Sunset Hills Blog

Welcome to the blog of Sunset Hills Vineyard! From the trials of hand-tending vines in five different vineyards to releasing wines that our winemaker has carefully crafted, our goal is to share what’s going on at Sunset Hills with you! We hope that you’ll gain knowledge and find entertainment from this blog. Located in Purcellville, Sunset Hills is a proud producer of high-quality wine in Loudoun County wine country.

Corry Craighill
October 31, 2019 | Corry Craighill

Sunset Hills and 50 West is a culture… A team… A FAMILY


 As you all have most likely heard, the 2019 harvest and season are looking pretty amazing—a historic harvest that will be talked about like the 2010 vintage wines.  This month, as we “wine’d” down from harvest, We want to use this blog to herald our team here at Sunset Hills Vineyard.  As a vineyard guest, you hear from us individually, whether it is on a tour with Bridgette, at a club party with Sydney, or behind the bar with Audrey – but there are so many other wonderful, hard-working wine and farm enthusiasts here at the winery that perhaps go unnoticed.

The Vineyard Crew…

Sunset Hills and 50 West could not exist without them.  There would literally be no vineyard, no wine, no tasting room.  We play host to a full-time crew of five (5) people.  Their work week is dedicated to our vineyards rain or shine, freezing temps or scorching sun.  The vineyard crew of 5 do everything; from mowing the grass to flipping cases for ten hour bottling days, and everything they do for the winery, they do with great effort and pride. They may ask for a soda or request pizza instead of brats for lunch, but they do the hard work day in and day out so that our business can create a the incredible wines that we are then able to share with all of you. 

Our vineyard crew is joined for 8 months out of the year by a team of eight that joins us from the Baja California Peninsula.  This hard working team is keen on learning new ideas and perfecting our processes.  Take Joel for example, who has worked with us in the cellar for harvest.  Joel is the type of friend that everyone needs—he always has a smile on his face and a quiet yet witty joke ready for you.  He asks for clarification when he feels like he needs to, and he takes initiative to do the next task with no hesitation.  Joel has learned to speak slowly so that we can communicate both on cellar actions for the day or a casual conversation about our families over the sorting table.  We have a goal that he teaches us one Spanish word every day – we learn, we grow and we create together.

The Tasting Room Staff…

The Tasting Room, for those who don’t know… IS SO EXHAUSTING.  Harvest is one of the most tiring yet exciting times of the year for me.  We joke that “every day is Wednesday” because there is no sense of a weekend, no tracking of days of the week other than to ask “what day are we picking?”  Although tiring, nothing compares to a busy Saturday behind the tasting room bar. The day begins with a morning meeting where our teams prep the staff by communicating the weekend events, big groups, or special occasions that are taking place at the winery. Everyone is listening, quiet, the calm before the storm.  And then… THE DAY….

Finally, at closing, the floors are vacuumed to perfection, bathrooms are spotless, bar is wiped down—we can all relax with a beautiful glass of wine on the porch as the sun sets behind the tree-line.  Yes we share stories from the day, but we have interesting conversations about all things other than wine.

The Weekday Staff...

Our weekday staff is the glue that holds it all together.  We support each other, listen to plans, pitch ideas, lend a hand.  We work to make our dreams come true, as a small business we know that we all have each other’s backs; there is no line drawn between jobs.  Just because my title is winemaker does not mean that I can’t help stock the tasting room or cut the grass every now and then.  Helping each other out is just skimming the surface.  We are a true family here at Sunset Hills.  Sunset Hills is not just a vineyard, a winery, a place to spend a Saturday, it is a place where talented, driven people work to make this lovely, inspiring, beautiful place run the way it does.  From the vineyard to the tasting room to the management team, we all look out for each other in a way I hope continues in years to come. 

At the time of writing this, the last of the Cabernet Sauvignon to pick is scheduled for Friday.  I am listening to the hum of the press squeeze Shenandoah Springs Cabernet Franc.  Barrels will be filled tomorrow and stacked in the cool cellar.  Another vintage ends, but our staff keeps it alive as the bottles come into the tasting room to share with each other and our wonderful members, clients and customers.  We all look forward to having a bit of free time now that our epic 2019 harvest is complete, but we are happy to be surrounded by the team and our family here at Sunset Hills and 50 West. 

Time Posted: Oct 31, 2019 at 9:54 AM
Silvia Liggieri
September 27, 2019 | Silvia Liggieri

Vineyard 101

It's that time of the year again! HARVEST!! Our winemaker, Corry, is rounding out our best harvest yet. Since this winter, our vineyards have been through a lot and the complex decisions we have made will determine the final product… Sunset Hills and 50 West wines. Let's walk through the basic cycles of the vineyard!


Pruning – Pruning was completed about two weeks before the vines started to wake up from winter dormancy. Pruning is crucial for vine health, the process forms the permanent structure of the vine, sets the season potential crop load and sets up our canopy development.

Bud Burst – Bud Burst is when the vine FINALLY wakes up from dormancy and new green shoots start to grow. This happened in late April.


Shoot Thinning - As soon as the shoots are about 6 to 8 inches long, we started shoot thinning. This operation consists of removing the shoots in excess, by selecting the shoots that will form your final canopy and therefore, determine the crop load. Timing is essential because shoots that reach a certain size cannot be removed without damaging the permanent structure of the vine, therefore we only had about 2 weeks to finish this operation in all our 75 acres. Without even having the time to realize it, blooming had already caught us, and we had to start our leaf thinning operations.


Leaf Removal - Leaf removal in the fruit zone is a canopy management practice to modulate fruit microclimate and exposure to sunlight. These two variables are fundamental for both disease management and grape aroma and/or color development. Both timing and intensity of leaf removal can have a great impact on fruit quality, reason for which this operation was performed in the vineyards for more than month, varying not only the timing but also the intensity depending on our goal for each vineyard block.  

Fruit Zone Leaf Removal - FZLR also has a time limit to be performed, because exposing the grapes too late in their physiological development can cause sun burn damage and drastically lower grape quality.

Fruit Set – This is when our beautiful berries have reached the size of a pea. They are still hard, green, and in a transition phase to build resistance to many of the diseases that can seriously compromise the whole season. At this stage, vines have a full canopy (another technical term to define a canopy with shoots 50-60 inches long).

Through leaf thinning, tucking in, tying, hedging and laterals removal in the fruit zone, we tried to optimize it. Briefly, the goal is to have enough mature leaves per shoot sufficient for grape ripening, a fruit zone that is more or less exposed but with sufficient air flow and sunlight diffusion/penetration, no occlusion zones with too many layer of leaves creating humidity pockets and lowering the photosynthetic efficiency of the canopy.


Veraison – AHHHHHHH and BREATHE! The Vineyard starts to slow down, no more visible vine growth. Veraison is when berry ripening starts. A chain of signals changes the metabolism of the berry. This change is due to the beginning of the maturation of the seeds. Soon after the seed coat starts to develop, hormone levels change in the berry causing berry softening and enlargement. Sugar starts to accumulate. Sugar accumulation immediately triggers the change of color in red varieties. Then, as ripening continues, acids will begin to drop, phenols composition will change and aromas accumulate and develop.


After veraison, things are moving fast. The grapes are showing in all their complexity the outcome of all the decisions we made through the process…the fingerprints of this season’ conditions, the quality of the work performed in the field. 

Check back for our next blog to see what winemaker, Corry Craighill, has to say about picking and processing the fruit, beginning the winemaking process for our wines, and more. It's been a great year, which means… our wine will be amazing… just like our sunsets!

- Silvia Liggieri, Vineyard Manager




Time Posted: Sep 27, 2019 at 10:00 AM
Diane Canney
August 31, 2019 | Diane Canney

Feel Good About Drinking Our Wine…

Sunset Hills and 50 West Vineyards present: Feel Good About Drinking Our Wine...

We are an authentic 100% Virginia farm winery, meaning we harvest 100% of our own wine right here from our natural Loudoun County vineyards (from our vines to your glass, literally) while taking care of our planet in a responsible way.

Growing grapes in Virginia to make exceptional wine is no easy task, especially when you care about the environment like we do.  Many of you know that we “Turn Sunshine into Wine” using our large solar facility on our historic barns, but did you know that we are also Certified Wildlife Habitats?

A healthy sustainable environment like the ones at Sunset Hills & 50 West Wineries are good for native species like fox, deer, rabbits, and our winged friends who make their homes in our vineyards.  It also is a good habitat for YOU as we are a HEALTHY GREEN ESCAPE in Loudoun where you are able to drink in the fresh air and to relax… away from the congested highways and busy office buildings.

Monarch Waystations & Bluebird Trails

“1271!” replied thirteen-year-old Carter Steadman when asked how many monarch butterflies he had hand raised since he was 8.  Carter handpicked some of these monarchs as tiny caterpillars at Sunset Hills and 50 West Wineries right here in Loudoun where they were transferred to small netted cages; fed milkweed daily until they spun their chrysalis to later emerge as monarch butterflies.  Owners of the Loudoun wineries, Diane and Mike Canney have raised 20 themselves!

               Carter and a team of Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy (LWC) volunteers have worked with Sunset Hills and 50 West for many years; protecting and expanding our native bird and butterfly populations.  The LWC has helped us establish and monitor our Monarch Waystation Gardens and Bluebird Trails.  As a result, we have added hundreds of these native birds and butterflies to the population. The Waystation at Sunset Hills is located in front of the pond looking from the winery barn decks.  At 50 West it is just left of the tasting room near the parking lot. Speaking of winged friends, let’s talk about our Sunset Hills & 50 West Wineries full time residents; Bluebirds!

Bluebirds have a challenging life compared to most birds. They don’t make nests in trees but instead require a cavity like a hole in a fence post or tree.  They eat bugs.  We love this trait.  We rely on the busy bluebird to eat bugs, this way, we don’t have to spray chemicals in the vineyards to repel pests. They love sitting on the top of the vineyard posts looking for bugs and spend hours flying up and down from their posts.  We have learned that crickets must be a Loudoun bluebird favorite - look at our posts - they have lots of leftover cricket legs that must not be very appetizing to the birds.😊 In fact, our trails play host to modern bluebird houses that fill in for their loss of habitat. 

We are grateful to you as customers for supporting our wines that we donate a portion of sales to the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy (LWC). Their many programs make Loudoun a better place for all creatures including us to live.

Thank you to these conservationists & volunteers for the hundreds of hours they have dedicated to the greater good for the environment in their former and current roles with Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy including:  Nicole Hamilton, Karla Etten and Ken Dzombar, Sarah and Carter and Team Steadman, Joanna Dzombar, Sally, Shannon, David and so many others.

We have planted Monarch waystations (or garden plots) at 50 West and Sunset Hills wineries as well as at our home with milkweed and fall nectar plants. 

You can plant milkweeds and fall nectar plants too! Every garden plot, especially when added to the gardens of our neighbors and their neighbors and their neighbors, can make a difference. At 50 West and Sunset Hills Wineries, we strive to take the lead in serving as a model for other wineries and communities to continue to care for Loudoun County in the very best way! 

Hope lies in the future generations! Sunset Hills, 50 West, and Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s shared goal is to make sure that healthy habitats exist so that the future generations have the best chance possible to bring back the magic of nature.

-Diane Canney


Bluebird Fledging video link

For more information on how to plant your own gardens or bluebird houses and the activities of the LWC.

Time Posted: Aug 31, 2019 at 1:00 PM
Diane Canney
April 30, 2019 | Diane Canney

New Zealand Wine Facts & Photos


As we continue our journey we visit a conservation program for New Zealand’s national bird - the kiwi to support their efforts. A very interesting fact about these hen sized,rare, and flightless birds is their egg size.  

The kiwi we were told has the largest egg per body ratio of any bird. The males sit on the egg for two months. The young hatch and are on their own and are very solitary creatures.

Humans have introduced various weasels, possums and cats that have dramatically reduced their numbers. Meet Marhaban who hatched March 13 and weighed 317.6 grams. Today he weighed 505grams and was “wiggly”. We found him hidden under very tall grasses with help of the local biologist and her tracking device. Kiwis are territorial and can cover 5 acres a day walking.

Marhaban and others fortunate to be in this private preserve with a better chance for survival. They are monitored and weighed every two weeks and eventually will be released into the wild.  We hope for the best through more conservation efforts for these gentle birds with fur like feathers.

Back to wine on the North Island and other types of kiwis 

Today Stonyridge is considered one of the best red wine producers ..according to their acclaim and website.  Colorful, owner, Steve White skippered yachts across the world decades ago then worked in wineries in France, California and Italy before starting  Stoneridge on Waiheke Island off the coast near Auckland.  This Yoga focused and trendy winery is a favorite of celebrities and people attracted to their fun zenlike environment and wines. 

Time Posted: Apr 30, 2019 at 4:30 PM
Diane Canney
April 27, 2019 | Diane Canney

A Journey of Wine, Kiwis and the Land of The Lord of The Rings


When Mike and Diane are not home working with their great team they try to visit other wine regions to learn and be inspired.  This blog is about their current trip to New Zealand an amazing place to enjoy wine and meet kiwis.  Kiwi applies to the residents and the flightless bird now protected. 

We begin our journey in the Hawke’s Bay region on the North Island. New Zealand has two islands that are very different in feel, the North Island resembling a feel of California coast and English farmland and the southern more like Austria with glaciers.   

The wine regions are respectively Hawke’s Bay in the north and Marlborough region on South Island.  The Hawke’s Bay region contrasts greatly with Marlborough in the South Island.  This region is older than Marlborough planted by missionaries in the mid 19th century.   It is known for the unique Gimlet Gravel terroir. There are two types of soil here alluvial loams and river gravels.  Surprisingly, the Gimlet Gravels went unplanted until the 1980s.  Now it is one of the most important patches of ground in New Zealand. A unique example of how the French concept of terroir matters in New Zealand.    

We enjoyed their Sauvignon Blanc, Syrahs and Pinot Noir.   I plan to share some of the interesting facts and features and towns and creatures along the way.  Maybe if its not too boring some of Diane’s drawings that capture the spirit of this place and its people. 

New Zealand was settled by Polynesians 700 years ago who developed a distinct Maori culture centered on kinship & lands. 

Fur traders followed and a in 1462 a Dutch navigator.  Charting and exploration by Captain cook and settlement by the British empire that would predictably shift power from the Maori to the Europeans who created great farms to provide goods and services to the UK.   Poor immigrants came to find a gentler environment and “heaps of opportunity” as the kiwis would say. 

Diane decided to capture a rags to riches home in one of her drawings here.  Built in 1870s this station manor was designed by an architect from England who specialized in castle design for a former penniless farmer turned into gentry by the exports of wool and meat. Think of a station as a self contained farm that could be thousands of acres. They would have had an onsite school, tens of thousands of sheep and or cattle tended by farm workers and home staff.  The interior is full of beautifully carved wood. Queen Elizabeth’s mother is pictured in a photo here.  This one is of a former station called Green Hill.  

Wool, lamb and oil were commodities needed by the UK. Often penniless immigrants came to this country, cleared the native bush and planted rye and grasses and pastures for their stock. The owner was responsible for the staff and animals and probably the rules and regulations.


Stay tuned for more photos and fun facts.....tomorrow a baby kiwi



Time Posted: Apr 27, 2019 at 9:47 AM
Jackson Cunningham
August 15, 2018 | Jackson Cunningham

The Calm Before the Storm

The mind of a cellar hand is constantly in motion. Although there are some tasks that require absolute concentration, there are also a great deal of tasks that simply require good work ethic and elbow grease. Whether it be throwing lugs, scrubbing those pesky tartrates off the inside of tanks, or simply maintaining and cleaning our cellar equipment, one is left with hours of deep and profitable thought.  In fact, when my knee-high waterproof boots go on, my mind begins to race against its self. I ask myself the deepest questions in life. “What do I want to do with my life? How do I want to impact the world around me? What is it that provides happiness and fulfillment in peoples' lives? Where do I want to be in 20 years? Why did George Lucas sell out to Disney? If I could have one meal for the rest of my life, what would it be?” and so on. However, it's these important tasks that aid in our production of such quality wine.

          As we approach harvest there is a great deal of prep work to be done. For a cellar hand, the name of the game is “Clean and Organize”. Once harvest hits there simply won't ever be enough hours in the day. That is why it is so important for us to prepare as much as we can now in the hopes that it will make the whole process easier and more efficient down the road. This starts with clearing out everything from the cellar that is not essential to the process of harvest. Once we have more space to maneuver the forklift, we organize and take stock of our empty barrels that will soon hold a new vintage of wine. This helps us to plan out what we believe to be the best barrels to use for the many different varieties of grapes that we grow. 

          Now, the real fun can begin. What most people don’t know is that a majority of cellar work is cleaning. The tanks, the equipment, the floors, and so on. Before we bring a single grape into the cellar we want to ensure that everthing is spotless and sanitized. Through a combination of power washing, squeegeeing, and a great deal of scrubbing we meet the rigged standards that we place upon ourselves. However, this process is not complete until one specific task is carried out. The cleaning of the drains. This ceremonial mission is considered a right of passage in the world of wine making. It’s what sorts out the strong from the weak, and the brave from the frightened. In the end, there is always a great deal of work and time that goes into every aspect of wine making. But it's all worth it to see the process of a grape traveling from a Virginia vine to a bottle. A final product that you can hold in your hand, share with others, and straight up appreciate the fruits of your labor.

About the Author - Jackson Cunningham joined the Sunset Hills team in August 2017. He is a great addition due to his work ethic, willingness to go with the flow, and sense of humor.

Time Posted: Aug 15, 2018 at 5:26 AM
Corry Craighill
May 23, 2018 | Corry Craighill

A Much Anticipated Bottling!

Our June bottling has been much anticipated since I started here at Sunset Hills and 50 West Vineyards.  This bottling marks the first vintage of our flagship wines that I have created from start to finish - from grape to bottle.  These wines have been waiting since October 2016 for this day, waiting in fermenters, waiting in tank, waiting in barrel, waiting to be blended.  The physically tolling work is done--punch downs, pump overs, digging out the tanks or bins, pressing--all of laborious tasks have been completed long ago.  Now, after months and months of waiting, it is time for the quiet task of blending to begin.

People ask how I got into winemaking.  The short answer is that I wanted a job where I could work outside.  Part of the long answer is that I love the combination of science and creativity. I spent several years working for a lab and winery in Charlottesville, so I learned not only HOW to run the numbers, but WHY they are important.  To understand the science of wine, to me, is necessary in making a quality product. I am not a scientist, but I use the numbers to make the best decisions for the wine.

The other half is creativity.  Wine is a creative outlet--tasting and exploring various types of wine from all over the world.  This side of the business is what kept me in the business, what kept me exploring new countries, and what kept me asking questions.  Creativity is a huge part of blending. Once the goal is set for a style of wine, my brain just takes off. With the help of detailed note taking throughout the year, I remember each batch of wine and try to plan for each blend ahead. 

Mosaic is always first, you have to start somewhere.  Mosaic is our Bordeaux-style wine, so I am looking for a balance of a finessed yet assertive structure, a rich and confident wine and one that is well balanced with acidity, tannins, and fruit.  For the 2016 blend, I was able to lean more on our Shenandoah Valley site to give good structure and acidity, and the Sunset Hills site for volume. Creating this blend takes time. I created almost twenty blends, swirling and tasting blind, before I narrowed it down to four options.  I took those four and sat on them for a few days--wondering if I would change my mind. My goal is to taste blindly and consistently pick the same blend every time. Luckily, blend 12 kept being my favorite. Not only tasting blind but tasting with other people is important to me. I choose individuals who I trust and can have a good conversation with--how can I improve the wine?  What is the wine missing? How will the wine age? Having a community of people that you can taste with is so important! I can write a whole other post on how the wine community has impacted me, but for blending specifically, my colleagues provide feedback that helps me improve.

As for the Reserve Cabernet Franc, the style is lighter than the Mosaic, but more robust than the classic Cabernet Franc.  A slightly heavier oak influence and bigger tannins provide the “reserve” label over the classic Cabernet Franc. Again, several blends are created in order to narrow it down to one.  Tasting blind and tasting often.

Lastly, the 50 West Aldie Heights Cuvée.  Although it is the third blend I make, it uses components that neither of the other wines use.  With Tannat as its base, the Aldie Heights Cuvée is one of the more boisterous wines. Tannat is known for being high acid and high tannin, which makes it a great blending component for bigger wines.  For the 2016 Aldie Heights Cuvée, it is the base making up 40% of the blend.

When the bottling begins in June, I feel confident knowing that the final product will be a wine that you’ll love and will uphold the reputation of Sunset Hills’ and 50 West’s bold red wines.

Time Posted: May 23, 2018 at 6:56 AM
Corry Craighill
April 16, 2018 | Corry Craighill

All About Our Vineyards!

April is designated as Virginia Vineyard Month.  For those that have visited either of our tasting rooms, you have probably glimpsed a few rows of Viognier or Cabernet Sauvignon as you meandered up the gravel driveway.  Those rows are just a small portion of the close to seventy acres we have under vine. Yes, seventy acres spread across five farms in Loudoun County and the Shenandoah Valley!  Let’s take a further look at each property - pros and cons and a few fun facts in between.

Shenandoah Valley

We have two properties all the way out near Woodstock, Virginia that make up about half of our total production.  With no traffic (don’t hold your breath on I-81), it takes a little over an hour to get to this site. Towing a full load of fruit, it can take closer to an hour and a half!  The traveling is worth it to these two sites because of the variation in climate, soil types, and elevation as compared to Loudoun County.  These sites tend to give us less rainfall and more good airflow coming through the valley between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, essential to producing good fruit.  

Shenandoah Springs is our more established site.  Sitting between 1280 and 1330 feet elevation with a mixture of loam and limestone soils, this site offers balanced fruit including Cabernet Franc, Viognier, Tannat, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay, and Sangiovese.  You know that Rose of Sangiovese you love in the spring time? That is 100% Shenandoah Springs fruit! The 2017 Viognier is right around 70% Shenandoah fruit and the 2016 Cabernet Franc is upwards of 90% Shenandoah Springs.  This site is also home base for meetings, crew lunches, chicken round ups, and tractor maintenance. It is marked by the quaint white and green building right at the lowest and central point to the vineyard entrance.

Sherman Ridge is the other Shenandoah site, located right down the road from Shenandoah Springs.  Planted in 2014 and 2015, this site is right off the main road suitably and legally dubbed Back Road.  Home to Merlot, Tannat, Petit Manseng, Cabernet Sauvignon, Vidal Blanc, and a mere five rows of Muscat Ottonel, this site is upcoming in quality.  It sits slightly lower in elevation than Shenandoah Springs at 1,060 to 1,130 feet and shares similar soil types.

Loudoun County

Sunset Hills Vineyard not only hosts the revamped barn and plenty of picnic tables to relax on a sunny day, but it also sits on about sixteen acres of vines.  The property is split up into four different vineyards, appropriately dubbed Vineyard 1, Vineyard 2, Vineyard 3, and Vineyard 4 or V1, V2, V3, V4 for short.  As you wind your way up the driveway, you are flanked by Vineyard 3 and 4. Vineyard 4 is exclusively Viognier, whereas Vineyard 3 has Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Petit Manseng, and Viognier.  V3 fruit is often seen in the Mosaic blend, especially the sloped section that has great sun exposure and drainage. Vineyard 1 is the first vineyard planted and managed by Mike Canney himself, and it was just the beginning of the Sunset and 50 West story that continues today.  

50 West Vineyards is our sister tasting room and vineyard site.  What used to be a horse barn and private home is now a tasting room and club house dedicated to customers looking for wines that are slightly different than the “classic” Virginia wines.  Sauvignon Blanc and Albariño are two varieties that are grown on the backside of the clubhouse and are also enjoyed in the tasting room.  

Catesby, our coveted hybrid vineyard, is just a quick ten-minute drive from 50 West.  Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc, and Traminette are all located at this site. Although this site is not great for vinifera due to its lack of slope and ability to hold water, it seems to produce hybrids that are fairly consistent (if you can call Virginia winegrowing consistent) and help us produce wines that are fresh, acid-driven, approachable in the tasting room.  Chambourcin is a great blending grape for us! We are glad to have it in our stock for variations in such wines like Sunset Rose, Ashby Gap, Dusk, and Dawn. What would we do without it?!

Seventy acres of planted vineyards scattered around Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley definitely keeps our vineyard crew busy but we wouldn’t have it any other way. All of the hard work and time dedicated to these vineyards result in great fruit that we then turn into the wines that you love in the tasting room!

Time Posted: Apr 16, 2018 at 7:15 AM
Corry Craighill
February 26, 2018 | Corry Craighill

Behind the Scenes of Bottling Day!

Bottling day – it’s exciting, stressful, and fast-paced.  As the first wines of the 2017 vintage are completed, our team toasts each other with a glass of bubbly in celebration of coming full circle on the first vintage together.  We looked back at harvest and laughed at how many lugs of fruit it took to make the 800 cases of Sunset White we just bottled (It was about 800 lugs).  We thought of all the time spent tracking fermentations, moving wine from tank to barrel, and of course cleaning equipment - all that time spent just to get to the finish line of bottling day.  Even the weeks leading up to bottling day are a frenzy of blending, stabilizing, and filtering.  Finally, bottling day arrives.  We bottled 1,807 total cases, that’s 21,684 bottles!

It’s a long day and it starts early. A typical day of bottling looks like this:

6:00am:  The truck arrives while the sun just barely begins to glow.  Coffee in hand, hazy from the morning darkness, I pep up as the generator spurs the bottling truck to life. 

6:01am:  Full on bottling mode has taken hold of me. 

6:02--6:45am:  The bottling guys do a test run with a case of bottles, corks, capsules, and labels to calibrate their machines.

6:45am:  The rest of the cellar crew arrives and more coffee is a necessity.  The first tank is connected to the bottling truck and bottling begins!

7:00am--4:30pm:  Unload, fill, reload, stack. Repeat 1,807 more times. 

4:30--5:00pm: Clean up time.

5:01pm: Cheers!

The people:  We have five positions on the bottling line. 

First is the forklift operator.  They’re the person that makes sure everyone has what they need, when they need it, where they need it.  He supplies the empty cases that are loaded on the truck.  He takes the palettes of full cases and stacks them away in the barrel room. 

Second is the glass unloader.  This person stands on the truck, takes the cases of empty bottles, flips them onto the bottling line’s conveyor, lifts the box off of the upright bottles, and watches as the bottles get taken away further into the abyss of the bottling line. 

Third is the box filler.  This person also stands on the truck.  He is the final check of the full bottles.  Labels are straight? Check.  Bottles are corked and capsuled?  Check.  There is actually wine in the bottle?  Check.  The completed bottles are then placed back into the cases and sent down another conveyor. 

The fourth and fifth person stand at the end of this conveyor to receive the full cases.  They trade places labeling and stacking the cases.

The in between:  So where does the actual bottling take place?  Once the glass unloader sends the empty bottles onto the truck, that is where all the action happens.  The bottles get flipped upside down and filled with nitrogen to protect against oxidation.  The bottles are then circled around in merry-go-round like fashion and filled to the correct level.  Next, they get the screw caps spun on.  The last step is labeling--the front and back label are adjusted by the slightest millimeters and put on the bottle.  Finally, the long conveyor takes the bottles around the back of the machine where they leave the truck and are placed safely back into their case.

Although stressful, bottling day is a relief.  We are happy to see our product completed, our hard work paid off.  Now we can enjoy the finished product and look forward to the next bottling in May!

Time Posted: Feb 26, 2018 at 6:06 AM
Corry Craighill
January 29, 2018 | Corry Craighill

Rosés in Time for Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner! How will you wine and dine your Valentine during love’s special holiday? Sunset Hills Vineyard has a wine recommendation that will pair beautifully with your Valentine’s Day celebrations. A Virginia winery located in the heart of Loudoun County’s wine country, Sunset Hills Vineyard produces a variety of award-winning 100% Virginia wines, including a Valentine’s Day favorite – Rosé!

To know rosé is to love rosé, so what exactly is this pink wine all about? Corry Craighill, Sunset Hills Vineyard’s Winemaker, breaks down the method behind rosé and how Sunset Hills’ three rosés can enrich your Valentine’s Day experience.

The modern rosé has come so far since it became popular in the early 70’s in California.  An accidental stuck fermentation resulted in a new product for a west coast winery, creating the white zinfandel rampage.  This pink zinfandel is known for being overly sweet, an easy entry into the vast world of wine. The evolution from white zinfandel to our modern rosé has left us with wines that are fresh, often dry, and easy to pair with food.  Everyone has to start somewhere in their journey of wine, so keep tasting pink wine because there are some great rosés out there!

Winemakers and winegrowers have come so far in the production of rosé. They have created a plethora of styles and colors from the variety of red grapes out there. Some varietals you enjoy as red wines can also be used in rosé.  For example, at Sunset Hills Vineyard we use Cabernet Franc for our Estate Rosé of Cabernet Franc and also in our Bordeaux-style red, Mosaic.  Several factors play into what style of rosé we go for—grape variety, pick date, length of skin contact, and more.

First impressions are crucial. More than any other wine, rosé color sets the stage before any other senses come into play. Are you drawn to the pale pink of Provence? Or the ruby hue of a Grenache rosé? Whether you are hypnotized by the color or would rather leave the judgement to your taste buds, one cannot deny noticing the variety of colors of rosés in the world. As for aroma and taste, rosé can really run the full spectrum.  Because rosé can be made from any red variety of grape, the flavors and aromas can range from luscious sweet strawberries to citrusy grapefruit to tangy rhubarb.

At Sunset Hills, we make three different types of rosé —Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, and a sparkling rosé.  Why make three you ask?  Besides the clear love for rosé, this gives us the flexibility of style both in the cellar and for your taste buds.  If you prefer a lush cherry, full-bodied wine, go for our Sunset Rosé made from Chambourcin.  If you want to drink like the French, pick the more pale, light Estate Rosé of Cabernet Franc. 

Let’s start with our Sunset Rosé — a super fruity, lush, broad rosé made from the Chambourcin grape that pairs well with that picnic you have planned for Saturday afternoon at the winery. With all three rosés, we pick earlier than we would if we were making red wine to retain the natural acidity. This helps keep the wine tasting crisp and fresh! We destem the fruit, separating the grapes from the stems, then send it directly to the press. We like to limit our skin contact with Chambourcin because the color is so brilliant right out of the vineyard. Afterwards, it ferments in a stainless steel tank at cool temperatures in order to maintain the vibrant aromatics.

Next is our Estate Rosé of Cabernet Franc! Much like the Chambourcin, we pick the Cabernet Franc grapes early, but this time we encourage the juice to leach out the color from the skins by letting the crushed berries sit in their own juice for eight hours, a process called maceration. Allowing the juice and skins to macerate gives us a warm pink color and some fruity flavors like a subtle tart cranberry and juicy strawberries on the finish. After this maceration period, everything is pressed and the process continues like the Sunset Rosé—stainless steel fermentation at cool temperatures.

Are you seeing a trend here? Winemaking is simple really! Now for the sparkling. Our sparkling rosé, Dawn, is a Chambourcin-based wine. Made in the traditional méthode champenoise, it takes the wine several steps farther. Once we have the base rosé wine, we add another starter yeast culture to the wine in tank. The next step is to simultaneously mix the tank and bottle the wine. We want to ensure an even distribution of the yeast so that every bottle will ferment at the same pace. The second fermentation that takes place inside the bottles releases carbon dioxide, making the rosé slightly carbonated with small bubbles. The effervescence of Dawn makes for a light, refreshing take on rosé.

Now that you know a little more about Sunset Hills rosé, let’s get to drinking. With Valentine’s Day ahead of us, what a perfect wine that not only dresses the part but pairs well with many foods. Because of the broad spectrum of styles, you can grab a full-bodied, structured rosé to go with a juicy steak or a lean, crisp rosé to pair with those early evening appetizers.

Time Posted: Jan 29, 2018 at 8:37 AM