My husband and I are sitting in a diner in Madison County, Va,, eating pie, and we’re a little surprised to be here. Not 10 minutes ago, we were sipping flights of wine at a swank tasting room built by tech dollars, soaking up a misty view of the Blue Ridge Mountains on a Virginia winery tour.
But when you pass a white clapboard building with a name like Mountaineer Cafe, you put on the brakes. And boy, are we glad we did. The diner, it turns out, has a display case holding shelf upon shelf of pies. More than 20 kinds, according to the menu: honey pie, Toll House pie, pecan, pumpkin, buttermilk, cherry delight.
So now we’re seated in black vinyl chairs at a Formica-topped table, sliding two pieces of pie — chess and chocolate chess, both dolloped with whipped cream — back and forth, debating which one we like better, washing down each sticky, sweet bite with appropriately watery diner coffee.
The pies are homemade, our waitress tells us. The baker, who’s also the owner, is her cousin. But she’s away today, off with her teenage son on a college tour. So our waitress is filling in. I ask her which pie’s the most popular. Toll House, she says, then turns to greet a group of sheriff’s deputies who have come in through the back door. She brings them their drinks without taking their order; she already knows what they want.
This is wine country, Virginia style. It’s a place where hills stitched with rows of neatly trained vines meet roadside diners and barbecue pits, where stone manors on emerald swaths of land share the landscape with clapboard farmhouses, where scuffed-up livestock auction yards meet sparkling new tasting rooms and distilleries. History is everywhere, written on the silver historical markers that appear here and there on the byways, describing events such as John Wilkes Booth’s escape route or an 1888 train disaster.
As we crisscross the soft green countryside on a late August afternoon, I ask myself why we don’t do this more often. The closest wineries, in Loudoun and Fauquier counties, are less than an hour’s drive from our home in Northern Virginia. The heart of wine country, the area around Charlottesville known as the Monticello Wine Trail, is less than three.
Shortly after my husband and I moved to Virginia from Michigan in 1995, we took the obligatory trip to Monticello. That’s when we first came upon Barboursville Vineyards, started in 1976 by a winemaking family from Italy’s Veneto region. Standing outside the tasting room nearly two decades ago, I could see why Gianni Zonin was drawn to the spot; the view, the vines practically glowing in the afternoon light, was every bit as beautiful as what I’d seen in the vineyards of the Veneto. Zonin, we learned, had been inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s attempts to grow wine grapes at Monticello.
The Virginia wine industry, and the tourism that comes with it, have grown a bit since then. There were 46 wineries in the commonwealth in those days; now there are more than 250. We figured we were overdue, so we’ve pointed our coffee-colored Fiat 500 toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, planning to hit a cluster of wineries in central and northern Virginia over a few days.
But in Virginia, it turns out, wineries are only part of the wine country experience.
From the outside, Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison, owned by AOL founder Steve Case and his wife, Jean, looks like a cross between a country cottage and a sprawling suburban mansion. It’s all limestone and light brick, the driveway bordered by perfectly unkempt English-style gardens. Inside, a cavernous tasting room is divided into spaces: living areas with sofas and cream leather ottomans, heavy wood tables and beaten-metal-topped cafe tables. There’s a fireplace in the middle of the room. A curvy bar made from reclaimed barrel slats and topped with soft yellow stone extends along one wall. Here and there, burnt-orange leather chairs provide a burst of color.
At noon on a Friday the place is abuzz, and it’s clear that not everyone is here to taste the wine. What appears to be a well-heeled mommy group is seated around one large table. One woman’s holding a wiggling infant, another’s corralling a toddler. Employees from the Plow & Hearth headquarters are having lunch nearby. There are no wine glasses at either table. Next to where my husband and I are seated, waiting for our flights of wine and charcuterie plate — our waitress seems a little harried — there’s a tower shelf stacked with games: Clue, Chutes & Ladders, chess. In fact, there are board games set up at just about every tasting room we visit, though I never see anyone playing.
When we’re finished, we walk through the building, exploring. Down a flight of stairs we follow a long stone corridor that leads to a room not unlike the Great Hall at Hogwarts. It’s empty but for a long, heavy wooden farm table that manages to look puny in this space. There are iron candelabras. At the far end of the room is a huge stone hearth flanked by tall, elegantly draped windows. Our daughter is only 16, but I’m already planning her wedding reception.
There’s no beaten path in wine country. The vineyards are hidden, down gravel lanes off winding mountain roads. The deeper we get into the country, the greener and softer the land becomes, the line of the Blue Ridge a distant and constant backdrop. We pass country stores and barbecue shacks, pastures of grazing cows and large, gracious horse farms bounded by signature matte black board fences. The farms have romantic names, like Belfort and Tally Ho and Tall Oaks and Misty Ridge.
I’m a person who stops for historical markers. The Old Dominion has more than 2,200, according to the Virginia Department of Historical Resources, and they’re everywhere along the byways. We read about Rockfish Church, first established in 1746, and about men with names like Oakley and Early, and one G. Judson Browning, who organized the Orange Rangers during the Civil War and later served in the Virginia House of Delegates.
We come upon one marker titled “Wreck at the Fat Nancy,” which describes one of the worst train disasters in the state’s history. It occurred on the morning of July 12, 1888, when a 44-foot-high, 147-foot-long trestle collapsed beneath a passenger train, killing nine people. The trestle was called “Fat Nancy” after the African American woman who served as the trestle watcher and whose job was to report trouble. I look around, but there’s no sign of a trestle or even train tracks. They’ve been swallowed up by the centuries and the landscape.
Our meandering makes us late. We arrive at Blenheim Vineyards nine minutes before closing. The winery that was opened in 2000 by Charlottesville musician Dave Matthews sits on a historic estate in Albemarle County, just south of Charlottesville and just up the road from Trump Winery. We’ve elected to skip the latter, put off by the large gold-leaf “T” on the sign at the entrance. By contrast, the sign for Blenheim is so small and plain, it’s easy to miss the turnoff.
But others have found it. We climb up to the tasting room, the top part of a rustic two-level structure made from reclaimed wood. Inside, there’s still a cluster of visitors lingering at the counter. Our server apologizes in advance for rushing us through, although he politely describes the five wines he’s pouring. Afterward, we step out onto the deck for a quick glance at the vines and hills beyond. There are a few more lingerers out here, seated at tables, sipping wine and listening to the music of, yes, Dave Matthews. (If you spend $50 you get a complimentary CD with three tracks.) A moment later, we’re all gently nudged toward the door.
In the morning we stop for coffee in tiny Crozet, west of Charlottesville — named for Col. B. Claudius Crozet, 1789-1864, Napoleonic Army officer and state engineer and cartographer, according to the historical marker in town. The place is so small that it doesn’t even qualify as a village; it’s officially a CDP, or census-designated place.
Still, this CDP has Mudhouse Coffee Roasters, a coffeehouse inside a brick warehouse. It’s a branch of a Charlottesville-based business that I later learn has been named one of the 10 best coffeehouses in the nation by USA Today. It’s a weekday, and there’s a smattering of people inside, doing what coffeehouse people do — nursing big mugs of coffee, eating pastries and gazing into their laptops. I wonder whether a business like this can thrive in such a tiny place. But as we drive away, I find my answer in Old Trail Village, a housing and retail development under construction on the outskirts of town.
What I know about horses could be stamped onto a horseshoe. Nevertheless, it’s horses that draw me to King Family Vineyards, two miles west of Crozet. I’ve heard that polo matches take place on the property, and I’m curious. There are no horses in sight when we pull into the farm, another expansive property with beautiful views. The matches are held on Sundays, we learn. But we’re here, so we decide to stay and taste. Plus, the tasting room is kind of cool, with gorgeous wood floors and an antler chandelier.
Our server is a young kid, and it takes him a while to acknowledge us — he’s busy chatting with the only other couple in the room, who apparently are frequent visitors, from what we can tell. He’s telling them that he’s leaving, though we missed the part about where he’s going. He sets up our glasses and pours, rattling off a description before moving away to resume his conversation. This happens a couple more times, and we’re thinking about sneaking out while his back is turned when a man walks into the room and takes up where the kid slacked off.
He introduces himself as James King, one of the three sons of proprietors David and Ellen King. Instead of leaving, we end up spending half an hour chatting about everything from the shape of wine bottles to polo. His dad is the polo enthusiast, James says, a longtime hobby. He tells us to stop for lunch at nearby Greenwood Gourmet Grocery, which we do.
It’s part general store, part sandwich shop. As we’re waiting to place our order, a man walks in and asks whether the store carries gluten-free bread. One of the employees points to a rack and tells him that there should be a loaf of rice bread on it. Is rice bread the only gluten-free choice? the man asks. Maybe we’re closer to home than we think.
We pick our way across the front porch in search of a table. The porch is crammed with garden pots, statuettes, crates and large tchotchkes for sale. It looks like my grandmother’s attic threw up on the doorstep. But we find an empty spot, and the sandwiches are good.
What we haven’t encountered, we realize, is the hordes. The buses and limos and tour groups. That is, until we hit Chrysalis Vineyards, in western Loudoun County. It’s just over an hour’s drive from our house, and it’s where we get our first taste of what it’s like to visit a popular winery on a sunny Saturday. We pull in at about 12:30 p.m. to find the parking lot already packed with cars. It’s 90 degrees outside, but that hasn’t stopped the day-trippers.
At least two limos, one of them a Hummer, and a tour bus are parked farther along the gravel drive. Tents are set up on the property, and there are so many people milling about that we wonder whether we’ve barged in on a wedding reception or party. But no, this is how Chrysalis does tastings these days, at least until a new, larger tasting room is built elsewhere on the property.
The tastings are staggered to start every 15 minutes. You buy your ticket inside, then head to your designated tent at the appointed time. Planks of wood atop wine barrels serve as the counters at each tent, and each is stocked with jars of oyster crackers and pitchers of water. We’ve been sent to Tent 5, where a group of 16 or so has gathered, a mix of 30-something couples, groups of friends and families. I look across the barrels and see a woman I play tennis with. She’s having a day in wine country with her 21-year-old daughter.
To Chrysalis’s credit, the winery has managed to find a way to deal with the weekend crowds while making everyone feel welcome. Our server spends a good 45 minutes with us, explaining the history of the vineyard, the wines and owner Jennifer McCloud’s devotion to the Norton grape, a native Virginia varietal. She gamely takes people’s questions. By the end of it, though, we’re wilting from the heat.
We decide to press on a little longer, up to Bluemont Vineyard, which, we’ve heard, has a spectacular view. Driving along the Snickersville Turnpike, a curving road lined with stone walls, we come across a granite marker on the edge of a field, commemorating the 1863 Battle of Aldie, a bloody fight between Union and Confederate soldiers that left 250 dead. We feel, suddenly, as though we’ve been plucked from one world and dropped into another. The road is deserted, and on the horizon, a storm is rolling in.
But at Bluemont, it’s back to revelry. We find another full parking lot and a lively scene, though completely different from the one at Chrysalis. A band is playing “Squeezebox,” by the Who. Every seat at every table on the porch is occupied, and it’s no wonder. The view is indeed spectacular, a slope planted with vines and fruit trees and beyond them a valley. We stand on the periphery for a few minutes, undecided, but by now it’s late afternoon and the storm clouds have closed in. Hearing thunder in the distance, we walk back toward the parking lot as the band goes into a cover of the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
On the drive home, I’m thinking not of wine but of country roads and Civil War battles and good pie. I’m thinking about the two couples who struck up a conversation with us as we were leaving the Mountaineer Cafe. They asked where we were from and smiled sympathetically when we told them we lived near Washington.
“We used to live there,” one of the men said. They all laughed, as though they couldn’t believe that was once the case. They told us to come back, and to try the cheeseburgers next time.
And the Toll House pie.
Boar’s Head Inn
200 Ednam Dr., Charlottesville
Elegant, recently renovated rooms from $175.
Inn at Willow Grove
14079 Plantation Way, Orange
Gorgeous rooms with opulent touches from $275.
218 North Main St., Madison
Casual diner featuring fried pickles, burgers and 20 kinds of pie. Burgers from $2.75.
The Old Mill Room
Boar’s Head Inn
Local ingredients and a wine list featuring Virginia pours. Entrees from $16.
Inn at Willow Grove
Intimate dining with a seasonal menu and locally sourced produce. Entrees from $26.
200 W. Washington St., Middleburg
Gourmet market and sandwich shop, also serving wine. Sandwiches from $6.95.
17655 Winery Rd., Barboursville
Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Current vintage tastings $7. Tastings of older wines, with culinary bites, offered in Library 1821, $20.
31 Blenheim Farm, Charlottesville
Daily 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tastings $5.
18755 Foggy Bottom Rd., Bluemont
March-October, Wednesday-Monday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; November-February, Wednesday-Monday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tastings $7.
23876 Champe Ford Rd., Middleburg
April-October, Monday-Thursday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; November-March, Monday-Thursday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Estate tasting of seven wines $7; reserve tasting of 12 wines $10.
Early Mountain Vineyards
6109 Wolftown-Hood Rd., Madison
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Flights $14-$20.
King Family Vineyards
6550 Roseland Farm, Crozet
Daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tastings $7.
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