It's bud break time in the country, and you deserve one yourself. So head on out for a taste of spring: The winemakers of Maryland and Virginia are promising a vine old time.
They're busy nurturing the grape buds and blossoms that signal the season for area wine festivals and preparing food, music, dancing, tours and tastings.
During the year, the vineyards -- some of them practically in Washington's back yard -- usually offer free samplings of their new and vintage wines, sometimes with cheese and crackers to clear your palate. And the vintners will sell their wine for a couple of dollars less than your local liquor or grocery store. But during the festival season, the wineries really go out of their way, offering hay rides, bike races, barbecues and bluegrass, gourmet foods, clogging and Renaissance music. And more.
There's a bonus: The drive to wine country makes getting there almost as much fun as being there. (Many are an easy day trip away, and those that aren't are in areas with fun places to stay or camp overnight.)
Have your camera ready as you roll past farms with massive red barns, hand-painted mailboxes and private lakes alive with ducks and swans. There'll be Herefords lazily munching away and moments when your car suddenly rises out of a valley, spreading before you miles of mountains draped in green patchwork. FINE WINE FESTS Grapes blossom through the spring, assume their color in the summer and are ready for harvest in the fall. If you can't make it to any of the spring festivals, don't worry, the celebrations will pick up again in the summer and continue through harvest time. In September, the wineries dare visitors to try their hand at picking the grapes, as well as stomping them. Drinking the fruits of your labor comes later.
Here is the schedule for the spring wine fests:
MAY 7-8 -- Tri-Mountain Winery and Vineyard; Middletown, Virginia: The first wine festival of the season is a hop-skip from D.C. Visitors can enjoy hayrides, live bluegrass music, wine specials, a slide presentation on grape- growing, food and even a cork-throwing contest. Admission is $5 for 21 and over; $2 for everyone else. To get there, take I-66 west to I-81 north until exit 77 and go east on Route 627 for one mile; the winery is on the left. Trip distance: 80 miles. Call 703/869-3030.
MAY 8 -- Festival Debourrement; Rose Bower Vineyard, Hampden-Sydney, Virginia: The first of Rose Bower's three free festivals, this celebration commemorates the breaking of the grape buds on the vines. From noon until dark, there'll be live jazz, winery and vineyard tours, and sampling of new wines. You can bring your own picnic, blankets, lawn chairs and glasses and sit back and enjoy the sights and sounds of bagpipe players at dusk. Take I-66 west to Warrenton, get on Route 15 to Worsham and turn right on Route 665. Go three miles to the second fork in the road and bear left on Route 604. Go another two miles and turn right on Route 686. Trip distance: 200 miles. Call 804/223-8209.
MAY 14 -- Ingleside Spring Festival; Ingleside Plantation, Oak Grove, Virginia: If you're looking for a real country jamboree, point your car south and head toward Fredericksburg for this winery's festival. There'll be bluegrass music, cloggers, foxhunting demonstrations, gourmet food, arts and crafts and a homemade wine contest. Admission is $2.50 for adults, $1 for kids under 12. To get there, take I-95 south and exit at Route 3; go east to Oak Grove and turn right on Route 638. Trip distance: 70 miles. Call 804/224-7111.
MAY 15 -- Oasis Spring Festival and Bicycle Race; Oasis Vineyard, Hume, Virginia: In addition to the hayrides, movies, food and other entertainment, there's going to be a 100-mile bicycle race open to any licensed amateur rider between 18 and 34. Bikers will pass by Farfelu and Naked Mountain wineries en route to the finish line in front of Oasis vineyard. There's a $1,000 cash prize to be split among the top 20 riders. The entry fee is $9. If bicycling 100 miles isn't your idea of a good time, for $5 you can hang out and spend the day sampling wine, eating or simply strolling around Oasis' vineyard from 10 to 6. From D.C., go west on I-66 to the second Marshall exit, follow Route 647 until Route 635 and turn right. Trip distance: 60 miles. Call 703/635-7627.
MAY 21 -- Meredyth Spring Festival; Meredyth Vineyards, Middleburg, Virginia: This festival is an invitation- only affair for guests on the winery's mailing list. Owner Archie M. Smith Jr. says he usually invites about 500 folks because "we can take better care of fewer people." At noon, complimentary Mai wine is served up followed by a catered barbecue lunch at 1 for $12.50. The Washington Scottish Pipe Band will play throughout the afternoon's festivities. Rain date is May 22. Drive west on U.S. 50, until Middleburg. At the first blinker, turn south on Route 776, then right on Route 628 and follow the road. Trip distance: 55 miles. Call 471-4399, toll-free.
MAY 21-22 -- North Fork of Roanoke Festival; MJC Vineyard, Blacksburg, Virginia.: This winery also doubles as a grape-grafting nursery. It's a bit far for just a day trip, so you might want to think about spending the night down there. The vineyard is located right off the Appalachian Trail and housed directly on the Bicentennial Bike Trail. For its festival, MJC is providing bluegrass music, wine tasting and tours of the winery and nursery. There's plenty of space to picnic on, but you have to bring your own food. Take I-66 west to I-81 south and exit at 41; drive into Catawba and follow Route 785 to the winery. Trip distance: 196 miles. Call 703/552-9083.
MAY 22 -- Boordy Vineyards, Hydes, Maryland: For $2.50, visitors can spend the day in this northern Maryland winery tasting new wines, touring the vineyard and dancing up a storm to swing music from 10 to 5. You'll get homemade sangria when you get there, plus samples of the wines produced by the winery. The vineyard is north of Towson off the Baltimore Beltway at exit 29 (Cromwell Bridge Road). Trip distance: 60 miles. Call 301/592-5015.
MAY 28-29 -- Fiesta de Primavera; La Abra Farm & Winery, Lovingston, Virginia: This festival will feature Renaissance and bluegrass music, wine tasting and tours. You can bring your own food for a picnic or buy the homecooked chicken, hamburgers and hotdogs the winery is serving for a charge. Take I-66 west to Charlottesville and follow U.S. 29 to just north of Lovingston in Nelson County. Trip distance: 150 miles. Call 804/263-5392.
JUNE 4-5 -- Maryland Strawberry Wine Festival; Berrywine Plantation, Mt. Airy, Maryland: This spacious 230- acre farm plans to entertain visitors with a taste of real country livin'. Festival-goers can spend the day sampling the plantation's products as well as munching on homemade Italian dishes and pastries such as strawberry tarts and chocolate-covered strawberries. The winery charges $2 for a tour that includes samples of the wine served with cheese and crackers. There'll also be two string bands, arts and crafts exhibits and discounts on wine. From D.C., take I-270 north toward Frederick, get off at the Damascus-Germantown exit and follow Route 27 north through Damascus and into Mt. Airy and the winery. Trip distance: 55 miles. Call 301/662-8687.