Exploring D.C.’s Wine Country

Barbara Noe Kennedy

 

Local wineries may not be the first thing you think about when planning a trip to Washington, D.C. But there they are, scores of wineries spangling Virginia’s pastoral lands within easy reach of the nation’s capital, beckoning with award-winning vintages worthy of any oenophile.

It wasn’t always so. While you could always enjoy a beautiful drive into the countryside—the Virginia Piedmont is hands down some of the country’s most beautiful scenery—the wines didn’t necessarily match up.   

The winery business has long been tricky in Virginia, despite the fact that colonial explorers discovered masses of grapes fostering huge hopes for a prosperous industry. Ask Mr. Renaissance Man himself, Thomas Jefferson, who first encouraged Americans to drink wine with meals back in the 1700s. For 30 years he attempted to cultivate European wine grapes on his Monticello estate, but failed to produce even a single bottle.

In the 1800s, the wine gauge shifted slightly as Virginia winemakers using native grapes began garnering attention. A Virginia Norton, in fact, was named “best wine of all nations” at the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair. But any momentum was lost with the onset of Civil War, which decimated Virginia’s vineyards. Prohibition and the Depression put the final stomp on it all, so that by 1950, only 15 acres of grapes grew in the state.

Things changed in the 1960s, as fines wines became trendy across the country. Italian winemaker Gianni Zonin established a winery near Charlottesville where his manager from the family’s vineyards in Italy, Gabriele Rausse, managed to successfully grow European grapes. Their Barboursville Vineyards still flourishes, though the greatest thing Rausse did was share his secrets with other winemakers—today he’s dubbed the Father of the Modern Virginia Wine Industry (he’s also currently the director of gardens and grounds at Jefferson’s Monticello). At the same time, experts at Virginia Tech and elsewhere began developing new cultivation techniques, and Virginia winemakers studied the climate and the soil and growing traditions, focusing on varietals that favor Virginia’s terroir: Viognier, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, along with the native Norton.

Today Virginia is ranked fifth in United States in wine production, with more than 280 wineries—and a plethora of awards. And much of those are within reach of the Capital City.

 

A THREE-WINERY TOUR

The horse capital of Middleburg, less than an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C., is a wonderful place to start, with several wineries offering notable vintages. Among them is down-to-earth, award-winning Chrysalis Vineyards, which produces the country’s largest acreage of American Norton grapes (more than 40 acres), the true American grape.                       

The wine-tasting is a fun ride through delicious wines with interesting stories behind their names. Sarah’s Patio White is a summery fresh wine that is indeed perfect for sipping on the patio, preferably with a picnic lunch, while berry-infused Sarah’s Patio Red is dubbed sangria in a bottle. They’re both named for Sarah Girteude Lind whose parents owned the property in the 19th century; she died from TB in 1856 at the age of 16 and is buried just outside the tasting room. The Norton Schitz & Giggels is the perfect BBQ wine, though the best reason to drink it is just to say its name (the label states that two German immigrants, Schitz and Gigels, kept the Norton grape growing in their backyards through Prohibition, but whos’ to say they ever existed). Chrysalis is part of an entire agricultural district, an eat-and-drink-local venture, including 100 milking cows roaming hilly slopes and a creamery (with rumors of ice cream coming). This is a wonderful place to bring a blanket with the intention of purchasing some local products, a bottle of wine, and staying awhile.

Nearby Greenhill Winery & Vineyards is owned by what might be considered a Thomas Jefferson protégé (or at least Most Interesting Man in the World). In addition to being a wine aficionado, David Greenhill is a publisher and telecommunications entrepreneur, with a master’s degree in philosophical theology from Yale (which explains the cathedral-like cave and some of the wine names, including Ontologoy and Philosophy).

Master winemaker Sébastien Marquet says the vineyard’s soil structure is similar to that of Bordeaux, and the prestigious awards they’ve won prove they’re onto something good. The winery itself is gorgeous, set on rippling, stream-laced countryside dotted with Charolais cows from Burgundy. And while the setting is pure Old World, the new tasting room is pure modern world, with state-of-the-art equipment and stylish, contemporary décor. Be sure to take a peek at the adjacent Farm Store, where you can purchase local produce and gourmet foods, including Greenhill Charolais beef, honey, artisanal cheeses, and jams, as well as local art.

 

 

Head toward Leesburg, just 38 miles from Washington, D.C., and you’re in for another treat. Stone Tower Winery is a family-owned and family-run operation set atop Hogback Mountain (with breathtaking views) that’s relatively new. Mike and Kristi Huber, owners of DC’s largest furniture store, bought this property near her parents’ residence, thinking it would be a fine place to retire. Turns out, the land is ideally suited for wine. They hired winemaker Tim Crow and produced their first vintage in 2011, and they’re already garnering awards. There are two tasting rooms, the Harvest Barn, with a main bar upstairs and six downstairs; and the Tower View Tasting Room, both wonderful places to work through a flight of tastes. Though be sure to take time to stroll the expansive grounds. You will feel far, far away from the nation’s capital’s hustle-bustle, in both body and spirit.

There are so many more wineries within a gavel’s toss of D.C. Paradise Springs Winery in Clifton, Virginia, is D.C.’s closest winery (30 miles), while Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane, Virginia, is beloved by wine connoisseurs and dog lovers alike (check out the initials: B.O.W.). Boxwood Estate Winery near Middleburg is one of the best spots for a picnic (buy basket supplies at Market Salamander in Middleburg). And RdV Vineyards in Delaplane is one of the region’s most esteemed, offering a $50-per-person tasting and tour. And the list goes on.

 

 

Keep an Eye on Maryland

Maryland offers a score of wineries within easy reach of the capital as well, but the state hasn’t quite enjoyed the success of Virginia’s wineries. At least not quite yet. But it’s definitely a place to keep an eye on. The Mount Airy region, about an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C., has several notable wineries worth checking out, including Black Ankle, Linganore, and Elk Run.

 

Author Bio:

Barbara Noe Kennedy worked as an editor at the National Geographic Book Division for more than 20 years. She has written four books, and her writings have also been published in National Geographic, The Daily Telegraph, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.

 

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