Educational Adventures, Foodie Travel, Road Trips

Jefferson’s Grapes: Virginia Wine Country

Virginia’s wine country is my personal travel paradise.  Where else can you spend a morning touring a historic estate, an afternoon sampling world-class wines, and an evening enjoying fine dining from around the world?

From a base in the lovely town of Charlottesville, one can visit over 200 different Virginia wineries.  On my four-day visit, I made it to nine different wineries; I clearly will need to return again and again to check out the rest.

There are three things I consider when rating a wine tasting–the service, the facility, and the wine itself.  That’s right folks–it’s not all about the wine.  At least not for me.  Because really, even great wine tastes better when enjoyed in beautiful surroundings and after being introduced by knowledgeable staff.

Jefferson Vineyards

After touring Monticello, Jefferson Vineyards makes a logical next stop; it’s less than two miles down the road from the Monticello visitor’s center and, well, after a crowded tour of the presidential estate, you just might want a few sips of wine.  Honestly, though this was our first stop, it remains one of our favorites.

The experience: While initially confusing–because of the number of people visiting on the day after Thanksgiving–this was one of the best experiences we had.  Assigned a personal pour-er, we were walked through the entire catalog of Jefferson wines.  It was a laid-back, informative experience.  We felt very welcome here.

The facility: Jefferson’s tasting room featured a cozy wooden bar inside and an intimate deck outside where visitors could share a bottle among friends; many did. While the tasting room was not grandiose and the grounds were not jaw-droppingly stunning, we felt at home at Jefferson.

The wine: It was difficult to pick our favorite here; we took copious notes and were forced to narrow our selection down to two.  We purchased a bottle of Johannesberg Riesling and a bottle of Jefferson’s Own Rose because we typically find both riesling and rose too sweet (I’m a huge dry red wine drinker), and these were both very good; crisp and refreshing, but without the cloying sweetness.

Blenheim Vineyards

Blenheim is well-known because of it’s famous owner, Dave Matthews.  That’s why I heard of it–and that’s why I went, too. It’s a short drive from Jefferson Vineyard–if, of course, you follow the bend in the road to the right and don’t follow the wrong road for five miles or so like I did.

The experience: It is almost unfair to rate the wine tasting experience at Blenheim, as poor weather combined with exceptional demand resulted in a lack of tasting options; only three wines were available to sample or purchase.

The facility: It cannot be argued; the tasting room at Blenheim is stunning.  Housed in a modern take on a renovated barn, you really kind of just need to see it to understand the beauty of the space.  Despite the wine shortage and the windy day, many people were enjoying the view from the vineyard-facing deck.

The wine:  Because of the limited selection, we did not purchase wine at Blenheim.  The glasses were really cool, though.

Trump Winery

We didn’t have Trump on our list of must-visit wineries, but as we passed in on our way to and from Blenheim, we decided to stop for a taste.

The experience: The woman who led our tasting was our favorite of the trip; she was outgoing, she was fun, and when she didn’t know the answer to a question, she answered it with authority anyway.  We truly enjoyed the tasting at Trump Vineyards.  And the bread sticks were out of this world.  Buttery, flaky, and crispy, all of the other vineyards’ oyster crackers paled in comparison.  Though, to be fair, it’s not difficult to outshine an oyster cracker.

The facility: The tasting room was everything gaudy you’d expect from the Trump name, even though The Donald doesn’t own it (his son does).  The stone patio was lovely, even in late November; the view through the tall trees towards a small pond–and the mountains beyond–could not be beat.  My husband found me out there, kneeling in the mud, trying to capture the beauty with my camera.  I failed miserably.  There was also a croquet area set up; I’d expect nothing less from the Trumps.

The wine: The wine was good but not great; we did not purchase anything . However, I really enjoyed the port mixed with the sparkling wine; I could definitely enjoy that as part of my New Years Eve celebrations.

Sugarleaf Vineyards

In my brief pre-trip research, I read that Sugarleaf was a great winery to visit.  I don’t recall the reason given; I do recall that no one warned me about the scary, miles-long single lane driveway required to reach the winery.

The experience:  Friendly and welcoming, the tastings at Sugarleaf take place in a small room above the equally small winery.  A visit to Sugarleaf is like a visit to a private home; in fact, I’m pretty sure the owners live and work there.  When we visited, we were the only people in the tasting room for part of the time, and felt we were given extremely personal service.

The facility:  Did I mention it was down a long, scary road?  Because of this, the scenery is beautiful; you are in a valley near the mountains, with only grape vines as far as the eye could see.  The resident dogs–Cabernet and Franc–lounged outside the tasting room and occasionally followed visitors out to the vines.

The wine: There wasn’t a wine at Sugarleaf that we did not enjoy.  We purchased a bottle of Petit Manseng, a bottle of Cuvee Neubia, and a small bottle of Cabernet Chocolate Sauce (oh yes!)

Ablemarle Cider Works

My husband is all about hard cider; it is possibly his favorite consumable thing in the world.  In fact, it may be his favorite thing-without-a-heartbeat; his mom, the dogs, and I come first (I hope) right before his love for cider.  Thus, a visit to Ablemarle Cider Works was a required part of the trip.

The experience: This was our last stop of the day, so it was late in the afternoon when we arrived.  We were the only people doing a tasting at the time, and the man in charge gave us quite an education on apples, apple growing, and cider making.  This was possibly the most educational experience of the trip–and that includes our visit to Monticello.

The facility:  Turing off of  a major road into the driveway, you are greeted by a reflection of mountains in a large pond.  The tasting room itself is huge and barn-esque, with patio style tables scattered around to enjoy a glass or three of cider.

The cider: Crisp, dry hard cider.  My husband purchased a bottle of Royal Pippin, a bottle of Jupiter’s Own, and four bottles of Ragged Mountain Cider.  He finished them all in one night with his sister; he wishes he’d purchased six bottles more.  I purchased a small bag of royal pippin apples as well; I wish I’d purchased a large bag.

Horton Vineyards

Horton Vineyards is located about a half hour north of Charlottesville; at first I was bummed about what I perceived to be a long-ish drive.  But as I headed out of town and into the absolutely gorgeous countryside, I wished it was even farther away.  We visited Horton on what turned out to be the day of their holiday open house; it was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and they were offering hourly tours, light snacks, and extensive tastings on two floors.

The experience:  Because of the holiday open house, I feel we had quite a different experience at Horton.  We joined the first tour of the day, and spent a good hour downstairs in the winery itself, learning about the different fermentation techniques for sparkling, white, and red wine.  I learned the most about sparkling wine, and finally appreciate why it is more expensive; the time and care involved in fermenting sparkling wine is truly impressive.

The facility:  Impressive from the foot of the long, gated driveway, this stone-faced, turreted structure is very storybook-esque; if Walt Disney World had a Vineyard-land, this is what it would look like.

The wine: There was not a wine we did not enjoy; we especially enjoyed the port, though we are not port drinkers. We purchased a bottle of Tannat.

Barboursville Winery

I made lunch reservations at Palladio–which I will be writing about at length in a future post–so we showed up about ninety minutes ahead of time to check out the ruins and have a pre-lunch tasting.  All told, we were on the grounds of Barboursville for around three hours.

The experience:  We once again encountered a holiday open house, which meant free tastings, another buffet of finger foods, and general holiday merriment.  The tasting set up at Barboursville made the most sense of anywhere we visited; instead of one person doing all of the pours, you progressed down the length of the tasting room bar, tasting at different ‘stations’.  A short walk through the common area and into a banquet room–featuring the lovely view pictured above–brought you to yet another tasting station where a selection of reserve wines were being offered.  Each staff member we encountered was friendly and knowledgeable.

The facility: Barboursville looks like a restaurant, a (classy) strip mall, and a wedding venue had a baby; this is pretty accurate, as Barboursville is all of those things–and a winery.  We began our visit with a brief stop at the Barboursville ruins–mainly so I could take some photos–and then continued on to the main building.  It was definitely a lovely location, and the views from the rear banquet room were stunning.

The wine: Come for the Octagon, stay for the Cab Franc.  We purchased a bottle of Cabernet Franc Reserve.

Keswick Vineyard

This was possibly the fastest tasting we’d ever experienced; thus, it will be a rather short review.

The experience:  It was rather crowded at Keswick on the day we visited; I blame the holiday weekend.  Because of this, we had a rather brief tasting at a side counter.

The facility:  While the tasting room is very small, the grounds are sprawling and beautiful.  Tall trees fill the property; as we visited in late November, the view through the trees was lovely as well.  I imagine that in the spring, summer, and fall, the grounds feel even more secluded.

The wine:  To be fair, this was one of the last wineries of  day two; we don’t remember if we liked it or not.  But we purchased a bottle of Viognier!

Castle Hill Cidery

My husband learned about this cidery from a map we saw at Keswick; it was less than a mile down the road from Keswick, so my husband had one of the Keswick staff draw him a little map and off we went.  It was pretty late in the day at this point, and I was pretty tired.  I’m not going to lie–I whined a bit about our unsheduled stop.  That is, untile we arrived at the most beautiful property in all of Virginia.

The experience:  Castle Hill wins the award for most friendly staff; we were greeted by a girl and boy–I call them this because they were in their late teens, early twenties at most.  We were the only people there, and the young man took his time explaining the cider making process to my husband (I did not participate in this tasting).  While my husband enjoyed his cider, I chatted with the young woman; as it turns out, we had the same favorite online cowboy boot store (what are the odds?)

The facility:  Castle Hill also wins the award for most epically beautiful facility–please refer to the photo above.  It is a popular site for weddings, and I can understand why–there were gorgeous views in every direction.  As we pulled away, I continued to stop the car and aim my camera out the window.  Even if you don’t love hard cider, make Castle Hill a stop on your winery tour.  It’s too gorgeous to pass by.

The cider: Says my husband ‘yeah–I liked it a lot’; I did not participate in this tasting.  He really liked the Levity, which is aged in these odd underground clay cisterns called kvevri.  He purchased two bottles of Celestial Cider, a glass of Levity that he enjoyed by the fire–and a hat.  He wears the hat every day.  He really liked it there–and so did I.  But for very different reasons.

We visited each winery described above over the course of two days; we went at a rather relaxed pace, took the time to explore the grounds, and made sure we worked in stops for food to counteract the effects of the alcohol.  I broke the trip up into two ‘regions’–the area east and south of Charlottesville and the area north of Charlottesville.  Thus, we visited he first five wineries listed above on day one, and the last four on day two.  I would have been perfectly content to continue tasting my way around Virginia, had I the luxury of a third, fourth, and fifth day.  Though I would have encountered one major problem had I been able to continue tasting–I don’t know how many more bottles I could have fit in my little hatchback.

Disclosure:  While I would like to once again thank the Charlottesville Convention and Visitor’s Bureau for help in organizing my trip, it is important to note that I visited each of these wineries on my own, paid my own tasting fees, and spent all of my own money on the somewhat excessive amount of wine I purchased.  And I’ll do it again, too!   This post was meant to be informative and helpful to those planning their own Virginia Wine vacation; please do not hesitate to ask questions in the comments section below!

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