The signs are everywhere.

Travel down Virginia highways from Leesburg south to Charlottesville: The roads are dotted with signs that include a cluster of grapes, a directional arrow and the word "tours," indicating that a winery is nearby.

And more than one Virginia grape grower with vineyards along the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains envisions that someday this region may be called "Napa of the East."

The growth of the Virginia wine industry is impressive. In 1985 there were 29 wineries, and today there are 80, according to Virginia Wine Marketing (VWM), a division of the state Department of Agriculture.(As many as 20 more are in development stages with opening dates planned for 2004 or 2005.)

The biggest boom is in Loudoun and Madison counties in northern Virginia and Orange and Albemarle counties in the central part of the state, according to Pam Jewell of VWM. "In those areas, people see the growth in the wine industry and they want to be part of that growth," she says. In addition, in some cases, farmers who previously grew grapes and sold them to established wineries now are producing wine of their own.

The quantity of wineries has also brought an improvement in the quality of the wine.

Michael Franz, a Washington Post wine columnist, has tasted 600 to 700 Virginia wines during the past three years.

"There's a greater clarity of flavor and a truer taste of the grape variety, with fewer flaws," says Franz. But he shies away from any comparison of the wines of Virginia to California.

"What is like Napa, 20 years ago, is a spirit of experimentation and discovery," he says.

Michael Mondavi, chairman of the board of Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley and a pioneer of winemaking in America, says he has "periodically tasted" Virginia wines over the years.

"I've seen consistent improvements," says Mondavi. "But it takes a number of years to understand your microclimate and so I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't continue to improve year after year."

Wine writer Marguerite Thomas, in her book "Wineries of the Eastern States" (Berkshires House Publishers, 1999) singles out Virginia as, potentially, the most promising eastern wine-producing state.

"Lying between the cold weather extreme of the Northeast and the intense heat and humidity of the South, [Virginia] may prove to have the most grape-friendly climate," Thomas writes.

At the same time, some regions of the state are more advantageous for grape growing than others.

"What you want is steep hills so that the cold air moves away fast," says winemaker Gabriele Rausse.

Rausse, who arrived from Italy in 1976 to help plant the Barboursville Vineyards near Charlottesville, is credited with revolutionizing the Virginia wine industry in the late 1970s by persuading farmers to grow vinifera -- the European species of winemaking grapes. He prefers a vineyard site with a south and southeast exposure "so that the dew dries quickly on the leaves and fungi is less likely to form." Rausse also has a reality check for Virginia grape growers.

"People have been excited in the last six or so years with the very mild winters," he says. "But when we do have a bad year, they will see how important the right location can be."

Tony Wolf, a professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, says that the "big spike" in wineries is due to improved pesticides and greater experience with the varieties of grapes that grow well in the state. Advances have been made in the knowledge of what to plant, where to plant it and how to care for the vines.

Virginia Tech, under the leadership of state oenologist Bruce Zoecklein, a professor in the department of food science and technology, has played a major part in wine industry growth. His staff conducts workshops, publishes bulletins and provides on-site farm visits to offer technical advice. For new winemakers, there are free lab services and tasting roundtables that provide peer feedback.

State officials have done their part by providing tax incentives for vineyard owners and supporting the industry with a progressive marketing department.

"They realized early on that grapes are an important agricultural commodity," says Zoecklein. "Wine provides a rippling effect of economic impact for tourism as well as taxes."

For her book "Breaking Away to Virginia & Maryland Wineries" (Capital Books, 2002), Washington wine writer Elisabeth Frater visited more than 70 area wineries. "I think, with the advent of new money, it's a sexy second career for technology people, engineers and physicians," she says.

No doubt, a new winery requires deep pockets. In addition to the price of the land, it costs approximately $10,000 per acre to establish a vineyard. That amount covers the grapevines, trellises, a deer-protection fence, an irrigation system and initial overhead for labor and management.

Farm equipment, a winery building and winemaking equipment are additional. For example, a new Prospero-brand automatic membrane grape press, imported from Italy, costs about $26,000. New American oak barrels run about $360 each. A 1,000-gallon stainless-steel tank costs $5,000. It all adds up to a sizable investment in a business that takes at least three years before a single bottle of wine is in hand.

But high costs and inherent risks are not stopping people from jumping in and crushing grapes. The boom in vineyards in Virginia is fueled by the energy of many different people, with different backgrounds and aspirations.

Take, for example:

Veritas Vineyard & Winery

Three years ago in Jacksonville, Fla., Andrew Hodson practiced neurology. His wife, Patricia, owned a physician's billing service for 103 doctors. For both, the hours were long. They say their successful careers were unfulfilling.

Three weeks ago, in their vineyard at the foot of Afton Mountain, west of Charlottesville, Andrew, 55, and Patricia, 50, loaded six tons of hand-picked cabernet franc grapes onto a flat-bed trailer. They used a tractor to haul the last of the 2002 harvest of 80 tons of grapes into their barn-style winery.

The Hodsons dumped the grapes into a de-stemmer/crusher machine where the "berry," or grape, was removed from the "rachi," or small part of the stem. The preparation for grape fermentation came next. From this harvest they hope to produce 4,000 to 5,000 cases of wine.

Late that afternoon, they relaxed in Adirondack-style chairs on the deck of their winery and talked about how their life has changed.

"Before, neither of us wanted what we had," says Patricia. "We reached a point where I felt like we were going down a blind alley. It was close to a mid-life crisis."

Andrew recalls: "But I always had a fantasy of making a little vineyard. Now, we're very laid-back."

Their fantasy became a sudden reality when they visited Northern Virginia for a medical conference in 1999. They were "surprised to discover" wineries nearby. "It was a beautiful autumnal day," he says. "We decided to take a look."

The "look" at wineries turned that same day into a hunt for suitable property to start their own vineyard. Says Patricia: "We fell in love with the first property we saw."

They bought a 250-acre cattle farm with a four-room house in Nelson County for approximately $1 million.

Soon after, life in Jacksonville came to an end. Their 7,000-square-foot waterfront house was sold. The Hodsons moved to Virginia with two of their three children who were school age.

In short order, they planted 25 acres with nine types of grapes. A 4,000-square-foot, pine-sided, barn-style winery was built with a deck along one side for picnic tables. They purchased assorted farm machinery and winemaking equipment, spending an additional $1 million.

"I had no idea of the rate that we would go through money," Patricia says.

At the same time, neither Hodson had ever made wine. But they set a goal "to make Bordeaux-style wines from Virginia grapes."

"We knew that we wanted to make the kinds of wine we like to drink," says Andrew.

The Hodsons call themselves "non-oak people."

"When it comes to wine," says Andrew. "I like the grape and not the barrel."

They hired Virginia wine consultant Brad McCarthy of White Hall Vineyards in Charlottesville. Andrew applied his knowledge of chemistry that he learned in medical school. "It's really not all that difficult to make wine," he says. "And we think that the quality of our wine has reached a level, happily, to compare with California."

In June they opened Veritas to the public.

In the first four months of operation they sold 800 cases of their 2001 vintage wine either from the winery or at festivals. Veritas wines sell for between $14 and $25 per bottle. The Hodsons' daughter Emily, "our young energy," plans to graduate next year from Virginia Tech after completing a master's program in oenology-winemaking. Emily will help make next year's wines and sell this year's.

Still, the Hodsons say they did not open a winery to make money. "It was never a consideration," says Andrew. "To make a small fortune in wine, you start with a large fortune, the old saying goes."

Instead, the Hodsons agree their goal is to "make something tangible."

"It's such an incredibly risky business that is capitally intensive," says Patricia. "You have to wait for three years for a product. Then you have to hope that the market will appreciate you. But at the end of the day," she says, "there is something I can touch and leave behind for posterity."

Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard

A clearing has been made in a grove of tall, slender oaks across a country road from the entrance to Albemarle House -- the 1,300-acre estate in Charlottesville that philanthropist, socialite and now wine entrepreneur Patricia Kluge shares with husband Bill Moses, a former IBM executive.

On a recent rainy morning more than a dozen carpenters, stone masons and landscapers work around and within a new, rustic-style structure -- the Kluge Estate Farm Store. Bulldozers raise a din. The shop will likely be finished and ready for a grand opening in mid-January.

A black Range Rover pulls up. Kluge, 54, a native of Iraq, a former belly dancer and ex-wife of German-born billionaire John Kluge, does not seem to mind the mire.

Says Kluge, with the point of a finger: "Over here, there will be a delicious little picnic garden with wonderful tables, surrounded by a lovely hedgerow." A point in another direction brings: "Over there, there will be parking for buses." Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, is seven minutes away.

Inside the nearly completed structure, there is a strong fragrance of cedar and an obvious emphasis on fine architectural detail. The architect is David Easton, who also designed Kluge's nearby private chapel and the Georgian-style manor house with 50-plus rooms.

Plans call for the shop to have a central area where visitors can buy "a fantastic game pie or pate pastries made by my chefs -- foods that complement my wines." Preserves have been formulated with fruits from the estate's orchards and fields. Topiaries trimmed in the estate's conservatory will take their place in a "garden room" that is tiled with thick squares of slate.

From the store, a nature trail with native plants leads to a hilltop. Future visitors will take in the view of 50 acres of manicured vines that were planted in 1999 and now are guarded by working dogs that protect the grapes from the wildlife. Until the shop is finished, Kluge's first wine, a limited edition Bordeaux-style "2000 New World Red" is for sale in the temporary winery office. Displayed in a wooden box designed by British royal Lord David Linley, it goes for $495 for the 750-milliliter bottle and box.

"And it's worth it," says Kluge. "I knew if I took great care I could do something fantastic." In fact, Kluge says she has already sold six bottles. A brut-style sparkling wine will be available in January for $35 per bottle.

Kluge, by all appearances, has a serious interest in the future of Virginia wine.

"This is not a whim thing. I'm in this to make money, very much so. Like any of my investments, I've studied it," she says. "I want to compete with the best wines in the world."

To that end, Kluge has hired two heavyweights in the world of wine. Virginia winemaker Rausse and wine specialist Michel Rolland from France are consulting winemakers.

Next year an expansion plan calls for an additional planting of 150 acres of vineyard, making Kluge winery, at 200 acres, the largest in the state.

According to Kluge, in the spring of 2004 construction will commence on a new winery center near the gates of her estate. The future home of Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard will be "a Georgian-style and rather French-ish, magnificent building, like a restored ruin, with a dome of brass." Moses, the CEO of Kluge, says the construction budget is $4 million to $5 million.

When asked why she is luring tourists into her rarefied, pastoral world, Kluge says with a smile: "I'm not that neurotic. Why not share?"

Hidden Brook and Lost Creek Vineyards and Wineries

The Hauck family has taken the unusual step of building two wineries within a 100 yards of each other. They make wine "for the romance of it all," says Bob Hauck. "For a million reasons, from watching the grapes grow to the satisfaction you get when you sit down at night with your own glass of wine."

Parents Bob and Carol Hauck opened Lost Creek Vineyards & Winery on July 4. Their son, Eric Hauck, and his wife, Deborah, opened Hidden Brook Vineyards & Winery on Sept. 14.

Perhaps, it's best that way. Bob, 56, has his priorities; Eric, 32, has his own.

"We love each other. But we're both headstrong people," says Bob.

Bob and Carol, both Dallas natives, bought 52 acres of land north of Leesburg in 1995 and over time planted a 14-acre vineyard.

Eric and Deborah bought a nearby, 20-acre parcel in 1998 and planted their own seven acres of grapes.

Winemaking is a second career for both families, who own and operate Northstar Fire Protection in Sterling. The company installs sprinkler systems in high-rise buildings.

The senior Haucks built a metal warehouse and faced the front with pine boards and stonework. "We want the Tuscany look, Old World," says Carol. "Next year, we're going to stucco the outside." Opposite a large stone fireplace in the tasting room she draped tables with a rich, red fabric.

The younger set went in another direction.

"My theme is all-American style," says Eric. He and Deborah built a 2,000-square-foot log cabin in a grove of white pines. The construction is ongoing, but their tasting table is open.

Differences in their winemaking styles are evident as well.

Says Eric: "My [red] Chambourcin is full bodied and bold, with no acid and a nice bouquet of fruit."

Bob says he uses the same type of grape "but I wanted more fruit, a milder, light wine, a red on training wheels."

Both agree that they are not in competition with each other. "We like to play in the lab together and filter things different ways."

"I'd call it helping each other," says Eric. "I'm not in competition with Bob or anyone else. In the wine industry, everybody helps everybody else."

The Haucks say that most of their customers, about 300 per weekend, are from Arlington and Alexandria. "They make a day of it," says Eric. "First they go to Leesburg Premium Outlets six miles away." They follow the signs. "Then, they hit a few wineries."

A NEW BREED: Andrew and Patricia Hodson, left, walked away from medical careers in Jacksonville to start Veritas Vineyard & Winery; center, Patricia Kluge started Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard to compete with the best wines of the world; and right, the Hauck family at Lost Creek Vineyards & Winery: Bob Hauck, daughter-in-law, Deborah; wife, Carol; and son, Eric. Eric and Deborah own nearby Hidden Brook Vineyards & Winery. Andrew and Patricia Hodson at their Veritas Vineyard & Winery.