Travel: The Historic Wine Trails of Virginia
From an article published September 1, 2006....
Nearly 400 years ago English settlers began cultivating grapevines in Virginia in hopes of shipping good wine back to King George. They had no choice. By law every male settler had to plant at least 10 vines for winemaking (and grape theft was a capital crime).
Alas, the wine sent to London wasn’t very good, and when tobacco reared its ugly but profitable head, commercial wine production became a memory. The wine aficionados George Washington and Thomas Jefferson didn’t have much success with their own vineyards in northern Virginia—so they might be surprised to learn that today Virginia is one of the top five wine producers in the nation. And despite their differences with the Crown, they might also be pleased to know that Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales order wine from Virginia.
The largest concentration of wineries is in the northern part of the state, where they have become not only places to taste and purchase fine wines but epicurean community centers where people go to take cooking classes, have gourmet dinners, pick grapes, hear concerts, and get married. Many of the wineries offer children’s activities, so that families can tour the countryside together. (It is not unusual to see a children’s play area at a winery.)
“Wine is the local pride here,” says Chris Pearmund, who worked in many wineries before establishing Pearmund Cellars (www.pearmundcellars.com), in Broad Run. His vineyard is part of a 1740s farm that once cultivated tobacco, apples, and dairy herds. Many barrels in the winery bear metal nameplates identifying people who have paid $700 to own a barrel in return for several cases of the wine from it. “We don’t sell a product here,” Pearmund says, “we sell a memory.” Pearmund is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Hillsborough Vineyards (www.hillsboroughwine.com), in Purcellville, is on a 36-acre estate that once belonged to the Fairfax family, friends and neighbors to George Washington, who danced at many parties there. Sally Fairfax, in fact, was Washington’s first love. The romantic view of the Blue Ridge foothills and endless rows of grapevines makes the winery’s terrace a popular wedding site. Bora Baki, who with his family owns the land, says that 300 to 400 people come by on weekends: “We tend the vines during the week, and on weekends we tend the customers.” Hillsborough’s tasting room is open Friday to Monday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
At Oasis Winery (www.oasiswine.com), in Hume, an expansive outdoor dining pavilion overlooks Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge mountains and a beautiful lake complete with swans. The owner, Tareq Salahi, a third-generation winemaker whose Belgian grandfather began the vineyard, says, “Virginia has identical soil to Bordeaux. It’s the zinc and other nutrients that make it right.” Tourism is now such an integral part of the business that Sahali and his wife, Michaele, plan to add an inn and spa near the property. “We focus on affordable luxury for the epicurean traveler,” he says. Each August the new harvest is blessed with a celebration of hymns by a local choir and a candlelight dinner for participants. Oasis also produces the official wine for George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. The tasting room is open daily.
Gray Ghost Winery and Vineyards (www.grayghostvineyards.com), in Amissville, is named for Confederate Gen. John Mosby, whose knack for infiltrating enemy lines without being detected prompted the Union Army to give him that nickname, although he never used it himself. The vineyard’s location at the southern end of the region once known as Mosby’s Confederacy, where many of his troops were from, gives its owners, Al and Cheryl Kellert, a chance to honor local history while also producing a product they hope will live in history. A likeness of Mosby adorns the bottles’ labels. At harvest volunteers vie for the chance to hand-pick grapes in exchange for a breakfast cookout and a Gray Ghost T-shirt. The tasting room is open Friday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Harvest time is busy everywhere, of course. The annual Virginia Wine Festival (www.virginiawinefestival.org) will take place in Leesburg on Saturday, September 30, and Sunday, October 1. Inns and hotels in the area also provide winery tours. In the historic town of Washington (the locals distinguish it as Little Washington), five-day guided bike tours are available from Tour d’Epicure (www.tourdepicure.com), operated by John and Diane MacPherson, owners of the Foster Harris House bed-and-breakfast (www.fosterharris.com). In addition to a guide (and a bike, if you don’t bring your own) the tours include food and drink for the road, and winery and park fees.
Little Washington, the first of the nation’s 28 cities, towns, and villages to be named Washington, was surveyed in 1749 by a 17-year-old George Washington. Today it is a popular wine-country tourist destination, with antiques shops, art galleries, and its own celebrity chef, Patrick O’Connell, who has made the Inn at Little Washington (www.theinnatlittlewashington.com) the first such facility in the nation to earn a five-star, five-diamond rating.
Some miles away in Hume is a unique bed-and-breakfast that has served dignitaries from Chief Justice John Marshall to Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. The Inn at Fairfield Farm is in a Colonial manor house set in the midst of a sprawling Western-style cattle ranch. The house was built in 1814 by James Marshall, brother of Chief Justice Marshall. The Marshall brothers had owned the land since 1799, when they had purchased it for about $70,000 from the heirs of Lord Fairfax (obviously the real estate magnate of the time). The property changed hands over the years until in 1951 it was purchased by J. W. Marriott, founder of the Marriott hotel chain. He restored the stately manor house and developed the land into a cattle ranch because it so reminded him of the Western mountain country where he had grown up. An old log cabin was remade into a 1950s ranch house, ideal for families with children, who should get a kick out of the cowboy wallpaper. Trail rides and cattle drives are available, and private winery tours can be arranged (www.MarriottRanch.com).
Between the wine trails and Washington, D.C., are many historic and epicurean stops. For example, in Lansdowne, at the resort of the same name (www.lansdowneresort.com), you can take a wine class with the sommelier Mary Watson-Delander. In Alexandria you can dine at Gadsby’s Tavern (www.gadsbystavernrestaurant.com), where George Washington liked to have breakfast, or at Restaurant Eve (www.restauranteve.com), where chef Cathal Armstrong creates the most sophisticated contemporary cuisine.
Keep an eye out across this green countryside for the spirit of George Washington. He rode over these same trails all his life.
For more information, call 800-VA-VINES to get the Virginia Wineries Association’s free 91-page guide to the state’s wineries and wine-related events. Also check with the Virginia Wine and Travel Tour Office (www.virginiawinecountrytours.com), the Loudoun Wine Trail (www.LoudounFarms.org), and Blue Ridge Wine Ways (www.blueridgewineway.com).
—Marian Betancourt is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.