There’s something about Virginia that makes people want to grow grapes. George Washington certainly tried at Mount Vernon, as did Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Despite their zealous efforts, not much in the way of tasty wine ever came of either attempt. But a couple of centuries later, Virginia wine has come into its own, producing stellar vintages with Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, Viognier, Norton and several other grape varietals. With almost 200 wineries and more on the horizon, Virginia’s wine industry is surging ahead.
The northern counties of Loudoun, Fauquier and Rappahannock are thick with small-scale, family-run wineries. This is also horse country. On weekends, John F. Kennedy and Jackie O used to retreat from Washington, D.C., to the tony town of Middleburg, whose main street boutiques will help you achieve the horse country look and lifestyle. Stop by the appropriately named Crème de la Crème interiors store for heavy French linens and Italian pottery, and Home Farm for strings of sausages made from heirloom Virginia pigs.
For a sampling of nearby Boxwood Winery’s product, pop into the sleek Tasting Room and try the 2008 Topiary, a blend of Cabernet Franc, merlot and Malbec. For dinner, head to the Red Fox Inn for a bowl of Virginia peanut soup and grilled venison tenderloin with rum raisin sauce. They also pour wines from nearby vineyards, including Linden, Veritas, Fabbioli and Equation.
Just east of Middleburg, a mile down a hilly dirt road, Chrysalis Vineyards is producing some of the area’s best reds. Sip a glass of the 2009 Norton Barrell Select on a patio overlooking meadows and hills. The Norton grape—a native species—makes for a jammy wine with hints of cherry and blackberry.
Farther west, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Linden Vineyards is positioned high on a knoll, offering some of the best views from any tasting room around. You can sample Virginia cheeses—aged cheddar from Upperville, a sheep’s milk blue from Rapidan—with your tasting. Take home a bottle of the 2009 Vidal Riesling, which, as they say at Linden, “pairs well with . . . Chinese carryout.” You’re not likely to find those tasting notes in Napa or Sonoma.
Rappahannock County, south of Middleburg, looks much like it must have 200 years ago: rolling hills scattered with hay bales, whitewashed churches and orchards full of craggy apple trees. Life here seems close to ideal. Organic fruit and vegetable operations with names like the Farm at Sunnyside and Persimmon Spring Farms add to the charm. But the county seat, the town of Washington (pop. 169), is best known for a shrine to modern cooking: the restaurant at the Inn at Little Washington. Chef-owner Patrick O’Connell has been drawing food pilgrims for more than three decades, serving such innovative dishes as lamb carpaccio with Caesar salad ice cream, and truffled mac and cheese with Virginia country ham. After sampling O’Connell’s menu, if the inn is full (and it often is), you can sleep a few blocks away at the Foster Harris House. This 5-room B&B is run by a lovely young couple, John and Diane MacPherson.
An unexpected stop in Rappahannock County is the Châteauville Foundation, an arts performance space on Castleton Farms founded by former New York Philharmonic conductor Lorin Maazel and his wife, Dietlinde. Past performances in the cozy theater have ranged from string quartets to a Grammy Award-winning mariachi band and even full-scale productions of La Bohème.
The Rappahannock area doesn’t slack on fine wines, and there are two in particular that stand out. Gadino Cellars is an unpretentious little winery with bocce courts and an expansive deck. The wine to try: the 2008 Delfino Rosso, a Bordeaux-style blend of Petit Verdot, merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Just down the road is Narmada Winery, a vineyard and winery opened by Indian expats Sudha and Pandit Patil. In their expansive tasting room (with live music on weekends), the Patils serve Indian small bites such as samosas, aloo tikki and butter chicken. The snacks pair remarkably well with their 2009 Yash-Vir, a blend of merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
At the Copper Fox Distillery in nearby Sperryville, the gregarious Rick Wasmund shows how his ryes and single-malt whiskeys are dried, distilled and aged on-site. The grains he uses—barley and rye—are grown just down the road. And when you see the colorful signs for Roy’s Orchard off Highway 211, do yourself a favor and pull in. It’s one-stop shopping for a fall picnic: cider, pickles, ham-and-biscuit sandwiches and apple pies. Or drive 5 minutes to Thornton River Grille for one of the best cheeseburgers you’ll ever eat—and lots of Virginia wines and beers on the menu.
THE HEART OF VIRGINIA
The wine region in the middle of the state is anchored by the hip college town of Charlottesville. This is a place where people drive hybrid cars, bring canvas totes to the farmer’s market and care about where their food (and drink) comes from. Right on the main pedestrian mall, Siips is wine bar run by George Benford, who doubles as the vice chairman of Charlottesville’s visitors bureau. Every bottle on his well-curated list—from France, Italy, South Africa and, yes, Virginia—must first earn his rigorous seal of approval. Seven of the state’s best wines can be enjoyed here by the glass. For dinner, the Local continues the theme with—you guessed it—locally sourced dishes like chorizo-stuffed trout and chile-rubbed Double H Farm pork chops.
Many visitors make the trip to the Clifton Inn, set on 100 wooded acres by a private lake, just to taste Tucker Yoder’s cooking. The chef gives a huge nod to the region’s wineries by arranging the menu using wine terminology. Under “Delicate,” you might find a seared tuna with pickled radishes; “Full Bodied” dishes include braised pork belly with kale and apples. The servers know more than most sommeliers and will steer you toward the perfect bottle of Virginia wine.
Just west of town, off Highway 250, the King Family Vineyards is known as much for its full-bodied Meritage as for its polo field. On Sunday afternoons from Memorial Day through the end of September, pickup polo matches are played on the lawn in front of the tasting room.
Several miles north, on Highway 230, look for the sign that reads Kite’s Country Hams. They make Virginia hams the old-fashioned way, rubbing them with salt, sugar and pepper and aging them for 90 days or more. The end result is a melt-in-your-mouth porcine treat found only in this state.
Twenty miles north of Charlottesville lies the august Barboursville Vineyards. Winemaker Luca Paschina moved from Italy’s Piedmont to Virginia’s Piedmont in 1991 and has put the 35-year-old winery on the map. He works wonders with Italian varietals such as Sangiovese and Barbera, but is perhaps best known for his signature Octagon, a blend of merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. The vineyard’s name commemorates a house on the property designed by Thomas Jefferson for Virginia governor James Barbour; it’s now in ruins.
Wine connoisseurs will tell you it’s all about goût de terroir—tasting the earth of a place. For the ultimate expression of this in Virginia wine country, what could be better than eating, drinking and sleeping on the grounds of Barboursville Vineyard? The property’s Palladio restaurant serves house-cured charcuterie, ravioli stuffed with braised rabbit, and Italian-inspired dishes made with Virginia Piedmontese beef. Afterward, you can retire to your room at the 1804 Inn, part of which was created from 18th-century servants’ quarters and a former schoolhouse. You’ll wake up surrounded by acres of vineyards where grapes hang heavy on the vine. Virginia never tasted so good.
Crème de la Crème: 23 East Washington Street; 540.687.4796; shopcremedelacreme.com
Home Farm: 1 E Washington St; 540.687.8882
Tasting Room: 1816 Library St; 703.435.3553; thetastingroomwinebar.com
Red Fox Inn: 2 E Washington St; 540.687.6301; redfox.com
Chrysalis Vineyards: 23876 Champe Ford Rd; 540.687.8222; chrysaliswine.com
Linden Vineyards: 3708 Harrels Corner Rd; 540.364.1997; lindenvineyards.com
Inn at Little Washington: 389 Middle St; 540.675.3800; theinnatlittlewashington.com
Foster Harris House: 189 Main St; 540.675.3757; fosterharris.com
Châteauville Foundation: 663 Castleton View Rd; 540.937.4969; chateauville.org
Gadino Cellars: 92 School House Rd; 540.987.9292; gadinocellars.com
Narmada Winery: 43 Narmada Ln; 540.937.8215; narmadawinery.com
Copper Fox Distillery: 9 River Lane; 540.987.8554; copperfox.biz
Roy’s Orchard: 64 Old Hollow Road; 540.987.8636
Thornton River Grille: 3710 Sperryville Pike; 540.987.8790; thorntonrivergrille.com
Siips: 212 E Main St
Clifton Inn: 1296 Clifton Inn Dr; 434.971.1800; clifton-inn.com
King Family Vineyards: 6550 Roseland Farm; 434.823.7800; kingfamilyvineyards.com
Kite’s Country Hams: 3957 Wolftown-Hood Rd; 540.948.4742; kiteshams.com
Barboursville Vineyards: 17655 Winery Rd; 540.832.3824; barboursvillewine.com
Palladio: 17655 Winery Rd; 540.832.7848; barboursvillewine.net/winery/palladio-restaurant
1804 Inn: 17655 Winery Rd; 540.832.5384; barboursvillewine.net/winery/the-1804-inn
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.