Kirsty Harmon is pouring her new wines; “new,” as in recently finished and bottled, but also new in that they represent the rebirth of Blenheim Vineyards. The winery, owned by Dave Matthews and family, has been shaken up since parting ways with original winemaker Brad McCarthy. Since its inception the winery’s reputation has been based as much on its rock star owner (and its rock star-ish winemaker), as on the wine. Now, nine years after its inception, Blenheim has a new winemaker. That would be Harmon. This being her first time in the spotlight, and with the stage being so big, does she feel any jitters?
“Of course I’m nervous,” she says with a laugh.
After completing a biology degree, Kirsty Harmon turned to wine. “My whole world changed,” she says, so much so that now, after another course of study, she’s the new winemaker at the Matthews’ family Blenheim Vineyards.
Born in Holland, Harmon moved to Charlottesville in 1989, attending Albemarle High School and then UVA, from where she graduated with a biology degree. Looking for a change from science, she took a job at the Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard, where she met winemaker Gabriele Rausse. “My whole world changed,” she says, “my whole view of wine.” And voila! she had discovered a new passion and a new career. After several years working with Rausse, she went to the University of California at Davis, the country’s top wine program, to get her masters in viticulture and enology.
“My goal was always to come back to Virginia,” she says, which earned her the question in California: “You’re going where?” Now, following internships at top wineries in France and New Zealand, she’s answered that question by taking a job that brings her full circle, working a few feet from the vines she tended at Kluge and a stone’s throw from the winery of her friend and mentor Rausse.
We sit at a long wooden table and she pours the new Blenheim white wines. Gone are the handmade-looking labels, replaced by sleek and colorful new ones that feature a redesigned logo. Gone too are the corks. In their place: more modern screwcaps. There is a rosé for the first time and a new red jokingly called “Dave’s Blend” that will feature a label designed by the man himself.
“My vision for the wines,” Harmon says, “is to make them very crisp, clean.” Only the whites are currently bottled, but they definitely fit that description. The Viognier, much dryer than most in Virginia, reminded me of lesser-known whites from the Cotes du Rhone. Her red wines are still in the barrel, and although the blends have not been finished, they seem of a piece with the whites. These are elegant, restrained wines meant to go with food. I like them a lot, but will the tasting room crowds, used to bigger reds and sweeter whites, respond?
Harmon can’t say yet. She doesn’t know the quality of all the fruit, isn’t yet intimate with every inch of the vineyards. That’s a process that takes years. “It really is going to be a discovery,” she says, “and an exploration. And hopefully that’s not too confusing for people.”
News Flash: Ted Burns, an Associate Professor of Neurology at UVA, co-owner of local importing company Williams Corner Wine, and, in his spare time, East Coast correspondent for the popular wine podcast Grape Radio, has been nominated for a James Beard Award for his recent podcast on Thomas Jefferson and wine. Congratulations, Ted!