Looking to ride the rising wine tide in Harrisonburg? Here’s how. 

Rootstock Wine Bar and Provisions offers a range of area and regional wines. (Photo by Sarah Golibart Gorman)

Wine can be intimidating. Thousands of grape varieties and countless winemaking techniques result in a seemingly endless selection. Names in French, Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese and more add another layer of complexity for those trying to navigate the world of wine. Situated in the center of Shenandoah Valley wine country, a region of at least 40 wineries, vineyards and ciderworks designated by Virginia Wine, Harrisonburg is emerging as a hub to explore the diverse world of wine. 

“You could go your entire life and never drink the same bottle of wine twice,” said Lee Hartman, Bluestone Winery winemaker and co-owner of Rootstock Wine Bar and Provisions.

While intimidating for some (i.e. me), the boundless variety and exploration that wine offers is precisely what excites Hartman and Darryl Matthews, co-owner of Merge Coffee Company and its newest arm, Nightcap by Merge. 

Darryl Matthews of Nightcap by Merge gives pointers on wine pairings and cocktails. (Photo by Sarah Golibart Gorman)

In December, downtown Harrisonburg suddenly sprouted an unofficial wine district as Nightcap and Rootstock opened their doors within days of each other. With its five breweries, Harrisonburg has long been hailed as a beer town. However, the closure of Court Square’s Downtown Wine & Gourmet left the local wine market untapped, or rather, uncorked, until now. Combined, Rootstock and Nightcap offer a range of options catering to the wine-curious as well as the full-blown oenophiles.

Part of the historic Liberty Street Mercantile renovation, Rootstock retains its historic charm. The floor to ceiling windows represent the doors that once opened the 100-year-old carriage house, and the weathered wooden posts framing the bar hint at the space’s past as a hub of activity—an energy that Hartman sought to preserve.

Hartman’s philosophy that “wine is something you get to do” is reflected in Rootstock’s monthly and weekly events and specials, like Second Saturday Tasting and Fourth Saturday “Wine Amongst Friends,” all designed to introduce patrons to new wines. Simplifying the wine experience, Hartman prices each glass at $9, regardless of the variety, allowing guests to choose based on preference rather than price.

The Hot Honey Margarita is one of the drinks offered at Nightcap by Merge. (Photo by Sarah Golibart Gorman)

For those who find a favorite, Rootstock offers the option to take home a bottle or a growler. That’s right, growlers aren’t just for beer—or kombucha. While Rootstock offers older, pricier bottles from Bluestone and other vineyards, Hartman is a proponent of the affordable, environmentally friendly keg of younger wine. 

“We don’t need to put such a pinnacle on wines that are best twenty years from now,” he said. “Sometimes what you need is a really great wine that tastes great tonight.” 

“Taste rules everything” at Nightcap by Merge, housed in a space once dedicated to coffee roasting. Today, racks of wine and cozy seating create an ambiance reminiscent of a favorite corner coffee spot. However, instead of coffee, Merge offers wine-based cocktails, craft beers, fusion foods, and desserts like homemade peach pie topped with Kline’s ice cream. And as of March 17, brunch.

Nightcap makes ordering wine accessible by numbering them. So instead of potentially butchering, “Li Veli Primonero Rosso,” from Salento, Italy, you can simply say, “I’d like a glass of number seven.” 

The bar also showcases wines closer to home, such as House of Brown, a sister label to Brown Estate, Napa Valley’s first Black-owned estate winery. 

“It’s important to us to have some representation,” Matthews said of his curation approach.  

Wine-based cocktails offer a delightful way to explore new wine varieties. At Nightcap, these cocktails are crafted with fortified wines, which have been strengthened with a distilled spirit like brandy. This fortification not only increases the alcohol content but also enhances the shelf life and flavor profile. 

Nightcap’s Hot Honey Margarita, for example, features Quinquina Blanc, a fortified wine flavored with botanicals and spices like orange peel and cardamom. Despite its fortification, “you’re not going to leave feeling absolutely sauced,” assures Matthews, as Quinquina Blanc has an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 17%, less than half of tequila’s 40%.

As both Rootstock and Nightcap prepare their patios for the upcoming spring and summer seasons, both locations are hoping to entice folks to take in a glass, a flight or a wine-based cocktail. But remember, don’t take the experience too seriously.

“Think about what you’re drinking,” Hartman said. “What is it called? Where’s it from? How old is it? What do you taste? And just enjoy it.”

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