RVA’s Hidden Gem Revealed – “The Castle” at Dover Hall

River City Magazine | September / October 2019

A stately new venue has swept gracefully onto the Richmond event scene, and in the past year has become a highly sought-after destination for weddings, bed-and-breakfast guests, and corporate functions.

Picture an extravagant showcase of English Tudor craftsmanship on 55 rolling acres. Then, add a shocking 38,000 square feet of sumptuously-appointed interior space with touches of Elizabethan and Gothic influence filled with approximately $11 million in prized artwork and ornate antiques. Although your mind’s eye may have placed this lavish estate in the European countryside, it’s actually about 5 miles from Richmond’s Short Pump area. Called “the castle in Goochland” by many, Dover Hall Estates is the former residence of Dennis and Cindy Prior and their son, Logan. The family sold the property in 2013, and since 2017, the property has been managed by Dover Hall Experiences, owned by Jeff Ottaviano and business partner Chad Hornik. If you have driven by “the castle” very recently, you may have noticed the rows of newly-planted grapevines near the property’s Manakin Road entrance.

Jeff is not the stodgy hotelier in a stiff suit that you may have envisioned as the proprietor of such a dignified establishment. Although I’m sure Jeff cleans up quite nicely, he is an affable, relaxed businessman who seems to be well-liked and respected by each staff member we pass on our way to chat in the property’s stunning two-story library. Given Jeff’s previous ownership of a wine bar, I felt it appropriate to begin by exploring his interest in wine.

“I’m Italian; I’ve always been a fan,” he tells me, chuckling. “I was given wine by my grandfather at five years old, for Sunday supper - he told us it was Italian coke. Of course, after one sip, we would spit it out.” But apparently, the taste “stuck”. In January 2010, he left a successful job as a pilot to open The Wine Loft (4035 Whittall Way, Henrico). He was asked often after his transition if he made the move from pilot to wine bar owner just because he loves wine, and he tells me that he just saw a great business opportunity, since Richmond did not have another wine bar at the time. He adds - “if I just loved wine, I would have taken all that money, and bought a lot of wine with it!” Point well taken… That being said, he notes his gratitude for the opportunity to combine a successful business venture with something he loves.

Jeff shares that from the beginning of their proprietorship, he and Chad have had thoughts of growing grapes on the rolling landscape of the property. The North / South orientation of the land and its naturally effective drainage lend themselves well to growing the two grapes they have chosen - Viognier (white) and Cabernet Franc (red). These are two popular, hearty wine grape varietals for Virginia’s soil and weather conditions. They have initially planted around 4,000 vines in close to four acres of ground. Time will tell what their exact yield will be, although the projected wine output is approximately 850 cases. The duo plans to gradually add more vines in the 30 available acres in their front field, and to continue to experiment with other varietals.

Bottling of the first fruit, which is thought to be some of the best, is expected in fall of 2020. No one can predict Mother Nature’s influence on output, but current plans for the grapes include an in-house label for Dover Hall events, a wine tasting room (in the current garage space), and a house wine for their next major project: the opening of an on-site restaurant called The White Oak, slated to open in early 2020. Eventually, Jeff and Chad would love to collaborate with other winemakers - from California to France and Italy, and down to South America – to bring other unique labels to the new tasting room.

Jeff and Chad both have extensive experience in the wine industry - including ownership of restaurants well-known for extensive wine lists. The Wine Loft was previously owned by Jeff and wife Christy, and Chad’s Richmond Melting Pot restaurant boasts a wine list with over 750 bottles. They have both served at the Virginia Governor’s Cup judges’ table, and participate in the Virginia Wine Summit. Chad, who is a wine steward, or sommelier, has also taught the Fundamentals of Wine course in Reynolds Community College’s Hospitality Management program. He credits the hands-on experience of traveling to well-known wine destinations worldwide as the most influential part of his education.

Because this is their first foray into growing their own grapes, they called in the pros to import grafts from California, plant them, and bring the vineyard to its first full year of growth. Beyond the vine, acclaimed winemaker Matthieu Finot of the award-winning King Family Vineyards will be processing the finished fruit into Dover Hall’s signature vintage.

Curious, I asked these wine lovers to name their favorite wine. “Whichever is in my hand!” Jeff quips, laughing. He is known to some as a Rosé guy, but he tells me that his mood, the weather, and food pairings all drive his choices. “Soon,” he continues, “my favorite will be Seven Lady wine.” Seven Lady Vineyards is the name chosen for Dover Hall’s newest project, referencing seven ladies in the owners’ lives - Jeff’s wife Christy and daughters Jordan and Madison, and Chad’s wife Kathleen and daughters Stella, Siena, and Vivian. Chad adds that his favorite wine is whichever he is enjoying with family, friends, and other wine lovers - rounding out the idea that wine, for both, is about the experience and not just the bottle. A grand opening will be forthcoming when the tasting room project has been completed.

It is a huge undertaking to manage a property of this size, and Jeff and Chad have experimented with multiple revenue streams to keep the business thriving. The Bed and Breakfast at Dover Hall officially opened in January 2019. The “castle” frequently hosts public functions, including Murder Mystery dinners, the ever-popular and usually sold-out Princess parties, wine dinners and tastings, and more. In July of 2019, Dover Hall acquired The Wine Loft with plans to offer an additional option for events, since they are currently receiving over a hundred inquiries monthly from potential clients. Bartizan, which will occupy the space currently housing The Wine Loft and Spirited Art on Whittall Way (both previously owned by Jeff and wife Christy) will be completely renovated in early September to accommodate smaller-scale events with the same exceptional service and highly refined culinary experience that Executive Chef Lee Hendrickson provides at Dover Hall.

Even if you don’t require their stellar service for wedding or corporate events, see Dover Hall’s website for a list of public offerings, and follow their Facebook page to stay apprised of the latest updates on their growing vines.

Photography by Jean Haynes