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Visit a World Class Winery While Near DC? Yes…Linden Vineyards
By Michael Franz
Nov 12, 2019
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Wineries are popular places to visit, but the reasons for this aren’t immediately obvious.  Growing grapes and making wine are not easy tasks, but they involve a fairly small set of standard practices.  Vintners around the world spend their time doing pretty much the same things in facilities that differ very little in functional terms.  You could get the idea that seeing one is seeing them all, and though that is not entirely wrong, it turns out to be superficial and misleading. 

Along with particularities of climate and soil, the real essence that differentiates one winery from another radiates from the priorities of the proprietor.  It only takes a few minutes at Linden Vineyards to sense that the place is run by a farmer.  Neither a merchandiser nor an entertainer, Jim Law is first and foremost a farmer, and that’s what makes Linden Vineyards such a distinctive and valuable enterprise in Fauquier County.

The vineyard itself is free of ornamentation, and refreshingly so, at least for those who prefer vineyards that aren’t dotted with a gazebo at every turn.  T-shirts and mementos and packets of potpourri are conspicuous by their absence in the tasting room, which seems surprisingly singular in its devotion to—tasting.  The vista from the hilltop winery is beautiful, but to be more precise, it is naturally, rustically beautiful rather than what Law calls “golf course beautiful.”

All of this suggests that Linden’s proprietor is sharply focused on what he wishes to achieve and present to the public, and that comes through clearly in conversation with Jim Law.  He wants to make the best wines he can produce by coaxing his land to provide the best grapes it can grow.  That’s about it.  He’s one the most focused vintners I’ve ever met, and I’ve met more than 1,500 of them during site visits around the world over the past 25 years.

There’s something worth remembering about focus:  It isn’t just about zeroing-in, but also about occluding everything outside the point of focus.  In the case of a winery seeking world-class quality in northern Virginia, that means saying no to busses, limousines, groups larger than four, picnics, private parties, and weddings, all of which can be quite lucrative…but also pretty distracting.  Like bars, some wineries really get going at 5:00 p.m., but that’s the hour when Linden closes to the public.

Jim Law didn’t grow up on a farm, but his affinity for farming arose early, as a teenager growing up in Ohio.  Interest in wine emerged in that same phase, transmitted by wine loving parents, but vineyard work wasn’t exactly his first foray into agriculture.  After a stint at a farming camp at Michigan State, Law spent two years teaching agriculture as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Congo.  Upon his return to the USA, he set his sights on viticulture, first in Indiana and then Ohio, before being hired in 1981 to start a winery in the Shenandoah Valley.

Soon convinced that excellent wine could be grown there, he purchased an abandoned hardscrabble farm in 1983, and has devoted himself to cultivating fine wine from the land ever since.  The notion of “cultivating fine wine” is worth emphasizing:  For Law, wine is much more something he “grows” than “makes,” and his whole approach is a vinous echo of the farm-to-table movement. 

That last sentence includes some buzz words, ones to which I’ve heard vintners pay “lip service” more times than I care to recall.  The one compensation for enduring all that empty talk is that I’ve learned how to tell the difference when somebody really lives up to his or her mission, and there’s no doubt that Jim Law is the real deal.

Vines were planted immediately after the property was purchased, but in his early days, Law also grew apples and blueberries on a commercial scale and had what he calls “a nice little pick-your-own-fruit business as a hedge for the winemaking enterprise.”  But all of that’s gone now, and Law is no longer hedging his bets.  Years of working directly in the vineyard have taught him which vine varieties are best suited to his property, and also which particular slopes and parcels are best for growing each grape.

Law is still tweaking things, and notes that he is currently, “planting Cabernet Sauvignon and pulling it out elsewhere at the same time” in order to get it situated optimally.  This seems like a case in point for the winery’s motto, “Never Content,” but after 35+ years of experimentation, he has placed his bets squarely on making Bordeaux-style red blends, varietal Petit Verdot, single-site Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, plus a “village” Chardonnay blended from three vineyard sites, and a late harvest Petit Manseng.  Whether white or red, all of the wines are crafted in a tastefully restrained, mineral, age-worthy style that leans more toward Europe than California.

Although Linden isn’t the place to go for a party, it is a great place to go to learn, and Law is a friendly and engaging teacher.  Walking around the property and looking through the cellar offer opportunities to replace misconceptions with knowledge:  Wine is not just a commodity shipped in from some exotic point on the globe, but something crafted by one’s neighbors.  It isn’t simply a luxury product skimmed from nature like caviar, but an agricultural product conjured from the soil by the honest labor of farmers.  Vineyards are not just the stuff of travel brochures, but beautiful additions to our local landscape that keep land in agricultural production and serve as barriers to urban sprawl.  And wine is not an impenetrably complicated product, but an essentially natural beverage made by a surprisingly simple process that can be grasped readily when explained by an articulate vintner.

Lessons like these are the real reasons to visit a winery, and there’s no better choice than Linden for learning them.  You can get there in less than an hour from DC’s infamous Beltway, and I strongly encourage you to do so.  Friday is the best day for a visit, but in any case, check the website and call ahead, as you’ve already learned that Linden is the opposite of a tourist trap.

Here are four reviews of current or impending releases from Linden, just to whet your appetite:

Linden Vineyards (Virginia) Red Wine “Hardscrabble” 2016 ($50):  The 2016 release of this wine is scheduled for January of 2020, with the 2015 still available in both 750 ml and half bottles.  The 2016 is terrific, showing impressive pigment concentration in the glass…and things only get better from there.  Quite expressive aromatically, it shows topnotes of spices and light toast and a subtle whiff of woodsmoke, and those notes carry through in the flavors, which are driven by a delicious core of dark-toned fruit.  Stylistically, this isn’t overly “polished,” which is very much to my liking, and the overall impression is slightly rustic and natural rather than “juicy” or overt.  The tannins and oak lend just the right amount of grip in relation to the wine’s level of fruitiness, making it possible to enjoy this on its own despite its considerable flavor impact.  Blended from 56% Cabernet sauvignon, 41% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc, it is very impressive.  93

Linden Vineyards (Virginia) Sauvignon Blanc “Avenius” 2017 ($36):  This is among the most serious and complex renditions of Sauvignon Blanc made in the USA, and one that I’d show “blind” with confidence against any Sauvignon grown anywhere, for that matter.  Don’t be scared off by the 2017 vintage, thinking that this might be losing its edge, as the exact opposite is true, and this won’t likely hit its peak for another year or two.  Intensely acidic but not remotely sour, it is vital that this not be served too cold, as it could then seem to tart for some tasters (though not Yours Truly), and would only show citrus flavors rather than the mélange of fruit notes it displays when less chilled.  These include white melon notes along with somewhat more prominent suggestions of lemon and lime, and there’s even a hint of tangerine when this gets close to room temperature.  A mineral undertone lends added complexity, and the overall character of the wine makes me crave of a giant platter of freshly shucked oysters.  Sourced from a cool vineyard owned by Shari Avenius that has been growing wicked good Sauvignon for years, this is a wine of the loftiest seriousness and intensity.  93

Linden Vineyards (Virginia) Chardonnay “Hardscrabble” 2015 ($42):  This excellent wine isn’t quite as strikingly distinctive as Linden’s “Avenius” Sauvignon Blanc, but it is still terrific and not quite as challenging, as it sits closer to the high-end global norm stylistically.  Sourced from Linden’s home vineyard, the fruit begins fermentation in tank before being racked into French oak after a week, with 20% of the barrels being new.  Bâtonnage is minimal, with freshness being sought more than creaminess, though the finished wine shows good concentration.  Subtle scents of nuts and spices prove quite alluring, followed by ripe but focused flavors and very energetic supporting acidity.  I tasted this recently from a 375 ml bottle, which is presumably a bit more evolved than the same wine in a 750, and yet it remains not only very fresh but sure to develop in a positive direction for another couple of years.  92

Linden Vineyards (Virginia) Chardonnay “Village” 2017 ($32):  In Burgundian terms, the word “Village” generally denotes a wine cobbled together from multiple sites rather than a single vineyard of Premier or Grand Cru stature, so the use of the term on the label of this wine gives it a sense of modesty that could be misleading in relation to its high quality.  It is indeed a blend of 80% from the estate Hardscrabble Vineyard plus 15% from Boisseau and 5% from Avenius, but it sure doesn’t taste like a wine thrown together from “table scraps.”  It is fresh (no malolactic fermentation) and notably “primary” (fruit flavors at the fore, with no new wood utilized) but also interestingly complex, thanks to a very good growing season and the variegated aromas and flavors contributed by the three sites.  The balance of fruit and acidity is just right, making for a very versatile wine that could be sipped solo with great pleasure or paired with a wide range of dishes.  91