BEHOLD THE rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves us to be happy."

Now who could argue with these words written by Benjamin Franklin, who, by the way, was simply paraphrasing a passage from the Bible? Certainly not Thomas Jefferson, whose enthusiasm for the beverage prompted him to proclaim that "Good wine is a necessity of life." Those of us who feel a special kinship with our forefathers in this regard can do some beholding of our own at local wineries. There are a lot of them: 42 in Virginia and 11 in Maryland, and many of these are within a one- or two-hour drive of Washington.

The drive itself is one of the attractions of going vineyard-hopping. Once off the beaten track of an I-66 or an I-270, you travel rural back roads that wind through picturesque small towns, past country estates or along mountain paths. Take your time as you go, for as the vintners themselves eagerly point out, vineyards are often located near historic sites or places of interest to daytrippers. Bob Ziem, co-owner with his wife Ruth of Ziem Vineyards in Fairplay, Md., notes that Antietam Battlefield is just seven miles away from their winery. "In fact, Civil War bullets have been found on our property," he says.

This is a particularly good time of year to talk table wines with the area's experts: The last grapes are being harvested now, giving the vintners more time to talk with visitors, and last year's vintages are being uncorked, giving them something to sell. And since vineyards are frequently bunched together, it's easy for wine lovers to hit a couple of wineries in one day without having to go great distances.

Of course, once you reach a vineyard, you may find it hard to leave. In addition to winemaking tours and wine tastings, vineyards typically offer absolutely spectacular views, picnic tables and benches, seasonal festivals and their own individual ambiance, which can range from homey to romantic to professional. MEREDYTH VINEYARDS Middleburg, Va.

Located near Middleburg, a town long famous for its horse events and history, Meredyth Vineyards gives travelers yet another good reason to stop here. The winery lies five miles south of the town center, in secluded countryside that sits at the foothills of the Bull Run Mountains. Meredyth is a family-run enterprise in every way: Archie Smith Jr. and his wife Dody own and operate the winery; their son Archie Smith III (who left a post as lecturer of philosophy at Oxford University to return to the vineyard) is the vice-president, winemaker and vineyard manager; and another son, Robert, designed the winery.

Some of the things you learn during a tour of the winemaking facility are that Meredyth currently produces 18 different types of wines, or 15,000 cases a year, and that 75 percent of the vineyards are white wine grapes, 25 percent red wine grapes. The tour ends in the bottling room, which also serves as the tasting area. As you sample the seyval blanc, sauvignon blanc, riesling, chardonnay and other wines for which Meredyth is noted, a picture window allows you a magnificent view of the Bull Run Mountains ("especially beautiful in mid-October when the leaves are changing," says Dody Smith). Pack a lunch or stop en route at one of Middleburg's gourmet shops for bread and cheese; with its outdoor pavilion, plentiful picnic tables and benches, and rolling expanse of hills, Meredyth is a perfect place to picnic.

MEREDYTH VINEYARDS -- Route 628, Middleburg. 703/687-6277. Tours and tasting 10 to 5 daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day and Easter. Free for small groups; call ahead for large groups. From Washington, take U.S. 50 to Middleburg and turn left at the stoplight at Route 776. Go 2 1/2 miles on Route 776 to a right at Route 628 and follow signs to the entrance. Other vineyards in the area: Piedmont Vineyards and Winery and Swedenburg Winery (see below for details). BERRYWINE PLANTATIONS Mount Airy, Md.

"Some people call us the Baskin-Robbins of the wine industry," says Eric Aellen, as he flourishes a Berrywine bottle in the air above the tasting table. Berrywine produces at least 20 different varieties of wine, and many of these are made not from grapes, but from apples, plums, elderberries, dandelions, wild mint and even honey.

"We're one of only three winemakers in the country that make honey wine, or mead," says Aellen, who is the youngest member in this family-run business headed by his parents, Jack and Lucille Aellen.

The winery is located on a 230-acre farm on a hillside in Mount Airy. Turn-of-the-century barns house the winemaking works and contribute to the overall bucolic feel of the place. Outside are shaded picnic tables overlooking a pond, thirty acres of vineyards and . . . quiet. Except, that is, when there's a festival going on. Berrywine is nearly as famous for its music and food fetes as it is for its wines. This weekend the winery hosts a "Vintage Jazz at the Vineyard" celebration, to include live jazz, a sky diving show and gourmet food.

BERRYWINE PLANTATIONS AND LINGANORE WINECELLARS -- Glissans Mill Road, Mount Airy. 301/662-8687. Free tours and tasting 10 to 6 Monday through Saturday and 12 to 6 Sundays. "Vintage Jazz at the Vineyard": Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6, free, but parking $6. Take I-270 west to I-70 to Route 75 north, then right on Glissans Mill Road to vineyard on right. Other nearby vineyards: Elk Run Vineyards and Loew Vineyards. ZIEM VINEYARDS Fairplay, Md.

Next time you're in the Sharpsburg, Md., area and you're looking for an excuse to escape the tourists thronging the Civil War sites at Antietam, cut over to Route 63 and seek out Ziem Vineyards. This small winery sits back from the main road, shielded by its own eight-acre vineyard and surrounding farm land. Two good-sized and very loud German shepherds herald your arrival excitedly, but, not to worry, these dogs are friendly. And necessary: The dogs' barking alerts owners Ruth and Bob Ziem that they have visitors. The Ziems emerge from their 200-year-old limestone bank barn where the winemaking goes on to take you on a tour of the place.

"We grow all our own grapes, and they're all French hybrids," says Bob Ziem, adding that two-thirds of the crop are red wine grapes, and the rest are white wine grapes. Once ensconced in the cozy tasting room, Ziem shares his philosophy with you as he hands you a glass of wine.

"This is Maryland wine; this is what Maryland can produce. Don't try to compare these wines to California or French wines," he says.

Tree-shaded picnic tables by the spring and an old limestone spring house provide a charming spot for a wine and cheese break.

ZIEM VINEYARDS -- Route 63, Fairplay, Md. 301/223-8352. Free tours and tasting 1 to 6 Thursday through Sunday. Take I-270 west to I-70 to I-81 south, exit onto Route 63 south, follow four miles to winery. Closest winery: Byrd Vineyards and Winery, in Myersville, Md. LINDEN VINEYARDS Linden, Va.

Linden Vineyards dwells within a scenic wonderland. From its perch atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, just 600 feet from the summit, the vineyard gazes across the valley to another mountain, known as the Rattlesnake. Shenandoah National Park borders the vineyards and Skyline Drive is not far away.

The Law family, owners and operators of the vineyard, chose the site specifically for its elevation, which, "delays harvesting to October, allowing for cool ripening conditions and good varietal character," says Jim Law. You can savor Linden's five different wines in a tasting room that combines the best of modern and old world appeal: broad-beamed yellow pine floors, a wood stove, mellow instrumental music playing on a hidden stereo system, track lights and a yellow-pine tasting bar. Windows along one wall proffer the breathtaking Rattlesnake range; you can get an even better view by stepping out onto the encircling deck that's furnished with tables and benches.

Inside windows in another wall overlook the winery's tank room, where part of the winemaking process takes place. Down the hill from the winery are picnic tables, an old spring house, apple orchards and blueberry bushes (which you're invited to pick for a charge in season) and a 200-year-old log cabin that serves as the Law family domicile.

LINDEN VINEYARDS -- Route 638, Linden, Va. 703/364-1997. Free tours and tasting 11 to 5 Wednesday through Sunday from March through December and 11 to 5 weekends in January and February. Also open 11 to 5 most Monday holidays; call in advance. Take I-66 to Linden/Exit 3 and head east on Route 55 for one mile. Turn right on Route 638 and head two miles to entrance on the right. Other nearby wineries: Oasis Vineyard, Farfelu Vineyard, Naked Mountain Vineyard. NAKED MOUNTAIN VINEYARD Markham, Va.

"A hobby gone out of control" is how Bob Harper, co-owner with his wife, Phoebe, describes the genesis of Naked Mountain Vineyard. Fourteen years after they planted their first vines, the Harpers have five acres of their own vineyards on Naked Mountain and eight acres leased in the eastern part of Fauquier County.

Chardonnay accounts for 90 percent of the production, with riesling, sauvignon blanc and claret making up the other 10 percent. The Harpers themselves built the winery, which includes a large and inviting tasting room designed to resemble a sort of hunting lodge/ski chalet. A cathedral ceiling, white pine floors, yellow-pine tasting bar, round wood tables, arrowback chairs and a huge stone fireplace contribute to the room's welcoming atmosphere. Windows on two sides of the hall capture views of the vineyards, a small pond and mountains.

"Literally across the street from us is a Blue Ridge Mountain portion of the Appalachian Trail," says Phoebe Harper. After tasting Naked Mountain's wines, you can buy your own glassful or bottle and wander outdoors to picnic tables set up in pretty private spots around the property.

NAKED MOUNTAIN VINEYARD AND WINERY -- Route 688, Markham, Va. 703/364-1609. Free tours and tastings: 11 to 5 Wednesday through Sunday from March through December and 11 to 5 weekends in January and February. Also open 11 to 5 on holidays. For groups over 10, call for appointment. From I-66 take Route 688 (Exit 4/Markham) north for 1.7 miles north to entrance on right. Nearby winery: Linden Vineyards (see above).

OTHER WINERIES

The following vineyards are within 90 minutes of Washington and have free tours and wine tastings unless otherwise noted.NORTHERN VIRGINIA

FARFELU VINEYARD -- Flint Hill. 703/364-2930. Tours by appointment.

HARTWOOD WINERY -- Fredericksburg. 703/752-4893. Tours 11 to 5 daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day; otherwise, 11 to 5 weekends and holidays or by appointment.

LOUDOUN VALLEY VINEYARDS -- Waterford. 703/882-3375. Tours 10 to 4 Saturday and Sunday; by appointment on weekdays.

OASIS VINEYARD -- Hume. 703/635-7627. Tours 10 to 4 daily; sales until 5.

PIEDMONT VINEYARDS AND WINERY -- Middleburg. 703/687-5528. Tours 10 to 4 daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day; open major Monday holidays.

SWEDENBURG WINERY -- Middleburg. 703/687-5219. Tours 10 to 4 daily.

TARARA VINEYARD -- Leesburg. 703/771-7100 or (metro Washington) 703/478-8161. Tours 11 to 5 Thursday through Monday.

WILLOWCROFT FARM VINEYARDS -- Leesburg. 703/777-8161. Tours 12 to 5 weekends and by appointment weekdays. CENTRAL VIRGINIA

DOMINION WINE CELLARS -- Culpeper. 703/825-8772. Tours 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday and 12 to 5 Sunday.

LAKE ANNA WINERY -- Spotsylvania. 703/895-5085. Tours 11 to 5 Saturdays and 2 to 5 Sundays Memorial Day through Labor Day; otherwise, by appointment.

SHENANDOAH VALLEY

DEER MEADOW VINEYARD -- Winchester. 703/877-1919 or 800/752-1746. Tours 11 to 5 Wednesday through Sunday and Monday holidays from March through December.

GUILFORD RIDGE VINEYARDS -- Luray. 703/778-3853 or Monday through Thursday 202/554-0333. Tours by appointment only.

MOUNT HERMON VINEYARD -- Basye. 703/856-2196. Call for information on tours.

NORTH MOUNTAIN VINEYARD AND WINERY -- Mauertown. 703/436-9463. Tours 11 to 5 Wednesday through Sunday and holidays; groups by appointment.

SHENANDOAH VINEYARDS -- Edinburg. 703/984-8699. Tours 10 to 6 daily.

WINCHESTER WINERY -- Winchester. 703/877-2200 or 703/877-1275. Tours 10 to 5 Wednesday through Sunday. MARYLAND

BOORDY VINEYARDS -- Hydes. 301/592-5015. Tours 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday and 1 to 4 Sundays.

MONTBRAY WINE CELLARS LTD. -- Westminster. 301/346-7878. Tours 10 to 6 Monday through Saturday and 1 to 6 Sundays.

BYRD VINEYARDS AND WINERY -- Myersville. 301/293-1110. Tours 1 to 5 weekends except January.

ELK RUN VINEYARDS -- Mount Airy. 301/775-2513. Tours 10 to 5 Saturdays and 1 to 5 Sundays.

CATOCTIN VINEYARDS WINERY -- Brookville. 301/774-2310. Tours 12 to 5 weekends and by appointment weekdays. $2 adult admission.

WOODHALL VINEYARDS AND WINE CELLARS -- Sparks. 301/771-4664. Tours 1 to 5 Sundays; all other times, call ahead.

LOEW VINEYARDS -- Mount Airy. 301/460-5728. Tours on weekend afternoons; call to arrange for large groups.

FIORE WINERY -- Pylesville. 301/836-7605 or 301/836-1860. Tours 10 to 6 Saturdays and 12 to 6 Sundays, or by appointment.

BASIGNANI WINERY -- Sparks. 301/472-4718. Tours 12 to 5 weekends and by appointment on weekdays. Calling ahead is recommended.

Elise Ford is the author of "Unique Meeting Places in Greater Washington."