Exploring the art and science of elevating experiences at Walsh Family Wine.

I met Nate Walsh late last year and quickly became a big fan of what he and his wife Sarah are building with Walsh Family Wine. Here’s a chat about working with wives, music, college, and … wine. Really good wine.

WLAA: The first time we met, my friend Rachel introduced me as her friend who was disappointed that North Gate was being sold to you. I’m great at picking friends. Speaking of which …

The main reason I want to get this interview taken care of now is because I’ve been spending too much time here since then. I’m afraid our growing friendship is going to quickly erode my “semi-professional” role in talking about your wine if we wait any longer.

Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions.

Soooooo…. To that point … Let’s just dive into the deep end.

How did you get started? 

Nate Walsh (NW): When I was just out of college, I took a harvest job at Horton Vineyards in Charlottesville, VA. I wasn’t particularly interested in wine – I just needed a job, and there happened to be wineries in the area who were hiring for the 2004 harvest, and it sounded like fun. I actually saw the ad in the paper.

My intention was to do the harvest, and then get a job as a copywriter. Or, if I was lucky, the band I was in would get famous. But I ended up working at Horton for 3 years. I fell in love with the work – the seasonal aspect of it, the balance of physical and mental challenges, the peacefulness of the cellar. I really enjoyed it all.  

I’ve always been a bookworm, and during those three years I probably read 30 or 40 books about wine. That’s how I’ve always been about topics I’m interested in. First, I read all the books that they had in the cellar – some were really old and esoteric and out-of-date. I didn’t know the difference. I read everything I could find – a mixture of historical books and technical books – and started to get a better understanding of how the industry worked, and how historically things came to be where they are now, and how and why things were done in the cellar. 

I was lucky to work for Michael Heny, who was the winemaker at Horton at the time and became and still is a mentor of mine.  We became great friends, but also he had a work ethic and a viewpoint of winemaking that had a big impact on me.

It’s safe to say I wouldn’t still be in the industry if it weren’t for him.

“I was lucky to work for Michael Heny, who was the winemaker at Horton at the time and became and still is a mentor of mine.  We became great friends, but also he had a work ethic and a viewpoint of winemaking that had a big impact on me.”

WLAA: Band! What Band? What did you play? Is this where the record player comes in play? 

NW: I played in a handful of bands from when I was 14 until about 21 or 22.  I played guitar.  I still do, but it’s mostly for my daughter June when she’s fussy and generally she just yells at me to stop.  

It is not unrelated to the record player.  I’m a huge music fan – for me, it’s the most meaningful artform, just barely nudging itself above literature.  I was fortunate to grow up in a family that always played a lot of music.  For my parents – my dad in particular – music wasn’t something to have on in the background.  Listening was its own activity.  Record players facilitate that, because they only exist in one room, so you have to be there to listen to the music.

When we were thinking about the tasting room, having a record player appealed to me because it makes listening to music more active. You have to pick out the next record. You have to put it on. People are paying attention. So, the idea is that we will have a lineup of records and let the guests pickout what they want to hear.  We’ve been having some technical difficulties with it, but it should be cleared up soon.

WLAA: After Horton, you hit the road. Talk about the time you spent in Oregon and New Zealand. How have those experiences shaped how you grow and make wine?

NW: Toward the end of my time at Horton, I learned that I could get a job nearly anywhere in the world that wine was made, and just work as a harvest worker, because once you’ve done a few harvests you’ve acquired some skills that are valuable to a winemaker during the labor-intensive harvests. You understand the equipment and the hours and the demands.

I was getting interested in Pinot Noir, so I decided I’d go to Oregon. I worked for a custom crush facility there, and we processed about 3,000 tons of fruit, nearly all Pinot. I learned a lot because I wanted to learn a lot. I paid attention to everything. I had no opinions about winemaking, I just wanted to understand. That was a good job because it was an introduction to a large facility, and some of the techniques that larger wineries use.

From there, I went to Central Otago to make more Pinot. They make amazing Pinot. It’s hard to find in the states but can be outstanding, really expressive. Again, I was pretty singularly focused on just soaking it up.

There are a lot of dogmatic viewpoints in winemaking and I was lucky that I never worked for anyone who viewed wine that way. It can be so open-ended and such a thoughtful undertaking, and those attributes have always appealed to me.

“There are a lot of dogmatic viewpoints in winemaking and I was lucky that I never worked for anyone who viewed wine that way. It can be so open-ended and such a thoughtful undertaking, and those attributes have always appealed to me.”

WLAA: Was there a wine you made … or moment that made you think “Ok, I’ve got this.”

NW: Not at all. Each vintage is challenging in many ways. No two years are the same, even in the same vineyard. It’s a constant learning experience. I doubt I will ever feel like I have it all down. I think that would be a mistake.

The 2018 Weatherlea Rosé is one of three Cabernet Franc Rosés made by Walsh this season.
Sarah’s description is spot on. While dry, the fruit really shines though up front and gives way to a peppery finish.
It makes a perfect fire pit companion.

WLAA: Each plot of land the grapes are grown on is given prominence on your labels. But, that’s not the only unique thing about them. They highlight both science and art to capture both side of the business.

Besides loving wine we have something else in common. Your wife Sarah – who is even more amazing … as all wives are – is also your partner in this adventure. Since my wife and I usually get asked these questions, It’s really nice to be on the other side for a change.

How did you meet? How do you approach your business and home lives? Who does what? How do you two decide who’s taking on what? Divide and conquer etc…

NW: We met through wine. I moved to Loudoun County to work at Sunset Hills, and Sarah moved to Loudoun and was working for a wine distributor. We met because she was studying for WSET and wanted to learn more about vineyards, so she reached out to me. We were pretty immediately inseparable.

In terms of how we split up the project, it’s always been something that we’ve collaborated on equally, in terms of the big picture of what we’re doing.

The branding, the transparency, the specific wines that we make, the blending, the overall goals – those are always team decisions. From there, I work more on the nitty gritty details.

WLAA: You’ve officially been open as Walsh for a little over a month. When did you guys know it was time to get your own place and how did you come to choose North Gate as your home?

NW: From 2014 to 2017, we were increasing production each year, and as a result had to move around to different wineries, leasing tank space. But we could see that that wasn’t feasible in the long term, because there aren’t many wineries equipped to do that in Virginia. So we started pricing out what it would cost to build a production facility.

At the same time, we were talking to winery owners in the area, to see if there was some kind of cooperative agreement we could come to to share space. We never felt like we needed a showpiece winery – just a place to process and age wines.

One of those owners was Mark Fedor, who, with his wife Vicki, had founded North Gate. They were interested in backing away from the industry, so we thought there might be some mutually beneficial approach. In the end, they decided they wanted to sell the property, and so here we are.

Walsh Family Wine North Gate vineyard on a perfect October afternoon.

WLAA: You guys inherited a lot of stuff … a couple buildings, some nice pine trees, a couple grape vines, a lot of juice, and many customers who loved the previous owners.

It’s been fun watching Sarah and Laurel geek over paint colors, plants, furniture, and wall paper the last few months while I’ve continued to drink wine (quality control) from week to week.

How have you navigated those things as you put your own unique stamp on this place?

NW: There are 10 planted acres on the property, which we took over management of at the start of the 2018 season. We are still learning about the vineyard here, but it’s got great potential for Chardonnay, Petit Manseng, and Viognier. We will keep learning about the site over the coming years, and we will honor the history of the location by continuing to call the vineyard North Gate and keep it as a vineyard-designate location.

We revamped the tasting room to be more our style – bright and inviting, more welcoming. We have additional plans for both the inside and outside.

WLAA: Let’s talk about a special – and tasty – wine I’m fond of drinking … The En Passant.

How did it come to be?

Why didn’t you call me to help?

What’s the meaning behind the name?

NW: En Passant is a red blend of wines produced by Mark and Vicki Fedor of North Gate. When we took over the property, the 2016 and 2017 red vintages were still in barrel. While we didn’t want to take credit for wines that we did not produce, we also were aware that there were some great wines in barrel. So, we employed a technique called “blind blending” where we tasted every single barrel, and made the blends without knowing what the actual wines were. We will produce an En Passant from 2016 and 2017.

En Passant means “In Passing.” Because the wine for this blend was made by Mark and Vicki Fedor, the founders of North Gate, but was blended by WFW, it is a wine that exists only in the transition from North Gate to WFW. So, we wanted to honor that with the name.

“En Passant means “In Passing.” Because the wine for this blend was made by Mark and Vicki Fedor, the founders of North Gate, but was blended by WFW, it is a wine that exists only in the transition from North Gate to WFW.”

WLAA: You also took over in what was arguably one of the worst years for agriculture in the region … for a very long time.

The running joke has been that 2018 is the year of the Rosé, but from my experience with you guys, that’s gonna be a good thing. You have several Rosés here … all are dry and delicious, but one in particular is pretty special and another new thing for you on top of everything else.

What’s up with Pet Nat? What is it? What did you learn? Why can’t I have more?

NW: 2018 was very tough, and it was particularly rough for us as it was our first large harvest. We chose to move most of our red grapes into the rose program rather than red, which is better for the wine itself but will make 2020 difficult, as we won’t have a huge amount of red wine to sell. We weren’t sitting on a lot of red wine prior to 2018, so there isn’t much of a backstock.

That said, we made two dry roses and a pet nat, all out of Cab Franc. The pet nat was really the brainchild of our vineyard manager, Ben Sedlins. I was admittedly wary of making it because I’d never done it before and I didn’t want to make a mistake, but I’m very happy with the wine. We didn’t make nearly enough.

The wine is a Cab Franc rose, bottled at the tail end of fermentation, so it’s got a natural effervescence. We call it ‘Plateau,’ which is the name of the block of the vineyard where the fruit came from. It’s from an upper flat section of a slope.

Once a month Nate and Sarah turn over the tasting room to other producer’s that they want to share with the world. 

Sarah and I started WFW as a small, side-project, and we would have loved for something like this to exist.  So, we figured we’d create it.  They’ve been a big hit thus far.  There are some really interesting projects in Virginia.

WLAA: You guys are also shaking up the tasting room model? What’s the deal with being so nice? You’re sharing wines from all over letting other folks take over your tasting room bar once a month?

NW: Yes, once a month we host a Bar Takeover, where we bring in an outside winemaker who has a small, interesting project. We pour their wines for the evening, as it’s a great chance for them to get in front of new customers, and also for our customers to be introduced to interesting, often forward-thinking wines.

Generally, these are always Virginia winemakers, but it doesn’t have to be – we’ve reached out to people from out-of-state as well. As long as the wines are interesting, it’s worth doing.

Sarah and I started WFW as a small, side-project, and we would have loved for something like this to exist.  So, we figured we’d create it.  They’ve been a big hit thus far.  There are some really interesting projects in Virginia.

WLAA: Last thing … Where do you see wine in Virginia and in particular here in Loudoun County in 5 years? How does Walsh Family Wine fit into that vision?

NW: My best guess is that, as we get more and more wineries starting up in the area, the competition will grow and the importance in having either a high-quality product, or a great place to visit, will increase. While we certainly want our tasting room to be inviting and warm, we are more interested in the former goal: premium wines.

You need good vineyard sites, planted and farmed thoughtfully. That’s where we see ourselves fitting in. I am focused on making wines that we are proud of, and that our region and state can be proud of.

“That’s where we see ourselves fitting in. I am focused on making wines that we are proud of, and that our region and state can be proud of.”

Walsh Family Wine:

I’m really excited about what lies ahead for Walsh Family Wine and what that means for wine lovers like you and me in the future.

They are making wine that is very delicious and in many ways on a whole new level for this area. Plus, they are just good people. That combo is a recipe for success.

If you are in the neighborhood—or not—it’s definitely worth the visit. 

walshfamilywine.com

Rating: 5 outta 5
1 star1 star1 star1 star1 star

When:
Monday – Thursday, open by reservation only
Friday, 12-8
Saturday, 11-6
Sunday 11-6

Where:
16031 Hillsboro Road, Purcellville Va 20132

Two Tasting Options:
Bar Flight – $20/person
Reservation Tour & Tasting – $45/person