By Jan Mercker

Aimee Henkle couldn’t figure out why a bustling town in the heart of Virginia wine country didn’t have a wine bar.

“There was no wine in Leesburg—it’s all beer,” Henkle said. “Leesburg to me is the gateway to DC’s wine country. … There are 45 wineries in Loudoun County, and most people have to come through Leesburg to get to these areas.”

Henkle and her husband, Todd, the owners of The Vineyards & Winery at Lost Creek north of Leesburg, decided to fix that. The couple opened Echelon Wine Bar in the heart of downtown Leesburg earlier this summer, a showcase for Lost Creek wines and cool grower-produced bottles from all over the world. The wine bar is located in a portion of the basement of the building that used to be home to the Leesburg Antique Emporium.

The Henkles got the project rolling two years ago and initially explored the idea of an in-town tasting room for their Loudoun-made wines—inspired by practices from the West Coast.

“If you go to California or Oregon, the vineyards are out in the countryside, so to get in front of more people, they’ll do tasting rooms in the more urban areas,” Henkle said. “We’ve been watching Leesburg really starting to flourish.”

The concept evolved into a full-on wine bar with 100 bottles from across the world and more than 30 wines by the glass. Echelon also features wine-friendly small plate dishes from Chef Landon Barnes, who also runs the culinary operations at Lost Creek.

For Aimee Henkle, Echelon’s wine director, the decision to move away from a Lost Creek tasting room grew from a sense of exploration and a desire to showcase Loudoun wines in the context of great wines from across the country and world. 

“What I really like to talk about and teach with is what our wines look like in the context of the world,” she said. “When you can showcase these great local wines right alongside that French rose, or right alongside something fun like a Spanish Albarino, it’s very eye opening for people I think and that’s what makes it a lot of fun.”

Henkle has carefully curated Echelon’s wine list with a focus on independent winemakers around the world.

“We wanted producers that were like us, like Lost Creek. Small, focused on sustainable farming, natural winemaking techniques, that are family owned, boutique,” Henkle said. “There are so many opportunities to find neat wines you wouldn’t have heard of or tried.”

The Henkles also wanted to create a space where consumers could learn about wine and where the region’s growing cadre of wine professionals and wine educators can get training without going into DC Echelon already has a range of fun consumer-oriented sessions on the calendar and will also offer official Wine & Spirit Education Trust classes for wine pros, filling a big need for local training, Henkle said.

“We’re finding on the winery side that we have a lot more sophisticated wine drinkers coming out to our tasting rooms,” Henkle said. “By adding certification courses for our staff, it really does elevate the entire experience as a whole for anybody who’s coming out to the tasting rooms.”

Opening a wine bar during a global pandemic hasn’t been without bumps, Henkle said, but as Northern Virginia moves through Phase Three reopening, the word is getting out. Echelon was initially slated to open in early April, but COVID-related restrictions pushed the opening back to late June. The wine bar has been operating indoors only with reduced seating capacity. But Henkle said Leesburg’s plans to close down their block of King Street on Friday and Saturday evenings through late October will allow them to add some outdoor seating.

Aimee and Todd Henkle are both engineers with a long history in the tech sector. But a passion for wine has always been part of their lives together. The couple, who have been married for 22 years, connected over a shared passion for wine and took their honeymoon to the wine mecca of Bordeaux, France in 1998.

“From the beginning of our relationship, wine’s always been there,” Henkle said.

The Henkles came to Loudoun in 2007 for technology jobs and started exploring the area’s burgeoning vineyard scene as wine lovers. For two scientists, the idea of running a winery was appealing, and when Lost Creek came up for sale in 2012, they jumped at the chance and hit the ground running.

As Todd Henkle shifted gears from engineering to winemaking with some hardcore, on-the-job training, the couple hired a consultant for their first three vintages. Todd hit a home run with his first solo vintage in 2015: the Lost Creek 2015 Reserve Chardonnay earned Best in Class honors at the 2017 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

The Henkles have also put a big emphasis on vineyard management over the past eight years, focusing on high-quality fruit and sustainable growing practices.

“We’re very focused on our vineyard quality. We’re very focused on sustainability,” Aimee Henkle said. “We really believe that the vineyard is where the wine is made, and in the cellar we’re just kind of curators of that.”

This year’s vintage is looking good, Henkle said, despite damage from mid-May frosts that wreaked havoc on Loudoun’s agricultural landscape. Lost Creek lost around a third of its chardonnay harvest from that late frost. But a recent summer dry spell has brought end-of-season optimism for a robust and flavorful vintage. 

Henkle said support from fans and followers cultivated at Lost Creek over the past eight years has set Echelon off on a firm footing downtown—despite less than ideal circumstances. And summer street closures offer more positive news as Leesburg’s new wine bar carves out a niche.

“What did help us is that we have a strong presence in the community through Lost Creek,” she said. “There’s nothing else like it in downtown.”

Echelon Wine Bar is located at 32 S. King St. in downtown Leesburg. For more information, go to echelonwinebar.com. For information on the Vineyards & Winery at Lost Creek, go to lostcreekwinery.com.