By Eric J. Wallace
The tree-lined grounds, grapevines and renovated 19th century farmhouse tasting room rise like an island amid miles of rolling fields and pastures characterized by old barns, rusty pickup trucks, livestock and tractors. Parking lots are filled with cars; manicured lawns, porches, stone patios, and outdoor seating areas bustling with visitors.
Some 9 miles from downtown Culpeper, the 165-acre Old House Vineyards feels delightfully removed. The farmhouse’s front porch opens onto a wide grassy lawn centered by a fountain, punctuated by flower gardens, and shaded by hardwoods. There are gaming areas and a tabled nook for food trucks. Views include 32 acres of trellised grape vines, a private lake and peninsula outfitted for wedding ceremonies and a horizon of Blue Ridge Mountains.
But this is more than another farm-vineyard in a pretty location. It’s the state’s first all-inclusive, one-stop shop for artisanal craft beverages – be they spirits, wine or beer. Patrick Kearney and his wife, Allyson, founded Old House in 1999 as a winery. They added a distillery in 2015 and a brewery in early 2019.
The concept might seem the product of a canny long-term investment strategy, but Patrick says the evolution was more seat-of-the-pants.
“There wasn’t a master plan,” Patrick says. “We were reacting to opportunities and situations as they arose, and one thing just kept suggesting the next.”
The vineyard began as a family retreat. Before Old House, Patrick and Allyson lived in Fairfax, where Patrick built museum displays for clients like the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C. He discovered the abandoned dairy farm in 1998 while working on The Museum of Culpeper History.
The couple envisioned the spot as a weekend getaway in the country, but they fell in love with the pace of life while renovating the farmhouse. Talking with neighbors inspired an agricultural venture. “Basically, Mom and Dad were oenophiles and got excited about the idea of retiring to grow wine grapes,” says the couple’s son, Ryan Kearney, 28, who works as the distiller and general manager.
The Kearneys hired consultants and planted 25 acres of vines, including vidal blanc, chardonnay, tannat, cabernet franc and chambourcin. Initially, they sold grapes to other winemakers. But by 2005 they’d installed a winery, hired a full-time winemaker, and relocated to Culpeper.
The seeds for the distillery were sown on the vineyard’s 10th birthday. “At that point, Old House had become more than an experiment,” Patrick says. “We got together as a family and decided to up the ante.”
They started by adding sparkling and fortified wines. The latter led to a partnership with nearby Belmont Farm Distillery to make brandy from old wine and grape mash.
“But if you’re set up for grains-based distilling, making brandy is super hard on your equipment,” says Ryan. Sulfur dioxide added to preserve wine erodes copper stills. Belmont subsequently dropped brandy-related services in late-2012. Unable to find an in-state substitute, the Kearneys chose to open their own distillery.
They spent the next two years working with Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority on permitting and red tape. Meanwhile, Ryan came onboard full-time. He met Manassas spirits-maker Keith Ballurio at the Artisan Craft Distilling Institute in Washington in 2013 and hired him shortly thereafter.
“When Ryan told me what they planned to do, I thought, ‘Now that’s interesting,’” says Ballurio, 62, who was planning to launch his own operation. “I love brandy – but I’m obsessed with historical rums and tequilas. The bell went off and I said, ‘Look, you guys have a great venue. What if we join forces, expand your distillery concept, and do a tasting room?’”
Ballurio worked with Ryan to develop a lineup that now includes deliciously offbeat treats like a port-style chambourcin aged in house bourbon barrels, sweet vodkas made from different blends of grapes, a barrel-aged Virginia tequila called Blue Agave Nectar, five types of 18th-century-style rums, and more. They make brandy for about 10 to 15 vineyards as well.
Patrick’s design expertise was applied to the tasting room. Themed as a World War II officer’s club, the building is sided with rough-hewn cedar, decorated with pinup-style war effort ads, and flanked by old military trucks and an ambulance. The 50-by-20-foot interior doubles as a museum. Patrons stand at a long hardwood bar surrounded by dark wainscotting, leather furnishings and walls hung with artifacts like antique rifles, uniforms, medals and flags. Display cases interweave the narratives of local veterans with globally significant events.
The distillery’s success led the Kearneys to add more draws. Weekends soon brought a regular schedule of live music. Next came one-day festivals, food trucks and a wood-fired pizza oven.
“People started asking, ‘When’s the brewery going in?’” says Ryan. “And we’d joke that it was in the works.”
The statement became a reality in late-2017 when a storm flattened a dilapidated dairy barn behind the farmhouse. Gazing at the exposed foundation, Patrick mused they may as well turn it into a brewery. Ryan ran with the suggestion.
“Keith, myself, and [winemaker Chris Harris] are all big into craft beer,” Ryan says. “We’d been thinking about all the cool stuff you could do with barrel-aging since the distillery went in. We knew combining that with land to grow hops, wheat and barley, could create something really amazing.”
Construction on the 14,000-square-foot facility began in 2018. Patrick again handled the design. Drinking space was divided into two areas. The Pavilion is a long 200-seat beerhall backed by a huge marble-topped bar with flamed maple encasements, and enclosed by two walls of muntin windows. Tent-like canvas ceilings are hung with vintage stained-glass chandeliers; seating comes in the form of communal wooden tables.
On the opposite end of the building is a 70-seat replica of a Victorian-era Irish pub. Touches include elaborately patterned 1-inch antique tiling around an ornately carved black wooden bar, century-old stained-glass windows, a fireplace surrounded by vintage leather sofas, exposed rafters and more.
“I wanted to commemorate our family history,” says Patrick of the design. His grandfather had owned an inn and tavern in Ireland in the 1920s and ‘30s.
Brewer James Hanley, 27, was hired to create a lineup of refreshing session beers. He keeps at least eight on tap – and launched with a pilsner, blonde ale, saison, dry Irish stout, brown ale, ESB, and a pair of New England and citra IPAs. New offerings come weekly, including bottled reserves like an imperial stout matured for six months in corn whisky barrels from the distillery.
Working with the farm manager, Hanley has planted 30 acres with various wheats and barleys, and has plans for a hops yard. He contracts with Copper Fox Distillery for malting.
In the future, visitors can look forward to collaborations, such as whiskies aged in house port barrels, barley wines aged by way of sherry, tequilas influenced by spiced rum or chambourcin reserves. “The possibilities are virtually endless,” says Ryan.