By Jan Mercker
They say winemaking is an art and a science. For 868 Estate Vineyards co-owner and winemaker Carl DiManno, a scientist’s mindset and a passion for great wine are paying off.
Last month, DiManno brought home Virginia’s top wine prize for 868’s 2017 Vidal Blanc Passito. The award-winning dessert wine was made with estate-grown vidal blanc grapes initially planted for curb appeal thanks to DiManno’s innovative approach that embraces trial and error.
“Whether it’s curiosity or boredom, I like to experiment when I have the bandwidth to do that,” said DiManno, a former chemical engineer who fell in love with wine while working for an oil company in New Orleans.
DiManno, a Massachusetts native with an engineering degree from Tufts University, and his wife, Erin, became foodies and wine collectors while living in New Orleans in the early ’90s. DiManno was working for Shell and earning an MBA from Tulane University.
“There was a seed planted there: the food—and wine as an accompaniment to the food,” DiManno said. “I knew nothing about wine when we moved to New Orleans.”
The couple’s years in New Orleans’ culinary cradle set in motion a passion for wine that ramped up when DiManno was hired by Chevron and relocated to Northern California. Visiting wineries on weekends became a regular thing, and DiManno eventually realized he wanted to make wine into more than a hobby.
When DiManno returned to California after a stint in Houston, he took things to the next level, enrolling in the prestigious enology program at the University of California Davis and immersing himself in the science of winemaking. As part of that program, DiManno interned at Artesa Vineyards in the Napa Valley, working with noted winemaker Don Van Staaveren. But the East Coast called when DiManno met the acclaimed Virginia viticulturist and consultant Lucie Morton who connected DiManno with Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in Montgomery County, MD. DiManno was hired as a vineyard manager rather than the winemaking side, boosting his grape-growing chops.
“It was a really good experience,” DiManno said. “I learned a lot in a really short period of time.”
DiManno and his family moved to Ashburn to split the commuting difference between Sugarloaf and Erin’s corporate job in Fairfax County. The couple still lives in Ashburn with their 18-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son.
While at Sugarloaf, DiManno started his own Revolution label, a small garagiste operation that kicked off with a cabernet franc rose using Virginia-grown grapes. DiManno also was briefly hired as a winemaking consultant for the popular but ill-fated Oasis Winery in Fauquier run by notorious socialite and White House gate crasher Tareq Salahi. The upside to what DiManno describes as a “fiasco” at Oasis was connecting with his current business partners Nancy and Peter Deliso, who were looking to buy a Virginia vineyard property. DiManno and the Delisos bought the 90 acres nestled between the Blue Ridge and Short Hill Mountain that became 868 in 2011 and merged with Grandale Farm restaurant next door the following year, opening a tasting room across from the restaurant. DiManno launched the 868 label in 2012, named for the elevation of a scenic hillside on the property.
Ironically, the award-winning vidal blanc grapes were initially planted for esthetic appeal, with DiManno’s initial intent being to plant hardy hybrid grapes in more visible locations while focusing on more sought-after European varietals for winemaking.
“The original planting of the vidal blanc was so that we could see vines from the tasting room,” he said with a chuckle.
Since vidal blanc is successfully used in ice wines in vineyard regions farther north, DiManno decided to try a dessert wine with 868’s estate-grown grapes. But his first attempt in 2016, a late harvest wine made by leaving grapes on the vine for an extended period, fell flat.
“That didn’t quite work out,” DiManno said. “The question was how do we make this better.”
DiManno decided to take a different approach with the 2017 harvest, using the Italian passito method, which involves partially drying grapes before pressing, concentrating sugars and intensifying flavors. The grapes were pressed after losing around 25 percent of their volume, DiManno said, fermented, kept in barrels around 14 months and bottled in the spring of 2019.
“The first was a swing and a miss,” DiManno said. “The second seemed to work out.”
The result is the first Virginia Governor’s Cup winner made entirely of Loudoun grapes. Loudoun’s previous cup win—in 2017 by the Barns of Hamilton Station Vineyards—used outsourced grapes from elsewhere in the state.
“That struck us as a point of emphasis,” DiManno said. “We wanted to focus on the fact that it was Loudoun-grown fruit, made into wine in Loudoun.”
The award brings new visibility to the vineyard and restaurant at Loudoun’s northwestern edge as DiManno’s love of experimentation pays off.
“When things go wrong, I can usually figure out why. I can’t always fix them, but I can figure out why. At the same time, there’s some experimentation,” he said. “The ones that work, we stick with and the ones that don’t, we put them on the shelf.”
For more information about 868 Estate Vineyards and its award-winning Passito, go to 868estatevineyards.com.