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  • Discovering the Symphony Grape at Oak Crest Vineyard & Winery

    Posted: 2017-11-17 08:45
    When crossing the Potomac into Virginia on Route 301, theCompass Craft Beverage Finder shows that Oak Crest Vineyard & Winery is the first winery when entering the Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace AVA. It is one of the oldest wineries on the peninsula -- opening in 2002 by Conrad Brandts. Although his family started growing grapes in the 1960s, Brandts planted his vineyard in 1986 with the assistance of grafted Cabernet vines from Gabriele Rausse. Then on a research trip to California he heard about a new hybrid grape developed at U.C. Davis and visited the creator Dr. Harold Olmo. This pioneering viticulturist created more than 30 new grape varieties such as Ruby Cabernet and Symphony - the subject of Brandts' visit.

    This crossing of Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris was developed for hot growing regions - more suitable to the humid Northern Neck than the Riesling that Brandts had originally intended to plant. With two decades in the vineyard, Symphony is Oak Crest's signature grape produced as a sweet single varietal Symphony ($17) and in the off dry Moonlight Sonata ($16). This wine is marketed as a German Rhine styled wine and that's close to the mark: a Gewurtz-Riesling combo with muscat-like bouquet, spicy creamy body that combines grapefruit and stone fruit, and a balance between sweetness and acidity. This was a hit at a recent family party. Looking forward to visiting more wineries along the Northern Neck very soon. Cheers.
  • Left Coast Cellars Estate Pinot Noir: The Right Latitude at 45°

    Posted: 2017-11-13 06:00
    The 356 acres that comprise Oregon's Left Coast Cellars' estate are situated on the 45 parallel north - equidistant from the equator and the north pole and the location of many of the world's most respected wine regions. This line crosses Bordeaux and Cotes du Rhone, Piedmont and Veneto, Croatia's Istrian Peninsula, and in America: Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula and of course, Oregon's Willamette Valley. What makes 45° N so special? The angle of the sun? Temperature? Who knows, and obviously other factors such as elevation, soil, weather, and tradition all play a larger role in the success or failure of a particular wine-growing area. But there's no doubt that this line is ingrained in our wine consciousness.

    The Left Coast Cellars Latitude 45° 2015 Estate Pinot Noir ($38) is forged from 100% Dijon clone grapes grown on their 10.4 acre Latitude 45 estate vineyard. The vineyard is south facing and planted in Chehulpum silt loam soil. This young sedimentary soil was deposited as recently as 10,000 years ago by the Missoula Floods that created the Columbia Gorge. This soil provides the dusty character associated with this single vineyard wine that seamlessly integrates with the bright cherry and spicy flavors. This is a delicious wine, soft and smooth tannins, which generates true sorrow when the bottle is emptied. Cheers.
  • BlueDyer Distilling: Distilled and Bottled in Waldorf Maryland

    Posted: 2017-11-10 09:53
    "Distilled and Bottled in Waldorf Maryland" is what you see on each bottle of BlueDyer Distilling spirits as this two year old distillery is the southernmost in the Old Line State. And its an ideal stop along Route 301 for those visiting Virginia's Northern Neck wine region.

    The operation was founded by Ryan Vierheller and Walker Dunbar and pays homage to a family tradition of distilling as Ryan’s great-grandfather’s copper pot still is displayed behind the tasting bar. In fact, his family started farming, milling, and distilling in 1720 -- augmenting the production of blue dye from indigo. This occurred in southern Pennsylvania which makes one wonder if they were involved in the Whiskey Rebellion. And it was Ryan's grandfather, with the family now living in Stafford County Virginia, who taught Ryan the distilling process.

    The current "BlueDyer" operation utilizing a 165-gallon hybrid re-flux still with three bubble caps and stresses quality at fair prices. Very fair prices. The current lineup includes their signature rum, a heavily corn based whiskey, and two gins.  And as always, you can find this distillery using theCompass Craft Beverage Finder. Cheer.

    Original Gold Rum ($24, 80 Proof)
    BlueDyer's flagship spirit and based on a family recipe. This rum is made from molasses and pure cane sugar, distilled four times, and finished in high charred oak barrels from Minnesota. This short aging process allows the oak to round out the flavors and dampen the alcohol without overshadowing the sweet profile. It is medium bodied, extremely smooth, with hints of honey. Tasty and a bargain at this price.

    BlueDyer Bourbon Mash Whiskey ($35, 80 Proof)
    This whiskey is composed of a bourbon mash of 80% corn, 7% rye grain, and 13% malted barley; distilled four times; and aged in charred oak casks with cherry wood used as a finishing flavor. Another medium bodied spirit without major oak influences, the sweet corn profile is prevalent followed by the mellowing influence of the barley and a little spice from the rye. Clearly more flavor than 100% corn moonshine and should be a preferred cocktail base for bartenders.

    BlueDyer Gin ($26, 80 Proof)
    This grain based gin meets my preferred flavor profile - as little juniper as legally possible with a broader amount of citrus botanicals. I enjoy this neat as the citrus provides a clearly superior taste over a traditional vodka and lime. I think I'm returning to gin. Nicely done.
  • Don Ciccio & Figli and Sunny Sweeney Deliver Trophies

    Posted: 2017-11-06 19:03
    Washington DC is a growing spirits town with most of the new distilleries concentrating on gin. However there's one celebrating the fruit liqueur from Southern Italy's Amalfi Coast: Don Ciccio & Figli.  Francesco ‘Ciccio’ Amodeo, President and Master Distiller, grew up along the Amalfi Coast where his family has been distilling fruit liqueur since 1883. Sadly after both his grandfathers resuscitated the distillery in the 1950s,  a massive earthquake destroyed the facility in 1980. But in October 2012 Amodeo continued this family legacy by opening Don Ciccio & Figli in Northwest DC  specializing in bitter aperitifs and fruit liqueur such as the Don Ciccio & Figli - Fragola Strawberry Liqueur ($33). This spirit weighs in at only 25% ABV and uses only fresh strawberries with not artificial flavoring. The profile is slightly sweet, but a decent bite that's noticeable and without heat. I sipped neat, but my family created Prosecco based cocktails - use brut and not extra dry or dry.  

    The Fragola's flavor profile reminded me of Texas singer-songwriter Sunny Sweeney, particularly with her latest release Trophy.  Her voice is sweet with a a pure country sound whereas the songs on the album are stinging and emotional. The signature song is the playful Better Bad Idea but more seriously there's Pass the Pain followed by Pills, Bottle by My Bed, and my favorite I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight. Written by Chris Wall this song is solemn but peaceful. Listen to the end as Unsaid showcases her strong vocals. This album should catapult Sweeney to the forefront of the County Music scene as is happening in the Americana world - it's one serious album.  Cheers to Sweeney and Don Ciccio & Figli.
  • A Trio of Wine from Murrieta’s Well While Listening to The White Buffalo

    Posted: 2017-11-02 19:04
    Although owned and operated by members of the Chardonnay-famed Wente family, Murrieta’s Well grows 20 different grape varieties at their Livermore Valley AVA estate. In fact the original vineyard was planted using cuttings from the Bordeaux estates of Chateau d’Yquem and Chateau Margaux back in 1884. Today, this estate is segmented into specific vineyards based on the property's various micro-climates, with the Hayes vineyard providing grapes for eleven varieties. Many of these varieties are included in three blends I recently received from the winery -- all showcasing the delicious wines being produced at Murrieta's Well as well as the larger Livermore Valley.

    Murrieta’s Well The Spur Red Wine Blend Livermore Valley 2014 ($30) is a blend of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Petite Sirah, 14% Petit Verdot, 10% Merlot, and 9% Cabernet Franc grown in different vineyards throughout estate. The wine was fermented independently and after blending aged 24 months in 50% new, 25% second use, and 25% third use French oak. This is a very pleasant wine; smooth and chewy; yet enough dark cherries and spices to complement the soft tannins. A neighborhood favorite. 

    Murrieta’s Well Dry Rosé Livermore Valley 2016 ($30) is a blend of 55% Grenache and 45% Counoise - the later a Rhone grape variety allowed into the blend of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine. The grapes are grown in the estate Hayes vineyard, gently pressed and cold fermented separately. This wine is all strawberries from head to tail complemented by melons and crisp acids.

    Murrieta’s Well The Whip White Wine Blend Livermore Valley 2015 ($24) is a blend of 30% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Semillon, 30% Chardonnay, 7% Viognier, and 3% Muscat Canelli grown in different vineyards in the winery's estate. Most of the juice was fermented in stainless steal, although a portion of the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc were fermented in small oak barrels. The the blended wine is aged 14 months where 1/3 in used French Oak and 2/3 in stainless steel tanks. This process provides a roundness and creaminess in addition to the bright flavors and acidity. And the aromatics from the Viognier and Muscat Canelli account for the stone fruit and floral launch. Nicely done.

    These wines were paired with the latest release from The White Buffalo, Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights. LA-based songwriter Jake Smith writes meaningful folk songs performed in the various styles of blues, rock, and soul. The feature track Avalon is getting plenty of airplay on SiriusXM Outlaw Country; this is one catchy tune. The album oscillates from the gritty to the ballads as in The Robbery and The Observatory or Nightstalker Blues and If I Lost My Eyes. Like his previous releases, I placed this at the front of my listening queue. Cheers.

Featured Visit

Sugarleaf Vineyards; North Garden, Virginia - Sunday, June 28, 2009
On a recent trip to Scottsville we stopped into Sugarleaf Vineyards, a boutique winery located in the heart of the Monticello Wine Trail. - producing wines from primarily estate grown vinifera grapes. I would recommend visiting their website to read about the winery's history, but in brief, Sugarleaf Vineyards is owned and operated by Jerry and Lauren Bias. They initially purchased the property as a retreat - future retirement home, but after consulting with vineyard experts from the university of Virginia, they found that there 126 acres were ideally suited for grape growing. They initially intended to source the grapes to other vineyards, but soon realized that the property was producing high quality vinifera grapes; thus, why not make wine instead. The first vintage was available for sale out of the tasting room in 2007 and already most of the wines have been awarded medals at several national competitions.

We arrived to find winemaker Daniel Neumeister preparing the Chardonnay and Viognier tanks for a bottling session scheduled for the next morning. We learned at this time that last year's vintage of their Viognier had sold out in 4 months, so they were eager to bottle this year's production. In addition their Petit Verdot was also gone - consumers are starting to discover Virginia's top grapes. We had to settle with the rest of their portfolio, which consisted of a Chardonnay, Petit Manseng, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Vidal Blanc, and the Neubia Nectar, a dessert wine made from 25% Petit Manseng and 75% Vidal Blanc. All the grapes were grown in the estate vineyard except for the Petit Manseng which was sourced from White Hall Vineyards. In general, the wines were very good - our favorite was the Petit Manseng - I guess always searching for something unique. The Chardonnay was more fruit than oak; the Cabernet Franc a nice medium bodied wine; and the Cabernet Sauvignon a full bodied wine and not bad for a grape that normally struggles in the Virginia climate. For those with sweeter tastes, the Vidal Blanc comes in at 1.1% r.s. and possesses a typical characteristic of this hybrid: floral aroma and peach flavors. Obviously Mr. Neumeister knows his craft and we have no issues with the wines themselves.

The problem we had was the cost of the tasting. First, Sugarleaf's wines are expensive ranging from $24 to $30, excluding the Vidal Blanc. There is obviously a market for Sugarleaf's wines, since they sell out quickly; Charlottesville is a wealthy area. Sugarleaf also charges a hefty tasting fee. Now, we fully understand the argument why wineries charge tasting fees - particularly when the winery will most likely be able to sell their stock within the year. Since the winery must pay an excise tax on each bottled wine, if they don't sell the wine, they must eat the tax. As a result, most wineries charge a modest tasting fee that is usually waived if the taster purchases a bottle. That is not the case at Sugarleaf Vineyards. The tasting fee is $6, so for two of us, it costs $12 to just enter the door and taste the wines. When we travel to a winery, we want to support the industry by purchasing at least one bottle, and here we decided to purchase a bottle of the Petit Manseng. Thus we paid basically $40 for a bottle of Virginia wine. For those who regularly tour wineries, is it worth the cost to drive 3 hours to pay the equivalent of $40 for a bottle or $12 just to taste the wine? Some of you may reply with an emphatic, YES. For us, I'm starting to think its not worth the effort.

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