A California Winemaker Plants Roots in Virginia

At 868 Estate Vineyards, the quest for greatness is about more than just wine. It’s about taking what nature provides, artfully transforming that raw material and packaging expressive wines that, when combined with gourmet food, create a uniquely beautiful sensory experience.

The winemaker behind that quest is Carl DiManno. Unlike most winemakers, DiManno discovered his passion for great food and wine pairings long before diving into the art of winemaking. Attending school in New Orleans, where partaking in decadent, delicious food is as common and frequent as breathing, the concept of using food and wine to create atmosphere and provide artful experiences formed early. That passion found structure when DiManno moved to California and discovered a new level of appreciation for the art of winemaking.

Carl DiManno among his Virginia Vines

Carl DiManno among his Virginia Vines

As it turns out, that appreciation has led to meticulous attention to detail and a careful blending of old world techniques that highlight terrior, with new world practices that help showcase the best characteristics of the fruit. This approach has earned DiManno numerous awards in competitions that pit his creations against well-known labels from California, Europe and South America. These awards have earned his new winery, 868 Estate Vineyards, a significant following and recognition as quality producer of Virginia wines.

Two of 868's award-winning wines

Two of 868’s award-winning wines

Recently, I sat down with DiManno to find out why he’s chosen to put down roots in Virginia (pun intended).

CC: How did you become a winemaker?

DiManno: At one time, I considered buying a vineyard and learning the entire process from growing to bottling on the job. Turns out, vineyards are expensive. But I knew I wanted to be involved in the entire process. Going to school in California was a stepping stone to that. The winemaking program at UC Davis provided a good entree into the industry, but the goal at that point was to own a vineyard/winery. After finishing that program, I learned that winemaker and vineyard manager were important roles to gain perspective on the entire industry.

CC: What do you love most about it?

DiManno: The best part of winemaking is the completed task. To have a finished product in hand, and have people enjoy it is really the most satisfying and rewarding aspect of this role. It represents all the hard work, effort, and the countless decisions that go into crafting that final product.

CC: Is your winemaking philosophy more New World or Old World? Describe it for us.

DiManno: I try to use best practices from both schools of thought, but I suppose my philosophy falls into the New World camp. While there are non-interventionists out there, I am not one of them. I also do not believe in throwing the book at a wine or following a recipe.

Each wine is different and has varying support needs to be the best wine it can be. My job is to do whatever it takes to make that wine be the best it can be. If that means leaving the wine alone and allowing nature to take its course, that is what I will do. If a wine needs finessing in the form of additives, high end filtration, fining, filtering, concentration, blending or whatever, then at is what I will do to put the best product possible in a bottle.

CC: How did you decide to settle in Virginia after starting your career in California?

DiManno: The east is home for me, and I always knew I would end up back here. I also believe that the east coast represented an opportunity that CA could not provide. The wild, wild east had tremendous opportunities to improve, grow, and expand. The chance to affect real change in the quality of wine in the area was really attractive. I had been consulting for a number of labels in California, as well as one or two back east, but an entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and the allure of new vineyards, new wineries and a rapidly expanding wine industry was too much to resist.

CC: Having made wine in both locations, do you prefer winemaking in Virginia or California?

DiManno: A boutique winery in CA is 50,000 cases. There is no way you can do everything yourself or even with a small team. In Virginia, winemaking is much more intimate. You know the fruit. You know the growers personally if you are buying fruit from other vineyards. You get your hands dirty. Winemakers in California often don’t touch grapes. Someone brings them samples of wine and they make winemaking decisions as part of a team from an office. I love the hands-on nature of winemaking in Virginia. When you buy a Virginia wine, you can be very sure that the winemaker actually touched the raw material, and played a significant role in every phase of production.

CC: You have a relatively new vineyard in Virginia. A blank canvas, if you will; how did you decide what to plant, and what is it that you think Virginia does really well?

DiManno: Well, I planted what I like to make (and ultimately drink), and what I think will do well in a particular site. For example, I believe that mid-Atlantic Cabernet Franc a true expression of the varietal, and some of the best Cabernet Franc you can get anywhere. So, of course I planted a lot of Cabernet Franc. Many Francs also benefit from being blended with other varietals, to soften what can be very austere tannins. Complementary grapes such as Merlot and, to a lesser degree, Cabernet Sauvignon provide the blending material to make great Cabernet Franc wines and great blended wines.

I have been very a happy with Dijon clones of Chardonnay, so we have planted some of those. Virginia’s signature grape is Viognier. While we have some Viognier, I am more interested in seeing what else will do well in Virginia soils. Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah are experiments. They may do well; they may also prove too unruly to make good wine. Time will tell. Vermentino is another one. It could produce a nicely balanced, lively wine. Maybe it falls flat. Time will tell.

CC: Why should wine drinkers visit Virginia wineries? What is it that makes Virginia different?

DiManno: Most Virginia wineries are small and do not distribute to restaurants, wine shops and grocery stores. If they do, it’s on a limited basis. The best way (and really the only way) to really experience Virginia wine is to go to the wineries. There are some very good and even great wines being made in Virginia. But, they will not come to you for a while. You will have to go to them.

The Virginia is a wine region still in its infancy. Here, you can be part of its growth and experience the changes and improvements that go along with the development of a region and its identity. It is small enough to provide an intimate relationship between vintner and consumer.

CC: What is your vision for 868 Estate Vineyards?

DiManno: 868 will be among the larger wineries in the region, but still small enough that the elements that make it charming are not lost. 868 will produce high quality wine and will have well made wines for every taste and palate.

In 2007, I made a wine that I thought was very good. Not only a good east coast wine, but a good wine at its price point. This wine could compete with any wine from anywhere in the world at its price. That is really my vision for 868: to transcend the VA label. I want 868 wines to compete with wines from all over the world at their particular price point. When I don’t have to hear “this is nice, but I can get a Argentinean Malbec that is just as good for $5” then we will have succeeded.

CC: What is your favorite food and wine pairing?

DiManno: I like Riesling with pork rinds. Actually, Riesling is a good answer. Given the diversity of our region, there are a lot of foods that do not pair well with specific varietals. Mexican, Thai and Indian are difficult pairings. The answer is Riesling. The cool, steely citrus notes of the Riesling provide a refreshing counterbalance to the robust, spicy flavors in those foods. Cabernet with curry is horrifiying; Riesling with curry is a nice night out.

 CC: Of course, inquiring minds want to know… What is your all-time favorite wine?

DiManno: This may be my all-time least favorite question. My favorite wine is whatever you are pouring! I don’t have a perfect answer. I have tried some truly stunning wines. I have also had many wines that were supposed to be stunning that fell flat. And I still have a lot more to try. I have had some Burgundies that were outstanding, but can’t even remember their names.

I tend to fall for dry sparklers. There are very versatile and can be enjoyed every day, since the price of good domestic sparkling wine has come down so much. If I need one for a special occasion, it will probably be Veuve Clicquot.

You can meet Carl DiManno at 868 Estate Vineyards’ upcoming “Meet the Winemaker” event on August 18that the winery in Purcellville, Virginia. 

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