Crow Vineyard & Winery – Kennedyville, MD

A boat brought us to the Annapolis area one recent winter weekend.  Well, a car actually brought us there but a boat was the reason.  My significant other wanted to check out a used boat and he convinced me to tag along by strategically mentioning that we could stop at nearby wineries.  On the way down from New Jersey, we only had time to stop at one winery due to an appointment at the boat dealer.  I wanted to choose carefully – a place that wasn’t too far out of the way and that was a vineyard, not just a store front.

Crow Vineyard & Winery turned out to be a great choice.  Although, as you can see from the photos, it was not a sunny day outside, there was plenty of warmth in the tasting room both from the cozy atmosphere and the friendly winery staff.  We were instantly greeted by a woman who explained the tasting options (there are two).  We made our choice but asked if we could substitute a taste of their sparkling wine instead of their sweet dessert wine, and I appreciated their flexibility when there was a yes without hesitation.  We have often bought the wine we switched to (since we are typically switching from a wine we likely won’t like and therefore won’t buy to one we think we will like and might buy), so being flexible with the tasting can, quite literally, pay off.

As we tasted the wines, which were very enjoyable, we heard the story of the winery. We were informed that Crow Farm is a third generation working farm that previously was a dairy farm.  The owners are a husband-and-wife team, Roy and Judy, and the third partner is their son, who manages the vineyard.  Their winemaker previously made wine in New York State and California before heading to Maryland. They have been making wine at Crow for seven years and have a wide variety of mostly dry wines, including whites, rosés, reds, a sparkling, and a dessert wine.

The woman pouring the wine had her own story in relation to the winery.  She moved to Delaware from Pittsburgh and started coming to Crow as a customer, and then decided to work there.  I have heard that customer-to-staff-member story before and it always sounds like such a compliment to the winery – that the person had such good winery experiences as a customer and liked the wine (since presumably there is discounted wine involved, why work somewhere you don’t like the wine?) that the person wanted to become a part of the team.

When we explained we were headed for the Annapolis area, two winery staff members provided several suggestions for restaurants and a wine bar.  Conversations with friendly, flexible, helpful people paired with good wine – the perfect combination on a gloomy winter’s day.  Then we had to see a guy about a boat…

 

 

Valenzano Family Winery – Shamong, NJ

Full disclosure – I typically write about my first experience at a winery but I have been going to Valenzano Family Winery for about ten years.  So instead of writing about my initial impression of my winery experience there, I am writing about what keeps me going back.  And I think you’ll see why writing this around the holidays is perfect timing.

When my significant other and I walk into Valenzano, we are always immediately greeted by Al, a friend of the Valenzano family who has worked at the winery for 21 years.  Even in our early days of visiting the winery, he would recognize us as return customers and we would catch up.  He recalls that we particularly like their berry red cranberry wine (more on that below) and the dry reds, and lets us know if there are any new wines to try since we had been there last.  Someone who knows the customer, takes a genuine interest in the customer, including likes and dislikes, and treats the customer like a friend or family member creates an excellent winery experience.  Walking into Valenzano reminds me of the old TV show “Cheers” (I am dating myself now), where “everybody knows your name.”

As the name indicates, the winery is family owned and operated.  In 1996, it became the first winery in Burlington County, New Jersey.  They make a wide selection of wine from dry to sweet white and red wines to “other fruit” (non-grape) wines to mead (honey wine) and more.  They have some interesting combinations as well such as blackberry syrah and I think at one point there was a wine with hops.

When we first started going to Valenzano, we were struck by the uniqueness of their berry red cranberry wine, which is actually a table wine that pairs well with food.  The cranberries, sourced from local bogs, are balanced in the wine just right to not be too tart or too sweet (they also make a berry white cranberry for sweet wine fans but that is too sweet for me).

We initially paired the red cranberry wine with a Thanksgiving dinner and it was a big hit.  I’m told it particularly paired well with the turkey.  As a vegetarian, I can’t personally attest to that but it went well with all of the sides too and it made the meal more festive.  The cranberry wine has since become a staple at our holiday meals.

We made a recent trip to Valenzano because ’tis the season and we were running low on berry red cranberry wine.  As always, we received our warm greeting from Al and also spoke with other friendly and knowledgeable winery staff who shared information on winemaking and recommendations for wines at nearby local wineries.  We stocked up on cranberry and also purchased a bottle of their cabernet merlot.

The winery experience at Valenzano is filled with warmth, good friends, and good cheer.  And their berry red cranberry wine in particular always evokes for me a sense of tradition and holiday spirit.

Happy Holidays!

Wine Salon of the Czech Republic – Valtice, Czech Republic

Our final wine stop for the day was at Salon vín České Republiky, the Wine Salon of the Czech Republic, located in the cellar of a Baroque chateau in the town of Valtice.  The Czech Republic has an annual national wine competition in which wines made exclusively from grapes from the Moravian and Bohemian wine regions are entered.  The top 100 wines, selected by a tasting committee, earn the Gold Medal of the Wine Salon and are exhibited in the Salon for the year.

The public can purchase tickets to enter the Salon for 90 minutes or 150 minutes (guided tastings with a sommelier can also be purchased) to try as few or as many wines as they would like within the timeframe.  Bottles of these wines can be purchased as well.

We bought 90-minute tickets and quickly made our way into the Salon. The cavernous basement has displays of wines grouped by varietal with all of the whites first and then the reds.  Information about each wine is on a nearby placard.  You just grab a bottle yourself and pour.

There were so many options it was almost overwhelming to figure out how to proceed.  Where do we start?  We can’t try everything in 90 minutes, right?  How do we choose?  How do we pace ourselves?  How do we not become intoxicated?  From what our tour guide said, tourists don’t typically worry about that last question – she has brought several people here who stumbled their way out.  But I wanted to clearly remember this experience.

Determined to have some sort of plan, we made our way through by selecting a couple of wines of each varietal, usually from different sub-regions to make a comparison.  For example, we tried Chardonnay from the wine sub-regions of Znojemská and Velkopavlovická.  We also tried the oldest wine of the top 100 – a 2008 Rulandské šedé  (Pinot gris) from Velkopavlovická.

This very unique tasting experience was enhanced by the dimly lit, brick-lined cellar setting.  It was an excellent way to try a wide variety of Czech wines from different sub-regions.  Among our favorites were a Cabernet Sauvignon and an Alibernet (crossing of Alicante Bouschet and Cabernet Sauvignon) from the Mikulovská sub-region.  I easily could have spent more than 90 minutes trying all of these fabulous wines…

Mikulov, Czech Republic

The next stop on our Mikulovská wine sub-region tour was the town of Mikulov. As we got out of our tour guide’s car, we noticed large plastic jugs of liquid labeled “Burčák” across the street. We learned that burčák, sold around harvest time, is a young wine that has only been fermenting for a few days, which makes it sweet and low in alcohol. The Moravians apparently claim that drinking several liters helps to ensure good health. One noted risk, however, is that burčák can explode if it is contained too tightly due to the fermentation that is still occurring. So store your burčák wisely – or, better yet, drink it quickly, as it tastes best within the first day or two.

Prior to stopping at a winery in Mikulov, we wandered around the town square and then over the to the Chateau. Mikulov’s first written records date back to 1173, and historical monuments can be seen around the town’s landscape. Photos below show the town square, the path leading up to the Mikulov Chateau, the Chateau itself, and a view of the “Jewish Ghetto” (starting in the mid-15th century, the area adjacent to the Chateau hill was inhabited by Jewish citizens) and the Goat Tower (a two-story fort built in the 15th century to help protect the town). Quite the beautiful, historical setting.


Our winery stop in town was at Rodinné Vinařství Mikulov (Mikulov Family Winery). The winery was closed in preparation for an annual festival but they kindly granted us an appointment for a tasting. The tasting was hosted by a friend of the family, who himself is a wine consultant. Sips of great wines were intertwined with his tales of the history of the winery and Czech winemaking.

This small-production winery makes about 20,000 bottles per year. The winemaker, Kateřina, is one of the few female winemakers in the Czech Republic. The winery is housed in a building that was originally a slaughterhouse. The winemaker bought it ten years ago by offering half the asking price – it apparently took the seller a while to agree (understandably perhaps) but he eventually capitulated. The family is currently harvesting their 8th vintage.

One fun tidbit the wine consultant shared is that rosé wine is often referred to as “pool wine” in Czech. He explained that rosé is good to drink when swimming (a little twist on the American idea of rosé as a “summer wine”). In addition, it was not typically sold at times other than the summer until the country adopted an American holiday that popularized the wine for two weeks in February (leading up to, you guessed it, the 14th). Sure enough, I incidentally came across a blog on “Valentine’s Day in Prague – 11 Spots to Check Out.”

The winery has a beautiful outdoor area and after the tasting we sipped the last of our wine out on the terrace. The combination of the setting, the wine, and the wine education led to an excellent winery experience.

Mikulovská Wine Sub-Region – Czech Republic

Most of the grape growing and winemaking in the Czech Republic is in the region of Moravia (Morava in Czech), so my significant other and I headed by train from Prague to Brno (capital of Moravia). Moravia has four wine sub-regions – Znojemská, Velkopavlovická, Mikulovská, and Slovácká. We were fortunate to take a two-day tour to visit the latter two sub-regions. Day one was Mikulovská.

The first Moravian vineyards were said to be founded on the slopes of the Pálava Hills limestone formation, a dominant feature of the Mikulovská sub-region. The landscape of this area is exceptional, as can be seen by the view from our first stop on the tour at Sonberk Winery. We pulled into the parking lot, and I got out of the car and turned around… and was amazed by the breathtaking beauty.

Sonberk was founded in 2003 and the sleek, modern tasting building was built in 2008 but the vines date back to the 13th century. Their production is about 150,000 bottles per year. We learned that Sonberk was the first Czech winery awarded the highest prize at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London.

Sonberk’s winning wine was a dry Pálava, so it was fitting that we were first introduced to this grape here. Pálava, created in the Czech Republic and named after that limestone formation, is a cross between Müller Thurgau and Gewürztraminer and comes in both dry and sweet varieties. Sonberk had sold out of their dry version, so we tasted a sweet Pálava, which was refreshing on this hot, sunny day.

The staff member at the winery did not speak much English so we were glad to have our tour guide interpreting for us. Our guide explained to us that she was speaking Slovak and the winery staff member was speaking Czech but the languages are close enough to be understood. But once the tasting was initiated not much explanation was required – as we tried great wines outside in this stunning setting, few words needed to be spoken.

Czech Republic

Wine in the Czech Republic? When I learned I would have the good fortune of attending an international conference in the capital city of Prague, I did what I usually do when visiting a new place – I checked out the wine scene. The people of the Czech Republic are the largest consumers of beer in the world, so I wasn’t very hopeful that I would find a wine region to explore.  I was surprised and very pleased to learn there are in fact two wine regions in the Czech Republic with over 850 registered wineries.

Winemaking in the Czech Republic dates back about 2000 years; the first vine growers were thought to be Celts. These days, modern environmentally-friendly techniques are used to make 34 varieties of white wine and 26 varieties of red wine.

The vast majority of vineyards (96%) are located in Moravia (Morava in Czech), which has four sub-regions. The remaining 4% can be found within two sub-regions in Bohemia (Čechy), the home to the city of Prague. The most widely planted grapes in the Czech Republic are Grüner Veltliner, Müller Thurgau, Riesling, and Welsch-Riesling (whites), and Saint Laurent and Blaufränkisch (reds).

My significant other and I wanted the full Czech wine experience, which definitely meant a trip to Moravia. Our extremely helpful and accommodating travel agent, Rachel Blankfield (www.madtravels.org), booked us a two-day private tour to follow the conference. Posts about this awesome adventure to follow.

Prior to traveling to Moravia we toured around Prague and were amazed to find vineyards within the iconic Prague Castle complex. We learned this is the Vineyard of St. Vaclav, located on the eastern edge of the castle. The grapes have been there since 2008 and most are of the Pinot Noir and Riesling varieties.

We happened to be in Prague the weekend of Prosecco Fest, a celebration of the Italian sparkling wine at Prague Castle. How often do you get to attend a wine event in another country? So we braved the festival despite the threat of rain, and we were lucky that the gray skies never did open up.

This was such an amazing setting for a tasting – sitting in front of grape vines, overlooking a beautiful city (view is below) – and by far one of the most unique places I have sipped wine. I just tried to drink it all in…

 

Adair Vineyards – New Paltz, NY

wine tour

Located in a charming barn that is over 200 years old, Adair Vineyards offers an enjoyable and educational winery experience infused with a passion for charity. Mark, who owns Adair with his wife, is the winemaker and the person conducting the tastings. He attended UC-Davis to study viticulture and enology, and worked at wineries in Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara (including at Zaca Mesa – see separate post on this winery), in addition to other wine areas.

Mark, originally from Philadelphia, headed back to the area when his wife attended graduate school in Philadelphia. He acquired Adair, in the Hudson Valley wine region of New York, in 1997. His wines are vegan (sometimes animal products are used and then filtered out in the fining process – the process of clarifying and stabilizing the wine). He also uses fewer sulfites in his wine.

The wine tasting was an excellent lesson in grape growing and winemaking. The wines are made from grapes primarily grown on the estate and then supplemented by a local farm. This leads to some interesting local blends such as the Solitary Oak, which is 90% Seyval and 10% Vidal and the Kir Rouge, which is 90% Dechaunac and 10% blackberry wine. Mark was a knowledgeable and engaging guide, as we talked about the wines as well as our favorite west coast wineries.

The other appealing aspect of this winery experience was learning about Mark and his wife’s passion for supporting charitable organizations. They particularly support charities for animals as well as cancer research. The winery holds a fundraiser every month and has an annual charitable dog walk. Donations can also be made throughout the year. Mark and his wife’s dogs are therapy dogs; Mark’s wife started a reading program for children. Their desire to give back to others is impressive.

A great winery experience and the opportunity to support a worthy cause – an excellent combination.

Rowan Asher Winery (RAW) – Stroudsburg, PA

I didn’t know Stroudsburg, PA had an up-and-coming urban winery scene, but to my surprise it does. On the charming Main Street in this Pocono town are two winery tasting rooms with a third just off the main drag.

The moment we stepped into Rowan Asher Winery (RAW), the first urban winery and hard cidery in the Poconos, we were blanketed by the owner’s warmth and enthusiasm. Misty immediately introduced herself and walked us through the tasting options. As we tried a couple of white wines and all of their reds, we learned the story of the winery…

RAW is named after Misty and husband Matthew’s children, Jude Rowan and Zoan Asher. Misty explained that Matthew, RAW’s winemaker, had learned to make wine from his aunt, and they had started by making wine at home. This hobby turned into a vocation when Matthew left the automotive industry and fully focused on his craft. Their original tasting room, in a former industrial lumberyard, is also in Stroudsburg outside of the downtown area. Misty said Matthew grew up in the area and they wanted to bring business to and support the local community.

They source their fruit locally and globally. Global examples include a Cabernet Sauvignon from Chilean grapes and a Pinotage from South African grapes. We enjoyed the wines and the conversation.

Everything has a thoughtful sentimental touch from the name of the winery to the names of the wines (“Misty Love” Cabernet) to the décor – the tasting room chandeliers (see below) are made from their first wine barrel.

Enjoyable wine, engaging conversation, and touching sentimentality on a vintage Main Street – I’m glad I discovered RAW and the urban winery scene in Stroudsburg.

Grange of Prince Edward – Prince Edward County, Ontario

wine tourism

It had been about seven years since my significant other and I had been to the up-and-coming wine area of Prince Edward County (referred to as “The County” locally), located on the north shore of Lake Ontario. The County became the fourth Designated Viticultural Area in Ontario Canada in 2007. Many of the wineries are small, family-run operations. We greatly enjoyed our last visit largely due to the conversations we had with the winemakers and owners in the tasting rooms. We were pleased to learn that the County continues to offer many winery experiences led directly by the winemaker/owner.

We entered the large, well-lit tasting room at Grange of Prince Edward and were immediately greeted by a friendly woman, who explained the tasting options. As we started our tasting, another woman came by and began speaking with us – asking where we are from, what brings us to the County (we always answer “wine” seemingly in unison), etc. Then she told us her story…

She was Maggie Granger, who makes the wine along with her mother, Caroline Granger. She explained that her mother decided to grow grapes on the family farm and went to school to learn winemaking. Although Maggie helped on the farm growing up, she said she hadn’t intended to take on the family business. She went to a university in Montreal to study liberal arts specifically to “not do farming.”

She said what brought her back was the Montreal wine culture. The County didn’t have much of a wine culture when she went off to school and so she wasn’t really excited about wine until she ventured off to Montreal. She returned to the County and began making wine, learning from her mother. Now their 100% estate-grown wines are a joint venture.

This was one of our best winery experiences in the County. The wine was very good (our favorite Cabernet Franc of the trip) but the positive experience was largely due to Maggie. She not only told a great story but she did so with such enthusiasm that we were caught up in it.

Telling a story evokes our emotions. And enthusiasm is infectious – when someone is truly enthusiastic about a product, others become enthusiastic about it. Decisions, such as about whether or not to make a purchase, are largely emotional so evoking positive, enthusiastic emotions is important in a customer service interaction.

On our last day in the County, we had just enough time for a glass of wine at one winery before we headed to the airport in Toronto. We wondered aloud where to go and instantly (and again in unison) chose Grange. An excellent winery experience not only leads to purchases in the moment but return visits with additional purchases. We were enthusiastically greeted by Maggie again.

William Heritage Winery – Mullica Hill, NJ

wine tourism

I hadn’t been to William Heritage Winery in a few years but noticed the winery garnering increased attention – touted as a “winery to know” in NJ and earning high marks for their wines (home of the first 90-point rated wine from NJ). This prompted me to ensure I made the trip, and I was very glad I did.

I walked into a totally redone tasting room – sleek and modern. It used to be more of a charming, rustic farm store with a small tasting bar. The transformation was so complete, I wasn’t even sure it was the same place (it was). I was told the renovations started about a year ago and finished up a few months ago. They also changed their name and design, apparently last fall. I was pleased by all of it, particularly the winery experience.

The person conducting our tasting was very knowledgeable about wineries and wine areas, as he has a 40-year history of wine tasting across 27 states. He explained that he and his wife started wine tasting as an accident. They were on a trip and could not do their planned activity due to inclement weather, so they went to a winery instead and they were hooked (I know the feeling).

Although he hadn’t worked at William Heritage long, he was knowledgeable about the winery and their wines. He explained that the land has been farmed by the Heritage family for five generations and the sixth generation was soon to start work at the winery. Originally an orchard, the current owners cultivated grapes starting in 1999.

There were three tasting options – classic, reserve, and sweet. We selected reserve but our excellent wine guide offered us a couple of wines off the list. This proved to be very educational, and it is also a good marketing move as I have often purchased a bottle of wine I tasted off-list. The wines and the company were so enjoyable that we added a sweet wine tasting. My significant other sometimes enjoys “other fruit” (non-grape) wines and I quite honestly wanted the tasting to continue – a sure sign of a great tasting (or perhaps too much wine?).

A friendly, likeable, knowledgeable person who finds commonality with the customers and offers a few well-chosen extra pours leads to an excellent winery experience. And certainly in this case (no pun intended), a purchase of wine.