Why would California wine buffs, with a surfeit of renowned vintages in their home state, travel across the country to tour Virginia's wine country? The answer may surprise you.
As a former Californian now living in Washington, D.C., a gateway to Virginia and its more than 60 wineries, I confess to having been something of a wine snob. For years I turned up my nose at Virginia's fledgling product in favor of Napa Valley and other California bottlings that I was familiar with. But no more.
Frequent tasting forays into the northern Virginia countryside about 60 miles southwest of the capital have made me a convert. The state is making some good wines, including a few varieties that haven't been produced much in California. On my most recent trip last spring, a three-day, 300-mile loop from Washington, I sampled some of the state's best--a spicy Viognier at Horton Cellars Winery, for example, and an award-winning Pinot Grigio at Barboursville Vineyards.
But tasting the state's "niche" wines is only part of the discovery experience. Many of the vineyards are in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a rumpled green landscape of rocky summits, densely forested slopes and cascading streams. To reach them, I had to navigate one-lane back roads, sometimes tunneling through canopies of towering trees to a hidden hollow. At times mine was the only car on the road.
Another temptation is the many lovely, romantic country inns and bed-and-breakfasts, among the finest in the nation, nicely scattered throughout the area. My favorite, the place where my wife, Sandy, and I go to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, is the 10-room L'Auberge Provencale, a taste of southern France in the tiny Blue Ridge village of Boyce. Its dinner menu spotlights Virginia wines, although traditionalists can stick with a wide choice of French and California bottlings.
On our previous trips here, we have browsed the area's antiques shops and usually looked in at one or more historical sites. This is a landscape rich in history. Monticello, the idiosyncratic hilltop home of Thomas Jefferson--himself a wine fancier--commands a grand view of the countryside, as do the nearby plantation homes of Presidents James Madison and James Monroe. The Civil War raged across Virginia for four long years, and its memorials, dotted throughout wine country, provide a contemplative break from wine sampling.
I'm just an amateur in the world of wines--a consumer, not a grower. I'll let Jim Law, 46, the bearded, ponytailed owner of Linden Vineyards, one of the wineries whose product I most admire and the northernmost vineyard on my tour, tell you what Virginia offers California wine lovers. I recently interviewed Law on the deck of his tasting room, which overlooks the Blue Ridge hills. Just in from his vineyards, he was dressed in soiled bluejeans and work boots. Around us, visitors were sipping Law's wines and snacking on locally made goat cheese and hard venison sausage.
"We get a lot of Californians here," he said. "After local visitors--people from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia--probably the most come from California. Why? They often long for the good old days."
The good old days?
"I go out to Napa Valley fairly regularly," he explained. "I saw a big change about eight years ago; all of a sudden it became very Disneyland-like. Here in Virginia, the scene is more like Napa was 25 years ago. Here visitors can talk to the winemaker--to me. I'm here every day."
Almost every Californian who visits Linden buys a bottle of its Seyval Blanc, he said, and so I bought one too. Selling for $12 a bottle, it's a light-to medium-bodied white, crisp and very dry.
"It's so un-Californian--no oak aging, low alcohol. They don't make it there," Law said.
Interest in winemaking in Virginia dates to the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown in 1607. Jefferson was eager to supplement tobacco with wine as a cash crop, and in 1773, to pursue this aim, he gave 2,000 acres near Monticello to a French winemaker. But the Revolutionary War interrupted the project, as did the Civil War and Prohibition on later attempts. Success at producing fine wines in the state really was achieved only about 15 years ago.
In the 1980s, as America's taste for fine wines blossomed, Virginians tried again, using more sophisticated growing techniques. What was a hobby for some early winemakers became a profession for many more. In 1979, only about 286 acres were devoted to growing wine grapes, according to the Virginia Winegrowers Advisory Board. By 1999 that number had climbed to 1,963. Still it's not much--Virginia ranks sixth among the states as a wine producer. As Law, who works about 30 acres, notes, Virginia's vineyards tend to be small, hand-nurtured properties like his.
Law acknowledges that he first looked to California for insights into grape growing and winemaking when he founded Linden Vineyards in 1983. But the generally stable climate of California's growing seasons didn't match the often changeable Virginia weather. One year, summer can be hot and dry; the next, cool and wet.
"We face what France faces--vast differences [in climate] from one year to the next," Law said. As a result, he has adopted French techniques of harvesting and blending grapes. Other winemakers, Horton Cellars Winery among them, are also adopting European methods.
On any Virginia wine tour you're going to hear a lot about the weather and the challenges for local winemakers. These stories, I've found, add to the pleasure of sampling. As I sipped, I realized this isn't just a beverage I'm holding; it's a creative work. And at a Virginia winery, the artist is often the person who is pouring.
Before setting out on a sampling tour, I always get a copy of the state's latest winery guide, (available from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Marketing, by calling  828-4637--or you can pick one up at the first winery you come to). The 24-page guide gives detailed directions on how to get to the wineries and their operating hours. Some are open only on weekends, especially during the winter. Throughout wine country, small road signs picturing a cluster of grapes point to the nearest vineyard welcoming visitors.
My most recent tour started in the little town of Orange at the lovely 10-room Willow Grove Inn, a 1778 plantation house with a fine restaurant, perched on a hillside just north of town. Innkeeper Angela Mulloy has named seven of the rooms after the seven Virginia-born presidents. My favorite is the George Washington Room, which boasts six large windows on three sides looking out onto the inn's 37 acres of gardens and pastures. Each room is furnished in the era of its namesake; in the Washington, this means a four-poster bed and two comfortable wingback chairs. On the first floor, a stone fireplace and beamed ceiling provide the right ambience for a Colonial tavern. For dinner, try the toasted pecan and peanut-crusted rack of lamb, perhaps with a Merlot from nearby Barboursville. At breakfast, Mulloy serves a Belgian waffle, scrambled farm eggs and applewood-smoked bacon.
About 15 minutes south of the Willow Grove Inn, the innovative Horton Cellars Winery in Gordonsville is one of Virginia's finest. The entrance road climbs past vineyards to a castle-like structure complete with a stone tower. Its somewhat foreboding exterior--English Tudor, I learned inside--is softened by picnic tables clustered beneath a grove of towering trees. To the west, the Blue Ridge marches across the horizon. On a weekday morning in spring, I was the only taster.
"What are you serving today?" I asked. My host smiled and teasingly replied: "We have 32 wines on the menu. We suggest you do not try them all."
I took her advice and settled for a splash of Viognier, one of Horton's proudest wines. A dry white, it displays--or so the wine menu tells me--intense peach and vanilla flavors. Viognier, as my host informed me, is made in the style of France's Rhone Valley wines. Thick-skinned and loose-clustered, the grape thrives in Virginia's warm, humid climate.
From Horton it was a 10-minute hop down Virginia Route 33 to Barboursville Vineyards. This attractive hilltop winery has the look of Tuscany, reflecting its Italian owners. Its wraparound colonnade reminded me of an ancient monastery. The winery recently opened a restaurant, Palladio, and the luncheon staff was busy setting up the Tuscan-style dining room--red tile floor, whitewashed walls--when I peered in.
Up came Luca Paschina, the general manager and winemaker, with a new menu in his hand. "Would you like a look?" he asked.
Of course. Too bad I had lunch plans elsewhere; the ravioli stuffed with herbed ricotta tempted me.
Pinot Grigio is "one of our most successful wines here," Paschina told me, adding that the winery is also experimenting with such Italian reds as Barbera, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. And so I headed for the tasting room.
Unlike Linden and Horton, Barboursville charges $3 to taste six wines. "But you get to keep the glass," the host said. Later, listening to Law, I wondered whether this is an example of creeping Disneyland that Law referred to. Many Virginia wineries--so far--do not charge to sample their wares. On a typical summer weekend, these wineries can get as many as several hundred visitors.
From Barboursville I headed north on Virginia Route 15 to Prince Michel, a French-owned winery just south of Culpeper. It too has a restaurant overlooking the vineyards. Here I lunched lightly on smoked salmon with melon. Prince Michel's signature wine is its "barrel-select" Chardonnay. As it happens, Chardonnay and Riesling have proved to be Virginia's most popular whites, although some winemakers argue that the state can't compete with California in quality and price. The winery also prides itself on its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the state's two most popular reds.
On I pushed, this time to Linden. Though a bit of backtracking was required, I took Virginia Route 231 north, a designated scenic byway. For about 20 miles, the road traces the edge of Shenandoah National Park to the west, its lofty rock ridges delighting my eyes every mile of the way. At their base, fat cattle grazed in the verdant fields, and here and there impressive plantation-style homes rivaled the presidential estates in opulence.
If the first three wineries on this tour exhibited a European influence, Linden was distinctly Blue Ridge in appearance. Its wood-frame tasting room is contemporary in style, and the ambience is country casual. I was undecided about what appealed to me more--its increasingly sophisticated wines or its serene Blue Ridge panoramas.
"Here, have a taste of the world's most perfect summer wine," Linden's tasting room host said, pouring me a sip of Seyval.
When Law arrived, I ask him to rate the quality of Virginia's wines. "They're all over the place," he replied quickly. "Some are outstanding, there's a big middle ground, and some people are at the bottom of the learning curve."
This is, based on my wine country excursions, a fair assessment--and, of course, a challenge to the sampler searching for the best.
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Guidebook: The Wine Line
* Getting there: From Los Angeles, United and American fly nonstop to Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Connecting service is available on Delta, US Airways, Northwest, Continental and TWA. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $466.
* Visiting vineyards: To follow our three-day tour route, take I-66 west--it's eight miles south of Dulles on U.S. 15--connecting in Gainesville to U.S. 29 south toward Culpeper. On the Culpeper bypass, take U.S. 15 south to Orange. Take Virginia Route 231 south to Gordonsville and follow signs to Horton Cellars, 6399 Spotswood Trail, Gordonsville, VA 22942; telephone (800) VAWINEE (829-4633) or (540) 832-7440, Internet http://www.hvwine.com.
Then go west on U.S. 33 about five miles to Barboursville and follow the signs to Barboursville Vineyards, 17655 Winery Road, P.O. Box 136, Rural Route 777, Barboursville, VA 22923; tel. (540) 832-3824, http://www.barboursvillewine.com.
Continue west on U.S. 33 to U.S. 29 north to Leon and Prince Michel Vineyards, HCR 4, Box 77, Leon, VA 22725; tel. (800) 869-8242 or (540) 547-3707, http://www.princemichel.com.
After Leon, double back five miles to Virginia Route 231 and U.S. 522 north to Sperryville, continuing north via U.S. 211 and U.S. 522 to Front Royal. Pick up Virginia Route 55 east to Linden and follow the signs to Linden Vineyards, 3708 Harrels Corner Road, Linden, VA 22642; tel. (540) 364-1997, http://www.lindenvineyards.com.
* Where to stay: I've stayed in or inspected several fine country inns on or near this route. Each also has a full-service restaurant.
The Willow Grove Inn, 14079 Plantation Way, Orange, VA 22960; tel. (540) 672-5982, http://www.willowgroveinn.com; from $295 a night for two with dinner and breakfast.
L'Auberge Provencale, 13630 Lord Fairfax Highway, Boyce, VA 22620; tel. (800) 638-1702, http://www.laubergeprovencale.com; from $145 with breakfast for two; dinner is $70 per person.
In the same hefty price range is the four Suites at Prince Michel overlooking the Prince Michel Vineyards, on Route 29 in Leon; telephone numbers above.
The six-room Greenock House at the Hidden Inn is an appealing bed-and-breakfast at 249 Caroline St., Orange, VA 22960; tel. (800) 841-1253, http://www.hiddeninn.com. Rates from $125 a night for two.
* For more information: Virginia Wine Marketing Program, P.O. Box 1163, Richmond, VA 23218; tel. (800) 828-4637, http://www.virginiawines.org.
Virginia Tourism Corp., 901 E. Byrd St., 19th Floor, Richmond, VA 23219-4048; tel. (800) 932-5827 or (804) 786-4484, fax (804) 786-1919, http://www.virginia.org.