Nate Walsh came to winemaking almost by accident. But when you hear the whole story, it feels more like it was meant to be, and now it’s a lucky accident for wine lovers. Judging by the weekend crowds and the packed events they are hosting, that is the truth – Walsh Family Wine has been a huge success, and Nate and Sarah Walsh are greeting a lot of visitors, selling a lot of wine and establishing themselves as a go-to winery in Loudoun County. They’re breaking interesting ground with bar takeover events featuring other winemakers, supporting the greater winemaking community, and branching out into picnics and brunches and dinners. With a welcoming site and a warm and friendly staff, they are perfectly positioned.
Nate was in college at Virginia Commonwealth University and decided to spend his summer in Charlottesville where some friends were living. By coincidence, they happened to live across the main road from a vineyard and got to know the growers, and while he did like wine “maybe a little bit more than the average college guy,” he didn’t seek this work out. He ended up with a summer job at Horton Winery because it was outdoors and physical, and that is what he enjoyed. He worked hard and threw himself into learning about the vines and barrels and read up on winemaking on his breaks, and they were so impressed, they asked him to stay on after he graduated. With degrees in English and Italian, little luck seeking a copy-editor position, and realizing that he loved the seasonal and cyclical aspects of this work, he accepted their invitation.
While at Horton, he was mentored by winemaker Mike Heny, (now with Michael Shaps Wineworks). He learned a lot about tending the vines and making the wine. A lot of what he learned were the traditional ways to make wine, focused on techniques to address fruit that wasn’t expressing what was wanted – using oak and additives. Here he truly fell in love with the “cellar work,” and as that happened, he found specific wines that he fell in love with too. And thus, his fate was sealed, and he was in this for the long haul.
He took this love of wine and what he was doing in the cellar, and realized he also needed to focus on the vineyard to make the best wines. So he decided to go out on the road, and go to the places that made the wines he loved, and find out what was happening in the vineyard that made that the fruit express this way in the wine. He spent time working with Pinot Noir in Oregon and then New Zealand. (A sign hangs in the tasting room at Walsh, and says “Oh darling, let’s be adventurers” – this isn’t just for show). He learned specific vineyard approaches that accentuated specific characteristics in the wine that he could later apply in his own winemaking. This will become very important to his later work with Russ Mountain Merlot, as well as his overall approach to winemaking.
Nate ended up back in Loudoun working as a winemaker at Sunset Hills Vineyards. He learned about the variety of vineyards they had, and how each vineyard produced specific varietals with specific accents, and his theories, developed over years exploring Pinot Noir, were shaping into practices. “It was obvious to me that the things you could do with sites that were better suited for how they were planted was volumes better than trying to make grapes planted in the wrong place better in the cellar. I’d rather farm good sites.” And just like that, we come to the point where he and his wife Sarah start the process and acquire the Bethany Ridge site. A few years later they would hit the jackpot by purchasing the winery that managed the contract with the Russ Mountain site.
As the questions turned toward philosophy, Nate noted that in every region a few high quality wines always float to the top, and one of the common denominators is the specific site. He notes that in Virginia it’s about getting rid of water and elevation, if you can get it. This is where we dug to articulate his philosophy. Nate doesn’t want Walsh Family Wine to be caught in sayings that don’t have meaning and depth – he wants to be transparent. When I suggested that his philosophy was “Wine is made in the vineyard,” he seemed momentarily annoyed and said “Everyone says that.” He wants to dig past that into what it is about a site that specific grapes respond to, and how do you bring the very best out of them? He spoke of a variety of practices they engage in to try different levels of stress on the vines through thinning clusters, allowing competition for water and nutrients in the ground, and picking some clusters early for rose if they seem to be lagging in some way.
So we got to the point of naming his philosophy “Farming it the way you want it to taste.” But it’s not really that simple, because with each vintage comes record keeping and reflection – what was done this season, in this space, in response to the weather, to make the wine taste this way? And what does that tell us that we should do next year? Nate’s process has evolved to set a goal for the wine he wants to make with that block of grapes, whether it’s a single varietal or a blend, and works with the vineyard manager to set the conditions in place to express those qualities in those grapes, based on what has been learned from the past, on that site.
He believes that this up front work, and work in the vineyard throughout the growing season to implement that vision, sets the conditions so that when the grapes comes into the winery itself, the wine is easy to make. He’s not looking to do a lot of intervention in the cellar, because the grapes themselves, after this work, express what he was seeking.
I made the mistake of mentioning terroir, and Nate became intense. He doesn’t like the way most in Virginia Wine are “overusing” that word. He noted that most of us here don’t grow up around wine and have generations of our family working the land to make wine, thus he thinks we need a lot more time to understand it before we can talk about our wine expressing terroir.
“I tell people not to use the word terroir here. It’s presumptuous of us to think we know what that is here yet. We can use that word when we get a site that is planted well that can express it. I’ve managed Russ Mountain for three years, I can’t tell you what the terroir is. It takes longer.
“I want to be able to say that Bethany Ridge is these ten things – the result of the land, the climate, the people farming it. We’re still young to feel good putting that word behind anything. I revere that word. We have to do the work to claim that.”
I asked a tough question – what was a mistake he’d made from which he learned. Who, putting themselves out there in the wine world like this, would want to admit to a mistake? He shrugged off any discomfort this caused and said that harvest 2011 was his learning year. It was a wet year like 2018, but he proceeded to try to make the wines he thought he should make, the big reds, the single varietals. “I stuck to the spreadsheet and made what we had planned.” But with all that dilution and under-ripening, the reds came up weakened versions of themselves. He learned from that to adjust with what the season brought – to start with the wine in mind, but also pay attention to how the fruit develops, and be ready for a change of course. Where this brings him in his 2018 vintage plans is the advent of the 2018 Walsh Mezcla. This wine will be released in the Summer Quarter Club Allocation – it is 80% merlot, 10% tannat and 10% viognier, and will be a dry, sparkling wine. He started thinking the 2018 reds would all go to rosé and one red blend, but then that would be more rosé than he could sell. So he took a look at making this wine to make something fun and different, that still has some of the strengths the red fruit bring, even if they are diluted. I’m looking forward to checking this out.
On the flip side, when asked what he was most proud of, he said it wasn’t one single wine, it was that they were living his philosophy – they are farming the vineyards to make specific wines. He believes that in Virginia we should find the good sites, plant them with the right grapes, and tend them well. “We can farm it intently, for quality.” Nate is proud of the sites they envisioned, planned and executed and have gotten mature, and are now making wine from. He is proud of the plantings they have undertaken that are in fourth leaf and coming online. Walsh vineyards at Bethany Ridge and Twin Notch will be adding Chenin Blanc and Albariño online soon, along with vineyard specific blends – including a white blend!
Nate and Sarah themselves drink a lot of white wines, along with Pinot Noir. I pointed out how strange it is that he produces a humdinger of a tannat that is big and bold, but he prefers lighter wines, and he responded that they tend to eat lighter meals and not a lot of meat, so lighter wines just go better with that. Fair enough.
Future plans? There is a white blend coming, along with the vineyard specific blends, and they have champagne-clone chardonnay planted for a future blanc de blancs – this may be the year they pick it and let it rest on the lees for a good while. There is a late harvest petit manseng coming as a dessert wine. They will have 50 acres total under vine, and they plan to sell some of the fruit, and make wine with the rest.
“Our goal when we first started was to make these vineyard specific wines that are more of an old world approach with focus on vineyard over variety, especially for red. Is there room in VIrginia for someone doing that? I have an elevated level of ambition and think we can sell X thousand cases a few years from now. But I want a sustainable business with a good team. If that means we make two thousand cases for the club and we have a quiet tasting room and we sell the rest of the fruit, so be it. If we make more and sell in DC, then that’s great too. The real goals are a level of pride in the wine and a belief that we can do it with our sites, and that there are people that are interested in that out here.”
Things are open-ended right now – they’ve been received well and are greeting a lot of visitors and getting positive feedback. Their focus is on the long-term, creating sustainable vineyards and a manageable business, and allow enough time for a balance in their lives. Nate loves Virginia’s status as an underdog in the wine world – he knows he builds on pioneers like Jim Law at Linden and the work done by Virginia Tech and others to build knowledge about what works in Northern Virginia, and he knows that winemakers can blow wine lovers away with what they can do here. He is interested in other grapes for his sites, and possibly some hybrids, and will continue to explore and refine techniques, reflecting on how the wine tasted based on the work done this year.
And therein we circle back to one of his main goals for the winery – back to the question of how we use the word terroir and really understand the land and the wine it’s making. His goal is to earn the right to use the word terroir, but more than that, to truly know and understand the meaning underneath for these sites.
“We will earn that word so we can say it so that a fourth generation winemaker can hear me say that and I can taste him through what I’m saying and he can sense it in our wine.”
That’s another aspect of the philosophy – no BS. He wants Walsh Family Wine to be a place where people come to enjoy the wine and the surroundings and feel that the experience is authentic. He wants them to find something they will love to drink and have a good time with friends. He is especially pleased to see so many families with children, as their three year old daughter is often at the winery with them and can enjoy all of the activity. He named a goal as transparency – creating something that people enjoy without having to use big fancy words and sales techniques – people come in, staff explain what they are doing with making the best wine with the right grapes for the land we’re on, and hopefully they will like it. He notes that they draw a younger crowd that is very open to trying new things and doesn’t care as much about names and titles, hence they enjoy the Pet Nat wine, and will be open to other projects.
Sustainable practices that really do work with the land and the grapevines to bring out the best taste. Nate and Sarah Walsh are farming their sites the way they want the wine to taste. If you haven’t dropped in, check them out and taste it for yourself. You’ll love the way they’re farming. Personally, I can’t wait for the next club release!