Focus, Focus, Focus: Zeroing In On Wines For Now At Virginia’s Blenheim Vineyards

Vinted on August 4, 2011 binned in crowd pleaser wines, elegant wines, on the road, wine review

I am not a fan of small producers in emerging wine regions bottling and selling a large array of varietal wines; almost everyone loves having choices, but too often the cumulative result in this case ends up feeling like a Zinfandel that’s been watered-down in a feeble attempt to get it under 16% abv – a diluted mess with a lack of focus (with even the worst results being pawned off at inflated prices to unsuspecting tasting room visitors).

Which is why meeting winemakers like Kirsty Harmon is more refreshing than a chilled Monticello Viognier on a steamy Virginia Summer Sunday.  She’s the kind of person who, through their laser-like determination, make me eat my own virtual words!

Harmon is the driving force behind the wines of Virginia producer Blenheim Vineyards – a short, wavy-haired whirling dervish of a woman whose freckles belie a winemaking stance that is supremely mature in its simplicity: make wines for now, that are true to place, and make them as delicious as possible.

“I’m not a very patient person,” she told me when I (and several other wine bloggers) visited Blenheim as during the producer visits that were part of the recent 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville. “I try to make wines that are balanced and ready to go right out of the bottle.”

Focus is the friend of the emerging-region winemaker, as is talent.  Harmon has both, and Right Coast wine producers would do well to focus on her… well, her focus. “Yummy” is usually a terrible descriptor to bandy about when you’re trying to relay the essence of a wine to someone else, but in the case of Blenheim’s bottlings the word just fits. Harmon makes yummy wines, and she makes them from several varieties – Syrah (peppery and bright), Chardonnay (peachy and solid), Viognier (floral and elegant), Merlot (herbal and hefty) and Cabernet Sauvignon (tangy and minty), to name a few – without any of them sucking

That might not sound on the surface like an accomplishment worth highlighting, but anyone who has experienced the dreadful end result produced by Right Coast wineries that are trying to experiment with every type of vitis vinifera under the sun knows what a breath of fresh air that really is.

Now, before you flame me as painting all East Coast wines as toilet-bound plonk, please note that I’ve covered a lot of Right Coast wines on these virtual pages, and I’m not saying that all of them bite donkey bong. I am saying that too many producers in those emerging regions make wine from too broad of a portfolio of grape varieties, taking their focus away from the wines that are good and (for any number of reasons) resulting in products that are truly dreadful being sold alongside those that are of much higher quality. None of that is good for the consumers passing through the tasting room.

Of course, inconsistent wine portfolios are on offer from producers worldwide, but in my experience the scenario is more prevalent (or at least more obvious) in emerging wine regions like the U.S. East Coast. The point is that Harmon’s wines offer quality, variety and consistency – and that makes her a standout on the Right Coast in my book.

I’m probably opening another vinous can of worms by telling you that Blenheim’s wines all come with screwcap closures, but don’t draw the hackneyed “that’s because the wines aren’t for aging” conclusion on that one: after a trip visiting winemakers in New Zealand (a region that was quite publicly on the bleeding edge of the Stelvin wave), Harmon became a screwcap convert because of the quality of the juice based on how it aged in those closures versus those under cork.  “I tasted wines bottled with crewcap and cork – the same vintages, the same wines, going back to the `90s,” she told our group over lunch, “and the wines [under screwcap closure] were more vibrant, and more consistent.”

Blenheim is owned by award-winning rocker Dave Matthews, whose mother lives next door.  Over lunch, I asked one of Blenheim’s employees (who will remain anonymous for reasons that will become obvious in short order) if having a famous owner came with any perks. Do they get free DMB MP3s?

“Uhmm… no,” he responded. “I mean, I get free MP3s off the Internet, of course,” he added with a laugh. “But not from Dave Matthews.  I don’t even like Dave Matthew’s music, actually!”

At least the staff are as honestly expressive as the wines…

2009 Blenheim Vineyards “Blenheim Farm” Chardonnay (Virginia)
Price: $21
Rating: B

Basically their take on the Estate Chardonnay concept. Balance is the name of the game with this wine, which is peachy with a refreshing citrus zest.  It’s a charming wine, without an ounce of flab, and an open bottle is not likely to last quickly, especially if you’ve got some snacks on the table at the same time.

2010 Blenheim Vineyards Viognier (Virginia)
Price: $19
Rating: B

The peach farm is surrounded by white flowers.  Another food wine, and, yes, yummy, though not without a serious elegant streak thanks to all those floral qualities.  Refreshing and I think those used to more heavy-handed, extracted and thick California Viogniers will be very surprised at how versatile this Right Coast version will be with foods. You might even get away with chips and salsa with this one (I plan on giving it a try at some point myself).

2010 Blenheim Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (Virginia)
Price: $20
Rating: B

If you’ve had “interesting” (as in the British sense of interesting, which effectively means “it was horrible and I’d rather have been doing something else entirely) experiences with severely under-ripe Right Coast Cabs will have a lot to like with this.  It’s certainly ripe and fruity enough to be inviting, but the tart cranberry, red fruits and minty herbal notes give this wine’s origins away (or at least suggest it’s probably not from CA).  A wine for Cab lovers who are looking for a break from the heavily-extracted stuff.

Cheers!

20

 

 

    Comments

  • George R Perry


    I was glad to see that everybody really liked Blenheim when we got out there – Kirsty is easily one of my favorite winemakers in the area and my wife and I always seem to find ourselves out there when we head out to hit some vineyards over a weekend.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, George – and I would say you wind up there with very good reason! :)

  • Frank


    Thank you, Joe! As a passionate advocate of Virginia wine, I appreciate someone with your reach sharing the story of winemakers (and wines) here in the Commonwealth that are 'doing it right.' Although I have a soft spot in my heart for many of our experimenting winemakers, I have mad respect for Kirsty and her focused approach. She's fortunate to be at winery where she's given such freedom to make wines her way.

    Though I chide Kirsty often about her use of screwtops for all of her wines, she is one of my favorite winemakers in the state – both for her wine, and for her personality. (Shameless airing of grievance – I do wish she were a little quicker in responding to emails, though. ;) )

    I spend a lot of time pestering our winemakers here in Virginia with incessant emails, phone calls, texts, offers to visit them, invites to lunch and dinner where I stick them with the bill, and during all of these conversations one of the questions I ask is… 'who are a few winemakers to watch?' or 'who's wine are drinking or hearing about?' Many of them mention Kirsty. Her abilities are very well known throughout Virginia.

    You're point about 'too many producers in those emerging regions [i.e. – states like Virginia] make wine from too broad of a portfolio of grape varieties, taking their focus away from the wines that are good…'. WHO defines good? (certainly not some dude that randomly uses bold font throughout his writings ;) )

    Although I am not a fan of sweet whites (affectionately known as wine festival wines), my wife and her little clique of neighborhood Bunco babes love them. I don't get it, but that's what they like. As you know, many of Virginia's wineries are small, some very small, and producing these 'bland-palate-friendly-crowd-pleasin-festival-wines' pays the bills for many wineries.

    So, to that end, I disagree that 'none of that is good for the consumers passing through the tasting room' since many of the consumers passing through the tasting rooms actually like those wines. Again, I don't get it, but it is what it is, and experimenting and producing a number of different wines seems to be a necessary evil. IMHO.

    The next time you're down in this 'hood, let’s get together and visit a few of Virginia's other wineries as well (there will be no festival wines in these tasting rooms).

    On a side note – I would like to recognize your use of the phrase "… bite donkey bong." Nice. I am always in search of catchy phrases that I can slip in to tweets or conversations (esp. with those that could possibly take offense to such a reference). I will let some time pass and then begin using this phrase with regularity, and will take full credit for its creation. Cheers!

    • 1WineDude


      Hey Frank – thanks! Don't confuse "bad" with "Sweet" – plenty of well-made sweet wines are made from hybrids, for example, right here in my neck of the woods. They aren't "bad" because they are well made, from fruit that is managed well, and the rest is simply a matter of personal tastes. When I mention poor/bad wines, I mean poorly-made and/or flawed wines. Plenty of those are, for sure, being made all over the place, but when the industry is compact and emerging as it is in VA, PA, NY, for example, the effects I think are more acute. I don't see any reason why poorly-made wines or flawed wines should be sold to anybody and I will always call those out if I think they deserve attention, even if it's negative.

      Feel free to steal that phrase, bro – and looking forward to meeting up with you again!

      Cheers!

  • @piamara


    NICE! Blenheim is another wine club we belong to in cville. Awesome wines with a gorgeous tasting room and chill staff. We always look forward to the quarterly pick-up party, and Kirsty's always on hand to chat. Still waiting to see Dave there…no luck yet.

    • 1WineDude


      Pia – I wouldn't hold my breath on the Dave thing… :-)

  • Nancy@VaWineInMyPkt


    Hi Joe – I joined you on lucky bus #3 at Blenheim (plus Va Wineworks and First Colony – thanks to all the wineries for hosting!).
    In our wine travels, I’ve found that most (not all) visitors have about equal interest in the winery look & feel, the customer service experience during the tasting, and the quality of the wine. The wineries they get passionate about, and come back to (with friends) are those that do all three well, and Blenheim is one of those. Definitely a place I’d take out-of-town friends.
    (I've been thinking about the incredible gazpacho and the paired rosé we had at lunch ever since…)

    • 1WineDude


      Hi Nancy – yeah, when visiting a producer, they need to come through with the full package and that includes more than just the juice. I think Blenheim's got the full package, too. Cheers!

  • Matt


    Excellent write-up on Kirsty and Blenheim, Joe. It's great to see a fellow UCD and Hoo alum doing great things back east.

    MEC

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Matt. Man, you UCD peeps are *everywhere*! ;-)

      • Matt


        Yeah, but not so many Hoos, unfortunately.

  • @RJonWine


    Excellent piece Joe! I was quite impressed with the Blenheim wines as well. Interesting to hear Kristy's experience comparing older wines under screwcap and cork is the same as mine. So what did you think about the cork industry propagandist's rant on Sunday morning?

    • 1WineDude


      Hi RJ – thanks. Hey, been meaning to tell you that I was sorry we didn't get a chance to meet in person at WBC (and that I was kind of amazed at how many tasting notes you managed under the tent at Monticello in all that heat! :).

      Regarding the Ignite presentation on corks… well, certainly it had an agenda! You know, I've done a fair amount of work in Portugal and with Portuguese producers, and even they are pretty low key about cork (and some have even been trying to get their budget lines bottled with screwcaps!). I ended up learning a few things even in that presentation, though (besides the fact that the cork industry is probably low-balling the % of cork taint, that is) so I didn't think it was all bad. I thought the sponsorship presence at the WBC11 dinner was much worse. My understanding from the WBC organizers is that they ended up giving sponsored spots for the Ignite stuff because they didn't get enough bites from citizen bloggers to fill all the slots! I hope that will change in 2012, given how well some of the citizen logger presentations were (maybe it will inspire a few others to step forward and present). Cheers!

  • Dezel


    Nice post, bro! I’ve enjoyed Kirsty’s wines and her approach since she hit the Virginia wine scene. For me, her wines are clean, focused, and reasonably priced – exactly what visitors to the tasting room are looking for. Most of her wines have a pleasing food-friendly brightness to them that I’m also fond of. While there did you ask if the DMB was looking for a wine-guzzling bass player for the touring band (LOL)? Have a nice weekend, bro!

    Dezel

    • 1WineDude


      :) Thanks, Dezel – really missed you in VA!

  • Carl Helrich


    Great post, Joe It's folks like Kirsty who push the limits of the winemaking frontier in an emerging region, discovering what works best. Thanks for Right Coast props!

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Carl – Right Coast solidarity, bruthah! :)

  • Joe Herrig


    My non-wino (but DMB fan) baby brother-in-law got me onto Blenheim wines long before the conference. A college kid who likes DMB??! One of several producers I lament not having any/decent distribution in the sleepy little town of Atlanta.

    On the "emerging" wine regions – what if I argue that they're just trying to figure out what works; a preclude to focus? Economically, they'd pretty much have to try to bottle and sell these "experimental" wines…

    Granted, if this is the case, I don't want to see said experimental bottles laden with dubious bronze medals.

  • Joe Herrig


    "prelude", not "preclude" …d'oheth.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Joe – "conomically, they'd pretty much have to try to bottle and sell these "experimental" wines"

      Maybe – they could sell them out bulk maybe if they are bad enough, though…

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