FORBES TRAVEL GUIDE - EARLY MOUNTAIN VINEYARDS

"Sure, Thomas Jefferson made wine in Virginia more than 200 years ago — but what has Old Dominion  been up to lately? The state’s annual Virginia Wine Summit last month was abuzz over 2013’s magnificent harvest, with low humidity and little rain ripening the grapes to optimal vino quality. The best news is, this year was a virtual repeat of last year’s stunner season, and some 2012 bottles are available for purchase now. But try to curate your own Virginia wine selections from the state’s 230 winemakers and you’ll be sampling from now until next fall’s harvest.

Gathering several wineries’ labels in one tasting room in Madison, Virginia, Early Mountain Vineyards’ goal is to “champion and celebrate the best Virginia has to offer” — both their own wines and the wines of competing estates. “Our sommelier Michelle Gueydan and I tasted everything we could all over the state before we opened, because we’re passionate about uplifting the entire state,” says Erich Broksas, head of strategy at Early Mountain. The winery, which was bought by AOL magnates Steve and Jean Case nearly two years ago, has become a Virginia wine hub. “We have always believed in the potential for Virginia to emerge as one of the world’s top wine regions, known for distinctive varietals, and I’m excited to taste this year’s wines as we, and other vineyards in the state, hone in on our region’s very distinct terroir,” Jean says.

“We call the wines we showcase in our tasting room, like the ones from Barboursville and Thibaut-Janisson, the best of Virginia, and we’re working hard to make Early Mountain wines great too. When we bought the winery there were 11 grape varietals growing and we want to reduce that amount in an effort to concentrate on grapes that are really thriving in this region. Viognier grows wonderfully, but so does petit verdot. The other wineries have been doing it a lot longer than we have.”

The tasting room is an ideal one-stop-shop for sampling the state’s offerings, with eight or more labels being poured at the long bar or in several semi-private, wholly cushy sitting areas arranged around a hearth, with stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Early Mountain’s commitment to Virginia continues to local, artisanal foods paired with wines, making it dangerously easy to enjoy a full casual meal (90 percent of which is sourced in Virginia) of paninis, charcuterie (including famed Edwards’ Berkshire ham), and local cheeses while lazing on the fireside couches. Or up the ante with a composed dish, such as the smoky bourbon barbecue-braised pork shank with apple fennel slaw. “Our wines are Bordeaux inspired and built to be paired with food, to be experienced in the context of food. They’re not high-alcohol cherry bombs,” Broksas explains. Coming up: “Drink This With That,” a pairing seminar on March 28, 2014, and an artisan market for the holidays.

A few other favorite Virginia wineries available at Early Mountain Vineyards include Linden Vineyards (Linden), Chatham Vineyards (Machipongo), and King Family Vineyards (Crozet). It’s a place for all says Early Mountain Vineyards’ co-owner, Jean. “Our tasting room, renovated and reopened just a year ago is a wonderful space where wine lovers, and those curious to learn more about wine, can taste our collection but also enjoy some of the best that Virginia has to offer.”