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Another Fire on the Mountain

Brad McCarthy's Blenheim Vineyards has a very different approach than his high-profile neighbor's.

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He was 21 years old and lacked formal training in wine, but he possessed a burning desire to master the subject while doing menial tasks. He had a moonlighting job in a bar in Charlottesville at night to make ends meet.

In six months, he was promoted to assistant winemaker at Montdomaine and helped to make many of the finest Virginia wines of the 1980s. While still a very young winemaker, he left Virginia to make wine in California and travel in Europe. Upon his return he met Tony Champ, a businessman who wanted to create a high-quality winery in Charlottesville. The winery was White Hall, and Brad McCarthy dominated the major regional wine competitions of the decade of the 1990s.

Looking out onto the vista from the tasting room Brad said, "My dream has always been to own my own winery." He and his former bartender associate, musician Dave Matthews, bought Blenheim, an antebellum estate outside Charlottesville. It had a vineyard and was a proven site. The two formed a partnership, and they made plans to build.

Both McCarthy and Matthews designed the building. Their goal, according to McCarthy, was "a functional building, but one that will make you feel at home." There is a passionate commitment to the wine. Their neighbor Patricia Kluge is making wines of boldness from grapes grown on her estate, located just feet from the Blenheim vineyard. Yet the wines of Blenheim are completely different.

The Blenheim building itself, is a gravity-flow structure built into the side of a hill. It is antique and modern at the same time. The wine is completely low-tech and minimalist.

Blenheim, despite the historical connotations, is a jaw-dropping essay in reclaimed heart-pine beams and structure. But inside those oak barrels, a revolution is occurring in Virginia wine. The flavors are entirely subtle, delicately French. No bold oak predominates. The first production is 1,000 cases to be followed by 1,800 and eventually 5,000 cases. All very small production.

If you compare these wines that he made at White Hall, it is as though McCarthy has had a religious conversion and joined a Buddhist sect — a French Buddhist sect.

In Blenheim Vineyards' "Merryweather Vineyards" Chardonnay, Va., 2001, $20, the Chardonnay flavors taste like that of a vineyard that is a distinct place. The neutral oak barrels and greenstone soil for the vines let a mineraly flavor prevail. This is a wine that you think about.

While similar in lightness and delicacy, there is an entirely different flavor of place in the Blenheim Vineyards' "Ox Eye Vineyard" Chardonnay, Va., 2001, $20. You might as well be in France.

Blenheim Vineyards' "Redlands Vineyard" Va., 2001, $20 is fatter and riper than the other two. There is no new oak flavor to alter the flavor of the vineyard site and its grapes.

McCarthy says the goal of his Blenheim Vineyards "King Famile Vineyards" Merlot, Va., 2001, $20,"is elegant refinement with little oak, and stressing these things above power or guts."

Both Kluge Estate and Blenheim Vineyards are quiet revolutions in Virginia wine. They are both extremely well-financed, something that is lacking in many new wineries. While they are both next-door neighbors, they are headed in distinctly opposite directions with equally strong vigor.

There is no razzle-dazzle of technological equipment at Blenheim, but Brad McCarthy's vision is very clear. "It's about how Virginia wines fit in the scope of the rest of the world," he says. No doubt about it, there is fire on this mountain. S



To read Style's story about Patricia Kluge's winery, published Jan. 15, click here.

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