History of Horses and Virginia Vineyards
If history in Virginia had anything to say about the combination of horses and vineyards, it might give a hard pass to mixing the two. After all, the extensive efforts of Thomas Jefferson to build a viable vineyard were ultimately thwarted by horses trampling his fledgling vines in 1778 which ended his experiment in winemaking. However, well over 200 years later, horseback riding and Virginia wine tasting are enjoying a vastly different relationship.
Now, vineyards in Virginia are thriving, boasting a state grape (Viognier), and bringing in awards aplenty. To accompany that accomplishment is an unexpected new, thriving vineyard experience incorporating horseback riding with wine tasting and education.
Indian Summer Guide Service – Horseback Riding and Virginia Wine Tasting
At the forefront of this horseback riding and Virginia wine tasting experience is Ashton Beebe, owner of Indian Summer Guide Service. Growing up in Virginia and finding a love of horseback riding at five years old, later working out west on ranches and briefly giving horseback tours on beaches in Santa Barbara, he now hosts leisurely rides through vineyards in the land he calls home.
“This is a dream come true for me, “ says Beebe. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”
With twenty-two horses and a staff of guides, Beebe’s award-winning service offers custom horseback riding and Virginia wine tasting through eight different vineyards and cideries, giving a true vineyard-to-glass experience to riders.
Horseback Tour of Pollak Vineyard
On a recent ride through Pollak vineyards, we joined Beebe as well as Pollak’s Vineyard Manager Jack Pepper. After mounting our horses and receiving some beginner-level guidance on riding and rein usage, we started off together to explore the vineyard.
“This is not a nose-to-tail tour,” Beebe shared as we rode side-by-side. “We want our rides to be a leisurely experience.”
As we climbed hills at a pleasant pace and weaved through blocks of vines, we had the chance to snapshots of some of the most Instagrammable views of Virginia’s mountains and wine country. We also had the opportunity to tap into Jack Pepper’s vast viticultural knowledge.
While Pepper laughs heartily when he is referred to by his title of Vineyard Manager, jokingly titling himself more humbly a “Tractor Operator,” there is no denying that he is well-versed in wine. He approached wine initially, in California, with interest from a consumer standpoint. However, when he and his wife chose to relocate, their decision to move to Central Virginia was propelled by Pepper’s passion for being a part of the wine-making community.
Pepper has been a part of Pollak’s team for several years, and in the early part of the ride he shared basics about the vineyard like the names of the blocks of vines – some as simple as letter names while others are known as Smuggler Block or Mountain Block – but also identified intricacies we may have otherwise missed. In one block, he pointed out that the vines are planted with north-to-south directionality, rather than the preferred east-to-west. The grapes are still viable but are more often used for making rosé rather than merlot.
“When the vines are planted east-to-west, they have the benefit of the morning sun to burn off the dew, then the grapes are shrouded from the mid-day sun by leaves,” Pepper explained.
“The greater the struggle, the better the wine”—Jack Pepper
As we continued to wind around vines and take in mountain views, Pepper dove deeper into specifics about the vines. He and Beebe together shared the history of the mid-19th-century decimation of French vines by phylloxera and the implications of growing French vines now. We learned about the process of grafting American roots, which are not susceptible to phylloxera, to the French vines to prevent the aphid from nearly wiping out wine again.
Pepper also pointed out the purposeful style of planting and pruning the vines.
“The greater the struggle, the better the wine,” Pepper stated as he shared how every detail from the space between each vine to the amount of canopy, contributes to the final quality of the grapes.
As our hour and a half ride through the vineyard wound down, we dismounted and turned to the tasting room to try the literal fruits of the labor we had learned about in the vineyard.
Wine Tasting at Pollack Vineyard
Pollak currently produces a dozen wines from standards like cabernet sauvignon and merlot to state favorites like viognier and cabernet franc. On this list is also a fortified wine, their Mille Fleur, a sweet blend of eau-de-vie brandy and a late harvest viognier wine.
In the bright tasting room with windows that offer an expansive view across a small pond and into the vineyard, we had the opportunity to taste as well as to learn more about the winemaking process. Aaron “Cheddar” Spring, Pollak’s Wine Club Manager who has been with the vineyard since its inception ten years ago, generously offered a tour to take a peek at the barrels and other equipment involved in the making of Pollak’s wine.
Like most wineries, Pollak uses both wood barrels and stainless steel. However, for wines like their Viognier, they utilize concrete barrels that add a noticeable minerality to the crisp white wine.
“Concrete barrels offer better insulations, meaning the wine consistently remains at the same temperature but using concrete also results in bigger, bolder character,” Spring explained.
Spring also pointed out the stacks of white buckets that house candles made of beef tallow, the same as ones we had seen spread throughout the vineyard. The candles are used to warm the vineyard when frost threatens, but the large stock of them in Pollak’s cellar is also an indication of the collaborative nature of winemaking in Virginia.
“It’s easier to have them shipped to just one vineyard and then share them than to have each vineyard order them,” Spring says.
Pepper had alluded to this type of collaboration as well. As he said, rather than seeing themselves as competitors, Virginia’s winemaking community works together to share, to learn, and to constantly improve their products together.
In that same spirit, Beebe speaks to the collaborative nature of his relationship with the wineries.
“All of the wineries have been incredibly welcoming. They encourage us to come right up and ride,” said Beebe.
Whether looking for an opportunity to learn about history, wine making, or viticulture, riders on Beebe’s horseback riding and Virginia wine tasting tours benefit from all of these collaborations that culminate in an elevated, unique wine-based experience.
To learn more or to sign up for a tour, visit the site at www.IndianSummerGuideService.com.