Local sommelier Melissa Boardman is about to celebrate one year at Keswick Hall, and she’s used that time to build up a dynamic wine program. She organizes several wine lists: a grand list for the hall, a members-only list, a by-the-glass list for the villa and another by-the-glass list for Fossett’s restaurant. She has continued to pour local classics such as Barboursville Vineyards chardonnay and Keswick Hall’s special label made by Michael Shaps. Boardman has added some higher-end pours that are pricey, but still bargains in the fine-wine category; you’ll find Trefethen Napa cabernet sauvignon for $20 a glass and Le Mesnil Grand Cru Champagne for $22 a glass.
Boardman wasn’t always interested in wine. She studied political science in college and planned to go to law school and work in environmental law. But the closer she got to law school and the more lawyers she talked to, “none of the environmental law lawyers seemed very happy.” As she worked in restaurants during college, wine became more intriguing while law school grew less appealing. One day, while working at Siro’s in Saratoga, New York, “I bumped into someone who had just been hired at Morrell wine [shop] in Manhattan,” she said. Hearing about her friend’s job, something clicked. “That’s what I wanted to do,” she says. Soon after, she moved to Brooklyn and landed her own job at Morrell.
The new career opportunity and the Manhattan location were formative for Boardman. “New York City was such a good place to get in the business,” she says. “You get to work with all these gurus, and you learn so much.” She points to Robert Millman as a role model. He and others at Morrell encouraged Boardman to taste often and learn to trust her palate. She spent seven years working at Morrell, developing a deep and professional appreciation for wine.
But she also watched the city go through some of its darkest moments. On September 10, 2001, she attended a Yankees game that got rained out. The following morning she woke to the 9/11 World Trade Center attack just across the East River from her borough. It was a devastating time, but she stayed in New York City and watched firsthand how the city worked to heal from tragedy.
Ready for a change in 2007, she opened up a tapas and wine bar in Key West, Florida. Then, after the 2008 recession, she moved to San Francisco and worked at Spruce, a Michelin-star restaurant with a storied wine list. But a desire to live in a more rural place led her to Virginia in February 2015. At first, she worried about finding amenities like good bread in Charlottesville, “but you get good bread here. I was also worried about good cocktails, but you can get those here, too,” Boardman says with a smile.
But there is one hole that Boardman thinks needs to be filled: “We need a natural wine bar,” she says. Boardman enjoys low-intervention wines (natural wine is made without chemicals and uses minimal technology), and has incorporated some into Keswick Hall’s repertoire. You’ll find low-intervention wines from Occhipinti, Texier, Birichino, Château d’Orschwihr, Olga Raffault, Rousset-Peyraguey, Rolet and others. “My first wine dinner here was a natural wine dinner,” she says. “People were skeptical, but after trying the wines they just couldn’t believe how good they are.”
At Keswick Hall, her Wine Wednesdays are becoming more popular as the group explores a new theme each week, and her monthly wine dinners are noteworthy, such as last month’s truffle dinner, paired mostly with nebbiolo. Her wine list focus is currently targeted on building up the Bordeaux section, but you’ll also find some nice Piemonte selections because, she admits, “My love is Barolo.”
Though far from her original aspirations for environmental law, Boardman’s career still champions the environment by bringing low-intervention wines into the cellar and dining room, helping to promote small winegrowers who farm sustainably.
Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog, thinking-drinking.com