In a blind taste test by a panel of experts last fall, Virginia wines squared off against those from leading regions of the world. The results stunned many. Virginia won. In case it had not been clear already, there was now no doubt: Virginia wine is on the rise.
With the popularity of Virginia wine soaring, newcomers are flocking to the industry. There are now more than 200 wineries in Virginia, with more every year. In a field crowded with wineries using similar grapes in similar styles, it is becoming ever more difficult to stand out on wine alone.
Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyard, opened in 2011 nine miles south of Charlottesville, offers visitors something few others do: a top-notch restaurant-like experience. Sure, at Pippin Hill you may do as you might anywhere else—sidle up to the bar and taste some wine. But what distinguishes Pippin is this: between 11am and 5pm Tuesday through Sunday, guests may sit at a table, be waited on by amiable servers, and enjoy food prepared in a world-class kitchen.
The man behind this vision is Dean Andrews, who once ran hotels of the luxury chain Orient Express. In 2011, with his wife Lynn Easton, Andrews opened Pippin Hill. New to the wine business, Andrews used the same approach that helped him run some of the world’s toniest resorts. He hired an expert. In this case, one of Virginia’s most accomplished winemakers, Michael Shaps. He found a setting that is literally stunning, with a view that is so beautiful it seems unreal. And, he brought on a world class chef.
For five years, Amalia Scatena was Chef de Cuisine of Fossett’s at Keswick Hall, one of Andrews’ hotels. During Scatena’s tenure, Conde Nast Traveler named Keswick the best hotel in North America for food.
But why hire such a talented chef for a vineyard? The answer lies with Andrews’ wife Lynn, who runs the award-winning event planning company Easton Events. With Pippin Hill, she and her husband wanted to create a premier event venue. To do so, there had to be food. And if there was going to be food, Andrews thought, it had to be outstanding. “I wouldn’t have ever thought of it any other way,” he said.
Yet Andrews knew that the episodic nature of catering could neither lure nor sustain a chef as talented as Scatena. Thus, Pippin Hill’s Farm Table & Wine Bar was born. This helped attract Scatena, who said she has never wanted to be anything other than a chef.
At Pippin, Scatena employs a “vineyard to table” approach to create seasonal menus of dishes with ingredients grown right at the vineyard or very nearby. The Spring Asparagus ($8), for example, would be a standout even at a fine bistro. The asparagus, Surryano ham, and Everona pecorino cheese are all Virginia products, as is the fried egg that rests atop them all, its bright orange yolk a perfect dressing for the asparagus and ham.
Some menu items have grown so popular that they are now staples. The Croque Monsieur ($12) is Scatena’s favorite, and I can see why. Culpeper country ham and gruyere are sandwiched between grilled bread, smeared with a jam made of onions and Pippin Hill’s own merlot grapes. Customers’ favorite dish, meanwhile, is the plate of Pippin Sliders ($14), with ground beef from nearby Bundoran Farm, Virginia’s own McClure cheese, and ketchup made from tomatoes smoked over wood chips and Pippin Hill grape vines.
The food is designed specifically to pair with the vineyard’s wines, and the knowledgeable servers can help match wine with food. While the whites have won many of Pippin Hill’s accolades, my favorite has been the Cabernet Franc—a robust, earthy, barroom brawler of a red that stands up to the sliders.
While it’s tempting to fill up on savory items, it would be a mistake to skip dessert—and not just because it’s a good excuse to linger and enjoy the view with a glass of sweet wine. Scatena seems to have a particular knack for desserts from Italy, which is no surprise given that she attended culinary school there. Olive oil cake, a Tuscan dessert that belies its simple name, was recently replaced on the menu by a “budino,” a thick Italian buttermilk pudding with a pistachio crust, topped with rhubarb marmalade. Both are extraordinary. But then, it seems everything about a meal at Pippin Hill is.