It sounds like a Virginia wine country fairytale: two talented young wine pros fall in love, get married and start their own winery. For Nate and Sarah Walsh, the dream becomes a reality with the opening of Walsh Family Wine near Hillsboro this weekend.
Nate Walsh is well known to Loudouners as the longtime winemaker for Sunset Hills Vineyard. Sarah Walsh has a background in fine dining and wine wholesale and importing. When the couple met in 2012, it was a match made in wine industry heaven.
“While we never had any grand plans, it always just seemed like we’d make a good team,” Nate Walsh said. “We always said around the dinner table that it seemed like at some point we should work together.”
In 2014. the couple eased into their own gig with a lease on the four-acre Bethany Ridge vineyard near Waterford. They produced their first bottles while holding down their day jobs, selling their very limited production to a handful of local restaurants.
“It was a fun project and we viewed it as if we don’t lose any money, we’re getting to spend this time together and she gets to teach me about her side of things and vice versa. We just were enjoying ourselves with it,” Walsh said.
In 2016, the Walshes had a chance to kick things up a notch with a lease on an additional 20 acres near Waterford, home of their Twin Notch vineyard wines.
“We really spent the last two years expanding and establishing really outstanding vineyard sites,” Walsh said. “The reason we put our eggs in this basket was that, in my experience, if you can find really great sites, it makes the rest of the process a lot easier. It makes it much easier to produce wines that are expressive and interesting and of a high quality. … We felt like with these sites we had as good as it’s going to get in this area.”
The following years were a busy but energizing time for the couple. Daughter June was born in 2016, and parenthood came along with huge leaps for their business. Driven by their passion and support from their team, investors and the Loudoun wine industry at large, Walsh was able to leave Sunset Hills in 2017 and focus on the new venture full time.
“We have a really great team. We have a great vineyard crew,” Walsh said. “The industry itself has always been really supportive of us. … That kind of a community and that kind of support goes a long way.”
The next challenge was finding a production facility and tasting room after several years operating as what Walsh describes as “homeless winemakers,” borrowing space at Sunset Hills and other wineries in the region. The final piece fell into place last year, as Vicki and Mark Fedor, owners of award-winning North Gate Vineyard, were looking to move out of the industry after more than 15 years. Last March, Walsh and business partner, local philanthropist Mike Wheeler, purchased the 26-acre North Gate property along with its tasting room and production facilities just outside of Hillsboro.
The Walshes and their team now manage 50 acres of vines, including 10 planted acres at North Gate along with leased vineyards in Waterford, Bluemont and Lovettsville. One of the hallmarks of Walsh Family Wine, Walsh said, will be offering wine lovers a sense of place, with a focus on the French concept of terroir, the idea that the place where grapes are grown brings out unique characteristics.
“What became important to us together as we were getting further into our wine careers was that, for us at least, the most interesting and memorable wines, the one thing they have in common is that they’re trying to reflect one single place. They’re usually from one vineyard, and they’re meant to reflect that vineyard.”
The passion for a sense of place is something the couple shares. Nate Walsh, 36, got his start at pioneering Virginia winery Horton Vineyards near Charlottesville and worked in Oregon and New Zealand before joining Sunset Hills in 2009. Sarah Walsh worked in sales for the respected Virginia-based fine wine distributor The Country Vintner, known for bringing terroir-focused European wines to D.C.-area consumers.
Walsh says letting their vineyards and the grapes grown there express themselves will be the backbone of the new company.
“When we took over Bethany Ridge [vineyard] and it dawned on us how great of a site that was, we talked about wanting to try to make wines that reflect all of these places,” he said. “It was important to us that we farm the property ourselves and that we farm it in a way that we feel is best to coax these wines out of it—and that we kind of get out of the way in the winery.”
Walsh Family Wine celebrates the grand opening of their tasting room Friday, March 15 through Sunday, March 17 with a full lineup of WFW wines, new releases and crepes from Petite Loulou. Walsh Family Wine is located at 16031 Hillsboro Road, Purcellville. For more information, go to walshfamilywine.com.