By Kelly McConomy
On a lively summer’s day in June, Z~Oenology, along with old Sunset Hills Estate Club members Kathy and Craig Stewart (who’ve been to more than 200 Virginia wineries) and vineyard owner Mike Kanye, were chin-wagging in the historic pavilion. Wenner Farm-winery property. Mike called me aside to give me the scoop.
Who is a journalist who can resist the prospect of big news? But the possibility of a supernatural secret in the winery was elusive. I like to guess. So my first thought was that he sold the winery. 50 West, Sunset Hills’ sister winery in Middleburg, has been on the market for a while. no.
Mike, who used to race, owned ten cars, a 1953 Chevy 3100 truck, and a 1940 John Deere tractor, so odds were good he added to the collection. This wasn’t exactly news – at least not for the wine column. So my second guess was that he bought another winery. He was looking to develop a new drug. No, not a new winery.
Three times is magic! The Sunset Hills Vineyard has been voted Loudoun’s 2022 Best Winery by Loudoun Times readers for the third year in a row. With 50 fine wineries and tasting rooms in Loudoun County, this three-peat ingredient was no small feat.
In an interview with Mike about Canney’s recent coup (50 West had made the 2022 Governor’s Case for their 2019 red Ashby Gap mix), I asked him if he’d ever considered selling the whole shebang and sailing around the world — or some 30-year pastime. Plus years of hard work and starting 13 earning businesses. Mike replied that he enjoyed the agricultural aspect of vineyard ownership. But at this point, he wanted to own a winery, not work at it seven days a week all year round.
Little did I know when we chatted about how to celebrate Sunset’s hat-trick, as there was a deal hanging in the pipeline to sell not only 50 West but Sunset Hills Vineyard and all of the affiliated estates as well. She swore to keep secret the Best Loudoun Winery trifecta until the winners were officially announced to the public. Mike was silent on the wineries’ nondisclosure agreement related to the sale negotiations.
We parted ways when Mike had to go back to work. The next day I got a text message from Diane and Mike telling me they had sold both 50 West and Sunset Hills Vineyards. After the shock subsided, curiosity began. The following weekend, I was introduced to charming and humble new owners Katie and Chris Key.
Chris was raised in Sterling. Katie is from Modesto, California. The couple met at a wine tasting event in Mendocino. Regarded as an avid wine aficionado, wineries were a definite destination east and west. Once in 2009 while visiting the DMV, Chris took Katie to Sunset Hills for his first Virginia winery date.
Impressed by the caliber of wine, The Keys often revisited the Sunset Hills with friends and family when moving to Virginia permanently in 2012. Much in the way Mike and Diane got into the winemaking game, when selling their technology Katie and Chris started looking for suitable properties To start their own vineyard and winery.
It takes years to build a winery brand and grow a vineyard from the ground up. Z ~ Oenology has grown a mass of Viognier grapes several years ago whose fruit is now only bottled as wine. (Try Sunset Viognier 2020. It’s surprising!) Katie and Chris looked at Fauquier and Rappahannock but were hoping to stay near their homes in Great Falls and Bluemont. They did not want to wait five or six years to build, in search of vines that would yield press-ready fruits.
Sunset Hills has appealed to the Keys on many levels, emotional and realistic. Mike explains that growing and moving grapes sustainably was of paramount importance to the establishment of both wineries. Solar-powered Sunset Hills makes wine from sun-kissed water, from vine to wine. Rooftop solar panels create approximately 75 percent of electrical energy demand. SHV and 50 West each have two car charging stations.
Canney’s progressive environmental proactivity were turning points for Katie and Chris. As Mike notes, “Loudon County in particular, but the greater area of Washington, D.C., is inhabited by a well-educated population who appreciates our endeavors to re: sustainable growth practices and reduce the carbon footprint of wine production. Wine has been made for thousands of years, but the industry is now only chasing the impact of changing Climate, and advocates for reduced environmental impact – from managing vineyards and making wine to bottling and distribution.
Kanye continues, “Agritourism has become big business. People love to see fruits grow from breaking buds to harvesting. They want to be part of the experience, to meet people who grow grapes and blend wine. Our winemaker events have always been a scam. And winemakers have started Award winners creating their own winery or leading wine production on some of Virginia’s most iconic vineyards. We are all about authenticity and take exceptional pride in our estate-grown plants.”
50 West’s property listing came with the possibility that wine production would remain dependent on Sunset Hills for three years to deplete stock. Wanting to land, Katie and Chris make an offer to Diane and Mike they can’t refuse for all of their Virginia properties and all of the farm’s winery business.
Throughout July, the Keys hosted wine club evenings for members to learn about “the new Diane and Mike” as they were initially affectionately called. With five wine clubs and over 2,000 members, Katie and Chris had plenty of hands to shake hands with and names to remember.
At the Estate Club event (the original and older SHV Wine Club), Diane, Mike introduced Katie and Chris as perfect partners to continue the legacy the Kannis started over twenty years ago when they first planted grapevines in 1999 and painstakingly restored a 19th-century Amish barn. It was built and renovated and houses the SHV tasting room. Kris and Katie are both very business savvy, with Katie completing the couple’s management pieces as per her PR experience. They plan to boost production, upgrade the winery experience, and build the brand bigger and better than ever before.
Keys is ready to roll out 2021 bottled wines crafted by winemaker and vineyard manager Jason Burrows and poured by the crew of SHV and 50 West along with the veteran leadership of wine ambassadors David Parker (Sommelier Certified) and Audrey Seiler (WSET Certified), Tasting Room Manager Aubrey Fisher, and Kevin Donnelly Director of Wine Clubs. Let’s raise the Rosé Cup (Sunset Hills or 50 West) to Canneys and the Keys. Congratulations to all. And the…. cheers!
Z ~ Oenology Note: Stay tuned for the latest naming of the Sunset Hills red blend called The Elegant Lady, the definitive finale of the Canney winery dynasty era. Oooh! Was this supposed to be a secret?
BREAKING NEWS: Since this article was published, Sunset Hills Vineyard Tasting Room Manager Aubry Fisher has been appointed Director of Operations for Sunset Hills and 50 West Vineyards. “We are going to build something great, all of you! Join us on the journey.”