Monday, August 21, 2006

Vino Virginia! Orlando Sentinel Raves About Virginia Wines

Vino Virginia!
Visitors blend a taste for history and grapes on the trail of the state's wineries.
Roger Moore | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted August 20, 2006

That original, celebrated "Virginia Is for Lovers" tourism campaign never mentioned grapes.

Ocean lovers, mountain lovers, history lovers, yes.

But make room for wine lovers. The Old Dominion -- first among the 13 original American colonies; mother of presidents and home to Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe -- is now among the top wine-producing states, with more than 100 wineries.

They range from the quaint and cute Tomahawk Mill Winery -- a decommissioned water-powered grist mill south of Chatham slowly being converted into a tasting room and shops -- to the tourist-centered Chateau Morrisette on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

They're opening throughout the state, but most are concentrated in the Blue Ridge Mountains -- where the television show The Waltons was set -- creating a gorgeous drive between tastings.

And lest you fear the Sideways derision of your favorite wine snob, remember that many Virginia vintages have earned praise from the snob's snobs at Wine Spectator. That includes a "solidly built" merlot from Jefferson Vineyards that received a rating of 87 (out of 100), or any number of highly rated cabernets from Barboursville Vineyards, one earning an 88.

Merlot and Monticello

Because the wineries are near many of the state's famous historic sites, an oenophile can easily squeeze in a few tastings between trips to shrines to the fathers of our country. Thomas Jefferson -- statesman, writer, inventor and wine lover -- is a magnet for the best of both worlds. Near the university he designed and the famous home he built are the 17 wineries of the Monticello Wine Trail.

Twisting, narrow mountain roads lead past hobby farms and getaways for the wealthy and D.C.-connected, small estates with names such as Skunk Ridge Farm and Fiddletop. At the end of many of these paved goat trails, vineyards climb the slopes of this peak or that as the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains frame them in "Take that, Napa Valley" splendor.

"Good wine is a necessity of life," Jefferson once wrote. The third president, one-time ambassador to France, loved his wine, and took a shot or two at transplanting French vines to his estates. He never succeeded, but later generations learned to graft the vines onto the root systems of hardy native Virginia grapes.

Jefferson Vineyards is next to Monticello and just a wine-cork's toss from lesser-known Ash Lawn, home of the less celebrated but almost-as-accomplished Virginian James Monroe. Even closer is the historic Michie Tavern, a Revolutionary-era dining and drinking establishment open for tours and meals.

The Jefferson Vineyards winery, established in 1981, was originally named Simeon, for a nearby crossroads. The Jefferson name was taken up, a helpful tour guide informs us during our visit, when the owners realized that the guardians of the Jefferson-Monticello empire had never copyrighted the famous man's famous signature.

But because Jefferson once owned the land the 30 acres of vineyards are on, and tried to grow grapes there, this seems fair.

"Wine-making here in Virginia," the guide tells us, "is basically a hobby." None of the wineries we visited could be called a huge commercial enterprise, although Barboursville has impressive production numbers and ambition.

Of celebrations, scenery

Down the rack-and-pinion workout better known as Route 720 is the 63-acre First Colony Winery, which, like many of these wineries, has fermenting vats and aging barrels in a barnlike building next to its tasting room. It's a relatively new winery that already is managing solid reds. It has outdoor picnic and reception areas suitable for a favorite Virginia winery sideline -- hosting weddings.

The best place for a wedding might be the cavernous two-level tasting room-bar of the swank Veritas Vineyard & Winery, which has picnic areas and a wrap-around porch. This 25-acre operation west of Charlottesville is one of several wineries worth stopping by after taking in the marvels of Mr. Jefferson's university, the University of Virginia.

The views are wonderful, and songbirds fill the property's oaks and hickories as we sip a few winning reds. This would be the place to hit near lunchtime.

Save Jefferson, First Colony and others to the east for the afternoon, and start with a run of power-tastings at a group of wineries clustered in a small area -- seven within a few minutes' drive of one another. Wintergreen is adjacent to the Virginia resort of the same name. Afton Mountain Vineyards sits close to a mountaintop and is open early -- at 10 a.m. -- with Mountain Cove and DelFosse Vineyards just down the next country road.

Oakencroft, White Hall, Stone Mountain, Horton Cellars, Keswick Vineyards and Hill Top Berry Farm & Winery all are tucked into Jefferson's old grape-stomping grounds.

Army vet's vineyard

Although almost every winery offers a tour, the one we found most rewarding came at the least pretentious winery of all, Cardinal Point, in Afton.

It was started by Paul Gorman, an Army vet who served in Bad Kreuznach in Germany's Rhine wine country. It's no shock that this unassuming vineyard does a decent Riesling.

For most of its 20 years, Cardinal Point produced grapes for neighboring wineries. But now it bottles its own. A 15-minute video that you watch on a balcony overlooking stacks of oak barrels takes you through the winemaker's year, season by season -- from the care and pruning of vines to the day the tractor-trailer with rented bottling gear shows up.

Overall, there's a charming lack of pretension to these wineries. The servers are informed, even if many seemed to be scion of the owners, home from college for the summer.

An abandoned billboard for a long-gone Walton's Mountain side attraction points to Schuyler, where TV and film writer Earl Hamner grew up and drew his Waltons inspiration. The Waltons are gone and almost forgotten, and perhaps Virginia's wine mania will fade as well. Still, this is a great excuse to see one of the prettiest regions in America. And remember, John-Boy never would have turned up his nose at a Virginia merlot.,0,7100024.story?coll=orl-travel-headlines-print