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Escapes: At a Virginia winery, a taste of fun

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."

Ah.

"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.

Packing 100 times the heat of the winery's award-winning Chili Dawg (more on that later), Kiss the Devil began as an experiment but now sells hundreds of gallons a year. Beyond novelty, why? "Basting," says Johnson. "And some put cinnamon balls in it and use it for colds." It does warm us up on this crisp day.

The bar is a wooden plank in the packinghouse, built by Johnson's father, Elmo, back in 1941. Cheerful displays include fruit baskets, jams, jellies, relishes and "A-Peeling" apple butter so good that I devoured my intended souvenir before heading home. Uncommon wineshop sights included comical statues such as Mr. Chili Dawg and bottles with goofy labels and shapes ranging from the sublime to the sophomoric.

"We do fun wines." This prefaces the romp of a Johnson tasting.

Apple Truffle is redolent of chocolate. "I'm getting a contact high just sniffing it," claims a fellow taster.

Tango Mango: "Feel free to use the clothing-optional dance floor," Johnson says, gesturing between boxes of apples.

Pumpkin: "That's gotten real popular."

Ras Ma Tas Raspberry: "Once I spilled some of this on myself, and three ladies jumped over the bar and fought over me."

Even one self-described "sweet hater" praised the crisp Strawberry Shortcake and, flowing from a blue triangular bottle, fragrant Blueberry Muffin. Cinfulicious, Johnson notes, is a silver medal apple-cinnamon blend that's even better heated.

The Johnsons' wine list might be inspired as much by love of evocative names as by their orchard's bounty. Another case in point: Vino Colada.

"My grandmother fermented her blackberries in apple juice rather than spending money for sugar," the winemaker says while pouring Blackberry Cobbler. Or was that Blackberry Jammed?

"Our Dawg WILL Bite," warns the label on Johnson's kicky bestseller, which blends pepper jelly with apples. Chili Dawg has earned a Scovie award for hot and spicy products, and testimonials from folks who find it addictive.

Tastings, which are free and daily most of the year, are weekends-only January through March, but an upside of an off-season visit is more one-on-one time with Johnson or his reputedly equally jocular son Shannon.

"We're as big as we want to be," Johnson says. Together with his wife, Nancy, Shannon and daughter-in-law Donna, he manages the winery, the tastings, the orchards (which have walking trails for visitors) and a menagerie of sheep, goats, pigs, turkeys and other animals that can be visited parts of the year. There's also Elmo's Rest, a mountainside farmhouse they rent to guests.

It's a possibility I contemplate while choosing a bottle of wine. Like a fickle lover, I'm torn between the cinnamony body of Cinfulicious and Apple Truffle's aromatic allure. But overwhelmed by cravings that I've failed to squelch, I leave with Chili Dawg. Its peppery heat makes an ideal elixir for chilly winter nights.

Soslow is a freelance writer in Washington.

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