Monday, December 29, 2008

Casanel Vineyards

On an unseasonably warm day, we drove out past Leesburg to visit one of several new wineries in that area, Casanel Vineyards. Beforehand we learned from their website that the winery was started by Casey and Nelson DeSouza - hence “Casanel”. The couple had many successful years operating DeSouza Construction in the Washington D.C. area and eventually Nelson started exploring the countryside looking for land suitable for a vineyard. For after experiencing the Portuguese wine culture the couple decided to join the growing Virginia wine making community. He settled on a property on Catoctin Mountain that included a hundred plus year old stone dairy barn with an even older log cabin and a red wooden barn. But it was the dairy barn that he envisioned centering the winery operation around. The tasting room would be located in that building with the winery operations in the adjacent red barn. With help from family they restored the buildings and planted Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Norton, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Petite Verdot vines. Since it would take several years before the vines bore fruit, they sourced grapes from several local vineyards. Kerem Baki from Hillsborough Vineyards agreed to join the venture as their winemaker and consultant and the first vintage consists of four varietals: Viognier, Norton, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

We arrived just before sunset to discover a Christmas-decorated stone building with a patio ready for visitors: chairs and an electric and wood heater. The tasting room is impressive. There is a long tasting bar to the left with a staircase to the basement and a couple tables in the center and right. The stones were cleaned, but there is residual dirt helping to hold the stones in place. Make sure you descend down the spiral staircase in order to view the unique triangular table and the solid oak beams supporting the structure.

As for wines, we started with the Viognier which was aged 8 months in light French oak. This is a nice wine soft and slightly creamy, with a tropical fruit flavor. Anytime we find white wines such as this, they come home – and this Viognier was no exception. Next was their Norton, made in a unique dry rose style. The grapes were sourced from Chrysalis Vineyards, pressed whole clustered, then aged 10 months in light French oak. It’s darker than most rose wines – a characteristic of the grape – but with little of the acidity and grapey flavor also associated with the variety. This is a good wine, particularly considering it’s the premier effort. The final two were bolder red wines made from grapes purchased from Breaux Vineyards and aged 10 years in light French oak. The Merlot was our favorite of the two, extremely smooth with a strong cherry flavor. The Cabernet Sauvignon is also full bodied with a more spicy tail. It has more tannins so we would probably age this wine a little more in the bottle. All in all this was a great initial effort from Mr. Baki and the DeSouzas. We look forward to when their vineyards bear fruit and they start blending these varieties. Their “Chegada” brand translates into “Arrival” in Portuguese which can refer to the winery’s new start or the fact that we will be arriving often to hang out in their tasting room.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A. Smith Bowman Distillery

Fresh off our research of American Rum Distillers, we decided to pay a visit to a local craft bourbon distiller, A. Smith Bowman Distillery. Yes, it is entirely accurate to question designating this distillery as a micro-distillery - but after several years of producing large scale export driven products, A. Smith Bowman is returning to its roots.

That started over 70 years ago when Abram Smith Bowman and his sons, Smith and DeLong, began making bourbon at the family Sunset Hills Farm in Wiehle, Virginia. The distillery itself was situated in a building constructed in 1892, which served as the town hall for Wiehle, as well as a church. For the next 50 years the distillery produced their trademark Virginia Gentleman® at this location. During that time the Bowman family sold most of their estate to Robert E. Simon, who used proceeds from selling Carnegie Hall to created the planned community of Reston. As the area became more urbanized from this development, in 1988 the distillery moved south to Fredericksburg, where it still operates today. In its infinite wisdom Fairfax County bulldozed several historic structures associated with the historic distillery and the original Bowman house and distillery are now threatened as developers seek to build homes and condominiums on the property. The county has little respect for history when money is involved.

Meanwhile in Fredericksburg, the A. Smith Bowman Distillery was eventually purchased by the Sazerac Company, who also owns the Buffalo Trace Distillery and the Old Rip Van Winkle, Blanton's, Elmer T. Lee, and other well known brands. The Bowman brand had expanded to include vodka, rum, gin, and other products and the Bowman name became more associated with these spirits instead of the old Virginia Gentleman® brand. This brand had actually expanded to include the Virginia Gentleman® 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon which was awarded a double gold medal and named Best American Whiskey at the 2003 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. This tradition of excellence continued at this year's competition as the 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon also earned a double gold medal. The master distiller who crafts this award winning spirit, Joe Dangler, agreed to host a tour of their facility for me.

Mr. Dangler has worked for the A. Smith Bowman Distillery for over 30 years, starting in Reston and relocating to Fredericksburg with the distillery. He was originally hired as a line foreman and over the course of his career emerged as the distillery's master distiller. No formal education - just on the job training. At the Fredericksburg facility, bourbon is the only spirit created and the product line consists of three brands: Bowman Bourbon, Virginia Gentleman® and Virginia Gentleman® 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon. Each brand is made from the original Virginia Gentleman® recipe, the only difference is the dilution and length of aging. In order to benefit from economies of scale, the mash and first distillation occur at the parent's Buffalo Trace Distillery. The corn whiskey is then transported to Fredericksburg where it undergoes a second distillation in a copper still and chilled filtered. The bourbon is then aged in new casks in a warehouse palette system that was designed to use labor efficiently and allow for ample ventilation to control temperature. The Virginia Gentleman® 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon is aged for six years whereas the other two brands are aged between 3 1/2 to 4 years.

The warehouse smells amazing - think of the sweet corn aroma of bourbon. I asked Mr. Dangler if he ever gets tired of the smell and he informed me "no" and his nose has been trained to notice any off-odors. A semi-quality control mechanism. There's no tasting at the facility, but instead I was given access to view the the warehouse, distillation room, and bottling system. Besides the row after row of aging bourbon, the copper still was the most impressive piece - a fine piece of craftsmanship. The distillery also possesses antique scales used by the Feds to calculate taxes as well as several antique barrel making tools. Very soon the distillery hopes to showcase these items in a new visitor center. This center will also include displays on the history of the Bowman family, the distillery, and the city of Fredericksburg. We look forward to that development. In the meanwhile the Virginia Gentleman® 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon has replaced Ancient Age and Wild Turkey 101 as our everyday bourbon. Retailing between $20-$25, this double gold winner is a bargain. It has a honey aroma that intensifies after adding a couple drops of water to the glass. At 90 proof there's an initial alcohol burn - but it quickly dissipates to a sweet nutmeg\vanilla tail. Yes, some days its worth to splurge on a Black Maple Hill or a Pappy Van Winkle - but for a steady, everyday brand - the Virginia Gentleman® 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon is the king.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pirtle Winery Mead

One of the first mead we tasted, and still one of our top favorites, is Pirtle Winery Missouri Mead. The wine is light, semi-sweet, with slight honey flavors. Nothing overpowering here. Just a simple nice mead. Need more convincing - the wine is the top seller out of Pirtle's tasting room.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Wine Gifts?

We have been asked repeatedly by friends or family members about suggesting wine related gift items. So here you go:

There are a few excellent books we recommend. WineWise is a new book written by Steven Kolpan, Brian H. Smith, and Michael A. Weiss, all CIA Professors in Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) that we reviewed here. It is a great overview of grapes, wine styles, and wine regions. Next is an in depth look at the fatal dynamics that led to the collapse of the Mondavi empire in The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty. Finally, we've been in a rum craze lately and enjoyed reading And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails by Wayne Curtis.

For accessories, we have found a few products to recommend. Want an opened bottle of wine to remain fresh longer. Take a look at VineyardFresh. Its works because "This special blend of a 100% pure and natural protective barrier is heavier than air and lighter than wine. It settles directly on the wine without penetration creating a natural protective barrier between the air and wine thereby preventing oxidation."

Worried about taking wine home from a trip relying on air travel. For the serious wine consumer you can try Wine Cruzer, but for our budget we use BottleWise. The bag fits easily into a suitcase with no worries for clothing if for some reason the bottle breaks. The wine is contained in an airtight container. We also use the bag if we are touring wineries and run out of space in our cooler. Its a much better alternative then letting the wine sit in the hot sun.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Foppiano Lionel Train

One of the best souvenirs we've purchased at a winery was the Foppiano Lionel Train courtesy of Foppiano Vineyards. This a replica of a refrigerated rail car the used to transport their grapes East during Prohibition. For the "Volstead Act allowed individuals to make 200 gallons of their own homemade wine". This helped to keep the winery in business during these dark years. Ours fits perfected within our son's Lionel set that we setup each Christmas. Post comments on your favorite souvenirs below.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Glades Pike Winery

While driving from Somerset to Seven Springs Mountain Resort we've always passed Glades Pike Winery on Route 31, but have never stopped in. Until this past weekend. We won't pass the winery without stopping in again. Glades Pike has been open for almost 15 years and makes unique wines that are very characteristic for Pennsylvania wineries.

We started with the 2008 Norton made from grapes grown at famed Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg Virginia. The wine was one of the best young Norton wines we've tasted. It wasn't acidic or overly jammy - like many Nortons that haven't had a chance to age in the bottle. Instead it is very smooth with a cherry flavors and an honest chocolate finish. We also discovered an interesting note on Pennsylvania labeling laws while examining the bottle. Even though the grapes for this wine were sourced from Virginia, Glades Pike can label it Pennsylvania wine since more than 85% of the grapes came from within a 380 mile radius from the winery. Interesting.

Since Glades Pike offers nearly twenty wines, we skipped the vinifera reds (Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon) and chose instead two hybrid reds: the Baco Noir and DeChaunac. Might as well try something different. Both of these wines are very smooth with low tannins. We preferred the Baco Noir, with its fuller flavor and where the tasting notes were completely accurate. We tasted each fruit listed: the black cherry, raspberry and red currant. In order to satisfy the market, the winery produces a few semi-sweet and sweet red wines. The Glades Pike Red is a semi-sweet blend of the Baco Noir and Concord. The Concord contributes the strong grapey aroma whereas the Baco Noir provides the full bodied flavor. Probably without attempting, they've created a nice eastern European styled wine. For those with even a sweeter tooth there is a varietal Concord. And the best selling wine is a sweet blush - the Bicentennial Blush - made from Concord, Niagara, Cayuga and Vidal.

Turning to whites, Glades Pike produces a dry Chardonnay and dry Seyval Blanc but we preferred their off dry Riesling and Vidal Blanc. Both have nice acidity that provides a refreshing finish. The Vidal is more citrus while the Riesling possesses the standard flavor associated with the grape. Another off-dry option is the Mountain Mead, made from local honey. We liked this style - not too sweet and can envision blending with Apple wine to produce our own cyser. The winery also produces a varietal wine from one of our favorite labrusca grapes - Diamond. Theirs is made sweet and contains a hint of the labrusca foxiness - but more citrus. There's another sweet labrusca - Niagara - which reminds us of the white grape juice our son guzzled years ago.

Finally, Glades Pike wouldn't be a Pennsylvania winery without an assortment of fruit wines. Spiced Apple seems to be a state favorite, but the Black & Blue is ours. Just Blackberries and Blueberries. On occasion the winery produces a Raspberry wine, but currentlythey offer a Montmorency Cherry - served with chocolate.

For those traveling to ski from the West or who don't want to drive the 15 minutes from the resort, Glades Pike opened a tasting room a hundred yards from the Seven Springs entrance. This could be a perfect break from the slopes or when the kids are participating in Tiny Tots. We enjoyed the Norton, Baco Noir, and Vidal after skiing. With twenty wines to choose, we are sure there's something for everyone.