Just off of Route 29, about 25 miles north of Charlottesville, a two-lane road gently rises and falls with the rolling terrain, leading west toward Shenandoah National Park. As you approach the distant mountains they appear to grow bigger. It’s an ethereal scene, relaxing and more than a little distracting, so you might have to hit the brakes pretty hard to avoid racing past the unassuming entrance to Early Mountain Vineyards.
That’s exactly what happened to me on a recent Thursday, as my girlfriend and I headed to the winery for lunch. The scene inside the barn-like main hall is also quite grand, with soaring ceilings trussed by massive wood beams and large windows that always keep the farmland, neat vineyard rows, and muscular mountains within view.
Our expectations were running high for the meal. I had enjoyed a quick preview of chef Tim Moore’s cooking a couple of weeks earlier, and now I was returning for a fuller experience of the menu, which is offered from 11am-6pm daily except Tuesday, when the winery is closed. Moore’s arrival at Early Mountain this summer was much anticipated. He was taking over the dining program that had been established a few years earlier by Ryan Collins, a protégé of renowned chef José Andrés and now head of the kitchen at Charlottesville’s Little Star. Collins set a high bar, but Moore, like his predecessor, entered with an impressive professional pedigree, having spent more than seven years at the Michelin three-star Inn at Little Washington, in Rappahannock County.
We were seated at a banquette table beneath a window, fortunate to be on the shady side of the dining room, because the sun was blazing that day. The vines were bare, with the harvest recently completed, and the grass was brown due to the drought and persistent summer heat.
This is a story about a chef and a restaurant at an excellent winery, so I will dispense with the scene-setting (I know, it’s about time, right?) and describe the food and wine. We started with two, four-glass flights—one with a white, a rosé, and two reds, all from Early Mountain, and another with four reds (“Tantalizing Tannins,” per the list), two of which were from the vineyard and the others from Jefferson Vineyards, in Albemarle County, and Walsh Family Wine, in Purcellville. Early Mountain is the first vineyard in the area to offer a wine program with labels other than its own. The goal is to showcase the best the region has to offer, and thus raise its profile to the national level.
This may sound a tad too ambitious, but the winemaker, managers, and owner of Early Mountain (Jean Case, wife of AOL founder Steve Case) not only believe it can happen but are also taking strides in that direction. They’ve been quietly making trips to high-end restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Manhattan, and some have begun listing Virginia wines—and Early Mountain’s, in particular. Case, who spent more than 20 years leading marketing and branding efforts for AOL, is keenly aware of the importance of public perception. In the world of fine wine and hospitality—just as in any business, I suppose—that means hiring top talent. Moore is an ace pick, for sure, and so is winemaker Ben Jordan, who cut his teeth in the Sonoma Valley and later worked as general manager and winemaker for Michael Shaps. Born in Switzerland, CEO Peter Hoehn has 30 years experience at hotels around the world, including stints at Quail Lodge & Golf Club, in Carmel, California, and the Boar’s Head Resort (it was just an “inn” back then, but a very good one, for sure!).
So, about the food. In a word, sublime. The menu had just 12 items, with 10 priced from $6 to $16, plus a foie gras dish and charcuterie and cheese board that cost $26 and $24, respectively. We steered clear of those and eased into the meal with simply prepared crostini with sweet shallot confit balancing the saltiness of quickly sautéed prosciutto and comté cheese. A heartier dish—housemade focaccia with tomato jam (I call it coulis, but whatever) and a generous portion of burrata—stood up well to the rich reds I was drinking. (The 2017 Early Mountain Vineyards Shenandoah Springs cabernet franc was particularly lush, with deep notes of plum and dark berries.)
We moved on to a light transitional dish of local roasted beets, fromage blanc, black walnuts, and triangles of crisp Asian pear. This assemblage was also a study in balance and contrast: earthy beets, milky cheese, semi-sweet pears, and complex foraged black walnut sauce. I also detected a background citrus flavor, which added another note to the layered composition.
I was beginning to wonder if and when chef Moore would falter, but the goodness just kept coming. One dish—chilled shrimp with chimichurri flavored with coriander, dill, and parsley, and dressed with a vinaigrette that had tiny cubes of fresh lime—was bright and mouth-filling. My scribble next to the item on the menu reads simply, “outstanding.”
Moore is committed to buying local whenever possible, and he chose pork belly from Whiffletree Farm, in Warrenton, for the heartiest plate we tried—three slow-cooked slices finished in a frying pan and served with poached Virginia apples, braised red cabbage, peanuts, and a dark brown reduction of sorghum molasses, apple cider, and veal jus. I was surprised by the peanuts—I mean, by how well they went with the pork. Our fish dish was decidedly not local, made with Icelandic arctic char, chanterelles, puréed potato (with veal stock added, for richness), and grainy mustard cream.
I thought Moore had outdone himself, but then came a local pear poached in wine with fall spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, perhaps some allspice), spicy/sweet whipped cream, and a lacy brown crisp made of sorghum.
Moore’s menu is small but complete, and it changes at least weekly, based on seasonal ingredients and the chef’s imagination. By offering fine dining, Early Mountain is signaling its intention to create an elevated food and wine experience. The winery is also rather remote, so visitors tend to spend more time there than they would if they were touring several vineyards, a common practice in areas west or south of Charlottesville. A leisurely afternoon meal makes good sense for guests who carve out hours—or even a full day if they have kids, who can play outdoors on the expansive grounds—to soak up the atmosphere at the property. It’s also worth noting that Early Mountain is one of a growing number of central Virginia wineries placing more emphasis on dining. After all, if it’s within your means, grazing and sipping wine is not a bad way to spend an afternoon.