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Getting a Taste of Virginia Wines

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 2009

Sniff, sip, swish, spit.

It may be the ritual of wine tasting, but it can be a major turnoff for those of us who are best described as lay wine-drinkers. Who can wax poetic about notes of pear and grapefruit when the only note our untrained palates can make out is "wine"?

For us, there is a friendly training ground, less than an hour's drive from our doorsteps, where we can sip, swish and definitely not feel obliged to spit.

Oh, yes, we're talking about Virginia. Advances in grape-growing the past few years have helped nurture a Virginia winemaking boomlet. Last year, Loudoun County added a handful of new tasting rooms, and the year before that a handful more, for a total of nearly 25 wineries.

Fall harvest and the busy season for wineries is just around the corner, so we decided to check out some of the biggest and buzziest in search of gems. (If you're skeptical about the caliber of the wines, we got experts to point us to the ones worth trying.)

There are wineries that specialize in music and provide breathtaking views of fall colors. Families can find kid-friendly activities at festivals and take fruit-picking excursions, while budding oenophiles can sip and taste in private sessions with winemakers and experts. There are even dog-friendly events.

And the snobby rituals? They're practically taboo. There are hardly friendlier folks than the sommeliers, winemakers and tasting attendants we encountered in Northern Virginia and Maryland. Tastings are typically about $5 and feature just a sip or two of five to seven wines; the secret to enjoying them, we discovered, is to ask questions: Ask which wine is your pourer's favorite and which is the bestseller; ask about the history of the place as you're doing your sipping.

On the following pages find four reasons you have to visit Virginia wineries this fall.

Go for the View

Bluemont and Chrysalis vineyards

Just when you think you've arrived at western Loudoun's Bluemont Vineyard, you come face-to-face with one last stretch: a long gravel road, winding high up the hill. In the distance is the comely cottage winery, so high you could catch a little vertigo just getting there.

Never heard of it? Former AOL employee Bob Rupy and farmer Mark Zurschmeide opened Bluemont in 2007. The wines produced generally are on the dry side, and with names like the Cow (a Vidal Blanc) and the Goat (a Viognier), they reflect the pastoral setting. But what you're drinking this year comes from grapes grown off-site. Since Bluemont is so new, it expects to serve wines produced from its own grapes (called estate wines) beginning late next year.

Nearly everyone who comes through grabs a glass of wine, a loaf of the house-baked bread, a chunk of cheese or salami and finds a seat out on the deck, where the views are spectacular. Be sure to pack binoculars, the tasting attendant will tell you, because on a good day, you can see the Washington Monument. Dog owners: Leashed pets aren't just welcome at Bluemont, they're part of the landscape. The winery's two dogs, Jack and Becca, are there much of the time.

18755 Foggy Bottom Rd., Bluemont. Tastings, $5. Open Friday-Sunday and Mondays of holiday weekends, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; November-February hours are noon to 5:30 p.m. 540-554-8439 or http://www.http://http://bluemonthttp://http://vineyard.http://http://com.

Nestled between lofty hills, Chrysalis Vineyards -- with its quaint farm fencing and sprawling green pasture and pond -- offers perhaps one of the most jaw-dropping views of the fiery reds, oranges and yellows of autumn. And that might be one of the reasons the Middleburg winery is a bustling operation on weekends during the harvest season.

Chrysalis is a booster of the Norton, an American grape that the winery uses to create surprisingly light red wines such as Sarah's Patio Red. You won't find Norton at many other wineries in the area, so it's worth a try. Families: The winery keeps a designated family area and has grills and picnic tables, should you want to bring your own picnic spread to go with your wine.

23876 Champe Ford Rd., Middleburg. Tastings are $5 for short tastings; $10 for longer tastings. 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. 540-687-8222 or http://www.http://http://chrysalishttp://http://wine.http://http://com.

See the New

Sunset Hills and Notaviva vineyards

Among the new wineries garnering buzz in Loudoun is Sunset Hills, which opened its massive, two-story tasting room last fall. And much of that buzz centers on the 1870s barn that the winery's owners, executive and race-car driver Mike Canney and his wife, Diane, employed Amish craftsmen from Pennsylvania to renovate. It's woodsy and elegant, and full of nooks in which to find a little privacy.

The crisply manicured grounds, pond and two-story deck make Sunset Hills an ideal spot to grab a glass of wine and take in the views. As with many of the Loudoun wineries, the Cabernet Franc is the hallmark here, but you'll also find Viognier, a dry white wine for which Virginia is increasingly becoming known.

38295 Fremont Overlook Lane, Purcellville. Tastings, $5. Fridays 3 to 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays noon to 6 p.m. 540-882-4560 or http://www.sunsethillsvineyard.com.

It took two music engineers, Stephen and Shannon Mackey, to come up with the concept of a winery that blended their love of wine and music, with wines taking their names from musical terms and live performances in the tasting room every weekend. Notaviva Vineyards opened to the public last summer, and wine aficionados have been clamoring to visit ever since.

In June, Notaviva (which is also the couple's home) celebrated its first anniversary with a pairing event that defied convention; it wasn't about pairing wine and food, but wine and music. Five wines were tasted as a handful of music clips played, and tasters then rated which notes best complemented the wines. The event will be repeated Oct. 3; tickets are $25 a person.

13274 Sagle Rd., Purcellville. Tastings, $5. Thursday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Fridays-Sundays 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Mondays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 540-668-6756 or http://www.notavivavineyards.com.

Hone Your Palate

Corcoran Vineyards and Tarara Winery

Find your way to the tiny Corcoran Vineyards tasting room on a Sunday, and you'll have your wines poured by a friendly attendant named Lori Corcoran -- as in, Lori Corcoran, the owner and winemaker. (There are few other wineries around where you'll get that kind of service.)

The tasting room, opened in 2004, is a restored space in a 18th-century house, she'll tell you. Ask which one you just have to try and she'll suggest the Malbec, one of the winery's more surprising offerings.

This season, Corcoran is teaming with sommelier Mary Watson-DeLauder for a series of herb and wine pairing nights; the herbs and the wines come from the Corcoran gardens. Come on a Saturday during the harvest season, and you can watch Corcoran in the estate's barn, getting into the crushing and bottling processes.

14635 Corkys Farm Lane, Waterford. Tastings are $5; herb pairings are $25 and are held sporadically by reservation only. Call or e-mail lori@corcoranvineyards.com for reservations. Saturdays-Sundays noon to 5 p.m. 540-882-9073 or http://www.http://http://corcoranhttp://http://vineyards.http://http://com.

Tarara Winery has been producing wines for more than 20 years, making it the one of the more established presences in the Loudoun wine world. It's the place to go for big festivals that feature music, vendors and kid-friendly areas with children's games, as well as a pond where families can kayak and canoe. But for something really special, go in for the premier, nearly two-hour tastings on Sundays. Sommelier Steve Conquer leads tasters through seven wines not on the usual tasting menu, in a private space away from the busy main tasting room. As a bonus, the wines are paired with small bites.

13648 Tarara Lane, Leesburg. Premier tasting, $20 per person; reservations recommended. Sundays at 12:30, 2, 3:30 and 5 p.m. Regular tasting, $10. Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. To reserve a spot, call 703-771-7100 or visit http://www.http://http://tarara.http://http://com.

Make Wines a Perfect Daytrip

Leesburg

A handful of Leesburg wineries offer rural charm and proximity. Start at Tarara, where there's lots to do, particularly during a special event. Then, move on to Fabbioli Cellars; owner Doug Fabbioli acts as a consultant and winemaker for a number of other wineries, so why not taste his creations on his home turf? Just a couple of miles away you'll find the adjacent wineries Lost Creek Winery and Vineyards and Hidden Brook Winery, which both serve sweet as well as dry wines (Hidden Brook's owners are the son and daughter-in-law of Lost Creek's owners). And you'd be remiss if, on the way home, you didn't trek back to Route 15 for visits to the adorable antiques shop Lucketts Store and a roadside stand for local produce.

Fabbioli Cellars, 15669 Limestone School Rd., Leesburg. Tasting, $5. Thursday-Monday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 703-771-1197 or http://www.http://http://fabbiolihttp://http://wines.http://http://com.

Lost Creek Winery and Vineyards, 43277 Spinks Ferry Rd., Leesburg. Tasting, $5. Thursday-Monday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 703-443-9836 or http://www.http://http://lostcreekhttp://http://winery.http://http://com.

Hidden Brook Winery, 43301 Spinks Ferry Rd., Leesburg. Tasting, $5. Monday, Thursday and Friday noon to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 703-737-3935 or http://www.http://http://hiddenbrookhttp://http://winery.http://http://com.

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