By Maryann Haggerty
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
At Barboursville, you walk from counter to counter as you sample up to 15 wines. At a smaller winery, one pourer would talk you through a procession of four or five wines. We never felt pressure to buy, but of course it's allowed, and many bottles cost less than $20.
A teeny-tiny sip is really all you need from each glass. Spit or dump the extra into the buckets -- unless it's really good and you're not driving.
You're allowed to be as pretentious as your friends can stomach. But blessedly, we didn't hear anyone launch into full-wine-snob mode. That's not going to happen in Napa, believe me.
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From Barboursville, we headed an hour north to Rappahannock County, where the tiny county seat was laid out by (and named for) George Washington but now revolves around one restaurant, the Inn at Little Washington.
Michelle Schwartz, the hostess at our bed-and-breakfast, the Heritage House on Main Street, greeted us warmly and then asked, "What time is your reservation?"
She was a bit anxious for us, because it was just a few minutes before 6. I assured her we weren't expected up the street until 6:15 p.m. Plenty of time to change into a little black dress and heels.
The other guests at the five-room B&B all had early reservations, too, she told us. I suspect that's because people who sleep in a room at the inn itself have dibs on the best reservation times. Room rates there start at $410 per night -- more on weekends.
The inn's popularity has created a spinoff business for a handful of other B&Bs in the town of Washington. At some of these, during the slow times of the year, you can score a room for less than $200, plus tax.
Perhaps there are people who go to the Inn at Little Washington just because they have a hankering for Medallion of Rabbit Loin Wrapped in House Cured Pancetta Surrounding a Lilliputian Rabbit Rib Roast. In the real world, though, the many-starred restaurant is for special occasions. Yes, the food is wonderful. Yes, the service is unbelievable. Yes, so are the prices. And, yes, my husband is just about the most romantic, thoughtful man in the world for planning our anniversary there.
But the sommelier seemed just a bit perplexed at one of our questions: What Virginia wines would she recommend to go with our dinner?
Although the inn trumpets local foods -- it provided the food for that Virginia-centric reception for the queen -- its list of Virginia wines is, shall we say, selective. In a wine list of perhaps 50 pages, one page showcased the Old Dominion.
The sommelier steered us away from a red we had sampled earlier at Barboursville -- no surprise, since even the folks there had told us it still needed a few years to mature -- and onto another red from the Veritas Winery west of Charlottesvile, the 2005 Petit Verdot. It went wonderfully with both my Veal Parmesan Reincarnated and his Beef Two Ways.
To sort of keep to our Virginia theme, we had an Italian pinot grigio with our first and second courses. I assured my husband that, without a doubt, it would sort of remind him of the local pinot grigio we had tasted a few hours earlier.
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After a few years as Washington innkeepers, Michelle Schwartz and her husband, Gary, have become experts on what all those anniversary celebrants -- their house was full of them -- should do in and around Rappahannock County after they've had that big dinner. Where to hike? Shenandoah National Park, of course. Where to eat dinner if you're staying a second night? Four and Twenty Blackbirds in Flint Hill.
And how about some more wineries? For this, Michelle handed out photocopied directions to Rappahannock Cellars and then, via unpaved back road, to Linden Vineyards, two of her favorites.
Both are pleasant places that lure you to relax, chat a bit, maybe have a picnic in the shade. Linden has tables under the trees and a deck where you can eat warm baguettes and wedges of local cheese while you sip your by-the-glass or by-the-bottle wines. It's just a short hop back onto Interstate 66, so it would be a perfect end-of-the-weekend stop.
But we had other spots on our to-do list first, including the bison farm and the meadery.
We're fans of the buffalo hot dogs from Cibola Farms outside Culpeper, but the farm hasn't been selling them at Eastern Market this spring. So a Virginia trip had to include a 15-mile detour to Cibola. While we waited for the guy who knew how the computerized sales system worked, one of the bison wranglers (you wouldn't call him a cowboy, would you?) explained how they rotate the beasts from field to field so they can eat free-range without ruining the land.
I had also promised a mead stop. Mead is wine made of honey. It's what Vikings and others who quaffed rather than sipped favored.
John Hallberg, the proprietor of Smokehouse Winery, up a steep wooded road near Sperryville, serves samples of his mead in a thatched-roof tasting house. He grows vegetables in a kitchen garden and raises bees nearby. He's not a very talkative guy, at least with strangers, but he's generous with tastes of his sweet, smoky product, more a liqueur than some uppity vino.
Also, he sells it for about $15 for an extremely cool-looking skinny black bottle. When we visited, he hadn't quite gotten around to pasting the labels on the current crop, which meant the bottles looked even cooler, if that's possible.
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Bill Gadino, the owner of Gadino Cellars in Rappahannock County, was talking wine with a visitor who said he worked at a California winery. They discussed grape varieties and Gadino's month-old Nebbiola vines, while the Californian did that thing where you swirl the wine by moving the base of the wine glass around the counter. As far as I could tell by eavesdropping, the visitor said all the polite things you would expect a guest to say.
At the same time, I was trying to pay attention to Mary, the friendly former Hill staffer who was pouring my tasting portions and pointing out the hint of peach in the winery's 2005 Reserve Viognier. We chatted about eating at the inn and about how that Viognier really would be good with seafood.
And, as the warm Virginia sun beat down on those young vines outside, it struck me that the bumper sticker on the wall behind the tasting counter was just a bit too defensive:
"Virginia makes wine. Napa makes auto parts."