Since the turn of this century, the Mid-Atlantic states have, against all expectations, become the source of excellent locally produced wines. And Virginia’s Piedmont region—that lengthy stretch of foothills that eventually rise into the Appalachian Mountains—offers the complete package for visitors.
This past fall, my wife and I joined three other couples at a spacious five-bedroom rental home near Crozet in the rolling hills just west of Charlottesville. Five days and numerous tastings and tours later, we departed bearing several cases of local wine. Along the way, we enjoyed several great meals, walks in the scenic countryside and a smattering of Colonial history.
A half-day’s drive from the Brandywine Valley, this part of Virginia has seen dozens of wineries blossom over the past 30 years or so. It offers a uniquely successful combination of terroir, local and imported talent, capital investment and a captive urban audience.
There are at least 312 wineries in the state, with about 4,000 acres of land devoted to vineyards. Chardonnay, merlot, viognier, petit verdot and cabernet franc (which is said to grow better than cabernet sauvignon on the East Coast) are the most planted grape varieties. Hardier hybrid grapes are generally not as prized for wines, though vidal blanc, chambourcin and traminette are all capable of making good wines in Virginia.
Piedmont wineries are basically grouped around the university town of Charlottesville, and farther north in the Leesburg and Front Royal area. On our trip, we visited eight. Perhaps the most respected winegrower in Virginia is Jim Law of Linden Vineyards, in the town of the same name just east of Front Royal. Law has made wine there since 1988, while also helping many other wineries realize their potential. He produces excellent Bordeaux-style reds at his modern hillside facility, with a pristine tasting room overlooking the rustic setting.
Closer to Washington, D.C., Boxwood Estate Winery is located in Middleburg, among the prettiest and wealthiest towns in the state. An architectural gem set among the horse farms, Boxwood is owned by the Cookes (former owners of Washington’s NFL football team). The Bordeaux blends are very good—but be sure to taste the delicious sauvignon blancs. In nearby Delaplane, RdV Vineyards makes perhaps the most highly rated Virginia wines. Visits are by appointment—and even then you might not be able to taste the wines.
In the Charlottesville area, we hit five more spots. Owned by Italy’s Zonin family, Barboursville Vineyards produces the largest array of good wines under the master hand of Luca Paschina, who’s been with the winery since 1990. The winery also has rooms and suites for overnight stays, and the estate’s Palladian restaurant is quite elegant, with some of the most sophisticated dishes in the region.
Early Mountain Vineyards will remind seasoned travelers of the elaborate Napa Valley estates, though without the crowds you’d expect from a place within a day’s drive of 60% of the U.S. population. Everything tastes of money well spent. At Stinson Vineyards, Nathan and Rachel Vrooman Stinson like to good-naturedly banter about how best to make wine. There’s also a small inn there, and be sure to buy sandwiches at nearby Piedmont Grocery.
The spiffy Pollak Vineyards is owned by David and Margot Pollak, both of whom had prior careers years ago in Delaware. The couple has 30 acres of vines, and their grapes are made into about 5,000 cases by Frenchman Benoit Pineau. “French winemakers seem to enjoy working more in Virginia than in California,” Pollak says, noting that the area has four or five really good ones.
Further up in the mountains, Veritas is surrounded by acres of rolling land. Enjoy their wines alongside sandwiches and charcuterie served on the patio or at picnic tables—and the property also has its own B&B. If you want a real taste of the boonies, you’ll need Google Maps to find Michael Shaps Wineworks somewhere south of Charlottesville. While the setting and the tasting room are off the beaten path, the talented Shaps makes wines in both Burgundy and Virginia, so there are a variety to taste.
There are loads of great places to have dinner in the Charlottesville area. We had memorable meals at the traditional Ivy Inn and the high-end Brasserie Saison bistro. Those looking for over-the-top cachet shouldn’t miss Patrick O’Connell’s Michelin-starred Inn at Little Washington, on the way to or from the D.C. area. Prix-fixe dinners are $308 per person, with complementing wines at $280 per person. It’s something to experience once (my “once” was several years ago), and you can sleep it off in one of the inn’s beautifully decorated rooms. Reservations are highly recommended.
And finally, don’t forget the history. Jefferson’s Monticello is not to be missed, and Madison’s Montpelier is also nearby. If you go to Monticello, be ready to walk to get the full impact of the plantation, including the village-like area where slaves lived and worked. Civil War buffs can visit several battlegrounds, including those at Manassas. For some more modern history, stop by the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, a stellar air and space museum closer to D.C. in Chantilly.