Escapes: At a Virginia winery, a taste of fun

Kiss the Devil and Chili Dawg mascots show that Peaks of Otter Winery is no place for snobs.
Kiss the Devil and Chili Dawg mascots show that Peaks of Otter Winery is no place for snobs. (Robin Soslow)
Locator map of Peaks of Otter Winery in West Virginia
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
By Robin Soslow
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 9:51 AM

Any winery that rewards tasters with "I Kissed the Devil" stickers is good by me.

It's not a reward, corrects Danny Johnson, uncorking another bottle bearing a comical label. "It's so when you get to the hospital, they'll know what you're in for."


"So," asks the winemaker, "do we still want to try it?"

Heck yeah.

Woo-ooo-ooow. Give me the sweet wine chaser and the sticker, in that order.

To find Virginia's Peaks of Otter Winery, take Milepost 86 from the Blue Ridge Parkway and head toward the woooos and the laughter. When you reach the 15-foot Johnny Appleseed statue, park the car. Then brace yourself for a good time - and some good wine.

The thimble-size pours aren't stingy; they're practical. Johnson wants us to sample about 10 of the 30-some varieties of his "fruits of the farm" wines - they come from the fruits plucked from Johnson's orchards - and doesn't want anyone to lose consciousness along the way.

Peaks of Otter Winery lays claim to producing Virginia's first fruit wines and to being the oldest winery in the town of Bedford, beginning production, officially, in 1996. I spotted its sign after a day of climbing steep dirt and rock paths to McAfee Knob (elevation 3,197 feet), reputedly the most photographed stop on the Appalachian Trail. I can't see how that could be quantified, but it certainly offered jaw-dropping vistas of Catawba Valley and the Peaks of Otter, whose mountains include the aptly named Flat Top and Sharp Top.

Johnson's farming ancestors settled in the Blue Ridge in the 1750s. His great-great-great grandfather made spirits. A pragmatic decision, Johnson says: "It was easier to bring five gallons of whiskey or apple brandy off the mountain than 20 bushels of apples."

Still, the 200 high-in-the-hills acres have long produced apples, plums, berries and other fruits. Now, they even grow pomegranates.

There's no wine snobbery here; it's quips, plastic cups and dumping undrunk wine on the wood floor. I pass on the spray cheese that serves to complement - or perhaps shield - the palate from Kiss the Devil, which incorporates 30 kinds of chili peppers. "Jalapeno, Asian, ghost peppers," Johnson says.

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