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Over Memorial Day weekend my husband and I decided to check out Virginia’s wine country in the area around Charlottesville. Having taken multiple wine-tasting trips throughout California and France, we honestly weren’t expecting much from Virginia. For the most part, our expectations held true–Virginia just isn’t making wine that can stand up to the quality of California and France. But we did manage to find a few that we liked enough to buy and bring home. Here’s an overview of our trip.

Thomas Jefferson’s historic home and plantation, Monticello, is located just outside of Charlottesville (which is also the home of the University of Virginia, established by Jefferson).

Monticello

Monticello

The counties around Monticello comprise the Monticello Viticultural Area. A group of 30 wineries in the area formed an association and market themselves as the Monticello Wine Trail. If you’re planning your own trip to Virginia wineries, their website is a great place to start. And be sure to leave time for a trip to Monticello itself. The house tour is very informative (buy tickets in advance online), and the grounds and garden are beautiful. The house is located atop a small mountain, affording spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Barboursville Vineyards

Barboursville Vineyards

Barboursville Vineyards

We began our day at Barboursville Vineyards, which is in Barboursville, VA, north of Charlottesville and about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Washington, DC. Barboursville has tasting stations, each with three or four wines. For a tasting fee of $7/person, you can try 18 wines (and take home the souvenir glass). My husband and I typically share tastings to cut down on the amount we drink and also to save money. You cannot do that in Virginia. Their pours are so stingy (not just at Barboursville, but at all of them) each person would be lucky to get a full sip. So at every winery, we had our own tasting, which afforded us each about three small sips of wine.

The winery intends for you to start with the sparkling and dry whites station, then move to the full-bodied whites, light reds, heavier reds, and sweet/dessert wines. We had the misfortune of coming in behind a rather large group, which slowed everything down. Another problem was an overly conversational pourer at the full-bodied whites station. He was so busy conversing with the people before us that he ignored us for an unacceptable amount of time.

As for the wines, their whites were all very grassy and flat. We didn’t taste a single one that we liked. They make a both a brut and a brut rosé sparkling with 100% Pinot Noir grapes (grown and bottled in Italy), both of which I thought were okay, but on the sweet side. Their reds fared slightly better. Most of them were out of balance, with too much acidity, but their 2012 Sangiovese Reserve and 2011 Cabernet Franc Reserve were quite good. I can’t abide sweet and dessert wines, but my husband thought theirs were pretty good.

Barboursville is one of the largest and most well-known wineries in the area, so it’s worth a stop just for that fact. And if you like your wines on the sweet side, then you will probably find more to like here than I did.

Burnley Vineyards

Our next stop was just down the road from Barboursville and was a completely opposite experience. We were the only people in the Burnley tasting room, and a sweet old lady who reminded me of my grandma poured our wines for us. The tasting fee is $3/person, and we tried seven wines (maybe eight; they don’t have paper tasting notes that you can take with you so I can’t quite remember). Again, the whites were unimpressive but the reds were a bit better. They make a very good 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, which is unusual (Cabernet is almost always blended with other grapes). They were tasting the 2006 vintage but had a few bottles of the 2002 vintage on sale, so we picked up one of those. We also bought two rather unusual bottles of sweet wine. One is a peach wine that will make a wonderful Bellini-type beverage when combined with sparkling wine or Champagne. The other is a spiced wine that they were serving very cold but can also be served warm in the winter as a mulled wine. I don’t like warmed mulled wine (just ask my sister-in-law) but served cold it will be a nice after-dinner digestif.

Reynard Florence Vineyard

Also in the immediate vicinity of Barboursville and Burnley is Reynard Florence Vineyard. (It’s actually on Burnley Road in Barboursville, VA to give you some idea of how creative these guys are in naming stuff.) Whereas Burnley is one of the oldest wineries in Virginia, Reynard Florence is one of the newest. They have a small tasting room, and there was only one other couple there when we were there. There’s a little patio outside where you can enjoy a glass or bottle of wine purchased at the winery. Our pourer was attentive but not overbearing. She told us a little about each wine but then walked away to let us comment on the wine to ourselves. The tasting fee was $5/person for eight wines. We actually liked all four of their reds–they showed more balance than the previous two wineries–and we even bought one of their whites. We bought the 2013 Reynard Blanc, which is a blend of Petit Manseng (a very popular Virginia grape), Traminette, Vidal, and Viognier. We also tasted the 2012 Reynard Blanc, which was blended without the Viognier, but we didn’t like that one nearly as much.

Stonefire Kitchen

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant that had been recommended by all three of the wineries in the Barboursville area, Stonefire Kitchen. It’s a cute little deli with a surprising amount of both indoor and outdoor seating. They make a variety of sandwiches, soups, and salads. They also sell wine by the bottle that you can enjoy with your lunch. And not all the wine they carry is local. I spied a bottle of Champagne from a producer we had never heard of, Voirin-Jumel from Cramant, Champagne. What intrigued me was the Prémier Cru designation on the label, which I’ve never seen on Champagne, only on wines from Burgundy. Using our handy Wine-Searcher app we determined that their asking price was reasonable, so we got it. No offense Virginia, but that bottle of Champagne is undoubtedly the best bottle we bought on the trip.

Horton Vineyards

Our first stop after lunch was Horton Vineyards in Gordonsville. It was another large operation with a lot of people visiting and tasting. They charge $5/person and let you choose 10 wines from their total offering of 40. We only tried three of their whites, which were all terrible. I actually wrote “NO!” next to one of them on my tasting notes. The reds fared better. The 2010 Cabernet Franc Private Reserve was well balanced with just the right amount of tannins.

Horton Vineyards

Horton Vineyards

Their non-reserve 2013 Cabernet Franc was not good at all. My husband and I had differing opinions on the 2012 Nebbiolo, 2012 Syrah Private Reserve, and 2012 Pinotage, so we didn’t bring any home. They do make a nice Vintage Port that we bought. Their tasting notes claim it’s the only port made in Virginia.

Keswick Vineyards

Our final stop of the day was Keswick Vineyards, which is on Keswick Winery Drive in Keswick, Virginia. Original. They charge $5/person for a tasting of eight wines: four whites and four reds. The tasting room was very crowded, so we had to wait a few minutes for a spot to open up. They get top marks for their pourer–he was very knowledgable and friendly–but their wines were just okay. They have the same balance problem as everyone else in Virginia. I’m not sure if it’s their grapes or their winemakers, but something just isn’t working. We bought a bottle of their 2012 Chambourcin because it was the best of the bunch, and it’s not a varietal we see often.

Zocalo

IMG_5857For dinner we went into historic downtown Charlottesville and ate at a restaurant called Zocalo, which had been recommended to us by a friend. The downtown area is very quaint. There’s a rather large pedestrian area with lots of shops and restaurants (similar to Pearl St. in Boulder, CO and the Third Street Promenade in Los Angeles). After wine tasting all day, we wanted something different, and Zocalo has a number of specialty cocktails. The cocktails and the food were both quite good and reasonably priced compared to what we’re used to in DC, but probably a bit much to be charging in the middle of Virginia.

Mayhurst Inn

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Mayhurst Inn

The bed & breakfast where we stayed is called the Mayhurst Inn. It’s an old plantation house on beautiful grounds in Orange, Virginia. The proprietors, Jack and Pat North, are classic B&B owners–friendly, talkative, etc. We stayed in the Piedmont Suite, which I believe is on the top floor of the house. That turned out to be a good thing, because the floors are very creaky (I think they might be the original wood planks from 1859) and if you were on a floor with someone above you, I imagine the creaking would be somewhat disruptive. Our breakfast was delicious. We started with a baked apple that was very juicy and full of cinnamon. The main course was eggs Benedict, which was very good. My two minor complaints are that it had a bit too much hollandaise sauce on it, and the English muffin could have been more toasted. But all in all it was a very satisfying meal that held us over throughout the day.

Afton Mountain Vineyards

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View from Afton Mountain Vineyards

After spending a couple of hours at Monticello, we headed about 30 miles west to a group of wineries at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Afton Mountain is very far off the beaten path, but the view is spectacular. Their wine is mediocre, and their attitude leaves a lot to be desired. They charge $7/person to taste five wines, which is ludicrous. I was okay with Barboursville charging $7 because they offered a ridiculous number of wines. Afton Mountain is way too full of themselves. Of the five, only their Mountain Rosé and their 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon were drinkable. The grounds surrounding the vineyard were extensive, and they also have a large tented patio. I suspect that a lot of locals go there with a picnic lunch and buy a bottle to drink outside. It was very crowded, and we got out of there as soon as we could.

Veritas Vineyard & Winery

Veritas is near Afton Mountain, and we wanted to make a quick stop there before we began heading north to get back to DC. When we pulled into the parking lot, there were so many cars that we just bailed. I couldn’t deal with another crowded, douchey winery.

Pollack Vineyards

Our last attempted stop in the area was Pollack Vineyards. We managed to park the car, but when we got inside there was no room at the tasting counter, no one was paying any attention, and no one was interested in helping us, so we left. Not a fan of the Afton, Virginia wineries, I have to say.

Early Mountain Vineyards

After a thwarted attempt to get a late lunch in Charlottesville (nothing was open at 4 p.m.) we drove north toward Culpeper, Virginia. Our B&B had given us some coupons for a few wineries, and one of them was for a free meat and cheese plate with the purchase of two flights at Early Mountain Vineyards. I was afraid Early Mountain would be a repeat of the Afton-area wineries because it’s owned by Steve Case (of AOL fame). Despite the full parking lot and the cavernous tasting room, I was pleasantly surprised by Early Mountain. They had the best wines we tasted all weekend, hands down (and the meat and cheese platter was delicious).

We had a flight of four whites and a flight of four reds, and we shared all eight wines. (As opposed to a tasting, a flight is a 2-ounce pour of each wine.) In addition to selling their own wines, they also feature wines from some of their partners. We bought a 2013 Early Mountain Rosé and an Altillo Meritage. There were at least three other wines that I liked well enough to buy but didn’t because we already had enough. I would definitely recommend Early Mountain if you find yourself in the area.

Hazel River Inn

What I would NOT recommend is stopping in Culpeper, Virginia, especially on a Sunday. Nothing. Is. Open. Period. It’s not that it was open earlier and just closed before we got there. Nope. Everything in that town is closed on Sundays and Mondays. And it looked like they had a lot of cute shops: an olive oil/spice shop, a tea shop, a home brewing/winemaking supply shop, a few boutiques. Too bad they lost all our business by being closed on a holiday weekend.

The one place that was open was a restaurant called the Hazel River Inn. Their food is decent, but not great. They have a lot of German beers available, but when my husband said he wanted something like a stout, the waitress brought him something that was not even remotely like a stout. And the person who wrote their menu should be fired. I ordered shrimp and grits, which the menu said had a “gumbo sauce” accompaniment. No. It was gumbo with a little island of grits in the middle. And the shrimp were laughably small. Memo to Virginia: that’s not what shrimp and grits is supposed to look like. My husband ordered a sage and blackberry chicken that had no visible sage or blackberries on it, and was served on a bed of peas that were mentioned nowhere in the menu description. They are very, very bad at describing what their food actually is.

My last critique of Virginia wine country is for everyone at every winery who doesn’t know how to pronounce the wines they’re serving. If one more person said cabernet “savvyon” or “salveyon” I swear I would have punched them in the face. It’s ca-ber-nay so-veen-yon, or “cab sove,” which sounds like “rove.” IF YOU WORK AT A WINERY YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO PRONOUNCE THE NAMES OF THE WINES CORRECTLY.

My final word on Virginia wine country is this: if you live within a reasonable driving distance and want to experience a wine-tasting vacation, Virginia is okay. You’ll get a nice experience and you’ll taste some decent wine, a few good wines, and a lot of bad wines. If you want an excellent wine-tasting vacation without leaving the U.S., go to California. It doesn’t even have to be Napa. Sonoma County, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez Valley are all spectacular. (Avoid Temecula if you can; it’s not great.) Maybe we’ll try Virginia wine country again in 10 years or so and see how they’re doing.

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