Field Trip: Early Mountain Vineyards

I’ve visited a ton of Virginia wineries over the years.  But I’ve only been writing this blog for 15 months, so I’m gradually revisiting favorites, not so favorites, and new wineries so I can blog the experience.   According to Virginiawine.org, there are 248 wineries in Virginia.  Visiting all of them is starting to sound like Mission Impossible.  But I’ll do my best . . . 

DSCN4511A couple of weeks ago, I visited Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison, Virginia.

Early Mountain Vineyards is owned by Steve & Jean Case (of AOL fame & fortune).  And it’s a stunning venue — it might be the prettiest winery I’ve ever visited.  Absolutely no expense was spared to create an exceptional aesthetic experience.

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See what I mean? Gorgeous!

That said . . . I felt more like I was at a restaurant than a winery.  But more on that later.

Early Mountain Vineyards has a really interesting business model.  It’s called Best of Virginia. They host cooperating wineries from all over the state (the selection of which rotates) whose wines are available for tasting as part of a “wine flight”.  I love the concept of showcasing the best Virginia wines in one place.  When we lived in Monterey, California, we used to visit a super-fun collaborative tasting room called A Taste of Monterey.  I’ve long wished we had a similar venue here in Virginia.  Early Mountain is as close as I’ve seen to that idea.

That said . . .

You only get one chance to make a first impression, and mine was this sign, posted right beside the front door:

The Welcome Mat
The Welcome Mat

Whaaaa?  My girlfriend and I brought a picnic lunch with us.  Uh-oh.  It was 14 degrees outside, and neither of us was in the mood for an Arctic lunch, so we asked if we could eat our picnic inside.  No dice.  So right up front, my feathers were a little ruffled.  Did I miss something when I checked their website before our field trip??  Steve Case founded AOL — he’s obviously on a first-name-basis with the Internet.  And the website is gorgeous, but I found absolutely no heads-up about the no outside food inside rule.  Btw, I couldn’t find any information about how much it costs to taste a flight of wine, either.  It’s a small thing, but why not let people know what’s available for tasting . . . and exactly how much it will cost?

Just to make sure I wasn’t having a blond moment, I went back to the website when I got home, and here’s what it does say:

Taste and discuss the Best of Virginia wines by the fireplace. Bring friends, the kids, or the dog and have a picnic on The Terrace.  Sample local delicacies from the Marketplace.

Hindsight being 20/20, I suppose “have a picnic on The Terrace” technically means my picnic has to be outside . . . but it’s a bit of a stretch.

Maybe it was the picnic rebuff, but my girlfriend and I were starting to feel a little underdressed in our jeans and now über-conspicuous picnic basket.  Fortunately, this lady and her BFF strolled in wearing fox stoles and the entire Burberry’s catalog.  So that helped.  Of all the days to forget my chinchilla vest!

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Faces have been blurred to protect the innocent.

There is a beautiful wine tasting bar at Early Mountain, but we were quickly ushered away from the bar, straight to a table . . .

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Pretty, but deserted.

. . . where we were given a menu of wine flights available for purchase.  And another menu for our now compulsory lunch selections.

Each wine flight is between $14-20.  You get two ounces each of four different wines, delivered to your table in a handy, custom “wine flight tote”.  But . . . if you want to taste more than four wines, you’ll need to invest at least $30 — for 16 ounces of wine.  I don’t need (or want) 16 ounces to taste 8 wines.  By way of comparison, in a “normal” wine tasting, you pay anywhere form nothing to $10 and taste anywhere from 5 to 20+ wines. If you don’t like a wine, you dump it.  But once you invest in a wine flight, not liking/finishing a wine feels like setting fire to five bucks.

DSCN4473We ordered a Mini Charcuterie plate with local meats and cheeses ($26) along with our other selections of French Onion Soup ($7) and Ham & Brie Pannini ($10).  The food was actually quite good.  My picnic would have been good too, though.  Just sayin‘.

DSCN4508My girlfriend and I both chose the Flash Flight of the Day:

Early Mountain Vineyards Malbec Merlot Rosé 2012 ⭐⭐/84
Not a bad little Rosé.  Delicate and dry with bright cherry flavors and a buttery finish.  $18/bottle.

Early Mountain Vineyards Block 11 White Blend 2012 ⭐⭐/83
Very Viognier-like.  65% Petit Manseng, 35% Moscat.  Petrol nose with tropical flavors of pineapple and gardenia blossom (yes, seriously).  $25/bottle.

Lovingston Seyval Blanc 2012 ⭐⭐/83
Bone dry.  Mouth-puckering, itchy-tongue dry.  There’s a bitter pineapple thing going on, too.  I don’t dislike it, but it needs the right food. $20/bottle.

Trump Blanc de Blanc Sparkling Wine 2008 ⭐⭐⭐/85
My favorite of the flight.  Crisp and clean with white peach and toast flavors.  Decent acidity and balance, too.  $30/bottle.

By the time I finished my $15 flight and my $32 lunch . . . guess what I wasn’t in the mood to do?  Buy wine.  I left Early Mountain empty handed.  Not because the wines weren’t good.  I just blew my budget on the wine flight and lunch.

Will I visit Early Mountain again?  Probably.  But with a different set of expectations.  You aren’t so much wine tasting at Early Mountain as you are sitting down to experience a snapshot of Virginia wine and food.  If you go in knowing that . . . you’ll have a great visit.

My biggest disappointment?  I left not knowing any more about the wines than I did before we got there.  I wanted to taste and learn more of Virginia.  I’d love to see an option for a more traditional tasting upfront (and tasting sheets with some information about the wines) with the option to purchase a flight of my favorites to take to a cozy table afterwards.

But on the plus side, I spent a couple of hours with a good friend, sitting in front of a warm fireplace, eating good food, and drinking some pretty decent wines.  Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Salud!

Footnote:  My girlfriend made a special stop at Pastries by Randolph to buy us these exquisite pear tarts for our winery picnic.  I had visions of the Soup Nazi chasing us out of the winery with a giant ladle if we attempted to eat them inside, so we had to go to Plan B . . .

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19 comments

  1. That really doesn’t sound all that enjoyable. They should probably rethink their picnic rules during cold weather season. I was at a wine bar not too long ago and had a wine flight for $14, but I didn’t have to drive out into the middle of nowhere to get it.

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    1. It was enjoyable . . . just different. But I agree . . . I’ve been to plenty of wineries in the dead of winter and I’ve never run across anyone who wasn’t willing to loan me a warm little corner to eat my picnic! Maybe I need to visit more wine bars . . . so the sticker-shock goes away? Salud!!

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    1. Thanks, Sally . . . I feel certain she’s captain of a “ladies who lunch” chapter! 😉 The pear tart WAS amazing! I wish I was more of a baker!! Style over substance is a good way to put it. They have such a great concept. I just wanted more of an education. C’est la vie, right?

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  2. While it doesn’t sound like you had a good time, so jealous that you get to do this – I live close to a couple of UK vineyards – and worked in France but its all very low key. Jam, wine and walks really. When the weathers better I’ll go back and take some pics…

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    1. Jam, wine and walks sounds perfectly lovely to me . . . maybe I’m just a low-key girl at heart? Please go and take some pics . . . I’d love to see a few snapshots of UK vineyards!! Cheers, Karen!

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  3. Hmmm… $15 for a wine flight of 4 wines seems pretty pricey to me, especially if they don’t apply it to a purchase. I’m pretty surprised that with all that space they wouldn’t let you enjoy your picnic inside. I don’t blame you for leaving empty handed…

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  4. The prices of the wine flights are not surprising at all, unfortunately (it is not uncommon now in Napa to ask for $35 – $45 for the flight of 3 “premium” wines”) – but the whole concept defies the winery experience – this is a tourist trap using wine as a bait I would say – definitely “to avoid” in my book…

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  5. Thank you so much for sharing your experience! This winery is (well, now “was”, I guess) on my list, but I just want to go somewhere to enjoy myself and relax, not be bombarded by rule after rule. I’ve also found that place like this tend to be persnickety on some things, like picnic lunches, and yet you end up having to listen to someone’s kid screaming (sorry, but I’ve seen wine-mommies who think inebriation is the ultimate baby-sitter), or stepping in doggie “things” (I have dogs, and love them, but don’t take them to wineries). I love that you gave us the good, the bad and the ugly. Keep up the great work! I love your blog!

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    1. Thanks, Connie! You should definitely visit . . . I’d be curious to see if your impressions are the same as mine. Maybe you’d have a different experience? I hear you on the kid/dog issue. I’m all about kids and dogs, but if you take them to a winery, you still need to watch them. I once saw a kid scale a rain gutter at a winery while mommy sat and sipped wine with her back turned . . . Yikes!!

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  6. I’m sorry you had such a poor experience! I felt the complete opposite when I visited Early Mountain. I do agree their flight options leave something to be desired. However, I didn’t mind having 2oz of 4 stellar wines instead of half a sip of a bunch of “dump-worthy” ones.

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    1. Howdy, vawineprincess! Thanks for stopping by! I’m so glad you enjoyed EM . . . I wouldn’t say I had a bad experience at EM, just a little disappointing. I love their Taste of Virginia concept, and I hope it takes off. But I think wine tasting is a little like shopping for jeans. Sometimes you have to try on half a dozen pairs to find your style. I’d just like the option to “try before I buy”. I’d even pay a tasting fee to try 1 ounce pours, and then buy a full flight to take to one of those gorgeous tables to enjoy. Happy Tuesday & Salud!!

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      1. Oh, I 100% agree with your shopping for jeans analogy. All their flights (besides taste of Early Mountain) had major award winners from other vineyards. I understand their 2oz pouring system because they have to first buy the wine from other wineries. If they did the normal tasting flight there would be over 25 tastings. With their option there’s only 12 which makes sense because they wouldn’t want the wine to go bad when they aren’t getting it at cost. Plus, I think it was a unique option to be able to try 4 chardonnays including a sparking side by side. However, I did spend way more money there than I intended to.

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      2. Agree . . . 25 wines is waaaay too many to taste (although some Virginia wineries offer that many and more). My palate shuts down after about ten (if I’m not using the spit bucket). I appreciate it when a winery offers the option to taste through a particular portfolio, i.e. whites, reds, sweets, etc. There’s no way I could taste through all the flights at EM. That’s like drinking a Big Gulp (well, the old one, anyway) of wine. I’d be under the table . . . 😉!

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