Seekers from the city one recent weekend may have found themselves under a yellow-and-white striped tent in the Virginia countryside, in view of ripening grapes, wine glasses in hand. The site was Piedmont Vineyards, south of Middleburg, the occasion, the 12th annual Virginia Wine Festival, a fund-raiser for the Vinifera Wine Growers Association. The throbbing bandstand was common enough for a country fair, but the young woman up to her knees in grape juice and seeds was not. (Forget that other young woman, the one parading ferrets on leashes.) The grape-stomping contest had a certain lusty appeal, but the real draw was the wines themselves. We expect those produced here to be hybrids, those foxy stalwarts that have inhibited the drinking of American wines about as much as they have abetted it. Well, the pleasant surprise was the preponderance and quality of wines made from standard European grape varieties, once thought ungrowable in the well-watered hills of the eastern United States. New fungicides, entrepreneurial ,elan, and the determination of people like Treville Lawrence, founder of the association, are altering both the perception and the reality.

Hybrids were best represented by Meredyth Vineyards' dry, apricoty seyval blanc, but the longest lines formed at the new founts of Vinis vinifera, for the chardonnays, rieslings, cabernet sauvignons, traminers and pinot noirs that have made California a renowned wine producer, and could conceivably do the same here. I liked Rapidan River Vineyards' flavorful, almost astringent 1982 White Riesling, and Shenandoah Vineyards' fruity, slightly sweet version of the same wine. Oasis Vineyards offered a 1981 cabernet with bouquet and a smooth, warm afterglow. However, the real contenders were the chardonnays, the great dry white hope from Burgundy. Piedmont's experimental 1980 reserve, twice fermented, was soft and slightly spritzy; Ingleside Plantation Vineyards' 1982 vintage was light, fruity, and complex. Naked Mountain Vineyards' 1982 chardonnay was crisp, dry, not too long in the barrel, a lovely wine with no touch of heat in the aftertaste. Anyone who thinks a well-made chardonnay cannot emerge from the Blue Ridge should try it.

Of course you can't, since it's only sold at the vineyard, as most of these wines are, and by now probably sold out. This brings us to the larger question of price, and availability. Virginians were paying $7, $8 and even $9 a bottle, toting cases off through the hot sun. That's chauvinism, not true value. The wines don't have to cost that much. We'll get into the economics of local wineries another time; suffice it to say that competition should bring the prices down, while experience elevates the quality. The effect in the East Coast marketplace of, say, a decent chardonnay at around $4 a bottle, in good supply, would be nothing short of revolutionary. Doubters-- including those at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-- should venture out of town one weekend, and have a look.

Wine-tastings--Calvert-Woodley's World of Wine Society charges $15 annually, and only $8-$15 for each monthly tasting (call 966-4400). Wide World of Wines' American Academy of Wines (362-0768) offers three different classes a week, from $15 to $35 for one or two sessions. Les Amis du Vin's $25 membership includes a subscription to its magazine; tastings vary from $15 to $35 (301/588-0980).