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Days of Wine and Road Trips
A Guide to Visiting 11 Nearby Virginia Wineries – for the Day or Overnight

By Patrick Getlein
The Washington Post
Sunday, September 6, 1998; Page E01
   


Saturday afternoon at Piedmont Vineyards outside Middleburg: A couple relaxes with a chilled bottle of Chardonnay beneath the shade of an oak tree. Artists with sketch pads stroll among the vines. Several folks wander into the vineyard to peer more closely at the ripening grapes. Inside the tasting room, half a dozen visitors gather around a counter sampling selections from the 1996 and '97 vintages. The door opens and a new group enters.

"Wow!" exclaims one. "People in town told us there was a winery down the road--I had no idea this was here."

Not only is there a winery here, but there are two others in Middleburg, another up Route 15 toward Leesburg, three north and west of Leesburg and four more between Markham and Flint Hill on Route 522--all within an hour's drive of the Beltway. And that's just scratching the surface. More than a third of Virginia's 50-plus wineries are located in Northern Virginia, within an hour's drive of the Beltway.

I recently spent a long July weekend visiting 11 wineries in western Northern Virginia. While I don't recommend such an ambitious itinerary to anybody, more sensible tours make for accessible, inexpensive, educational and romantic outings. And right now is the best time of year to go.

Autumn is harvest time at Virginia's wineries, when the grapes are picked and the process toward wine begins. It is a winery's busiest season and the most interesting time to visit. You can watch as the grapes arrive fresh from the vineyard and make their way from stemmer-crusher to press to fermentation tanks. On the better tours, a knowledgeable guide will explain the process. The aromas are vivid all along the way.

Wineries also take this time of year to host their most ambitious special events: harvest dinners, fall foliage walking tours, art in the vineyard, haunted cave parties, grape-crushing demonstrations, hayrides. Nearby towns put on bazaars, apple festivals, house and stable tours, fall farmers' markets. And then there are the things that don't make it into the tourism brochures--like the Ozark miniature horse farm, home of "Poe's Petites." Or the Lindy lessons--free and open to the public--in the parish hall of the local church. Or the roadside apiary (a honey farm) where "Ulee's Gold" can be procured at its most fresh.

Most of the wineries themselves are small--generally producing 2,000 to 8,000 cases annually, essentially constituting the "microbreweries" of the wine business. But a few Virginia operations make in the tens of thousands of cases, and the folks who own them are part farmers, part entrepreneurs. They are retired corporate executives, former Peace Corps volunteers and gainfully employed rat-racers commuting between the District and the farm. None get rich; winemaking is an expensive trade with enormous risk. Most of them started as hobbyists, and many wineries still retain a sense of the romantic pursuits of the true amateur.

This scale and regionalism, however, belies the quality of the region's wine. Virginia is now one of the top five vinifera-producing states in the country, along with California, Washington, Oregon and New York. Nearly 3,000 tons of grapes from 140 vineyards were squeezed into 205,773 cases of wine last year--nearly 2.5 million bottles. The wine critics are taking notice. Hugh Johnson, in his latest encyclopedia of wine, considers Virginia the "rising star of the East" and couples it with New York as having the coast's "biggest and best-established wine industries." Warren Winiarski, owner of California's renowned Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and judge at the recent Governor's Cup wine competition in Virginia, said he was surprised by the progress in the industry. In an interview, Winiarski said that Virginia's wines are "somewhat understated," which allows the best elements of the irregional identity to remain intact. The better ones, he said, "transcend that in terms of grace, harmony, proportion and balance and that gives them an international quality." Some of the best wines have won medals in the more vigorously judged competitions, including the San Francisco Fair, the San Diego Fair and the World Wine Championship, an industry benchmark.

But what I like most about Virginia's wineries is you don't need a plane ticket to get there. All you need is a good map and a tank of gas. Not all winery visits are created equal, however, so to get a picture of what's like for the uninitiated to follow those brown grape cluster roadside signs, I made unannounced, incognito visits to each of the 11 wineries listed above. You will find details about the wineries, whether tastings are fee or free, tour quality and style, the range of wine prices and a few words about the wines. To help round out a weekend trip, we've included other things to see and do nearby, plus a range of inns, B&Bs and hotels to spend a night or two.

To make planning your trip easier, a guide to Virginia wineries is available from the Virginia Wine Marketing office, 1-800-828-4637, http://www.state.va.us/home/wine.html, or from the Virginia Tourism Center, 1629 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006, 202-659-5523, http://www .virginia.org. Virginia Tourism will also make B&B reservations. For more on B&Bs, try the Loudoun County Bed & Breakfast Guild Web site, http://www.vabb.com; Bed and Breakfast Rappahannock County, http://www.bnb-n-va.com; or Mid- dleburg Online, http://www.middle burgonline.com. Information about winery events also is online at Virginia Wine Country, http://www.vawine.com.

Patrick Getlein is a writer and wine columnist in Richmond.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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