Everything's better by the bunch in Virginia wine country. Grapes, cows, friends . . .
That's true especially in the wintertime, when buddies in the back seat are as welcome as a spit cup after a foul chardonnay. The terrain is already desolate enough, what with grapevines sitting naked in prim little rows and most weekend tipplers lounging snugly, smugly at home. Really, isn't a vineyard in the winter as bleak and useless as a sledding hill in July?
Winter finds relaxed staff and off-season specials at many wineries: A recent tasting at First Colony Winery, above.
(Jay Paul For The Washington Post)
Bah, I say. While the rest of the year sees more oenophiles traipsing through wine country -- or posers, like me, who put the "low" in merlot -- winter is a prime time to go a-tasting. Crowds are light, roads empty, the leafless vistas are amazing (so many gorgeous homes, so little respect for your own shanty afterward) and bored pourers become very chatty.
And many wineries have weekend events to lure you in. For example, Loudoun Valley Vineyards (540-882-3375, www.loudounvalleyvineyards.com) offers Winter Soup Days through March; $12.50 gets you a bowl of soup, a basket of bread, a glass of wine and an excuse to scrape yourself off the sofa.
Actually, I don't need an excuse. One wintry weekend each year, my wife and I grab some friends, pack our overnight bags and hit the Old Dominion's sip-and-spit circuit. It's our annual shot to fill the wine rack with something other than remnants from the Total Beverage bargain bin. In bringing reinforcements, we avoid the problem twosomes encounter if things get complicated: Who's gonna talk us out of buying vino that smells like heaven and tastes like leather? Who's gonna be the designated driver after chugging too much of Virginia's finest? (The secret to a safe trip: Pass on the reds and stop sampling after two tasting rooms.)
We've focused on the wineries in Northern Virginia an hour or so from the Beltway and those near Charlottesville, at least two hours away. We've found lodgings that are group-friendly, comfy and affordable -- a troika that's harder to come by than a $10 bottle of anything in these parts. Here are four choices for a couple of couples or a family, all convenient to wineries.
The Cabin at Kincora, Keswick, Va.
"Stay as long as you want -- no one has booked the cabin for tomorrow night," owner Kate Bailey told us last month upon check-in. She's lucky: If it weren't for our love of full-time employment, we'd still be there.
Built in the early '90s, Bailey's cabin is a plush two-bedroom, two-bath cedar affair with a front porch right out of "Petticoat Junction," a back deck and a huge screened-in porch. A dining/kitchen/living area features the sort of stylish-but-lived-in furniture you wish you had in your home, plus a fireplace stacked high with logs, a satellite TV and shelves groaning with books and games. Breakfast is do-it-yourself, courtesy of the supplies (eggs, croissants, bacon, OJ) Bailey leaves in the fridge and cabinets.
Bailey and her husband, Jerry, live a couple of hundred yards away and the cabin itself is relatively close to the road. But the only signs of life we encountered were a gregarious pack of pooches and a misshapen family sheep. "We tried to shear it ourselves," Kate explained, "but it didn't work."