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Winery, distillery and brewpub tours in the Virginia countryside

The Virginia wine country isn't just about wine anymore.

In the heart of what local wine educator Laurie Forster calls the holy grail of the winemaking region of the state, you can still find cab francs and viogniers, but will also discover nascent distilleries producing fine small-batch whiskeys and gins, and selling their products on-site. And the area between Charlottesville and Staunton has given rise to the Brew Ridge Trail -- breweries that offer tours and tastings of award-winning beers.

Sampling your way through the region makes for an excellent day trip or quick weekend getaway, especially when you add locavore restaurants, sweet-smelling peach orchards, scenic hikes and swimming holes in the mix. Just remember to bring a designated driver.

Stops to make along the way | Photos: Scenes from the road


Catoctin Creek Distillery

120 W. Main St, Purcellville, VA 20132  | 540-751-8404  |  Web site »

Just an hour from Washington, in the town of Purcellville, husband and wife Scott and Rebecca Harris are operating the first distillery in Loudoun County since Prohibition. Located in an out-of-the-way industrial park, the Catoctin Creek Distilling Co. defies the expectations of the romantic view of American whiskey-making. Instead, from the gleaming copper still to a space-age looking temperature control tent, to the neatly stacked barrels, there is something almost clinical about the way Rebecca, a former chemical engineer, and Scott, a former software engineer, run their operation.

The result is a collection of high quality, handcrafted, small-batch spirits, including the most popular Roundstone Rye, a four-month aged 100-percent rye whiskey. The distillery also produces a gin, brandies (from locally grown grapes, of course), and a wonderful un-aged white whiskey that serves as an ode to the kind of 19th-century moonshine that was once so popular in Virginia. White whiskies are often uncomplicated and quite harsh, but this one is floral and citrusy, with a smoothness and drinkability that is the greatest testament to the care and attention to detail that the Harrises put into their operation.

Scott is an enthusiastic tour guide, giving his guests a demonstration that includes the processes of fermentation, distillation, aging and bottling. During the week, visitors can see the distillery in production. The Harrises also offer seminars on the business of craft distilling and hold bottling parties, where guests help run the bottler and sign and note the bottles they fill.


Copper Fox Distillery

9 River Ln., Sperryville, VA 22740  | 540-987-8554  |  Web site »

In direct contrast to the modern setup at Catoctin, the Copper Fox distillery in Sperryville fulfills the wildest romantic ideas of American whiskey-making. The operation is located in an old barn with its tractor-powered barley mill (and sometimes an old yellow dog) sitting out front. But if the Sperryville distillery is more rustic, it is no less refined. CEO and master distiller Rick Wasmund learned his craft in Scotland and brings new-world innovations to the ancient techniques to produce something pretty special: an original North American single malt whisky.

Wasmund malts his barley by hand on a malting floor before smoking the grains with apple and cherry wood. The result is a one-of-a-kind spirit with a complex, earthy flavor. The distillery also makes a fantastic spicy rye whiskey, composed largely of Virginia rye and filled out with its own signature smoked malt.

The distillery store is open from 10 to 6 p.m., and bottles of the single malt and rye are available at the distillery store, as well as unaged versions of the same spirits, which can be used as white whiskies or bought with small aging barrels and oak chips, allowing enthusiasts to experiment with aging the spirits at home.


Blue Mountain Brewery

9519 Critzers Shop Rd., Afton, VA 22920  | 540-456-8020

The best way to experience Blue Mountain Brewery is to sit outside on the large, trellis-covered patio on a sunny day. Winding hop vines climb staked fences along the edge of the property. Beyond them rise the rocky peaks of the mountains in Shenandoah National Park. Take that view and throw in a delicious Full Nelson Pale Ale that is brewed a few feet away using hops from the vines you're looking at. Now add a pizza topped with sausage and cheese that come from farms on the other side of the valley. Together, they're the perfect reminder that you are far from Washington.

The four-year-old Blue Mountain Brewery has been making inroads in the D.C. market: Northern Virginia bars are beginning to put the full-bodied, crisply hopped Full Nelson on tap, or occasionally carry the seasonal Dark Hollow, a rich, potent imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels.

But the Afton brew pub shows off a much wider range of beers: The refreshing Kolsch 151, which won a third-place medal over dozens of competitors at last year's Great American Beer Festival, is rarely found in the D.C. area. The same goes for the complex Mandolin, a sweet, malty biere de garde that combines Belgian Trappist yeasts and German hops. Thankfully, you can bring home fresh draft beer in a growler (prices range from $7.50 to $20), or grab a six-pack from a cooler near the bar.

Free tours of the small brewery are offered on weekend afternoons, but those curious about the locally grown hops or the styles of beer crafted by brewer Taylor Smack, you can learn just as much by grabbing a seat at the bar and ordering a sampler of six draft beers for $5. The bartenders are laid-back and helpful, and if you're lucky, Smack himself will hang out to chat.


Devils Backbone Brewing Company

200 Mosbys Run, Roseland, VA 22967  | 434-361-1001  |  Web site »

D.C. beer lovers might be familiar with Devils Backbone brewer Jason Oliver from his stints at the now-closed Virginia Beverage Co. in Alexandria or the Gordon Biersch near Verizon Center. But Oliver has truly come into his own since moving to Devils Backbone in 2008. Oliver picked up four medals at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival, and another four medals there in 2010. Four beers also picked up medals at the 2010 World Beer Cup, where Devils Backbone was awarded champion brewery and Oliver was named top brewmaster in the small brew pub category.

Oliver says he has brewed about 60 beers at Devils Backbone, with 10 on tap at any given time. (Get a sampler of all 10 drafts for $12 before deciding which to order.)

Devils Backbone has the feeling of a hunting lodge, with worn wooden floors and stuffed and mounted wildlife over the fireplace. Grab a table on one of the two patios for a view of the triple-humped mountain and the craggy peaks of nearby Wintergreen ski resort. The brewery hosts mountain bike races and trail running races in the summer, as well as outdoor concerts.


Afton Mountain Vineyard

234 Vineyard Lane, Afton, VA 22920  | 540-456-8667  |  Web site »

The first vines of cabernet sauvignon, pinot and Gewurztraminer were planted on this hilltop nearly a thousand feet above sea level in 1979. It is not surprising, then, that after sampling the fare elsewhere, maturity is practically a note you can taste in Afton Mountain wines.

The estate, nestled at the top of a winding road that offers a picturesque view of the Blue Ridge, is in the midst of a makeover intended to make it even more of a destination; in 2009, Elizabeth and Tony Smith bought the winery, and with their son, Hunter, recently opened a tasting house in the cabinlike home where the former owners lived. (An outdoor events space is expected to open in September.)

Spend a few extra dollars and do a reserve wine tasting, which will give you a peek at the dry wines the vineyard has to offer, including a pair of fine Italian-style reds that hint at Chianti. It is a rare, delightful sighting in a region that has so fully embraced French-style wines, it feels like all you taste are cabernet franc and viognier.

Count on snacking elsewhere, however; with all the local dining around, it seems a shame to squander your appetite on the spare selection of chips, cheeses and meats here.


Veritas Vineyard and Winery

151 Veritas Lane, Afton, VA 22920  | 540-456-8000  |  Web site »

This warm and attractive winery -- just minutes from Afton Mountain -- has the look of an airy lodge; no wonder visitors tend to settle down for a bottle of wine and boisterous conversation, instead of high-tailing it to the next vineyard. Make your visit extraordinary by going in for a 20-minute tour before your tasting. It is offered a few times each day by reservation; while reserving a spot, pre-order a picnic lunch for $15 (on our recent visit, the cheese plates had long since sold out, leaving us nothing to snack on).

The green, sprawling grounds at Veritas beg for outdoor events, and once a month in the summer, cars pour into the gravel parking lot after closing time for just that: Evening concerts take place on the lawn with buffet dinners and wines served by the glass.

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