Friday, June 12, 2009

the struggle to find character in consultant-driven Generica

So L and I headed off for another wine trip. This time we opted for the northern part of the state, Loudoun County. Not far from DC, this area is bristling with wineries. We started off with a vague plan to hit a couple around Middleburg and move on from there. A combination of late night and early start scuttled coffee-making at home, however, so we made a hasty stop at Ellwood Thompson's on the way out of town.

ET's is our local, organic grocer. They've been around for a number of years, and do their best to seem like a little hippie co-op. The thing is they are decidedly not a little hippie co-op. They work off of business models and goals like regional stores. This might be all well and good except that their newly-expanded market and coffee shop feels straight out of a consultant's playbook. The feeling isn't helped by pre-made sandwiches lurking in deli cases and decor that could have come from any similar market/café in Generica.

It's sad, though, because the potential is there for it to be much better, much more. Sadly, though, the prices are high and the quality is often no better than local and chain competitors around. My argument as L and I talked about the place — she is a great fan — was that a truly successful operation would follow the Zingerman's model of obsessive quality and customer service rather than the Starbuck's model of satellite development.

In any case, that stop set the tone for the rest of the day as evidenced by our first winery stop — Chrysalis Vineyards. Our first greeting was by signs warning us that children were not permitted around the property, only in the "family areas." These areas were fenced areas with no trees and a couple picnic tables, kennels for kids. It was a good thing Buttercup wasn't with us. The next strike came with the port-a-potties. First, the fact that there were portable toilets was odd, but worse was the fact that there wasn't running water or sanitizer available to wash our hands. The next strike came as we were told that tastings were scheduled — because they simply had too many people otherwise. We nearly walked, but I insisted that we stick around.

What followed changed our opinion. The wines were very good, even if the service was not. The director of hospitality ran our tasting, and he knew his stuff — both about the wines and the business. This is clearly a case where they are aggressively pursuing a business plan, one built on exclusivity. Between their plans for VIP tasting rooms and anti-family tactics, it was hard to see where the fun of the experience was.

What's unfortunate about this is that there were some quite nice wines. They produced some very nice varieties of Norton, and a really nice Petit Verdot. The rosé had a fruity nose and a dry finish. And their Chardonnay was well-balanced without an overwhelming butter taste.

After our tasting, we moved on to their neighbor down the road — Swedenburg. This is a winery my father has enjoyed for years, and I wanted to give it a shot. While more pleasant and mellow — mostly because we scraped out of there as the Keg Bus was unloading — the wines at Swedenburg were somewhat undistinguished. They were good enough, but nothing really stood out. We almost considered a bottle, but at the mid- to high-teens, it's hard to justify buying something that's just decent.

After Swedenburg, we moved on to a nice lunch at Market Salamander in Middleburg. L had a grilled veggie and goat cheese sandwich with what appeared to be mostly local produce and cheese. I opted for the chef's special BBQ which came with large hunks of tender pork. It could have been spicier, but overall the flavor was just right. With a couple of fruit sides, we were ready to go for the next round.

At this point, opted to cut north to Purcellville and start at Hillsborough. The winery is owned by a Turkish family and produces mostly Bordeaux styles — at least according to their write-up in the wine guide. While a couple of the reds and one of the drier whites struck me as Bordeaux-like, the wines seemed to tend more toward Portugese and Spanish styles, using heavy doses of Tannat and Touriga to land thick, strong reds. They were quite good, but at close to thirty a bottle, the purchase was again hard to justify.

One thing that can be said for Hillsborough, however, is that they have one of the most beautiful locations I've seen in a while. Perfect views and an organic feel to the trestles and barn made it a worthwhile destination on future trips.

Our next stop took us back up the road to Corcoran Winery. Run by Lori Corcoran and her husband, Corcoran is a small-production shop and only open on the weekends. I'd poured next to them while pouring for Villa Appalaccia at a recent festival and had wanted to check out the winery. After a long drive into a backroad development we got Reilly out of the car to enjoy some shade while we went into the renovated 1750s farmhouse used as the tasting room.

Thankfully, my recollection of their wine was borne out by the tasting. Lori was producing an excellent Chambourcin, one of the better Francs we've tasted, and a very nice Malbec. Her meritage blend was a revelation too — nicely balanced and worth putting up or drinking now. With prices in the high teens to low twenties, her wines seemed better priced than the others, and we took a few bottles with us.

On a side note, Mr. Reilly seemed to be enjoying his part of the roadtrip too.

After Corcoran, we aimed for Sunset Hills. Lori recommended a couple of their reds, and they were a quick shot across Route 9 from Corcoran's enclave. What we found there was another business model. They'd redone an Amish barn beautifully, and the focus seemed to be on events and employees in logo-embroidered polo shirts. From the cashier who greeted us to the woman who stuck to her script while pouring, the experience was night and day from Corcoran.

The five wines we tried were good, but unsurprising. There were a Viognier, two Chardonnays, a Franc, and a Merlot. Unfortunately, the reds we'd been told about were only available for tasting by members of the VIP club. In it's own ironic way, this was the perfect bookend to the tastings.

After an unsuccessful attempt to find one more small, interesting winery tucked away in the woods, we shot into Leesburg for a light dinner and beer tasting at a brewpub I'd read about — Vintage 50.

We started with a sampler of their Pale Ale, Kolsch, Amber Ale, and cask-poured IPA, skipping the strong ales and the stout in deference to the heat and the need to moderate. All four were nicely done, and L surprised me by going for a pint of the kolsch. I opted for the pale, and we ordered a run of food — hummus, a cheese sampler from an interesting list of small-dairy U.S. cheeses (specific cheeses to come in another post), and a sausage sampler. While the portions seemed relatively small at first, we enjoyed all of it and ended up nicely sated for the drive back.

Our only quibble — and the perfect end to this story? This fine little joint was in an office building on the edge of urban sprawl and strip malls. In other words, in a historic, colonial town, our great little find was shoved into another piece of contemporary Generica. Please move, Vintage 50. Please move.