A Much Needed Day Trip: Muse Vineyards

While the pandemic has taken faraway travel destinations off the table for the time being, it hasn’t taken away the desire to experience new places and things. If anything, the confines of quarantined life have made doing so all the more important. With this in mind, Scott and I decided to make a conscious effort to push ourselves to find new ways of doing the things from which we get pleasure, in particular drinking. While a fair amount of this we’ve always done at home, traveling has been a key part of it. After all, what better way to sample a new wine than when visiting the place from which it originates?

To give ourselves some structure, and a way to document what we hope will be some great memories, we’ve created this blog. Our vision for this is something akin to a journal, allowing us to try new wines and cocktails, preserve the experience, and hopefully pass along what we learn along the way.

For our first post, we took a day trip to Muse Vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley for a vineyard tour and tasting led by Sally Cowal, one half of the couple who owns the estate winery. From DC, the drive is about an hour and a half, but we made our way from our cabin in Lost River, West Virginia. It was a windy 55-minute drive through the mountains, which while scenic, was paired with a healthy dose of nausea and a few too many Trump yard signs for our liking. With that said, the winery, whose tasting room is perched on a picturesque hill above the Shenandoah River, was well worth the drive.

Upon arriving, we found Sally and the rest of our small group standing outside the tasting room’s patio (all wearing masks, of course). Sally is a retired diplomat, whose knowledge of wine is informed by her experience as a vineyard owner and years of enjoying wine and global travel. Throughout our tour, she brought a wealth of insight without a bit of pretension and a good sense humor, evidenced by a series of subtle off-handed comments. As Sally tells it, she and her husband began their foray into winemaking back in the early 2000s with the purchase of just three acres that had some existing vines. Over the next several years, they purchased more land and became serious winemakers with an eye toward Europe, not California.

We began our tour with a walk through the vineyard, with Sally describing the myriad of farming challenges they face in any given year. While it wasn’t surprising to hear about frosts that can destroy large portions of grapes, we had never considered the dangers birds, deer, raccoons, and even bears pose to sweet, ripe grapes. To protect their crop from hungry birds, Muse wraps every row of grapes in netting; and to keep deer from eating their grapes, constructed a large perimeter fence. During our tour in early September, the grapes were nearing their harvest time, which our own little field sample confirmed.

As we made our way amongst the rows of vines, Sally’s husband Robert drove by in a tractor, spraying the grapes with a non-toxic substance meant to keep mold at bay from what has been a particularly rainy summer. While the merits of spraying was interesting, I was distracted by their dog who dutifully trotted behind the tractor, stopping only briefly to greet us with a wagging tail before speeding back to her self-assigned task that she seemed to take very seriously. It was adorable.

Sally next brought us into the building where the grapes are juiced and fermented, and the resulting wine is bottled. Of particular interest was the type of oak barrels Muse uses. As Sally explained, there are three primary types of barrels from which winemakers choose: French, Hungarian, and American. French oak, which is what Muse uses, is the most expensive of the three, with barrels running upwards of $1,000 each. American oak is the cheapest of the three, and Hungarian oak somewhere in the middle. While the flavors imparted from barrels are influenced by a range of factors, including the degree to which the barrels are toasted (burned) and how many times they’ve been used (the newer the barrel, the stronger the flavor), the forests from which the wood comes also plays a role. Broadly speaking, French oak tends to be tighter grained, adding a subtler flavor to the wine, while American oak tends to be larger grained, imparting a more aggressive flavor. Learning the costs of the barrels gave me an appreciation for the cost/benefit analysis small winemakers must weigh, knowing the tightness of their profit margins.

Our tour ended in Muse’s modern tasting room, where we tried a mix of six reds and whites, including the “Clio,” a Bordeaux-style blend that in 2015 was named Virginia’s top wine and awarded the Virginia Governor’s Cup. While this cannot be said for all of the Virginia wineries we’ve visited over the years, all of Muse’s wines are good, and several are very good. We were particularly fond of the 2019 “Erato,” a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Muscat ($21). A play on the winery’s name, the wines are named after Greek Muses (Erato is the Muse of love poetry).

For anyone in the DC-area looking for a fun daytrip, Muse is highly recommended. Dogs and kids are welcome, there’s a food menu that’s served all day, and the outdoor space with pretty views is plentiful. Our “harvest walk” tour ($25 each for non-wine club members) isn’t offered regularly, but the winery has a robust events calendar. Following our tour, we stopped at the near-by Woodstock Brewhouse for lunch, which had some great, moderately priced food and an array solid beers that we enjoyed on their lively deck.

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