Exquisite Setting, Wine, and Chocolate
By: Boo Barnett
Imagine the gentle sway of palm trees, the scent of tropical blooms and your own private table set with artisan chocolates and a flight of local wines. Now, imagine that you are still in Albemarle County, a short ride from Charlottesville. A fantasy? Yes, but one brought to life by the enterprising team of Jeff and Michelle Sanders, who welcome you to their world of wine and chocolate in bucolic Free Union.
When the Sanders decided to leave their home on the remote Honduran island of Roatan, their goals were clear: excellent education for their children, a welcoming community, and a beautiful setting in which to establish their dream vineyard. An exhaustive search took them to the renowned viticulture regions of the world, all of which honed their vision for the perfect winery. It was on a solo trip to Charlottesville, however, that Jeff phoned Michelle to announce, “Honey, I found it – we’re home!”
And home they have been, since 2006, with a geothermally conditioned glass house for tropical plants, a thriving vineyard and a swoon-worthy line of artisan chocolates. Tidy, trimmed rows of Viognier, Chambourcin and Barbera vines promise a luscious future, with 12 acres under cultivation. These varietals are noted for making the most of the local terroir, an aspect of careful stewardship so prized by the Sanders. Though much of their wine is from these estate grown grapes, this young vineyard can turn to more mature ones as a source for additional varietals.
The Glass House Caribbean vibe begins with bright sculptures and eye-catching yard art, pointing the way to the tasting room. There, the charming maître’d, Dogbert, sets the tone. They may be serious about their wines here, but they are also serious about simple family pleasures, and having a cheerful hound at the door starts the tasting with a laugh. “She’s the most petted dog in Albemarle County,” smiles Michelle.
The tasting room itself is an inviting example of clean, green architecture: thoughtful lighting, a beautiful wood bar and niches crafted to showcase Glass House offerings. Go left, and a beautiful deck overlooking the pond provides splendid seating on warm days. Go right and fall under the spell of the tropical palm house. Either way, as you enter, one of the bright, knowledgeable staff is sure to call out a cheerful greeting.
A sample tasting covers their Viognier, Pinot Gris and Vino Signora whites and moves onto their 21st (a Governor’s Cup medalist), C-Villian, and Barbera reds. The owners’ lighthearted tone rings through his description of the lightning-surviving Pinot Gris vines, saying they are “infused with healing powers…when taken in the proper dosage, of course.” Last, and certainly not least (judging by crowd reaction), is the mysterious Meglio del Sesso and a sampling of a chocolate, a bewitching combination. Rich Chambourcin and Cabernet Franc are blended with ground dark chocolate, creating a dessert wine that justifies the smoldering eyes painted on the label. The tasting notes tease the guest to ask for a translation, and to judge whether it lives up to its name!
Jeff, who is as comfortable chatting about geothermal heating ponds and propagation techniques for tropical fruit trees as he is about wines, is enthusiastic about his and Michelle’s shared vision of Virginia viticulture.
“There is tremendous energy in the Virginia wine world, and really special things [are] happening. Here, all the winemakers have each other’s best interests at heart – if it is good for your vineyard, it is good for Virginia wine, and therefore good for everybody. The cooperation and lack of competition is pretty much unheard of in other wine making regions.” Having Brad McCarthy as a consultant early on also served to undergird their enthusiasm, who claims that “Virginia wine improves, every year!”
This camaraderie seems to suit the Sanders perfectly. After all, how many other vineyards throw a Polynesian pit pork luau, complete with music under the palms? They have many special events lined up, with a full calendar of local musicians and entertainers on the website calendar. Jeff offers special learning opportunities for patrons who wish to learn winemaking and blending, and gives special cellar and vineyard tours that provide more depth than is available on a simple guided walk.
Glass House chocolates alone would make the beautiful ride to Free Union worthwhile. Their greenhouse fruits and flavors inspire Michelle’s line of handcrafted delights. Pineapples (the Southern symbol for hospitality) not only show up as architectural motifs here; they actually grow in the greenhouse. Coffee beans (grown in the glass house) and their estate wines also find their way into the delicious chocolates, which are available individually or in attractive boxes. Flavors include a delectable salted caramel, Red Wine Cream, an Earl Grey, and an espresso-kahlua. It may be too hard to choose, so treat yourself to one of each!
And, of course, the Glass House winery corks its bottles with an elegant glass seal. Not only do they fit the theme perfectly, these seals also make opening easy and storage airtight.
At the end of a recent tasting, guests lingered under the bananas, nursing the final tantalizing drops of the Meglio after a picnic. Faint strains of music drifted by and children played an impromptu game of tag in the jungle. Dogbert wandered from table to table, the perfect host on a perfect day, all part of a vision that Jeff and Michelle Sanders built from the ground up.
A note from Glass House Winery: " Additionally, we have our very own Glass House Winery Bed & Breakfast on the property for those looking to extend their visit to our wonderful area! Guests at the B&B will experience more of the same tropical, easy breezy atmosphere there, along with a comforting feeling of being part of the family with the personal attention given by our awesome innkeeper, Peggy and her super friendly (and furry) co-host Sassier! Cheers!"