YES, Virginia, there is a wine country here. And in Maryland and Pennsylvania, too. But don't expect the clusters of vineyards you find in northern California; there are no long roads strewn with winery after winery. For wine tasting around here, state maps and a good car are what you need. Virginia has 19 vineyards, Maryland six and Pennsylvania 22, but they are in homes and cellars hidden in the valleys, scattered among the hills of the countryside, and off backroads that branch off from interstates and are as tangled and winding as the vines you seek.
In other words, if you like wine, you'd better like driving, too. It could take an avid wine taster three dedicated weekends to get even a taste of the local vineyards and the wines they offer.
"Local wines," understand, does not mean fermented apple juice. The process of making wine good enough to win competitions throughout the East, and praise from wine experts, has taken years. As the tour guides and wine makers -- and they're usually the same person -- will tell you, folks have been trying to make wine here since the 17th century. Native East Coast grapes tasted "foxy," and European vines died when planted here. But grafting vines from European with those from the American Midwest made for a hardier plant and tasty produce. And in the past 10 years, many of Washington's nearby slopes have been claimed by the wine makers, who now open their homes and their bottles for visitors.
In many cases, a visit to a winery isn't just LIKE a visit to someone's home, it is one. Keeping that in mind, always call ahead to make sure the family's not out of town. Remember, too, that around here wine making is a way of life but it's not necessarily a living. Some places may be more generous with tastings than other, but if you're interested in wine, you will get more than enough enology.
If you like the wine, find out where it's distributed in town.
Here are eight we visited. Tours and tastings are free unless otherwise noted. The first four are all within relatively easy driving distance of one another:
Piedmont Vineyards: Phone (703) 687-5134. Go south through Middleburg and turn left on Route 626. Turn right at the winery sign. Go up the driveway, through woods and past the pond to the barn-cum-winery. The new office is all light wood and green; winery, tasting room and lab are under the same roof, for a 15-minute tour. The visit was fun; it's lovely country and a casual tour, but one that gives you all the basics. Tastings of the first of their three whites -- chardonnay, semillon and seyval blanc -- were marred only esthetically by the bit of cork poured into the glass. The Virginia Wine Festival and Vineyard Tour, the first statewide competition, will be held here on Aug. 28; call for more information.
From there, it's not far to Meredyth, in Fauquier County. At the Middleburg blinker on U.S. Route 50, turn south on Route 776, go 2 1/2 miles to Route 628, then 2 1/2 miles to Meredyth entrance. Phone: (703) 687-6277. Meredyth, nestled in the foothills of the Bull Run Mountains, is a family operation, too, but not so that you'd know it. The Smiths are pros, from their monthly newsletter to half-hour tours as well-planned as California's best. If you go to only one winery, this is the most professional, probably because Archie Smith is chairman of the Virginia Wineries Association. In the sales room, you can taste some of their 15 or so whites, reds and rose's; they have a new wine every month. The wines are for sale as well as T-shirts, cheese, bottle openers, books and more. Tours daily 10 to 4.
As the bird flies, not too far from Meredyth is Oasis, in Hume. From Washington, take I-66 west to Marshall, then 647 west toward Flint Hill, then right on 635 for 12 miles and the winery is on the left. Phone: (703) 635-7627. The last 12 miles bumping along the country road will be worth it, no doubt, to see the latest addition to Oasis: cement tanks from Italy, the only ones in Virginia used for fermentation and to age whites. In fact, it will be worth the trip just to see the brand new winery office and lab, tasting room and covered area for picnicking. When we were there, though, we got a tour of the home. "From here over is the winery," Salahi explained, walking us from living room to office and pointing to an imaginary but legal division down the middle. His tour was more of an informal chat, but his passion for wine made it worthwhile. Why else would he use his beautiful oak-lined sauna as a greenhouse, filled with boxes and boxes of vine graftings? This is the vineyard's first sales season for their wines: seven whites and six reds, plus a French-style champagne.
Also close to Oasis is Naked Mountain Vineyard, which we visited on another day. It's in Markham on Route 688, two miles north of I-66 exit. Phone: (703) 364-1609. At the newly built winery, complete with a view from the porch of the pond, the vineyards and the surrounding countryside, you'll get either Bob or Phoebe Harper for the show-and-tell tour. You'll definitely get Polecat, their "vineyard pest-control dog," who keeps the groundhogs and deer out of the vineyard. You don't get things like that in Napa Valley. Bob Harper's tour was informal, mostly us asking questions, so it's probably best not to make this your first visit to a winery. He is better at making wines than talking about it. Really good wine. They've got chardonnay, gewurtztraminer, sauvignon blanc, riesling and claret. Tours are Wednesday through Sunday noon to 5.
Tri-Mountain Winery: A long drive from Naked Mountain, which is closer to the others. Too bad we made the trek. From I-81, take exit 77 and go east on Route 627 one mile. The winery is on the left. Phone (703) 869-3030. The tastings are free now, but they won't be in the spring, when Geraci says they'll be charging $2. "We have the only apple wine in the valley here," he says. "And a concord. But don't compare it to Mogen David or something." I couldn't compare it if I wanted to, but I didn't like either wine or the paper cups we tasted from or the tours, with a commercialism that you'd expect from a huge place. If this hasn't dissuaded you, tours are every half hour Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 to 5:30.
On another day, we started with Byrd Vineyards: North on I-270 to I-70 West, to exit 42 at Myersville, Md. Go north a mile to a right on Church Hill Road, then continue just over a mile to entrance on left. Phone: (301) 293-1110. $1.50 weekdays, $2 weekends ($1 deducted from cost of wine if you buy a bottle). This was a wonderful way to start a day of touring, because Byrd offers friendliness, professionalism and a look at some pretty country. A 15-minute slide show tells you everything you didn't know to ask; tours are done by the same people who, when we were there, had stayed up the night before bottling and labeling the wines, which made for a chat cozy enough to start everyone asking questions and rambling on with each other. And that was before we had started drinking. They're generous with their wines (chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, seyval blanc, vidal Blanc, Maryland apple, gewurtztraminer and rose') and sell T-shirts and bottle openers as well. Weekdays 1 to 5, closed Tuesdays. Weekends 1 to 6.
Not a close drive, but the only one open the day we were doing Maryland wines, was Montbray Vineyards -- and itwas worth it. From Washington, take Georgia Avenue north to Maryland 97. Stay on it to Westminster, continue north towards Gettysburg. Go through Silver Run to a right on Silver Run Valley Road; then continue two miles to the winery on the left. Phone: (301) 346-7878. Not a professional tour, which is all the more reason to visit. It captures the best of local wine tours. In the winery, a huge old barn filled with the familiar musky odor of fermenting wine, Montbray gives a relaxed talk and may join you in drinking a few of his wines (two whites, a red and a rose'). His office is equally charming, filled with things to look at while you're waiting for him to fill out the receipts for the wine you'll probably buy. Sayings to sip by, etched into the wooden beams on the low ceiling: "From wine what sudden friendship springs;" "Wine wipes away the vapors of despair." Tours weekdays and Saturdays 10 to 6, Sunday 1 to 6.
We tried Farfelu, our last, on another day entirely. It's in Rappahannock County, four miles east of Flint Hill, 13 miles west of Marshall on Route 647. Call (703) 364-2930 to make reservations. Don't be put off by the closed gate when you get there, or the half-dozen hounds, all friendly, when you finally make it to the house. The tour is really a chat with whichever member of the Raney family is home. The owner's son, whose sense of humor was only slightly drier than the good, cheap red wines they offer, chatted with us. I wouldn't go out of my way again, but it is in the same neck of the woods as the first four we did, and one of the oldest vineyards around. They offer white wines as well.
Don't expect to make more than three in a day. A guide to the Virginia Estate Wineries is available by sending a SASE to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Markets, PO Box 1163, Richmond, Va. 23209. For Maryland's, send the SASE to Wineries List, Maryland Department of Agriculture, Annapolis, Md. 21401. Pennsylvania's can be obtained sending the SASE to Pennsylvania Wine Country, Department SLA, 416 Forum Building, Harrisburg, Pa. 17120. (Use a business-sized envelope for each.)