The interior of the black limo van was a high schooler's prom-night fantasy.
As my friend Liz Jones and I climbed aboard at our late morning pickup at Tysons II, we exclaimed over the two facing rows of three leather seats, the peninsula table in the middle, the mood lighting in the ceiling, the stereo/CD player, ice chest, crystal decanters and glasses. And the DVD player with dual screens, so you could watch no matter which way you were facing. The usual winery tour vehicle is a standard van with three forward-facing rows of seats, but you can request the luxury edition, and -- depending on availability -- the upgrade definitely elevates the experience from outing to occasion.
It was a gorgeous fall day -- crisp air, cobalt sky, colorful foliage, sunlight the color of a good chardonnay -- and Virginia wine country beckoned. In the past decade, the number of wineries in the state has grown to more than 80, and weekend wine tasting has become a popular pastime. The only thing that makes it less than perfect is having to drive home again. It's surprising what an effect a few seemingly tiny samples of wine can have on one's sobriety -- thus the appeal of the tours offered by Reston Limo and other companies.
The wineries are relatively spread out and many are on twisty rural roads. "It's good to let someone else do the driving," said Dale Freeman, our driver, who allowed that he'd recently driven tour groups who'd gotten "pretty trashed." The appeal of sitting back and leaving the driving and navigating to Dale was obvious.
First, Dale headed out to his company office in Sterling to pick up another couple. Groups from six to 20 can reserve their own minibus, but couples and smaller groups are combined into one vehicle. Pickups and drop-offs can be made in Arlington, Tysons or Sterling; price varies accordingly.
Margi and Robert Falconi climbed aboard; we all introduced ourselves, and went through a few tentative moments of cocktail party talk. The rows of facing seats encouraged -- even necessitated -- conversation. As Dale headed west into Rappahannock County, the four of us settled into a comfortable silence, watching the trees go by and occasionally remarking on the beautiful day.
Our first stop was at Gray Ghost Vineyards in Amissville, about 50 minutes from Sterling. Although Reston Limo makes no prior arrangements with the wineries, we arrived just in time for the last tour of the day.
As I stood on the rear loading dock gazing out over the empty vineyard, the sun warming my hair, I heard the enthusiasm in owner Cheryl Kellert's voice as she described this year's harvest, and I understood how appealing the winemaker's life could be.
Autumn is an exciting time in the winery business. The harvest has just come in, new bottlings have been released and there is a palpable sense of celebration -- mingled perhaps with relief. (Joke: How do you make a million dollars in the wine business? Answer: Start with $2 million.)
After learning a bit about how the grapes are picked, de-stemmed and pressed, we went down into the hillside outbuilding that houses the barrel room and the wine library, which holds at least one bottle of every type produced by Gray Ghost. Virginia wineries are small, family-run operations that bear little resemblance to the huge visitors centers of such Napa institutions as Sutter Home and Beringer. As we gathered around the tasting table, teenagers in T-shirts poured our samples, carefully reciting verbatim the descriptions of the wines that were printed on the fliers in our hands. We also opted to pay the additional dollar per person to taste Gray Ghost's reserve bottlings, a chardonnay and a merlot. Robert bought a bottle to take along and had it opened.
We emerged, blinking into the sunlight, deliberating whether to partake of Robert's liquid souvenir in the grass at Gray Ghost or push onward. Dale, who'd been waiting patiently in the van, said the pace of the tour was pretty much up to us -- we could decide when to move on to the next stop, or even substitute a different local winery for one on our itinerary -- as long as we headed home on time for our scheduled 4:15 drop-off.
We decided to go on to Unicorn Winery. It was only a few minutes down the road, so Robert didn't sample his wine in the van. Although the building that holds the tasting rooms and gift shop at Unicorn is unimposing, resembling a double-wide mobile home, its setting is lovely, fronted by a tiered deck that leads down to a pond.
Unicorn was holding a fall festival that weekend, and a catering tent on the far side of the pond issued delightful smells and strains of music. A moon bounce and clowns were there to entertain kids.
After tasting several white wines in the front room and a few reds in the rear, we were starving. You may bring your own food and drink in coolers on the Reston Limo tours, but we had all opted for the $15 box lunch prepared by Celebrations Catering. The atmosphere and fresh air combined to make my chilled sliced steak and herb cheese on a croissant especially delicious -- and the dense, fudgy brownie was wonderful with the glass of Chambourcin I purchased to go with lunch.
Liz and I also helped Robert with the bottle he'd brought from Gray Ghost, and cheered him on when he bought another at Unicorn. Our sense of celebration had begun to build. Hey, we weren't driving. (Happily, Virginia law explicitly exempts the passenger areas of hired limousines and buses from its open-container prohibitions.)
By the time we set off to our last winery -- crossing a charming but glass-jiggling one-lane bridge -- the inside of the van had taken on a party atmosphere; the four of us were talking loudly and urging Dale to trade in the classical CDs on the stereo for something less "buzz-killing." (Next time, I'll bring my own music.)
Farfelu, meaning "eccentric" in old French, was established in 1967. Tastings are held in its converted dairy barn; the usual $3 tasting fee includes a logo glass to take home. The wineries appreciate their chauffeured guests: "It's a good, safe way for folks to come out," said Kim Duty, marketing manager. And she pointed out the advantages that fall and winter visitors have over the summertime hordes. "It's a better time to visit for a behind-the-scenes tour. We're not as busy, and can give visitors more one-on-one time."
As I tweaked my scarf to conceal the red-wine stains on my white turtleneck that were the result of the aforementioned bridge, we concluded our day basking in the sunshine on the deck like so many lizards, listening to Louis Armstrong on the outdoor speakers and, of course, enjoying a last glass of wine. We were hungry again, and the buffalo sausage and cheese platter didn't really appeal. We wanted cookies! I'd advise bringing along some munchies for the ride home; also a Thermos of coffee and some bottled water.
Over the course of four hours, we'd each sampled approximately 15 wines and collectively consumed at least three bottles. Such indulgence wouldn't have been possible if we'd been in our own vehicles -- at least for one of us. But we all settled back into our soft leather seats, dry-mouthed, ravenous and utterly relaxed.
Home please, Dale.