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Artisanal Wineries of Rappahannock County: Your Guide To A Captivating Weekend

Sharp Rock Rappahannock VA

Photo by Sharp Rock proprietor Jimm East

By MARY ANN DANCISIN

The roads in Rappahannock are spellbinding: long, gently rolling, and idyllic. This somewhat mysterious county – when known, if known at all, is noted for the world-renowned Inn at Little Washington – is only 60 miles west of the Beltway, and it holds its charms close, keeping its rural, “no traffic lights, no strip malls!”, character intact.

Artisanal Wineries of Rappahannock County, a new wine trail encompassing five of the county’s top wineries, can give you a glimpse into the many-faceted lifestyles of Rappahannock. Though “cosmopolitan” isn’t exactly the word that comes to mind, the county’s flair for fine living is a revelation. And the wines? Unique, yet similar, all fine examples of each proprietor’s vision.

Sudha and Pandit Patil of Narmada Winery are the newest of Rappahannock’s family winemakers. While both have been denizens of the Commonwealth for 30 years, they convey their exotic heritage in the tasting room, inviting you to “Experience India and Taste Virginia.” You can join La Familia of Bill and Aleta Saccuta Gadino at the two bocce ball courts at Gadino Cellars. At over 1,000 feet elevation, the stunning views at Chester Gap Cellars, as well as the crisply refreshing wines, are reminiscent of Bernd Jung’s native Germany, except the grapes are all-Virginia: estate-grown Viognier, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and innovative blends thereof.

But to experience two indispensable fundamentals of life in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you must visit both Sharp Rock Vineyards, far to the west in the county, and Rappahannock Cellars, an easy drive south from Interstate 66.

Getting to Sharp Rock is half the fun. “We’re off the GPS,“ laughs proprietor Jimm East, a slim, 50-something man with a keen sense of humor. “It’s a bit of a problem!” Long, long winding country roads prompt your stress to melt away as you pass bucolic pastures, see brightly colored wild flowers, cross pristine rushing creeks. You will think you are lost, and in a way you are, in a different place and time.

Getting to Sharp Rock is half the fun. “We’re off the GPS,“ laughs proprietor Jimm East, a slim, 50-something man with a keen sense of humor.

Sharp Rock is a 25-acre winery on the Hughes River, outside the village of  Sperryville. According to The New York Times, “The beauty is that life at Sharp Rock is probably much the same as it was 200 years ago.” At the foot of Old Rag Mountain, a 100-year-old renovated barn serves as the winery, with tasting room upstairs. The farm itself dates to the late 1700’s, and its two outlying structures, The Carriage House and The Cottage, can be rented for overnight stays or weekends in the country. The first vineyards were planted in 1992, and the winery was opened in the fall of 1998. The current range of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot and Vidal provide the fruit for 12 estate-bottled wines.

Understated, intimate, without the glitz of loud music or shiny trinkets, the tasting bar at Sharp Rock is the ideal den for a wine aficionado. Yes, Jimm’s many medals are displayed up and down the walls, but the overall effect is of being in a workshop where the winemaker really values your opinion and wants to know your likes and dislikes about wine in general, and his wine in particular.

Jimm farms sustainably, keeping his production small, at about 1000 cases a year, and does not use a wholesaler. His vinification techniques are far from rustic, despite the homespun surroundings. Careful sorting and maceration of the berries is followed by distinct aging techniques for each varietal. All Sharp Rock wine is sold through the tasting room, where you will find Jimm behind the bar always. It’s personal in the extreme. Come prepared for a lot of interaction with this justifiably proud owner/winemaker.

“We actually put out different wines for tasting in different seasons,” says Jimm. “You can always buy the others [except for the several that regularly sell out upon release – ed. note], but we find that showing our lighter wines in warm weather, and saving the bigger ones for the wintery weather makes for a better tasting experience for our guests.”

My own taste runs to the tantalizing Sharp Rock Chardonnay Reserve. A rich and creamy wine, oak aging is done with a subtle touch, not at all overwhelming. Honeyed notes of vanilla and buttery almond balance with a vibrant Gala apple acidity. The cinnamon-baked finish lingers long in the mouth.

I take leave of Jimm and Sharp Rock to make the trek up to Rappahannock Cellars at the northern reaches of the county. John Delmare’s winery, in contrast to the adventure of getting to Sharp Rock, is just off Rt. 522, only 10 minutes south of Front Royal and its easy access to Interstate 66.

Yogi Barrett, Executive Vice President of the Taster’s Guild and coordinator of the Virginia Governor’s Cup, praises Rappahannock Cellars: “They have always shown well in all categories since their involvement with the Governor’s Cup…They [take] the challenge of making world-class wines to heart.”

John, a quietly content, well-spoken man who bears a slight resemblance to John Goodman, is modest about his winery’s achievements and extends credit to his vineyard manager and winemaker. “When we moved our winery here from California, we were confident that we could consistently produce world class wines in Virginia,” he says. Rappahannock Cellars is bright and airy, with a softly-colored, sunwashed tasting room with several discreet areas for serious tasting, or just sitting with friends and family, relaxing, enjoying.

Managed by John, his wife Marialisa and their twelve children, the winery produces 7,000 cases annually, consisting chiefly of Viognier, Chardonnay, Seyval, Meritage and Cabernet Franc.

“Most wineries brag about being family owned and run,” John says. “But not many can brag about their young children (ages 9 to 14 at the time,) working joyfully on their hands and knees, planting our original 15 acres of Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Viognier, and Cabernet Sauvignon [in 1998]. The vineyard has been tended in the past by my six oldest children; it is currently tended by three in the middle; and it awaits the youngest three, who can’t wait to give it a try. And yes, if you’re counting, that is twelve kids! The oldest of them are off in college, graduate schools, and starting their careers and families, while one (Allan) has now returned after graduation to lead our marketing and ‘customer experience’ efforts.”

“When we moved our winery here from California, we were confident that we could consistently produce world class wines in Virginia,” Proprietor John Delmare says.

Staffed by warm and friendly baristas, you are immediately comfortable in the laid-back, unpretentious atmosphere. Tasteful gifts, cook books, and vino/cuisine-related items abound at the center of the large room. Pretty, elegant, and well-crafted, almost anything here would please the most discriminating epicure.

On to the wines: Tasting here is a little more formal, or perhaps, more professional, affair. One receives a red and a white glass on a clean tasting mat, as well as a private-label boutique bottled water. Rappahannock Cellars Viognier is a consistent winner. John describes the wine as “rich, with tropical fruit, apricot, and peach notes.” The  flagship red, Rappahannock Cellars Meritage, is a stylish, graceful wine. Opulent, cola-tinged black fruit character is integrated with well-polished tannin nuanced with plush oak and palate-cleansing acidity. With its silky finish, this is an chic example of a first rate Virginia wine.

John Delmare was the driving force in the creation of The Artisanal Wineries of Rappahannock County. They plan several events throughout the course of the year. The consortium’s kick-off fest was a resounding success, and featured all-day-long music as well as local farm-raised beef and chicken, and CSA-provided produce. In December, look for a “passport-type” program, details still being firmed up as of press time. John’s goal for the AWRC is to “shine a spotlight on these wineries, each with its own distinctive personality.” If you haven’t yet discovered Rappahannock, this wine trail provides a great starting point for your journey.

Artisanal Wineries of Rappahannock County http://www.artwinerc.com/ Download a map; see calendar of events!

Sharp Rock Vineyards, 5 Sharp Rock Road, Sperryville, VA 22740. (540) 987-8020. www.sharprock.com Open Friday-Sunday 11:00-5:00 and on holiday Mondays.

Rappahannock Cellars, 14437 Hume Road,
Huntly, VA 22640. (540) 635-9398. email: info@rcellars.com www.rappahannockcellars.com Open M-F 11:30-5:00;
Sat. 11:30-6:00;
Sun. 11:30-5:00.

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