Early Mountain Vineyards is owned by Jean and Steve Case, a somewhat famous billionaire couple who started a little company you may have heard of called America Online (AOL). Located in rural Madison, Virginia, it’s one of the newer wineries on the block; they hosted a grand opening as recently as September, 2012. The Cases had purchased the bankrupt Sweely Estate Winery just 8 months earlier for $10.2 million and renovated the property to accommodate their vision. This was our first visit to Early Mountain, an impromptu excursion after hiking Bear Church Rock.
The first thing we noticed is that this is not a small establishment. The vineyards themselves are extensive, and the 3-level building sprawls out quite a bit, to include an ample tasting area and plenty of event hosting spaces. This is clearly a winery that seeks to capitalize on events such as weddings and galas, and it’s easy to see why they’re successful at it. The property is lovely and has been appointed with an eye to offering a very comfortable guest experience. The tasting room features a central fireplace and leads out to a terrace and lawn. When we took a seat for a moment near the welcoming fire, a server quickly stopped by to ask if we’d like a glass of wine or if we wanted to sample some local fare.
The tasting bar was large, but pretty much filled when we arrived. Our wine docent commented to us that it had actually been quiet and sparse most of the day until that point. He was gracious and friendly, but seemed a bit harried during our tasting. Each time he poured for us he walked away…then returned and asked us, “What wine were we on?” The only real description he provided of each pour was the exact wording on the tasting menu printed in front of us. During this busier moment in their day, it would have been nice if an employee or two had stepped in to give him a hand. We think the guest experience may have been enhanced quite a bit on this visit if one poor guy hadn’t been trying to pour and have wine conversations with 10-12 people — each starting a tasting at different times — all by himself.
One of our favorite features of the tasting bar is the chalkboard-look description of the vineyards of Early Mountain as well as the surrounding Virginia wine country. We truly appreciate that the Cases have made supporting and promoting Virginia wine one of their pet projects.
There were 6 wines featured for our tasting, all of which were nice. There wasn’t a single one that either of us disliked (and that’s not always true). The tasting started with a crisp 2015 Viognier, followed by their 2015 “Five Forks” white blend, a nice 2015 Chardonnay, a 2015 red blend they call “Foothills,” and two really nice 2013 reds: “Eluvium” and “Novum.”
The last two were Henri’s clear favorites, and Fergus enjoyed them too. We took home a bottle of Novum and a bottle of Five Forks.
Novum is 61% Cabernet Franc, 36% Merlot, and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is aged 22 months in oak barrels after undergoing “malolactic fermentation.” The Internet has some things to say about that process, but we decided it just means “makes smooth, bold wines you will want to share with your friends.” We’ll leave the science to the winemakers.
Like many Virginia wineries, we thought most of the wines were nice but overpriced. Bottles range from $25 to 38. There are definitely less expensive wines we have liked just as much.
We were neither blown away nor underwhelmed by our visit. Perhaps we left wishing the experience had felt more personal or had touched more on the region’s history…and been a bit less…hmmm…corporate feeling (?). Not sure how to explain it exactly. Despite the warm fireplace and the nice people, Early Mountain felt “new,” and felt geared toward making money and hosting a lot of people. It didn’t come across as particularly personal or grounded in the history of the land on which it sits.
Having said that, we won’t rule this vineyard or its wines out for recommending to friends or for repeat visits. It’s a very nice winery with very nice wines.
Open 11 AM to 5 PM on all days of the week except Tuesday. Closed on Tuesdays.
Tasting is $10 for six very generous pours (definitely a much larger tasting pour than we’re accustomed to receiving at most Virginia vineyards) and a souvenir glass. We were bemused to note that the stemmed wine glass used for the tasting is not the glass given to guests to take home; a clean, wrapped stemless souvenir glass is proffered to each guest at the end of the tasting instead. There are small plates of local foods available for purchase in the tasting room.
Stopping for a tasting and some local fare after a hike in nearby Shenandoah National Park.