Field Trip: Potomac Point Winery

My latest Adventure in Virginia Wineries brought me to Potomac Point Winery in Stafford, Virginia. I first visited Potomac Point seven years ago, right after it opened.  A lot can change in 7 years, so when Chelsea Sparaco, Potomac Point’s Sales & Marketing Manager, invited me to come out for a tasting, I was excited to revisit.


My girlfriend and I are getting pretty savvy at Virginia Wine tasting.  Virginia wineries are changing and evolving, so we have to change and evolve with them.  Gone (well, mostly gone) are the days of bringing a picnic to a winery.  You can still picnic outside (most of the time), but bringing food inside a winery has gone the way of the corded phone.  A lot of Virginia wineries now have an on-site restaurant (or they sell their own gnoshes), which means no outside food allowed.  To avoid surprises, call ahead.  Tasting wine on an empty stomach is a bad idea for me, so I always try to eat something beforehand.  Potomac Point has its own restaurant — Le Grand Cru Bistro — which is handy because there aren’t many food options close to Potomac Point (save for a guy selling crabs out of the back of his truck on the corner — and we weren’t really in the mood for truck crabs), so Bistro it was!

Le Bistro gets a lot of lunch traffic, especially from the nearby Quantico Marine Corps Base, and it really started to fill up while we were there — I’m glad we came when they opened at 11:30!  Our waiter, Jonathan, was a real charmer — we got to watch him gracefully and adeptly handle a large group of not so graceful “ladies who lunch”.

My girlfriend and I both opted for these tasty salads, but we took a pass on the suggested wine parings since we were getting ready to do a separate wine tasting.

Potomac Point is owned by Skip & Cindi Causey, who started the winery as a semi-retirement venture.  They planted vines in 2005, and opened in 2007.  They have a total of 13 acres, 7 of which are under vine.  Potomac Point Winery sits on the Widewater Peninsula, a coastal floodplain in eastern Virginia.  In prehistoric times, the area was completely submerged by seawater.  The soil today is mostly sandy loam (sort of a crumbly mix of sand, clay and silt). Loam alone isn’t that great for vines, but when mixed with sand, it becomes “bad enough” to stress the vines.  And stressed vines make happy wines.



During the early 17th century, the Widewater Peninsula was home to the Patawomeck (Potomac) Indians, lead by Chief Powhatan. Sometime around 1607, Chief Powhatan captured and imprisoned the English explorer, John Smith.  According to an account written by Smith, Chief Powhatan was all set to execute Smith when Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, intervened.  Pocahontas saved Smith’s life by throwing herself between Smith and her dad. A gusty move, considering Smith and Pocahontas were just friends.  Seriously.  Just friends.  (Disney makes fairy tales, not documentaries).  Today, historians disagree about the validity of Smith’s account.  Some historians say Smith was about to be executed; others say the whole thing was an elaborate, ritualized adoption ceremony (a really scary one, with spiked clubs).  And, since the only account of the story is Smith’s, we may never know the truth.

The first time I visited Potomac Point, they made a wine called Pocahontas Reserve Norton, bottled in a great stoneware bottle.  It was made to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.  I bought a couple of bottles specifically for the bottles — and I still have them.  Chelsea told me they no longer make the wine, which kinda bums me out.  I love it when history and wine get all tangled up together, so I’d love to see Potomac Point resurrect the stoneware bottle — as a nod to their connection to the land and history of the Patawomeck Indians.


My Pocahontas bottles, right at home . . .

After we finished our lunch at the Bistro, Jonathan gave us our tasting tickets, and my girlfriend and I immediately thought:  Willy Wonka!


We’ve got a golden ticket!

We headed to the tasting bar and met our tasting room hostess, Valorie.  I love Valorie.  All tasting rooms should have a Valorie.  Approachable, knowledgeable, and down to earth.  From the moment she introduced herself, I felt like we were friends.

If there was an award for Best Tasting Notes, Potomac Point might just win.  I cannot express how much I appreciate detailed, technical tasting notes.  I’d rather have too much information than not enough.  I can really think about a wine when I don’t have to spend my time furiously scribbling down technical notes.

We tasted a total of fourteen (!!) wines.  I made good use of the dump bucket — not because I didn’t enjoy the wines, but because we tasted fourteen of them.  And we needed to drive home and do mom stuff later that afternoon.

Here’s what we tasted . . .

Chardonnay 2013 ⭐⭐⭐/85
100% Chardonnay.  Aged in stainless steel.  Flint nose.  Super tart and acidic, with flavors of green apple and pear.  The tasting sheet says “toasty notes”, but I don’t get that at all, especially since this is aged in stainless.  Still, crisp and clean.  13.5% ABV.  $17.

Viognier 2013 ⭐⭐⭐/86
80% Viognier, 20% Rkatsiteli.  Aged in stainless steel.  A Viognier blended with Rkatsiteli??  That’s interesting.  And atypical for a Virginia Viognier.  Very tropical.  Viognier definitely dominates, but you can’t ignore the Rkat presence.  It’s Viognier sandwiched between two wafers of Rkat.  13.5% ABV.  $27.

La Belle Vie White 2013 ⭐⭐⭐/85
65% Vidal Blanc, 10% Chardonnay, 10% Rkatsiteli, 10% Viognier, and 5% Petit Manseng.  Aged in stainless steel.  This is Potomac Point’s most popular white wine.  I don’t usually like a winery’s most popular white — because it’s usually sweet patio plonk.  But I liked this one — 1.5% residual sugar, so it’s not a full-blown Capri Sun wobble-pop.  I was expecting cloying, but the balance surprised me.  13% ABV.  $15.

Custom Label White 2013 ⭐⭐⭐/84
55% Chardonnay, 30% Viognier, 15% Vidal Blanc.  Aged in stainless steel.  Tropical apple flavors.  The Vigonier is assertive, I kept searching for the Chardonnay, but it didn’t want to come out and play.  Decent finish.  This bottle, and the Custom Label Red are printed without a front label, so you can design your own.  13% ABV.  $17.

Abbinato 2013 ⭐⭐⭐/84
45% Sangiovese, 45% Chambourcin, 10% Merlot.  Aged in neutral and French oak.  The nose on this wine was almost sweet — kind of reminded me of WD-40.  This is a Chianti style wine, and it doesn’t taste at all like it smells.  Light-bodied.  Black pepper dominates. Hello, Chambourcin?  13.7% ABV.  $17.

Coyote Cave Red 2013  ⭐⭐⭐/86
54% Sangiovese, 26% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Syrah.  Aged in French oak.  Valorie called this the “red wine with training wheels”.  Makes sense to me.  Lots of structure without tannin overload.  Smells like pepper and campfire.  Smooth and very drinkable.  Flavors lean toward the green — herbs and green pepper notes.  A bottle of this came home with me, too. 12.7% ABV.  $19.

Merlot 2012 ⭐⭐/83
85% Merlot, 15% Tannat.  I like the addition of the Tannat here — it makes it more Virginia. Aged in French oak.  Balanced, but a slight nod to tannins.  Maybe a little aggressive for a Merlot.  13.7% ABV.  $25.

Custom Label Red 2013 ⭐⭐/83
54% Sangiovese, 26% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Syrah.  Aged in French oak. Medium bodied.  Slightly medicinal nose — smells like a box of Band-Aids, which I don’t find unpleasant.  Still, the balance seems slightly off.  This bottle, and the Custom Label White are printed without a front label, so you can design your own.  13% ABV.  $22.

Cabernet Franc 2013 ⭐⭐⭐/86
100% Cabernet Franc.  Aged in French oak.  White pepper nose, with flavors of herbs, green pepper and tobacco.  Tannins seem a little unruly right now, but I’ll bet they calm down with age.  14.7% ABV.  $27.

Richland Reserve Heritage 2010 ⭐⭐⭐/88
32% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Tannat, 5% Petit Verdot.  Aged in French oak.  Bordeaux style.  Smoke, tobacco, leather.  Coffee, toffee chocolate finish.  Finesse and power.  Well done!  14.6% ABV.  $43.

Norton 2012 ⭐⭐/82
Hello, Newman Norton.  My complicated history with Norton continues.  I get prunes on the nose — a bit of a departure from the grape jelly I usually get.  This wine kind of clobbers you over the head.  I said the wine was a little bratty, and Valorie countered with “bossy”.  Bossy is my new favorite wine descriptor.  13.5% ABV.  $24.

Dolce Rubus 2013 ⭐⭐/82
100% Merlot + a “natural raspberry additive”.  Aged in French oak.  Holy Raspberry!  Smells like IHOP pancake syrup.  Surprising balance.  Reminds me of a liquor filled chocolate.  Not my cup of tea, but I can see how others would love it.  13.7% ABV.  $16.

Vin de Paille 2010 ⭐⭐/82
65% late harvest Vidal Blanc, 30% late harvest Petit Manseng, 5% Muscat Raisin.  The nose is like tearing open a Clementine orange.  Very sweet, and a little cloying for me.  Valorie said she uses it to make her own cranberry sauce — set another place at the Thanksgiving table for me, Valorie.  16.8% ABV.  $27.

Moscato Dolce 2012 ⭐⭐⭐/87
From Asti in Piedmont, Italy.  100% Moscato.  Aged in stainless steel.  Not usually available for tasting, but Valorie had a bottle open, so we got to sample it.  I really enjoyed this.  I think I must have been lamenting the end of summer — bought bought a bottle to take home.  I’ll break it out in February when I need some sunshine.  5.5% ABV.  $30.

After our tasting, Chelsea took us on a tour of the winery.  Here’s something you don’t see very often — a dedicated kids zone inside the tasting room, called the ‘Lil Buds Room.  (Tasting Room and ‘Lil Buds Room photos courtesy of Potomac Point Winery, all others are my own). While we were in the tank room, we bumped into Potomac Point’s new winemaker, David Pagán Castaño, who hails from Yecla, Spain.  Before landing at Potomac Point (he’s only been there 6 months), David was the winemaker at Breaux Vineyards in Purcellville, Virginia.  David was very gracious and seemed genuinely interested in talking with us.  I’ll be anxious to see how the wines change and grow under his direction.

The Coyote Wine Cave is named after one of the very first visitors to the winery — a mother coyote and her cub who took an unguided tour of the winery’s production floor, leaving their footprints behind in the wet cement.  The winery has a stuffed coyote that gets moved around (sometimes to surprising places) all over the winery.

On our way out of the winery, Chelsea gave me a bottle of their new fusion wine, Camino, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Monastrell.  Winemaker David Pagán Castaño calls the wine fusion because it blends different cultures and regions of the world — Cabernet Franc from Virginia, and Monastrell from Bodegas Castaño, the Castaño family winery in Spain. Camino means path in Spanish . . . and Potomac Point is definitely on the right camino!


Wine, Words & Wednesday, No. 24

Halloween isn’t my favorite holiday.  It hovers somewhere between Talk Like a Pirate Day and Tax Day for me.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about lighting bonfires to ward off restless ghosts, but I don’t like being scared.  And I definitely don’t like being scared on purpose.  Back in high school, it was all the rage to watch horror movies at slumber parties, and I watched them all — Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street (in all their iterations).  And I pretended it was soooo fun (really, would it have been so awful to watch Sixteen Candles or Top Gun again?).  And while Jason, Michael and Freddy are some very creepy dudes, they never scared me as much as the Lord God King of Creepy Dudes:  Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Silence of the Lambs came out during my junior year of college, while I was dating the Mr. Armchair Sommelier.  And let me tell you, nothing sets the mood for a romantic date night like a cannibalistic serial killer.  For the record, I’m convinced my husband wanted to see Silence of the Lambs to get back at me for making him sit through Steel Magnolias (a movie he insists he was tricked into seeing because it had the word steel in the title).  Silence of the Lambs scared the bejesus out of me (all part of his plan, I’m sure).  Hannibal Lecter is a terrifying man.  And that whole homicidal cannibal thing is secondary to what’s truly terrifying about Dr. Lecter — his brilliance.  Dr. Lecter crawls inside your head and stays there.  Dr. Lecter doesn’t need a knife — he can kill you with words.

So, what does Hannibal Lecter have to do with wine?!?

Arguably one of the greatest, most recognizable wine quotes of all time comes from the movie, Silence of the Lambs.

Shudder.  Twenty-three years later, and that slurping sound Dr. Lecter makes still creeps me out!

But, interestingly, Chianti is absent from Thomas Harris’ book.  In the book, Dr. Lecter pairs his liver with Amarone:

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.31.10 PM

Apparently, Silence of the Lambs director, Jonathan Demme, decided to “dumb down” Dr. Lecter’s taste in wine — because he thought the American people wouldn’t be able to identify with Amarone the same way they would with Chianti.  Wait.  What?  Dr. Lecter is supposed to be a little incomprehensible — it makes him more terrifying.  But, if I’m being honest, 23 years ago, I probably would have thought Amarone was a seashell.

So, what would you pair with liver and fava beans . . . a nice Chianti or a big Amarone?

I think I’ll defer to the Dr. Lecter of the page and go with a big Amarone on Halloween night. Hold the liver.


Wine, Words & Wednesday, No. 23

For the past half-dozen years, I’ve volunteered at a bicycle ride (not a race) called The Great Pumpkin Ride.  We’ve grown from a ride of 300 to expecting a staggering 1,250+ riders on Saturday.  For the past few weeks, my life has been consumed by Great Pumpkin planning. Guess how many port-o-potties you need for 1,250 riders??  The past couple of days have been, well . . . if you pricked me right now, I’d bleed stress.

So, here’s my motto for this week . . .

smile wine

My fingers are crossed for a smooth and successful ride on Saturday.  Even if we hit a bump in the road, I’ll just smile . . . because there’s wine at the end of my day!


Ex Post Facto: Finger Lakes Riesling Launch

Last month, the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance invited me to participate in the Finger Lakes Riesling Launch (an online conversation with dozens of wine producers and hundreds of wine consumers).  I had big plans to participate, but life happened, and logging onto Twitter wasn’t in my cards that night.  So . . . I’m adding my Finger Lakes thoughts and impressions ex post facto (nothing jazzes up a blog post like a fancy Latin phrase).


Photo Credit: Finger Lakes Wine Alliance

I can’t think without a map, so here’s a map of the Finger Lakes.  There are a total of eleven “fingers” in the Finger Lakes.  According to Native American lore, the Finger Lakes were created when The Great Spirit imprinted his hand into the land.  Apparently, The Great Spirit had a few extra digits.

The Finger Lakes is a wine region on the rise. Not so long ago, the Finger Lakes would have been considered an under the radar wine region, but it’s squarely on the radar now.  The Finger Lakes region has attracted the attention of Paul Hobbs (California winemaker extraordinaire — Forbes Magazine called him “the Steve Jobs of wine”) and Germany’s Johannes Selbach (from Mosel Valley’s Selbach-Oster).  They purchased a vineyard on the southeastern side of Seneca Lake.  Hobbs said it’ll take them three years to plant.  Wanna guess what they’re planting?  Yep, Riesling.

The Finger Lakes is also the site of the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference, and the destination for my family’s triennial wine vacation.  We had already booked our vacation before the location for the 2015 WBC was announced, so I’m not sure if I will head back up to FLX for WBC or not. Stay tuned.

The Finger Lakes and Riesling are joined at the hip, and I was super excited to taste a few bottles of Finger Lakes Riesling in advance of our trip.  I like to think of it as research.  But before I tasted, I needed to dust the cobwebs off the Finger Lakes wine section of my brain.  A few months ago, I wrote a post about Finger Lakes wine.  What follows is a revision/update to that post.  It never hurts to review.

Other than a few random bottles, I have very limited experience with the Finger Lakes wine region, so this is a great learning experience for me.  The Finger Lakes wine region in New York is often compared with the Rhine region of Germany.  Both regions benefit from the moderating influence of water — the Rhine River in Germany, and the Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka and Canandaigua Lakes in New York.  And, in both regions, Riesling Rules.  

The Finger Lakes are below sea-level, so they trap and store heat, which moderates temperatures (both winter and summer) in the region.  The moderate temperatures provide a longer growing season, allowing the grapes to ripen more fully.  The deep water lakes also cool the summers, allowing for air-flow which prevents pesky things like rot and mildew on the grapevines.

Prior to the 1960s, almost all of the grapes grown in the Finger Lakes region were Vitis lambrusca (native grapes like Niagara and Concord) or hybrids – not the European vinifera grapes needed to produce fine wines.  Vitis vinifera grapes had been nearly impossible to grow in the eastern United States because they couldn’t survive the harsh winters and brutal summers — and they had little resistance to vineyard pests & diseases found in the US.

Enter Ukrainian viticulturist, Dr. Frank Konstantin.  Konstantin is responsible for introducing vinifera grapes to the Finger Lakes region in the 1960s.  Konstantin had experience growing vinifera grapes in the brutal cold of the Soviet Union, so he was convinced he could do it here, too.  He found success by grafting traditional vinifera varieties onto hardy native American rootstock.

The Finger Lakes wine region was just starting to take off in the early 20th century . . . and then Prohibition happened.  Prohibition wiped out most of the wineries in the Finger Lakes.  As Finger Lakes wineries slowly recovered from Prohibition, Riesling became the most successful vinifera grape variety.

Thanks to the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance for hooking me up with this great PowerPoint on Finger Lakes Cold Climate.  If you click on the link, it will download the ppt, but here’s the gist: There are over 9,000 acres of grapes planted in the Finger Lakes.  Of those, around 80% are still planted to native or hybrid grapes.  That leaves roughly 20% planted to vinifera varieties. And of the vinifera varieties planted, Riesling accounts for 46(ish)%.

Riesling Rules.

I love Riesling — especially a bone dry, mouth-puckering, acid-bomb of a Riesling.  There’s just something about the way a dry Riesling showcases the purity of the fruit.  More and more Riesling producers are using the IRF (International Riesling Foundation) Scale on the backs of their bottles.  The position of the arrow is determined by the winery, and helps consumers decide how dry or sweet a particular bottle of Riesling will be.  As my Grandpa Virgil used to say, “this is as handy as a pocket on a shirt.”

riesling scale

The Finger Lakes Wine Alliance sent me three bottles of Riesling for the Launch:


Bellangelo Dry Riesling 2013 ⭐⭐⭐/87
Seneca Lake.  100% Riesling, from three different vineyards (Gibson, Morris and Tuller).  Aged in 93% stainless steel and 7% neutral oak.  There’s such a freshness to this wine.  Bellangelo labeled this Dry on the IRF scale, and Dry it is!  Yay!!  Wet minerals, and flavors of green apple & lime.  A snappy acid beauty that needs a food partner.  My mouth is watering just thinking of the possibilities.

Fox Run Vineyards Dry Riesling 2013 ⭐⭐⭐/86
Seneca Lake.  100% Riesling, harvested from three different Riesling blocks.  (Fox Run has 50 acres of grapes, 19 of which are planted to Riesling).  0.7% residual sugar, so Fox Run labels it right on the line between Dry and Medium-Dry on the Riesling scale.  Wet rocks on the nose, which always makes me a happy girl.  Medium body with citrus and stone fruit flavors.  Great acidity.  And just like that, I’m craving tuna tartare.

Lamoreaux Landing Red Oak Vineyard  Riesling 2013 ⭐⭐⭐/85
Seneca Lake.  Lamoreaux Landing has 100 acres of vines, with 20 separate vineyard blocks. 100% Riesling.  Single vineyard.  This Riesling is labeled Medium-Dry on the Riesling scale. Fermented in stainless steel.  More tropical and lush than the Fox Run and Bellangelo, with flavors of pear and pineapple.  And maybe a jicama.  Floral undertones.  Nicely balanced.  The touch of sweetness would make this killer with any spicy Asian food.

This summer, I have a feeling I’m going to run out of time before I run out of Finger Lakes wineries to visit.  But for sure, I will be setting my GPS for these three great Riesling producers.


Wine, Words & Wednesday, No. 22

It’s high-school midterm week here at Casa de Armchair Sommelier . . . and I’m the Spanish tutor.  I speak just enough Spanish to get myself into, but not out of trouble.  I read Spanish fairly well, but speaking . . . ooof.  I speak an ugly Spanish.  I always tell Spanish speakers to speak to me like I’m a five year old — then we’re good.  I know my Spanish isn’t right, but I can usually get my point across.  People get the gist.  This is what I keep trying to explain to my boy.  Learning a foreign language isn’t really about memorizing endless lists of vocabulary and conjugations (except in high school, where it’s all about that).  Foreign language is about the gist.  Quit trying to translate everything word for word — just try and make mistakes.  People are generally pretty patient (and sometimes entertained) when you make the effort.  They’ll forgive you the mistakes.  Put the zapato on the other foot.  I have a friend from Mexico who routinely slays the English language by saying endearing things like, “I come for the store”.  No, it’s not right, but I get the gist.

What does this have to do with Wine, Words & Wednesday?

A few years ago, I was vacationing in Chile with my girlfriend, who is from Chile.  Visiting a foreign country with a native speaker is the bonus of all bonuses.  You get the insider’s track to food & drink, people, and places.  One afternoon, she and I were walking through a tiny craft bazaar in a speck of a town called Algorrobo (home of the world’s largest swimming pool, btw). I got so excited when I saw this sticker — I bought it instantly, and I wasn’t even going to haggle (but my friend said that’s simply not done, so I think I ended up paying something absurd, like 43 cents, for it).  I bought it not just because it was about wine, but also because I actually understood 95% of it, and I was feeling pretty proud of myself.


Basically, it means this:

If you came into the world, you came to drink wine.
And if you don’t drink wine, then why the hell did you come?

I had to ask my friend about the cresta part.  Cresta is Chilean slang, which is like saying crap. So technically, my sticker says, why the crap did you come?  Now that I think about it . . . I like that version even better.

I’m going to pour myself a glass of vino and head back into conjugation Hell.  Wish us luck!


Wine, Words & Wednesday, No. 21

medium_8625773833I’ve got cider on my mind.

Yesterday marked the start of a new, month-long series on #winestudio.  The focus this month is Virginia Hard Cider.  I’ve lived in Virginia almost all my life, and I love cider, so I’m particularly excited about this study.

And I’m not the only Virginian with a love for fermented apples.

Thomas Jefferson’s love for (and relationship with) wine is well documented.  However, Thomas Jefferson was also a cider aficionado.  Jefferson may have failed to successfully grow European wine grape varieties at Monticello, but he did experience great success with his apple orchard.

During the War of 1812, Jefferson was unable to import his favorite European wines (because the British Royal Navy blockaded the entire Atlantic Coast of the United States, bringing trade to a grinding halt), so he turned to cider.  Jefferson made his own cider at Monticello, and served cider as his “table drink” with most meals.

Jefferson insisted on a very specific recipe of apples for his cider-making.  Jefferson’s apple orchard focused on only four varieties, all cider apples — Hewes Crab,  Taliaferro (which Jefferson called “the best cider apple existing”),  Newtown Pippin (later called the Albemarle Pippin) and Esopus Spitzenburg.  Before last night’s #winestudio, if you asked me to name apple varieties, I would have struggled to come up with anything beyond Red & Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and maybe Gala.  An important takeaway from last night:  Eating apples make terrible cider, and cider apples make terrible eating.  Clearly, Jefferson preferred to drink his apples!

A few weeks ago, I was browsing through a used bookstore (some people go antiquing, I go used book-storing), and I found a copy of John Hailman’s book, Thomas Jefferson on Wine.  It’s a meticulously researched Jefferson history told through the lens of wine.  And, bonus . . . it was five bucks!


There’s a short chapter in Hailman’s book on cider, so I went back and re-read it to help me prepare for last night’s #winestudio.  We tasted three crisp, elegant ciders from Foggy Ridge Cider in Dugspur (southwestern Virginia).  And I could not get over the Champagne texture of the ciders — light-bodied and lean, with layers of complexity.  The versatility potential is off-the-charts!

And apparently, TJ and I are on the same cider page . . .


By 1700, cider was the most popular beverage in the United States.  Our Founding Fathers loved the stuff.  And William Henry Harrison won the Presidential election of 1840 by running on a “log cabin and hard cider” (appeal to the common man) platform.  But by the early 20th century, cider had nearly fallen off the national radar.  Why the decline?  A perfect storm of reasons, really.  German immigrants arrived in America with a taste for beer, along with the methods to make it quickly and efficiently.  And then there was that whole Prohibition nonsense.  Prohibitionists burned cider apple orchards to the ground and replanted them with sweet, eating apples.  After Prohibition, it took years to convert the orchards back to cider apples.

Today, cider is experiencing a revival in the United States, and Virginia is at the center of that revival.  Virginia Cider Week is November 14-23 — there are ten cideries and/or craft cider makers in Virginia — all with fun events and opportunities to learn about fermented apple juice.  If you’re a cider aficionado (or just want to learn more), please join the Virginia cider conversation with #winestudio — Tuesdays in October from 9-10pm.


Carpe Vinum: The Napa Valley Challenge


Mondavi, circa 2006.

Our question for this month’s Carpe Vinum was this:  Can you taste a difference between Napa Valley sub-appellations?  

(My background post on Napa Valley and its sub-appellations can be found here).

My husband, Mr. Engineering Guy, says to get a true answer to that question, we’d need to conduct an experiment with set control variables, and a much larger sample size.  We’d need to use the same grape variety, the same vintage year, and the same winemaker (with identical winemaking processes, equipment and storage).  And we’d need to taste in a blind, or even a double-blind format.  He said some other sciency stuff, too, but by that point, I had tuned him out.  Kill joy.  😉

Winemaker style is the wild-card variable — you’d have to equalize winemakers across the board to get a true read on the sub-AVA differences.  And I’m not sure that’s even possible. (Lots of cooks, lots of kitchens).  The closest attempt I’ve been able to find is this:  Back in 2007, winemaker Jeff McBride of Conn Creek Vineyards, attempted a Napa AVA experiment.  He made wines from all of the (then) 14 Napa sub-appelations, using identical winemaking processes.  His goal was to arrive (eventually) at distinct flavor profiles for all of the Napa sub-appellations.  Unfortunately, I can’t find any follow-up information about his results, and whether he’s continuing his experiment.

So, right from the start, I acknowledge ours was an imperfect experiment.  What can I tell you? The world’s an imperfect place — screws fall out all the time (nod to The Breakfast Club).  My personal goal was to see if I could tell the difference between the Cabernets from the Napa Valley floor vs. the Cabernets from the mountain (altitude) AVAs.  Speaking in wild generalizations . . . Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley floor is supposed to be more powerful and fruit forward.  Cabernet Sauvignon from the mountain area AVAs is supposed to tend toward a leaner style, with great acid and savory and/or spice elements taking center stage.  Which Cabs did we taste, and did they match the Napa Valley generalizations?

Unum Wine Cellars District Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ⭐⭐⭐/88
The vineyard is at 1,300 feet in the Vaca Range of the Atlas Peak AVA.  The nose on this wine reminds me of my mom’s cedar chest.  Man, I love that smell.  Flavors are cherry and tobacco with vanilla and nutmeg on the finish.  Loads of acidity, delicately balanced.  $40.

Paired with a Roasted Vegetable Tart made with Diane’s Flaky Cheddar Cheese Pie Crust
This is a great veggie tart recipe, but the genius is in the crust.  I loathe making pie crust.  My recipe involves buying a box of Pillsbury ready-made crusts.  But my friend, Diane’s recipe for cheddar cheese pie crust makes me want to make pie crust.  It’s that good!

The Pairing 👍
The vegetable tart definitely amplifies the tannins in the wine, making them seem even more powdery.  The wine works beautifully with the eggplant & mushrooms, as well as the Roquefort cheese (and I don’t even like Roquefort cheese).  The char on the veggies played very well with the Cabernet.  I can’t explain it, but I found myself craving tomatoes in this tart. Maybe something to do with the higher acid in the wine??


Beaulieu Vineyard Clone 6 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford 2003 ⭐⭐⭐⭐/92
I love the age on this wine — it’s had over a decade to chill out.  The tannins are well integrated now, very smooth, even elegant.  Rutherford Dust is a phrase originally coined by BV winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff.  The microclimate in Rutherford AVA allows grapes to ripen just a bit longer, so tannins tend to be softer, or “dusty”, with flavors of cocoa.  But is this winer really dusty?  I get flavors of blackberry and currant, and absolutely no doubt — eucalyptus. And I just happen to have some eucalyptus growing in my backyard, so I brought some inside for comparison.  Ding! Ding! Ding!  Eucalyptus.  And there’s definitely some cocoa on the back end.  But I don’t know whether I’m really tasting dust, or simply a reflection of terroir.


Paired with Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic and Sage & Sweet Potato Puree with Garlic, Thyme and Balsamic Vinegar
These are both recipes from Andrea Robinson.  When I first saw the recipes I thought, “Is she crazy?  Who pairs brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes with a Cab?”  But she’s Andrea Robinson, she knows what she’s doing — I had to trust her.  Both recipes are beautifully simple and satisfying — and they scream Thanksgiving dinner!

The Pairing 👍
Color me surprised!  This is a delightful pairing . . . but, the balsamic vinegar is the key.  Without it, the paring falls flat on its face and reverts to being crazy.  I can’t believe how well the Cabernet plays with the balsamic vinegar.  And the sage & thyme bring out the herbal notes in the wine.  I never would have thought!


Black Stallion Howell Mountain Barrel Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ⭐⭐⭐⭐/92
A special wine that was created specifically to celebrate the Year of the Horse.  Only 24 barrels produced.  My girlfriend called the winery directly to order this wine, and was blown away by their level of customer service, so shout-out and kudos to Black Stallion!  Soft and approachable tannins, continues to evolve and develop once it’s open.  Loving the acids in this wine.  Fruit definitely takes a back seat here to flavors of tobacco, cedar and ground spices — and I’m really digging this wine.  So many layers of complexity — each sip was a little different as the wine warmed and opened up.  14.5% ABV.  $98.

Paired with Meatballs with Pomegranate Currant Sauce
This is a recipe from St. Francis Winery in Napa.  The pomegranate currant sauce was an interesting flavor contrast with the meatballs.  It’s made with something called pomegranate molasses, which I’d never heard of before.  Imagine going on a hunt for that ingredient. Wegmans to the rescue!

The Pairing 👍
The Dijon mustard is a bit of a bully in this dish.  The meatballs were a bit salty and tart on their own (not sure exactly what was pulling my focus), but with the wine those flavors tamed quite a bit.  This would be a great wine for anything on the grill . . . or just to sit and drink all by itself.


St. Clement Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2011 ⭐⭐⭐/88
This wine is from the broader Napa Valley AVA.  According to the St. Clement website, it’s a “classic example of Napa Valley, combining valley floor terroir and mountain fruit power.”  Fruit-driven — plums and blackberries mingling with cloves.  Some faint mint and vanilla on the finish.  Smooth, approachable, easy.  $40.

Roots Run Deep Winery Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ⭐⭐⭐/87
This is actually 87% Napa Valley, 8% Paso Robles, and 5% Lake County.  And it’s 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot.  So we can’t really count it in our already weak sample.  😉  Very plush with lots of fruit, kind of reminds me of a chocolate covered cherry.  And for $20?  Can’t beat it.

Paired with French Dip Sandwiches
This recipe is one of my friend, Kari’s go-to meals for busy nights (you know, when there are too many kid-activities and not enough time to cook).  You toss a handful of ingredients into the Crock Pot (all hail the Crock Pot) and walk away.  And when you return . . . Voila!  Dinner.

The Pairing 👍
Both wines are friendly and approachable enough to work well with just about anything — hamburgers, pizza, heck, even a grilled hot dog would be good with these guys.


Given our rather unscientific approach to our question, realistically, my goal was only to see if we could tell the difference between the Cabernets from the Napa Valley floor vs. the Cabernets from the mountain(altitude) AVAs.  And I’m happy to report we achieved that goal. The fruit forward power vs. savory spice and acid restraint was very noticeable.   But a difference between Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak?  I feel like I’m splitting hairs there.  Both were excellent wines, but I sure as heck couldn’t isolate the magical Howell Mountain or Atlas Peak gene.  I’m not even sure I could extract the storied Rutherford Dust in a blind tasting.
I guess I’ll have to keep tasting and tasting and tasting these Napa Cabs!

I almost forgot!  I made Bourbon Salted Caramels for dessert.  They pair with absolutely none of these wines, but September was Bourbon Heritage Month, so I had to make them!


This month, Carpe Vinum will tackle Celebrity Wines!