A Visit with Maya Hood White, Early Mountain Vineyards’ Not-So-Secret Weapon

A few weekends ago, my wife and I spent three nights in a cabin on a property called Getaway House in central Virginia, about 20 miles north of Charlottesville. They pitch themselves as an off-the-grid escape with no Internet or television. The cabins are actually “tiny homes” with just two rooms: a bathroom and an everything-else room. The kitchen has a small two-burner stove and minifridge. There’s a table for two people and a double bed. Outside each cabin is a firepit. That’s it. It’s quite nice and well-executed.

Fifteen minutes down the road from the Virginia Getaway House is Early Mountain Vineyards, though our plan was to do nothing other than hang at the cabin and hike.

Our best -aid plans were just that, best laid, and on Friday my wife had to spend a few hours working. So, I jumped in the car and made the drive to Early Mountain hoping that Ben Jordan, head winemaker, would be there and available because I’m terribly behind on Cork Report two articles that require a conversation with him.

While he wasn’t there, I was lucky enough to run into the assistant winemaker and head viticulturalist, Maya Hood White. It turned out to be a very fortunate experience.

Early Mountain Vineyards’ Maya Hood White

I’d never met Maya before, and until our conversation, I’d never appreciated just how important she is to Early Mountain. Maya grew up in California, became an engineer and moved to the East Coast for work. Although she hated the line of work, she found a preference for the East Coast and got into winemaking.

She’s been at Early Mountain for nine years where she plays a major role in many, many operations.

I asked her why she didn’t return to California where the wine scene is far more established, and she answered by saying, essentially, that she liked the underdeveloped nature of the Virginia wine scene and the challenge the climate adds to making wine there. She also liked that Virginia is a land of opportunity where people are still figuring out what is best produced, and where it is best produced. Her example was that in California, you produce certain wines because that’s the expectation, whereas in Virginia there is an opportunity to explore and be more creative. In this vein, we spent a substantial percentage of our conversation talking about petit manseng, which was the first wine poured in the tasting I did prior to seeing Maya.

Early Mountain petit manseng remains one of my favorite Virginia wines and my favorite wine from the estate. It is a difficult grape to turn into high quality and compelling dry white wine, but they pull it off to an impressive extent. It retains the variety’s piercing acidity but manages it well by coaxing significant body and depth out of the grapes. The wine balances textural acidity with tropical flavors and creamy sensation, and over-delivers for its $32 price point. If you’re an acid head and like varieties like riesling, chenin blanc or savagnin, then Early Mountain’s petit manseng is a no-brainer.

Jordan learned how to make petit manseng from the master, Michael Shaps, and he and Maya have made incremental progress in refining Early Mountain’s offering over a number of years. It’s a wine I look forward to trying each vintage.

By the time Maya and I started talking, I’d completed their tasting and ordered a glass of it to sip. She asked what was in the glass, and when I told her I saw her eyes light up. It seemed equal parts pride and excitement as she talked about how it was her favorite white wine they made, and that it probably meant we had similar white wine palates. We discussed our respective favorites and confirmed this similar love for high-0acid whites that offer significant mineral depth and the ability to age well.

We discussed some inside Early Mountain baseball about their future plans. I’m sure most of it wasn’t meant to be shared, but one thing I think I can mention here is that they intend to make more petit manseng. This came up in the context of cabernet sauvignon, which we both agreed was by-and-large a bad grape for Virginia, setting aside some abnormally good wines coming from small vineyard enclaves that were unusually well-suited for the variety in Virginia.

We bemoaned the too-common decision to plant the varieties that wineries wanted to produce rather than planting the varieties that the sites are most inclined to produce well. Early Mountain is reducing its cabernet sauvignon acreage and replacing the portion being ripped out with more petit manseng. It’s a forward-thinking decision premised on common sense.

Another brief discussion was Early Mountain’s $95 “Rise” red blend, which I pointed out includes a substantial amount of tannat, a grape that few people love and commands a relatively low price point. I asked a somewhat pointed question, inquiring about whether there is pushback for such an expensive wine, from Virginia, that includes so much of a grape that few people recognize or respect. As a caveat, it wasn’t available to taste, but given the market for East Coast wine, it takes a lot to justify such an expensive wine. It sells out, so I’m not sure what leg I have to stand on, but I do wonder if this is the best way to elevate a grape that, while it can do quite well in the Mid-Atlantic, doesn’t seem to hold the promise of producing special wine.

Eventually, we got back to petit manseng and I found out that Maya’s new side project was a dessert wine made predominantly from the variety with some malvasia bianca blended in. I gave a vigorous nod to her offering a taste. I’m a sucker for purpose-made dessert wine, which is often a distinctly different product from late harvest wines in a similar way that purpose-built rosé is different from after-thought rosé.

Maya bottles the wine under a label she named R.A.H., which are the initials of her late grandmother whom she was close with. If the wine reflects the specialness of the woman who is the namesake, Maya had a wonderful grandmother.

Maya uses the Appassimento method to make it, which involves drying the grapes before pressing the juice. This concentrates the flavors and sugars and produces juice with a higher sugar to liquid ratio. A 375-milliliter bottle sells for a reasonable $35. The current release, which is also the inaugural release, is called Series I. I gave it 94 points, and the tasting note is below.

It was a real pleasure to be able to drop in on Early Mountain and Maya unexpectedly. It’d been about two years since I’d visited and it was nice to be back. Getting to Maya helped further appreciate the winery because it added another intriguing element to the winery’s story. Knowing that Ben Jordan, one of the most talented East Coast winemakers, teams up with her every day helps explain the winery’s success as well as its continuing evolution.

2017 R.A.H. Series I: The densely packed nose features honeyed aromas of green apple, golden raisin, currant, and guava. The lush palate features serious acid that balances the wine with tension and grip and prevents it from becoming cloying. Flavors include orange blossom honey, quince, guava, papaya, Crème Brulee and lemon curd. This is a very, very tasty dessert wine that brings juicy acid sufficient to allow this to shine next to many baked, dairy and fruit-forward desserts. 94 points.

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