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On The Value of Local Expertise – Richard Leahy & Blue Ridge Wine Excursions

I spent the latter part of 2005 and first half of 2006 working in the northern California area.  This required a long, weekly commute – Sunday flight from my home in Virginia through Dulles or Charlotte, and on to California with a return flight at 6am Friday morning, only to start the process over again on Sunday.   It didn’t take long for this east coast to west coast and back again weekly commute to get tiring.  Sensing my travel weariness, a colleague – who had been at this much longer than me – suggested that I stay over a weekend and take a trip to Napa Valley.

What a genius of an idea – forgo the long commute, drive up to Napa for a weekend of rest, relaxation and wine.  Up to this point in 2005, I was not much of a wine drinker, but a weekend in the wine ‘lifestyle‘ epicenter of Northern California sounded great to me.  I shared this brilliant plan with my wife, and she liked it on the condition that she could join me.

Since this was our first trip to any wine region, wifey and I were clueless about which wineries or tasting rooms to visit.  The hotel concierge recommended a handful of wineries to visit, but noted that one of the best ways for wine newbies to experience wine country is via personal guided tours.  Although the local knowledge of the tour operator and personalized attention at the wineries sounded great, I’m embarrassed to admit that the main draw for me back then was having a designated driver for a day.

We called the tour company, and luckily they had a cancellation earlier in the day and had room for two more for their tour the next morning.  (If you are going to take a wine tour, book very early, as they tend to fill up fast.)  We spent that Saturday in a nice van, with two other couples and guide/driver with encyclopedic knowledge of Napa Valley and the wineries we were visiting.

Our driver/host/tour guide made all the difference for our first visit to the Napa – sharing local knowledge that can only be gained by many years living in the area and personalized attention at each winery. Because of the relationship each winery had with the owner of the tour company (van), they warmly welcomed our group and gave us the special treatment.   Our experience that day was memorable because of our guide’s expertise and passion for wine.

Although I now prefer to plan my trips and arrange tasting appointments at wineries on my own, I recently had the chance to participate in a Virginia wine media tour hosted by Blue Ridge Wine Excursions in conjunction with Virginia wine expert, Richard Leahy.  The theme for the excursion was Thanksgiving (holiday) wines with a focus on the Monticello AVA.

Me, Mary Ann Dancisin of Va Wine Gazette, and Richard Leahy. Photo Credit: Richard Leahy (www.RichardLeahy.com)

Our first stop of the day was to Blenheim Vineyards in Charlottesville, owned by some musician named Dave Matthews.  Blenheim has been one of my favorite wineries in Virginia since my first visit in early 2009, shortly after Kirsty Harmon took over as winemaker.  Although Blenheim was expecting record crowds due to the Dave Matthews concert that evening, Kirsty took time out to provide our group a personal tasting. As always, Blenheim wines showed exceptionally well.  I happened to visit Kirsty three weeks earlier for barrel tasting so it was interesting to taste the 2009 Painted Red in bottle. My favorite of the tasting was the 2009 Viognier.

Our second stop on the tour was Montdomaine Vineyards.  Upon arriving, our group was warmly greeted by owners Michael and Loree Bowles.  After a chance phone call with Michael earlier in the year regarding the history of Virginia wine, I’ve had Montdomaine on my list of wineries to visit.

The view at Montdomaine.

Food pairings prepared by Loree Bowels at Montdomaine.

Montdomaine – French for ‘mountain estate’ – open by appointment only, is rich with Virginia wine history.  In 1977 they planted the first vinifera, Chardonnay, in Albemarle County.  Each of the wines we tasted were accompanied by a food pairing prepared by Loree, along with discussion of the vineyard and winemaking process. To end our visit, Michael shared a bottle of 1987 Montdomaine Cabernet Sauvignon from his personal collection. For anyone interested in Virginia wine history, this tour, and a stop at Montdomaine is a must.

Michael Bowles discussing Virginia wine history.

Our third and final stop of the tour was Well Hung Vineyard, another first for me.  Given the name, Well Hung Wine, I’ve been curious about this winery for quite a while.  Like our prior stops, owners, Bill and Amy Steers, greeted our group as we arrived.  Before the tasting started, we walked through the vineyards, which happen to be situated on a hillside in their backyard.  I imagine this makes for an amazing view each morning with a cup of coffee, and also pairs well with a nice glass of wine and a sunset.  My favorite wine of this stop was definitely the Very Well Hung 2009 Chardonnay.

Amy Steers of Well Hung Vineyards (in the not so well hung vineyard after harvest). Photo credit: Richard Leahy (www.RichardLeahy.com)

Although I enjoyed the wines at each winery, my favorite of the day was the Montdomaine 2007 Merlot only matched in complexity by the beautiful fall foliage of the central Virginia hillsides.

Richard and the crew at Blue Ridge Wine Excursions provided a memorable experience and reaffirmed my belief that local knowledge, expertise and reputation matters!

New to Virginia wine and want an expertly guided wine tour?  In town for the holidays and need a day away from the in-laws?  Want to visit Virginia wineries not typically open to the public?  If so, I highly recommend Blue Ridge Wine Excursions with Virginia wine expert Richard Leahy.


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