.  It’s one of the few online virtual tastings that is focused on a small, emerging region. With 50 monthly episodes complete, I believe Virginia Wine Chat is one of the the longest continually running virtual tastings in the wine world.

5. Any idea how many Virginia wineries have participated since the inception?

In total, we’ve had about 65 Virginia wineries and five cideries participate since 2013.  Some months we feature three to five different wineries or cideries.

6. Do you measure the success or impact of the chats? If so, how? Quantitatively and/or qualitatively?

Success is measured in several ways.  The first measure is logistics success: did all participants receive the wines on time; did I make it to the winery on time; did the winemaker I’m interviewing show up on time; is the internet connection at the winery strong enough for video feed? Positive comments from participants about the wines and engagement from the winemaker following the chats are a measure of success, though hard to quantify.  Articles written about the wines are another measure of success. Though the total number of tweets is not a measure of success, it is cool to see the #VaWineChat hashtag trending #1 or #2 on Twitter ahead of big events like football games or the latest political scandal.

7. Which chat(s) have been the most popular?

In terms of overall number of tweets, online engagement, and in-person attendees, the 50th episode featuring the Women of Virginia Wine was by far the most popular. A close second was the November 2017 ‘chat featuring Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider (where she announced Foggy Ridge would no longer produce cider under the Foggy Ridge Label).  The January 2017 ‘chat featuring Virginia cider was very popular as well.

8. Have any of the chats been controversial?

Not really.  Because the #VaWineChat hashtag usually trends on Twitter, we do get some interesting spam during the chats. Occasionally there is an attention-seeker in need of a fix but otherwise, no controversy.

9. Are the chats saved for later viewing?

I have recorded most of the 50 Virginia Wine Chat episodes.  I have posted a few for viewing but am saving them to use as part of a larger project that’s been a few years in the making.  Stay tuned…

10. What is the future of #VAWineChat?

As Virginia Wine Chat has grown in popularity, I’ve received interest from wineries in other regions especially those in the eastern U.S.  Beginning last month, I expanded Virginia Wine Chat to include other notable eastern regions — like Maryland, New York, Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania.  I’ve named this series East Coast Wine Chat (#ECWineChat). The eastern U.S. as a ‘region’ is exciting and overlooked by most wine media.  I believe East Coast Wine Chat will bring (at least a little) much-needed attention to the many deserving winemakers growing world class wines the eastern U.S.  I have some really cool East Coast Wine Chats planned — like a focused discussion of east coast Cabernet Franc, Pet-Nats, and ciders — that I hope will foster some collaboration between winemakers in the the eastern U.S.

 

Greenwood Ridge Vineyards

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On the drive to the kickoff event at Greenwood Ridge Vineyards for my inaugural Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association Aromatic White Wine Festival, I was nervous. It was billed as a winemakers’ media dinner and was not sure what the dress code was. I finally decided to dress neatly, but also casually and warmly, because it was a cold, February night. Dressed in my comfort zone to mentally combat my first-time attendee jitters, I was ready to experience my first Anderson Valley winery.

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Founded in 1980 by Allan Green, Greenwood Ridge Vineyards is one of the original Anderson Valley wineries. Today, under the ownership of Wilson Artisan Wines, it still produces only around 1500 cases of premium wines, including riesling, late-harvest riesling, sauvignon blanc, merlot, pinot noir, and zinfandel.

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I parked my car and walked confidently to the famed, octagonal-shaped tasting room, designed by Allan’s father and associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, Aaron G. Green, and constructed from one, 400-year-old redwood tree. Someone outside immediately welcomed me and gave me a glass.

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As I opened the door and heard the friendly laughter and chatter, I felt a huge sigh of relief. Allan Green himself was pouring (and sipping) a vertical of aged rieslings from 1985, 1988, and 1996 (prices unknown), which were mind-blowingly delicious. More guests arrived, more wine appeared, and the noise level grew with lively conversation and music. Dinner was a fantastic barbecue buffet, not a fancy, sit-down dinner, and in that moment, I realized that the staff of Greenwood Ridge and the Anderson Valley producers in attendance were my kind of people.

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As the evening progressed, I found myself among friends, new and old. At some point, dinner turned into a party, and the crowd trickled outside into the cold, where we huddled near heaters and fire pits, sipping beautiful Anderson Valley wines and getting to know each other.

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When the cold air won, chilling me to the bone, I made my way back inside. My friend, Sommelier Christopher Sawyer, introduced me to Stacie Lynch, the winery’s manager, who warmed us up with a taste of the Jaxon Keys Winery & Distillery Jepson Signature Reserve Alambic Brandy ($395), simply exquisite.

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Next, she poured the exceptional 1999 Greenwood Ridge Mendocino Merlot (around $24 at release), another showstopper. I was smitten with both Greenwood Ridge and Stacie. She was a consummate host. And, as I was leaving, she gave me a couple of wines to take home, a 1995 Late Harvest Riesling (price unknown) and the 2016 Mendocino Ridge Riesling ($20). The former is awaiting a special occasion. My thoughts about the latter are below.

Rieslings

The Greenwood Ridge Vineyards 2016 Mendocino Ridge Riesling showcases how the cool, maritime influence of the nearby Pacific Ocean benefits grape growing. With only 1.6% residual sugar, this wine is a lovely, mouthwatering play of zippy acidity and delicate, ever-so-slight sweetness. Fruit flavors run the gamut from tropical to stone to tree to citrus, surprising and delighting the palate in every sip. Pair this riesling with nearly anything, but especially spicy Asian cuisine. I would also put a few bottles in the cellar for later, because if the 1985, 1988, and 1996 are any indication, this will be fantastic to try with age.

I have kept in touch with Stacie and she sent me a few more wines to taste. I am sure they will find their way into my heart, too, and be delectable reminders of my first visit to Greenwood Ridge Vineyards and Anderson Valley, a place that feels like a home away from home.