It's Not Napa, but It's Near
Sunday, June 3, 2007
For a Washingtonian, there's one very important thing about Virginia's wine country: It's a lot closer than California.
You can sleep in on a Saturday morning and still be at a tasting counter by lunchtime. You can work your way through several friendly and free (or close to it) winery visits in a day. Forgot the bread and cheese? No worries; someone will sell it to you.
With some planning, you can have dinner at one of the nation's most acclaimed restaurants. Even that sky-high bill seems less painful when compared with the cost of a coast-to-coast plane ticket.
In a matter of decades, the Virginia wine industry has grown from oddity -- there were six wineries in 1979, according to the Virginia Wineries Association -- to, well, an industry, with 122 wineries as of last year. (California has 1,867.) And many are eager for you to visit. They really, really want you to like them.
Last weekend, to celebrate our anniversary, my husband and I visited half a dozen Blue Ridge wineries, as well as a meadery and a buffalo farm. We toured a historic mansion and had a world-class dinner. And we were still home in time to watch TV on Sunday night.
Try doing that when you have to allow two hours to clear airport security.
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The tour guide at Barboursville Vineyards in Orange County could have been speaking for all the state's eager-to-please vintners when he told visitors, with only a touch of defensiveness: "We make good wine in Virginia -- and better all the time. Yeah, I know they pay me to say that, but I really believe it."
Barboursville, which supplied the wine for a reception last month during Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Virginia, sits between the homes of two great anti-monarchists, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The 19th-century presidents used to stop over at Gov. James Barbour's house when they were on their way to visit each other.
Jefferson's Monticello is an architectural wonder, and he also helped design the homes of both Madison and Barbour. Madison's Montpelier is in the midst of an ambitious renovation that has removed extensive 20th-century updates to restore the house to its appearance in Madison's day. Barbour's house, about 13 miles to the south, burned down in 1884; the picturesque brick ruins remain part of the estate that has become Barboursville Vineyards.
The winery, one of the state's oldest -- it was founded in 1976 -- was our destination after Montpelier, because if it's good enough for the queen, it should be good enough for me. And the weekend winery tours are free, shorter than the tour of Montpelier, and educational in their own way.
You don't have to take the tour to try a tasting, which costs $4 per person. For that, you get a souvenir wineglass and a printed list with the names of the wines, descriptions and prices. Start with the white wines, work your way up through the reds and end with the sweet dessert drinks.