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  • Writer's pictureCraig Stoltz

Vint Hill Winery: A war story with wine

The tasting room of Vint Hill Craft Winery in Warrenton, Virginia, is located in the former "Listening Post 1," where a farmer in 1941 was surprised to discover that he was hearing Berlin cab and radio transmissions via his ham radio. He reported this to the U.S. Army, and within two weeks his farm was appropriated for use as the first domestic covert listening post and code-breaking training center in the war effort. It was a sort of early National Security Agency.

For 55 years it served a similar role.

Strange fact: Cartoonist Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey, was trained at Vint Hill.

From secret code to secret sauce

Today the farm building where all this spywork took place is owned by 3 investors and operated as a craft winery. They clearly know a good "product differentiation" feature when they see one.

The place's unique history makes it stand out from the dozens of vineyards competing for Washington-area weekenders seeking a winey day trip. It's easy to imagine how this was essentially a real estate acquisition to create a retail front end for a winemaking enterprise based elsewhere. In fact, the investors are also involved with nearby Pearmund Cellars and Effingham Manor and Winery.

Vint Hill itself is a small facility, without the farm-to-table nibblery, tricked-out picnic area, or expansive landscape to stroll and loll that many other wineries offer. There's only an obligatory quarter-acre of vines planted on the property, oddly positioned between two parking lots. This was necessary in order to qualify for "craft winery" status, allowing Vint Hill among other things to sell wine by the glass. Virginia viticultural regulation is loaded with such irrationalities.

And so like most Virginia wineries, Vint Hill buys rather than grows most of its fruit. It has some plantings around the state, but the winery buys from several Virginia farms and sources farther afield. Some grapes are flown in via refrigerated cargo plane from Washington state and California. This is also true at many Virginia wineries. When vintners claim "Virginia wine in every bottle" they may mean some Virginia wine in every bottle.

Vint Hill shares a winemaker with its sister wineries, and he has his hand in other projects. This is also common in a state with 250+ wineries and only so many winemakers who understand Virginia's challenging climate, punishing humidity, unusual terroir, and finicky customers.

There are fine estate wineries in Virginia. There are strong ones with a few decades under their belts that make nationally recognized wines. Vint Hill is not among them.

Still, it's a fun place to visit.

From war time to wine time

The simple visitors' building is loaded with World War II artifacts and art, including a lot of colorful "Vargas girls"posters, racy-but-PG-rated pinups that gave soldiers courage when far from home. Forties-era model planes are suspended in the loftlike storage space that the tasting room overlooks. Allied and Axis uniforms are displayed on mannequins tucked into niches.

There are quite a few Army-issue green boxes scattered around -- vintage spyware, radios, code-breaking machines and so forth, all annotated with simple signage. If you're so inclined, you can spend an hour soaking up the history and lore even before soaking up the wine upstairs.

A taste of Vint Hill

Vint Hill's $15-for-three tastings, held in an unslick upstairs tasting room, allow you to select from about 10 reds and 10 whites. Some are named after Vargas girls, and are bottled under the Covert Wineworks label [Slogan: "You were never here"]. The most interesting and pleasing to me was a Bordeaux blend, Enigma, whose constituent parts are never disclosed. [Cute!]

I bought a bottle of the Petit Menseng, aka "Madison." While that is one of Virginia's most grown white grapes, it was my first encounter. It had some nice fruit aromas and a good dry backbone.

The rest of the wines were solidly in the "meh" to "meh-minus" range -- a Petit Verdot was really difficult, a GSM blend could not carry a tune, and a Sauv Blanc not only was dim all around, but it carried a whiff of brett, that bacterial flaw that affects so many cheap or poorly handled wines.

The endless war

On my way out, I stopped at the adjacent Cold War museum, a few rooms located in a former barn that also holds the winemaking equipment.

There were many more green boxes and posters. There was a stubby missile said to be like the one that infamously shot pilot Gary Powers out of the sky over Russia in 1960.

The docent, a retired electrical engineer, provided an unsolicited master class on topics including how codes were broken, how pre-digital computing was carried out, and how interactions between atmospheric phenomena and radio waves created military challenges and opportunities. He explained how the topography and geology of Vint Hill allowed it to pick up signals that others missed.

He was brilliant and amazingly well-informed. He was also hard to interrupt and get away from.

After about 15 minutes, I needed a drink.


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