We normally reserve this space for Nagano wine recommendations. But as Jim just returned from a two-week trip to the Washington, D.C. area, we would like to write about two interesting wineries that he visited in Virginia and Maryland and introduce a few of their wines. These wines are not available in Japan, but as Washington, D.C. area natives we have long felt that the stories of wine in Virginia and Maryland show a number of interesting parallels to that of Nagano.
Grapes for wine have been grown in Virginia since 1607 when the first settlers arrived from Europe. Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing French-style wines and had his own vineyard at his estate in Monticello, now its own American Viticulture Area (AVA). However, wine production in the state only really developed from the 1980s—there were six wineries in 1979 and over 200 by 2014!
The climate and topography of the area where Virginia and Nagano vineyards are located are remarkably similar: long, warm, humid summers where fungal disease is a major issue along with heavy rains and winds during harvest, mountainous terrain and rocky soil. And, although there are some large corporate operators, most of the wineries in each are small, family affairs.
Jim visited the Stone Tower Winery, which is located in Leesburg, Virginia – about 60 kms outside Washington, D.C. The winery is owned by the Huber family, which also operates a successful local furniture-making business. It is situated on 200 acres of the picturesquely named Hogsback Mountain with 80 acres devoted to wine grapes. The winery opened in 2009 and produces a range of red, white, rose and sparkling wines (see the list below) that are marketed under two brands: Stone Tower Estate Wines and Wild Boar Winery.
The Stone Tower Estate Wines are all made from grapes grown locally and labelled as “Virginia” wines, while the Wild Boar Winery wines use grapes brought in from Oregon (Pinot Noir) and California (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot) and labelled as “made at the winery.” The Hubert family has brought in expert winemakers from France to advise them on blending and barreling their wines. As a result, they can operate at scale, offer a variety of different wines to their customers, and tap into the experience and perspectives of winemakers from outside Virginia. Nagano justly takes pride in its appellation system, but the business model found at the Stone Tower Winery also has merit.
You can find out more about Stone Tower Winery here. In addition, we have reproduced a copy of their tasting menu below. Among these wines that he tasted, Jim particularly liked the 2017 Estate Chardonnay (oaked for 10 months) and the 2016 Estate Hogsback Mountain (Bordeaux blend). The 2016 Wild Boar Merlot, and the 2016 Wild Boar Sanglier Noble (another Bordeaux blend) were also quite good and fully justified their $38 to $42 price points.
With now around 250 wineries, Virginia is clearly ahead of Maryland in terms of the development and breadth of its wine industry. Yet Maryland is host to around 80 wineries (compared to some 60 wineries in Nagano) and last year produced over two million bottles of wine.
Jim visited one of Maryland’s oldest wineries, Linganore, which opened in 1976 and is now operated by the three children of the founders, including Ray Mitcham, who is the head winemaker. Co-located with the winery is a craft beer brewery, run by another brother that produces an extremely varied and every changing menu of draft beers.
The Linganore Winery has 80 acres of rolling hills under cultivation and grows a wide variety of grapes, including the very versatile Chambourcin grape (a French American hybrid) that it blends with its Merlot grapes, to produce a delightful wine they call Bacioni, which is reminiscent of the light to medium-bodied Syrah wines increasingly produced in Nagano. The winery also plants the Cayuga grape – another French American hybrid developed at Cornell University and widely used in New York State wines – to make a white wine called White Raven with a fruity flavor remarkably similar to Nagano’s Ryugan wines.
However, the real stars of the Liganore wine menu were the Cabernet Franc and the Petite Verdot. Jim tasted the 2017 vintages and was enchanted. In fact, he found the tasting notes from the winery describing the wines to be remarkably understated in describing these wines as “full-bodied, rich with dark fruits” and in the case of the Petite Verdot “a strong tannin structure.” The two Chardonnays on the menu were also quite good – with one cellared in stainless steel and the other aged in oak.
It is interesting that at least this Maryland winemaker does not make a 100 percent Merlot, Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon wine, preferring instead to blend these grapes with local hardier alternatives. Nagano winemakers are beginning to do this as well, creatively blending local grape varietals, such as Muscat Bailey A, Ryugan and Black Queen, with a number of European varietals.
Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of operations at the Linganore Winery was the very reasonable prices for the wines. We have reproduced the price list above. The wines range from around 1600 yen to 3800 yen.
You can find out more about the Linganore winery here.