There’s an irresistible joy that radiates from a host who is happy in his home and loves to welcome people to share the personal environment he’s created for himself. Imagine then that the host is a winemaker and the home is his winery, and it’s Sunday evening, and cold, wet and misty outside, while inside there’s a roaring fire, the scent of beef, lamb and rockfish on the grill, of roasted figs and vegetables, and the sound of corks popping from dozens of bottles of fine wines. This is all real. The host is Rutger de Vink, the winery is his RdV Vineyards in Delaplane, Virginia, and the occasion was a dinner celebrating three premier Virginia wineries, plus two from California, paired with a feast prepared by CityZen executive chef Eric Ziebold.
When the guests turned their cars through the gates and up the long dirt road in the late afternoon, the heavy gray clouds were practically sitting on the hillside vineyards. The event had been billed as a “vineyard picnic,” at which guests would be able to “touch the grapes,” but with raindrops falling, it was obvious there would be no dining outside or wandering among the vines. Instead it became a cozy Sunday supper. The “silo” that serves as the winery is stunning in its elegance and harmony with its surroundings. The setting, the white wood and stone, and the restrained landscaping evoke Napa and Bordeaux but remain very connected to Virginia. At all times the eyes are drawn up to the vines, which is the way de Vink sees the world but also a credit to architect Andy Lewis.
At the start of the party, de Vink was still working. We found him in the building’s lower level, in the winery, standing at the edge of a large stainless steel tank, poking into it with what looked like a steel pitchfork. “Take a look,” he said. “I’m pushing down the cap.” The cap is the dense mass of grape skins that have separated from the pulp, which floats at the top of the tank. It has to be poked and prodded at least a few times a day. De Vink talked nonstop about the room, the tanks, the wine being made, and the wine that would be served with dinner: RdV’s Rendezvous, the 2009 vintage. He insisted it should be decanted and have time to breath. It will be even better in another five years, he said. “The secret is tannins and acidity, and the tannins need time to age.”
No one upstairs was complaining. With a glass of warm cider in hand, they shook off the chill by the large fireplace and took in the handsome setting, the grills smoking outside, the tables inside set prettily for dinner in three seating areas. There were 60 guests, who paid $200 a person to attend. They were invited because they are friends of de Vink or Ziebold or are members of the winery’s “ambassadors” program: loyal fans who order their wine through RdV. The event sold out almost the moment it was announced.
A typical fan of RdV Vineyards is Joe Heflin, who lives in Reston and makes his living selling roller coasters. We talked as he sat at a long table near the fire, sipping some of the Rendezvous with his wife, Carol. “I’m as obsessed with food and wine as anybody who doesn’t own a winery,” Heflin said. “Octagon ad Barboursville make excellent wine, but RdV is the standard. It’s a tough sale for Virginia wine, but this vineyard could be the breakthrough.” While Heflin acknowledges that RdV has high prices for Virginia wine—$75 for a bottle of Rendezvous, $88 for a bottle of Lost Mountain—he feels the price is fair for the quality.
Just as enthusiastic are Mark Thieda and his colleague Melissa Plumer. They are in the wine business, as managers of Vino Vola, a wine bar concept created in San Francisco with branches at Dulles International, BWI, and 17 other airports across the country, and soon to open at Bethesda Row and Tysons Galleria. They attended the party with their spouses. “We carry a lot of local wines at Vino Vola,” said Plumer. Added Thieda, “Virginia wines have come a long way in the past 20 years. We tell people RdV is the premier Virginia wine. It is in a league of its own.”
Done with his “capping” work, de Vink reappeared in country gentleman winemaker mode, in a sports jacket and corduroy trousers, making sure guests had wine, visiting the kitchen to talk with Ziebold, and always making himself available to stop and talk about winemaking or lead an impromptu tour of his winery. He was a happy host, even though he admitted he doesn’t like to eat from a buffet and would probably wait till much later, possibly midnight, when the party was over, to sit down and be served his meal “in the European manner.” For that reason, he yearns to host some dinners on a smaller scale.
Eric Ziebold is impressed with de Vink on a few levels—first for his wine, which he learned of when it fared well in a critic’s tasting against Chateau Montrose, a French bordeaux, and Dominus Estate, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. “I knew I had to try this wine,” he said. He liked it, so he put it on CityZen’s wine list. De Vink became a patron of CityZen and the two hit it off, and from that relationship, they concocted this wine dinner. What really stood out for Ziebold was de Vink’s magnanimous attitude toward his Virginia competitors. Two of them had wines at the dinner: Luca Paschina of Barboursville and Jim Law of Linden, both of whom were in attendance as de Vink’s friends and mentors. “How many wineries would host an event pouring other vineyards’ wines?” asked Ziebold. “It says a lot about Rutger and who he is. He’s not making the wine in a void. It’s about the experience.”
Arrayed around the winery were several buffets of food prepared by Ziebold and his staff. Outside on the terrace were the grills with rockfish, beef, lamb, and the two Virginia reds: RdV Rendezvous and Barboursville Vineyards 1998 Monticello Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which Paschina brought in two double magnums. CityZen sommelier Andy Myers stayed outside in the chill, decanting and tending to the wines, but as the temperature dropped, he had to use buckets of warm water to keep the wines from tightening up in the cold. Inside, Linden’s 2009 Vidal Riesling accompanied the first courses of seafood salad, heirloom tomato salad, shaved Darden ham, saucisson a’ L’Ail, and veal terrine, and was also a nice match for the Chesapeake Bay rockfish with hominy corn and lobster emulsion. Other main course dishes included duck breast with roasted figs, fennel, cornbread croutons, and foie gras emulsion. At the table with the duck was one of the California offerings, Mount Veeder Winey’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, and across the way was the other, Diamond Creek’s 1996 Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon.
When the sun set, the winery glowed from within, thanks to candlelight, the fire, and the gleam on so many wine glasses. There was a break in the meal for guests to ask questions of the winemakers and the chef, and then it was time for dessert: an Eric Ziebold version of s’mores, made with ginger shortbread, chocolate ganache, and marshmallows roasted on the open grills.
De Vink said he’s done a similar dinner with chef Bryan Voltaggio and has more in the pipeline. As with this one, the first invitations will go to his “ambassadors.” What he may want to consider is investing in several more Airstream campers, such as the one he bunks in, so his guests can merely walk a short distance to dreamland rather than face the jarring reality of the highway. Good wine and the long drive home are not nearly as fine a pairing as RdV and CityZen.
Rutger de Vink, owner of RdV Vineyards, and Erick Ziebold, executive chef of Washington's CityZen restaurant, welcome guests to wine tasting dinner at the winery in Delaplane, Virginia, on Sunday, October 7.