Toast the good life by planning a weekend getaway around a trek through the verdant Virginia wine country.
Twenty-five years ago you'd have been far better off ordering a glass of sweet tea than a glass of Virginia wine. Three decades of experimentation later, a thriving Virginia winemaking community is producing world-class wines. Did you know that Virginia ranks among the fifth largest wine-producing states in the U.S. and was recently named by Travel and Leisure magazine as one of the five up-and-coming wine regions in the world? Viognier, Cabernet Franc and the very Virginia Norton are but a few of the local vintages hitting the award scene and gaining international recognition.
Virginia is the birthplace of American wine. Thomas Jefferson made seven attempts to grow European grapes at Monticello, but his dream of great local wines remained unfulfilled at the time of his death. Some 200 years later, Jefferson's vision is finally fulfilled. The Monticello Wine Trail contains more than half of the state's 2,000 vineyard acres under cultivation and is viewed as the region's crown jewel. Join us on this two-day itinerary of history, breathtaking views and fine wines as classic and elegant as the state itself.
That guy knows his wine
If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, you would probably find him at Tastings of Charlottesville. When Tastings (502 East Market Street) opened in 1990, it was the only integrated wine shop/wine bar/wine-loving restaurant on the East Coast. Located one block up from Charlottesville's pedestrian Downtown Mall, this interesting wine market offers a massive selection of wines by the glass. The restaurant features the most complex bowl of lobster bisque this side of the Mason-Dixon. It also doesn't hurt that owner Bill Curtis is otherwise known as the region's leading authority on Virginia wines. Saving your vinous immersion for tomorrow? Hamiltons' at First and Main (101 West Main Street) not only offers contemporary American cuisine in a California-esque breezy atmosphere, but its wine list is an award-winner. Jazz every Saturday night and patio dining, weather permitting.
Robust red night cap, anyone?
How about a glass of wine at Italian wine bar Enoteca (401 East Main Street) to rev up your palate for the days ahead? It features cozy communal seating inside, people-watching a-plenty outside and hearty espresso to complete the repast.
Hit the ground running with a Charlottesville favorite morning coffee spot, the Mudhouse. (213 W. Main St.) The funky coffeehouse feels like your best friend's livingroom, and the muffins and chocolate croissants remind you of Grandma's cooking. With two larger locations and a handful of smaller coffee bar locations, you're sure to be near one of them.
Make mine TJ's wine
The story of winemaking on the Monticello Wine Trail begins with Thomas Jefferson. Often touted as America's "first distinguished viticulturist" and "the greatest patron of wine and winegrowing that this country has yet had," Jefferson's passion for wine was evident as well as his desire to see America produce its own wines. His pioneering attempts to grow Vitis vinefera at Monticello and his support for the establishment of an American wine industry are renowned. His pioneering attempts to grow Vitis vinifera at Monticello and his support for the establishment of an American wine industry are renowned. Due in large part to vineyard disease and deer, Jefferson's vision of winemaking never came to fruition. Today, Jefferson's dream for American winemaking has been realized in a vibrant industry in Central Virginia. The Monticello Wine Trail brings to mind an early Napa Valley.
Start your Monticello Wine Trail adventure at Jefferson's pioneering grape-growing experiment. See the house, vineyards and gardens atop Jefferson's "little mountain." After touring the main floor of Monticello, proceed to the newly restored wine cellar in the all-weather passage beneath the house. Monticello's wine cellar brings to life the story of Jefferson and wine. Inventories and correspondence in his hand, period vessels and bins and crates offer insights into his consumption and provisioning. Try your hand at a replica of his inventive dumbwaiter system, which transported bottles to sides of the fireplace in the Dining Room directly above.
Grab a sandwich made from farm-fresh ingredients and some homemade baked goods from nearby hybrid bakery-deli Simeon Market (1330 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville). And if you're in need of a more substantial boost before your wine tastings begin, try a cup of their Santa Lucia Estate coffee.
Now that you've established your historical Virginia winemaking perspective, visit Blenheim Vineyards (31 Blenheim Farm, Charlottesville), just minutes away from Monticello. It is the perfect place to begin your tasting adventure. Established in 2000 by the famous musician Dave Matthews, Blenheim Vineyards is a family affair with two vineyard sites and five European varietals in the mix: Chardonnay, Viogner, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Located on the same ridgeline as Jefferson's Monticello, the 900 acre Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard (100 Grand Cru Drive, Charlottesville) is nearby Ash-Lawn Highland, James Monroe's former residence. The surrounding rich terroir has done well by the Kluge Estate—they remain one of the state's largest producers—especially in sparkling wines. Kluge's 2007 Blanc de Blanc and 2007 SP Rose were even served at Chelsea Clinton's recent wedding reception and rehearsal dinner.
Taking bucolic Route 250 West of town, explore the realm of wines and vineyards nestled at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. White Hall Vineyards (5282 Sugar Ridge Road, White Hall) should be your first stop. At an elevation of 800 feet and blanketed by the Blue Ridge, White Hall is proud of their particular terrior's signature style: fruit-forward flavors resembling California wines, but elegant structures and finishes resembling true Virginia vintages. Established in 1992, they've had some time to cultivate their 45 acres of plantings into repeat award winning wines for the local wine-loving community. Constant mountain breezes and the "careful handling of great fruit" make for a consistent glass of "Charlottesville's Chardonnay," to of course be enjoyed beneath one of the many majestic Oaks.
If you're looking for one last stop before calling it a day, pop by beautiful Albemarle County's First Colony Winery (1650 Harris Creek Road, Charlottesville). European style vintages led by French winemaker Benoit Pineau are perfect additions to the many shaded patios and verdant rolling landscape surrounding First Colony.
Very few vintner estates in the world offer such a vast array of varietals and award-winning wines as Barboursville Vineyards (17655 Winery Road, Barboursville). Their renowned "Octagon" wine, a Bordeaux-centered merlot blend, is a true Virginia showpiece and has won a whopping 20 gold medals as well as the Monticello Cup in both 2006 and 2009.
The vineyards encompass the Barboursville ruins—what remains of a splendid manor house designed by Thomas Jefferson for his friend Governor Barbour and assessed at his death as the most valuable residence in the county.
Many of the stops on the Monticello Wine Trail include smaller, boutique tasting rooms where odds are you'll receive undivided attention. At Barboursville, those odds are even higher. Enjoy international award-winning wines.
After all of that old world tasting you'll be ready for some serious old world dinner. On the grounds of Barbourville Vineyards you'll find Palladio Restaurant (17655 Winery Road, Barboursville) featuring Northern Italian cooking from Chef Melissa Hart who was named one of the best 25 chefs in the mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation. Begin your evening with an aperitif and sunset look at the ruins of Jefferson's marvel and misty mountains beyond. The lunch and dinner menus offer wine pairings. Reservations for lunch are recommended, but for dinner are essential.
Don't feel like donning a jacket but still craving Italian? Head back into Charlottesville and enjoy a more low-key round table of rustic Italian food with friends at Tavola, (826 Hinton Avenue, Charlottesville). A cozy Belmont neighborhood restaurant, Tavola offers a revolving menu that changes with the seasons and strives to use as many local ingredients as possible. Bosc pear carpaccio and limoncello cheesecake are local favorites.
Stir things up
For today's winery adventure, start your day with a hearty breakfast. As most Charlottesvillians know, there is no better way to spend an early Sunday than gazing upon the pristine landscape of Keswick Hall (701 Club Drive, Charlottesville) from the floor to ceiling windows of Fossett's Restaurant. Trout and eggs, Belgian waffles, Outer Banks seafood chowder and beignets with orange powder should sufficiently fuel you for the day ahead, as long as you take it easy at the Bloody Mary Brunch Bar.
East, North, West, or South
Since there are 21 wineries within the Monticello Wine Trail appellation, you most likely won't get to all of them in one short trip; we recommend picking a direction—East, West, North or South—and hitting all the wineries within that vicinity. They're all pretty closely knit. Go to www.monticellowinetrail.com for more information. Organization is the key. Don't try to squeeze in too much: savor each winery, view and experience, and then you'll have a really good excuse why you need to come back the following month!
After a big day of trekking, you'll want to keep dinner a little more casual tonight. Since you'll already be in the neighborhood, Three Notch'd Grill (5790 Three Notch'd Road, Crozet) in the quaint town of Crozet, Virginia offers an eclectic modern menu in a warm, woody atmosphere. The Baked Rag Mountain Trout and Dry Rubbed Baby Back Ribs are sure to have you sinking in your seat. For an even greater dip into the lives of Crozet locals, just a few doors down you'll find the legendary Crozet Pizza (5794 Three Notch'd Road, Crozet). Recognized as the "best in state" and "best in the USA" by Fodor's, Crozet Pizza was opened in 1977 by a family of 6 in an old condemned building in Downtown Crozet. Locals used to call days in advance to order a lip-smacking pie, but nowadays, the younger Crozet Pizza generation makes sure your wait won't be quite as long.
Details, Details, Details...
Drink it in
The Monticello Museum Shop in the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center sells a limited quantity of wines made from the Monticello vineyards by Gabriele Rausse, but when the new products hit the shelves you'd better be quick; they usually sell out within a couple of days. Check www.monticello.org to find out more information.
Where to Stay
There are many gorgeous Inns and B&Bs in Virginia's picturesque Piedmont countryside, including The 1804 Inn at Barboursville Vineyards. With its stately manor, original wide-planked floors and period decorations, the 1804 Inn is a mere quick stroll away from Barboursville Ruins, the former mansion designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1814 for his good friend Governor James Barbour. The Clifton Inn is another captivating favorite. For more options, go to www.bbonline.com/va/charlottesville.html.
Be a Passenger
A great way to experience Virginia's wine country without the hassle of driving (or missing any knee-buckling scenery) is one of the area's many wine tour transportation packages. You can choose from a variety of chauffeur-driven vehicles to accommodate two to fifteen passengers. Check out www.virginiawine.org for more information.
Most regular tasting room fees are $5.00, but some vineyards have "select tastings" for $8.00.