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A trip to wine country isn’t as far from D.C. as you might think

People gather on the hillside picnic tables at the Windridge Vineyards in Montgomery County. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

There’s a slight nip in the air, and trees have burst into a full blaze of gold, apricot and bronze. A crisp autumn afternoon practically begs to be spent sitting in the sun at a winery, sipping and sampling with friends, enjoying the fresh air and admiring the changing colors of nature.

But anyone who lives in Washington knows that enjoying a day trip to wine country can literally mean spending the full day — rounding everyone up, getting in the car, sitting in traffic, and then doing it all again on the way home. Visiting the best-known vineyards sometimes means spending more time driving than actually enjoying the wine.

To make the best use of time, we worked with Washington Post wine writer Dave McIntyre to create a list of recommended wineries located roughly an hour or less from downtown D.C. These wineries offer bottlings that allow single varietals, such as chambourcin, to shine, as well as award-winning blends. Some have been around for a decade, while others are only a few years old. All encourage guests to hang out outdoors, on porches or around picnic tables, admiring the vines and views. In the end, that’s the most important thing.

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Paradise Springs Winery

Venture through a picturesque tunnel of trees to the end of Yates Ford Road in Fairfax County, just short of Hemlock Overlook Regional Park and the Bull Run Occoquan Trail, and you’ll come across Paradise Springs’s 36-acre estate. The decade-old winery — originally part of a 1,000-acre land grant from Lord Fairfax in 1716 and highlighted by a log cabin thought to be two centuries old — offers an array of seating situations: a rustic tasting room, in the shadow of stacked wine barrels; an adults-only deck, complete with heaters and a fireplace; patio seating, which on a recent Sunday played host to a 91st birthday party; and a sprawling, dog-friendly lawn dotted with picnic tables.

Considering the destination’s obvious appeal for families and large groups, plan on swinging by early in the day if you visit over the weekend. (During my trip, an overflow parking lot that was empty at noon was packed by midafternoon.) Although glasses of wine are available on weekdays, the weekend menu is generally limited to flights and bottles, employees said.

The Winemaker’s Flight ($15) featured four whites, including a crisp 2020 chardonnay with notes of green apple, and two reds, among them a sweet 2019 Norton with earthy tones. The Harvest Flight ($30), a special that weekend, comprised five reds (the smooth 2016 PVT was the standout) and a port-style dessert wine. In addition to the prepackaged meats and cheeses and warm baguettes available at the bar, Paradise Springs has an in-house food truck specializing in artisanal pizzas such as the Bombay Tandoor (with butter chicken sauce), the Fall in Love (with acorn squash) and my choice, the Bee Keeper (with hot capocollo and delectably spicy honey).

13219 Yates Ford Rd., Clifton, Va. Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. 703-830-9463. — T.F.

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Robin Hill Farm and Vineyards

Rolling up the long driveway to this Prince George’s County winery, stones crunching under your tires as you pass a bright red barn, a shaded grove and an inviting-looking pond, you’re reminded that “farm” comes before “vineyard” in the name. After all, the land has been farmed by the Watson family since 1955, while the winery only opened to the public in the fall of 2017.

The spacious old tobacco barn has become the winemaking center and tasting room, though the indoor portion is closed because of the pandemic. Instead, the staff pours wine from a table on the barn’s wraparound porch. There are a dozen varieties available by the glass, made from grapes grown on five acres of vines adjacent to the barn. Start with Rooted, a bright, drier, sweetly fruited chenin blanc that was named “best in class” white wine at this year’s Governor’s Cup competition, or Red Barn, a jammy blend of Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin that was awarded a double gold medal in the same contest. Almost all wines are $7 per glass and $22 to $24 per bottle, which is ideal for sharing. Robin Hill doesn’t do flights, and the only way to explore the breadth of its output is the Wine Tasting Kit: An egg carton-style container holds a dozen small plastic condiment cups, each with a splash of wine, plus some palate-cleansing crackers and a sheet of tasting notes.

Beyond wines by the glass, there’s sangria, frozen wine slushies and, in cold weather, mulled wine. Different food trucks arrive each weekend — this Saturday features Calvert Crabs on Saturday and No Sauce ’Que barbecue on Sunday — but the wine counter also offers a selection of local cheeses, including an outstanding smoked cheddar from Clover Hill, an Amish dairy in Mechanicsville.

The outdoors is a social-distancer’s dream: Well-spaced rows of umbrella-shaded picnic tables sit between the barn and the vineyard. Across the driveway, more tables and chairs surround a gazebo where musicians perform during the afternoons. (On a recent visit, it was a guitarist picking out Allman Brothers classics and modern country tunes.) Goats stretch out in the grass next to the glimmering pond, with a couple of ducks for company. In front of the barn, there’s a tree with a swing that’s big enough for a couple to get cozy. This is a relaxing, friendly spot to spend a few hours basking in the sun with a bottle of wine.

15800 Croom Rd., Brandywine, Md. Open Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Reservations required for groups of 10 or more. 301-643-5619.
. — F.H.

Walsh Family Wine

The doormat at the Walsh Family Wine tasting room in Loudoun County welcomes guests with a cheeky greeting: “Come in, we’re awesome.” There’s plenty of personality in this intimate venue — ideal for couples and modest groups — which includes a sunny indoor space with a towering stone fireplace; a canopy-covered patio, populated by deck furniture, iron tables and cafe lights; and fire pits and picnic tables, placed among the nearby pine trees.

The location exuded a relaxed atmosphere during a recent Wednesday afternoon visit, though there’s presumably more vibrancy during events such as the Concert in the Pines series, which spotlights local artists on an agrestic outdoor stage. The tasting room, with its slight hipster bend, features shelves of vinyl records — from the Black Keys, the Clash and Dolly Parton, among others — and walls adorned with motivational mantras. (Example: “Want better not more!”)

Founded by Sarah and Nate Walsh, who met in 2012, got married in 2013 and launched the company in 2014, Walsh Family Wine farms from five vineyards across Loudoun County (including North Gate, the location of the tasting room). On our visit, we tried the $18 flight — composed of a melon-tinged sauvignon blanc, a complex Viognier and two red blends, all served in miniature bottles — plus a glass of the fruity 2019 Russ Mountain merlot. (Glasses are in the $9-$15 range.) The star of the limited food menu is the picnic basket, charmingly presented like it was ripped from a Yogi Bear cartoon and packed with a baguette, dried fruit, olives, a delicious Virginia Chutney Co. fig spread and cheddar from nearby Harvue Cheese in Berryville.

16031 Hillsboro Rd., Purcellville, Va. Open noon to 6 p.m. Saturday through Thursday, noon to 8 p.m. Friday. 540-668-6248. — T.F.

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Windridge Vineyards

From the grassy fields at Windridge Vineyards in Montgomery County, the view of countryside extends for miles, over colorful forests and nature preserves, to Sugarloaf Mountain, and beyond. Seated at a picnic table, or in Adirondack chairs around a firepit, sipping wine and looking across the vines and valleys, it’s hard to believe that Windridge’s founders didn’t pick this land for their winery and tasting room. In fact, it was the other way around.

“My brothers and I grew up in a house right next door, and all of us farmed that land,” says owner Robert Butz. “When you grow up with it, sometimes you take it for granted, to be honest. It’s been very interesting for my brothers and I to see this land again through the eyes of our customers.”

Windridge Vineyards began as an extension of Windridge Farm, a family agricultural business that has been operating in Frederick since 1954. (Windridge Vineyards is owned by the Butz and Truland families.) The first vines were planted in 2011, and through 2017, Windridge supplied grapes to other local wineries. But along the way, Butz says, they decided to go into the wine business themselves. Vines were planted at the Darnestown winery in 2018, and it opened to the public a year later, with just an outdoor pavilion serving as the bar. The full tasting room debuted in late 2020.

The spaciousness of the lawns around the tasting room have been especially appealing during the pandemic: While customers can make reservations for tables, and some weekend slots fill well ahead of time, there is always first-come, first-served seating, and visitors are also welcome to bring blankets and spread out on the grass.

Flights are offered with three half-glasses of reds or white, though all the selections lean toward the dry end of the wine spectrum. The Red, with the peppery, raspberry-forward Chambourcin and the bold, oak-aged Seneca, was the more interesting trio, and paired well with the house charcuterie. (Food trucks visit on weekends, but the tasting room sells snacks the rest of the week.)

The vineyard tries to keep customers coming back with a steady stream of events, including barre classes; Friday night concerts; “create and sip” afternoons with crafts — on Nov. 21, guests will make a Thanksgiving floral centerpiece while sipping mimosas; and wine education events that include vertical tastings and food pairings. The latter, Butz says, have become an alternative to the old style of guided tastings at winery bars. “We feel like we can’t really do tastings effectively because everybody’s masked up. It’s really difficult to explain your story to somebody when you’re distanced. And so these educational dinners have been a good way for us to fill that gap, and we’ll definitely continue that.”

15700 Darnestown Rd., Darnestown, Md. Open Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Reservations required for groups larger than eight. 301-750-9463. — F.H.