A day of Charlottesville wine tasting is always fun, but one of the biggest dilemmas is always where to eat. You can pack a picnic, but some wineries allow food and some do not. Or, you can drive into Charlottesville proper, but if you’re out in wine land, that puts quite a dent into your day. I do have a few favorite restaurants that are located near some of the top wineries, but I often choose to kill two birds with one stone and stop by Pippin Hill.
A winery that was obviously built with enotourism (the trendy new term for wine tourism) in mind, Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards describes itself as “a culinary vineyard in the heart of wine country.” This vineyard is definitely about the experience. Husband and wife team Lynn Easton and Dean Andrews both bring extensive hospitality backgrounds to the wine industry. Pippin Hill is part of Easton Porter Group, a Charlottesville-based hospitality company the two own that focuses on events, boutique hotels and restaurants. In fact, the company just purchased an inn in Upperville, Va., and is planning to invest $15 million to turn it into a cooking school, winery, and hotel villas. But back to Pippin Hill.
As with many Charlottesville wineries, a winding drive along scenic grape vines leads you up to the tasting room. One difference you’ll notice is that if you arrive on a Saturday there’s often an employee at a tent near the base of the drive watching capacity and directing guests or vendors for the weddings Pippin Hill regularly hosts.
The tasting room actually begins with a long patio featuring wooden benches, tables, chairs, and outdoor tasting counters with spectacular views of the vineyard. Along with the food, the extensive outdoor space is a big draw here. If you arrive right at noon on busy weekends, it can be tough to get an outdoor table.
You are also welcome to bring a blanket, purchase a glass or bottle of wine, and set up on the sprawling lawn or you can sit inside in the beautiful tasting room, which often has availability on sunny days as everyone fights to stay outside. Reservations are accepted for groups of 8 or more, so if you have that many, I’d suggest making one.
Pippin Hill Wine
If you go and it’s busy, plan to put your name on the list for a table and do a wine tasting while you wait to sit down. Pippin Hill generally offers two tasting choices—a regular ($10 for 5 wines on my most recent visit) and a reserve ($13 for 4 wines). As the wine selection changes regularly, I generally take a look at both and decide based on the day’s selections. Or, if you go with two people, you can split both tastings and either sip a little less or pick and choose who gets what.
The wines change fairly regularly based on what’s been recently released and what has sold out. On a recent visit, I opted for the regular tasting. Up first, the chardonnay featured impressively balanced oak notes—I tasted apple, pear, juicy pineapple, and a bit of toast on the finish.
Next, the Zero White, which is a light, fruity blend named for Pippin Hill’s sister property Zero George Hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, featured notes of honeysuckle, grapefruit and white flowers. It was a tad sweet for my style of every day drinking wine, but my friend and I did think it would be perfect for sipping on a patio on a hot day when sweeter notes are more appealing.
The Canon Red, which is a blend of merlot, chambourcin, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, was easy drinking with a bit more complexity than your typical table red. It struck me as a perfect party wine—tart cherry, black cherry, and raspberry flavors will please fans of lighter wines, but cedar and charry notes create a complex finish that will also satisfy those who prefer bigger wines.
The Cabernet Franc was the new release of the day—the gentleman leading my tasting informed me that Pippin Hill focuses on picking cabernet franc grapes a little later when the acidity is lower, leaving a tad more sugar in the grape. For me, this created a well-rounded cab franc with the traditional sour cherry and pepper notes, but also a nice leather finish that mellowed some of the harsher flavors that can sometimes overwhelm Virginia cab francs.
I also sampled the Red Pump—this wine is made with the same grapes as the Canon Red, but the fermentation is halted to allow for more residual sugar in the finished product. I found this wine to be silky and earthy with notes of milk chocolate, coffee, espresso, damp soil, blackberries, and currants—it wasn’t as sugary as your typical sweet red wine. Instead, it was more smooth and velvety from the extra sugar. You can also serve the Pippin Hill Red Pump wine slightly chilled.
Dining at Pippin Hill
Once you finished your tasting and get your seat, prepare to indulge. At Pippin Hill, the wine and food is designed to be enjoyed in tandem and the vines are even planted alongside fresh herbs and vegetables that are used in the restaurant. Executive chef Bill Scatena studied art and sculpture before becoming a chef and his creativity is evident in dishes that look as beautiful as they taste.
The menu spans shareable small plates, cheese and meat boards, and pizza from the winery’s wood-fired pizza oven in the cooler months (the oven is shut down during the summer as it makes the tasting room too hot). I’ve dined here a number of times and have brought all sorts of friends with me—picky eaters, those with dietary restrictions, those who don’t like anything too fancy, and gourmands—and all have been universally pleased.
If you go and the pizza oven is on, do yourself a favor and order a pie. The crust’s texture is crispy, slightly chewy, and that little bit charred—just the way it should be. On my most recent visit, it was still too toasty outside for pizza, so my friend and I started with the roasted garlic hummus. Normally when I’m at a restaurant with a creative menu, I promptly veto ordering hummus—come on even I can make that at home—but this hummus is amazingly delicious. I think perhaps it is the Charleston Sea Flake salt that is sprinkled on top? I have no idea; just order this. If you bring a group, the cheese and charcuterie plates vary and are also delicious—both are always accompanied by delicious jams, pestos, mustards, and other goodies.
If you bring friends with simpler tastes or just are in the mood for a really good burger, try the Pippin Sliders—two tasty buffalo patties are topped with McClure cheese, caramelized shallots and grapevine-smoked ketchup. They are served with parmigiana frites that basically have the texture of McDonald’s fries with a fresher flavor and pleasant bite from the sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.
Other regularly changing small plates are fresh and flavorful. The regular menu is available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then a “To Nosh” limited menu is available from 3 to close. If you sit down to eat, also make sure to take a look at the wine list as there are sometimes wines available by the glass or bottle that aren’t featured on the tasting like still or sparkling rose, both of which pair perfectly with food.
Other Fun Things
If you live in Charlottesville or are staying in the area on a weeknight, make sure to view the events list on the website because the winery offers a variety of cooking classes. Also during autumn, Pippin Hill is hosting mini farmers’ markets every Friday where two local farmers come on-site to sell their products. In addition, chef Scatena partners with the farmers to create a Friday special featuring the local products.