Driving Sideways 

A short drive west takes you into the heart of Virginia's wine country.

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Wineries are sprouting up all over the country at rates that haven't been matched since the end of Prohibition. Most of this growth has occurred outside the established wine-growing regions of the West Coast. (Fifty states now have licensed wineries.) That may be because growing grapes is one of the few ways to make a living from a small family farm. And recent surveys have ranked wine the preferred beverage among the millennial generation, so its future is promising.

In Virginia, the 30-year-old wine industry has been largely a tourist activity. Some attempts have been made to boost the industry's profile, most notably by former Gov. Mark Warner, a wine-grower himself. But Virginia's 110 wineries still face some hurdles — even within the state — for recognition.

"Only about 4.5 percent of wines consumed in Virginia are Virginia wines," says Barboursville marketing director Jason Tesauro, "so we have some work to do here."

But some high-profile projects, like the spare-no-expense winery of Patricia Kluge, and our well-respected cabernet franc and viognier wines, are earning the state respect in the expanding wine industry.

With the state's oldest and best appellation, or grape-growing region, about an hour from Richmond, two of my girlfriends and I decided to make it an overnight trip. We set out to sample some of the best wine and scenery of the area, with a stay-over in Charlottesville. I'd visited Virginia wineries before, but usually only after a hike or as a stop during a drive somewhere else. This time, with two days dedicated to tasting, the trip revealed that there is diversity in the industry, that country roads are beautiful, and that I'm not big on oaky whites.

Day 1
Cardinal Point, Veritas, White Hall

October is harvest season for wineries, so if you're lucky, you'll spot workers with large yellow bins picking grapes in the fields. Head west, and after Charlottesville pick up Route 151 South, where you'll drive past horse farms on winding country roads.

Cardinal Point Vineyard & Winery is the first stop. This smaller, family-run winery is a retirement project for Paul and Ruth Gorman, named after a training exercise Paul invented while in the army. "They thought it was a fitting name for their farm when they retired because they were trying to figure out which direction to go in, to find their way," says daughter Sara Gorman, the business manager who works the tasting room, pouring wines while keeping tabs on the three dogs. Brother Tim is winemaker, producing 3,000 cases a year (the majority of Virginia wineries are about this size or smaller).

Big on customer service, Sara Gorman carefully explains each wine, describing what she tastes and smells ("on the nose") in each of the seven wines. Their A6 is an interesting chardonnay and viognier mix that recently won a bronze medal a white blend category in the Atlantic Seaboard Vinifera Wine Competition.

The bright, modern tasting room is a welcome spot, but Cardinal Point's 15 acres of grapes are not very visible to visitors. You will get thorough understanding of the small winery, though.

A sign posted on the counter asks visitors to sign a petition against the recent change in distribution laws. All wineries must sell their product through wholesalers now, a move that hurts smaller wineries, whose prices can't compete with those of larger wineries when a middleman is added to a sale. (A bill was tabled at the General Assembly that would allow smaller wineries anywhere in the country to self-distribute its wine in Virginia. Cardinal Point, along with other smaller wineries, is hoping this bill, or something similar, passes this January.)

A quick drive up the road from Cardinal Point is the worlds-different Veritas Vineyard & Winery. A bit larger, Veritas produces 10,000 cases a year and offers perhaps the most gorgeous tasting room of them all, with a fine view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Veritas has grown quickly since Andrew and Patricia Hodson opened it in 2002. Andrew says they are done growing and are now concentrating on improving the quality of the wines. Originally from England, the couple was most recently working in Florida. Andrew was a neurologist and Patricia owned an insurance billing company. They always knew they wanted to retire to Virginia, and their love of wine drew them to the business.

"Every year we create something together, it's really rewarding," says daughter Emily, who got her master's degree in winemaking from Virginia Tech. Her husband runs the many weddings that take place at the vineyard.

There's no doubt a lot of money was spent on this facility. The tasting room is housed in a large cabinlike building with a vaulted ceiling, stone fireplace and deep leather couches. We found the Veritas experience to be more about the ambience than the wine.

We ordered the cheese plate, the only food available, and took a table on the porch. The tasting took a while on this busy Saturday, but Patricia brought it to us outside, which was a nice option. We didn't try the $4 option of tasting the reserve wines, but a local told us later that we should have done it, because the other, less-expensive wines are not their best.

From Veritas we went north on Route 810 through the cute town of Crozet to White Hall Vineyards, which sits at an elevation of 800 feet and overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains. Another medium-sized winery, White Hall produces 7,000 cases a year. New to the vineyard, winemaker Michael Panczak trained in California and has won awards in that state for White Hall whites. The winery's viognier is a consistent winner, and those in the local wine industry say White Hall is a rising star.

When we arrived at the tasting room, it was almost 5 p.m., closing time, and a bride and guests were lingering, so we rushed through a tasting. All the wines were pleasant; the sweet and spicy flavor of the Soliterre, the winery's version of a German ice wine, was particularly interesting. With all the sweet and semi-sweet viogniers, not to mention the many varieties of dessert wines, it helps to like sweet wines when tasting in Virginia.

Charlottesville is just 13 miles from White Hall. Route 654, or Barracks Road, will take you right to the center of town. We checked into The Dinsmore House, chosen for its central location, reasonable rates and character.

Innkeepers Ryan and Denise Hubbard are about 20 years younger than their peers in the field. The two were looking to leave Washington, D.C., when Ryan's mother sent them the real estate listing for the adjoining townhouses as a joke. After laughing at the thought of renovating the properties, which were built in 1817 by Thomas Jefferson's master builder James Dinsmore, Denise began running numbers.

Two years as innkeepers, the Hubbards are still getting used to the constant nature of an around-the-clock business, but they've established a friendly and easygoing atmosphere for guests.

The inn is about a mile from the Downtown Mall in one direction, and a short walk to the Corner area around the University of Virginia in the other — both great spots for dining. We opted for the more sophisticated downtown area and grabbed a coveted table in the shaded courtyard outside Bang!, an Asian fusion restaurant just off the mall. Ready to drink something besides wine, we ordered some of the creative martinis on their list.

Day 2
Kluge, Jefferson, Barboursville

The blackberry crème brûlée French toast with whipped cream was one heck of a way to start the morning in The Dinsmore House dining room. Denise said the blackberries were picked by her mother-in-law, who helps in the kitchen occasionally. After that sugar rush, we were ready to tackle some more wineries and drove a short distance south of town to Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard.

What makes Kluge different from other wineries is that wealthy owner Patricia Kluge and her husband, Bill Moses, make no bones about their goal to make their business a world-class vineyard. They are certainly putting resources into the operation, which began in 1999. The winery is state-of-the-art and larger than most in Virginia, with a production of 13,000 cases a year and growing. Kluge hired Charles Gendrot, from a famous winemaking family in Bordeaux, as winemaker. It's paying off. In addition to the award-wining sparkling wine, the dry rosé and red blend are both very nice, but the latter's $58 price tag is more than double the price of most Virginia wines. There is a $5 tasting fee, but that's a reasonable sum when the bottles are that pricey.

Another interesting Kluge wine is the cru. Moses says it came about because they wanted to make an aperitif with a unique American taste. Kluge suggested using Jack Daniel's-soaked barrels to give the wine a hint of whiskey. The result is a standout, if only for its novelty.

Aside from the wine, the Farm Shop tucked away in the woods is a sight to see. Kluge hired the former CEO of Dean & Deluca, Tom Thornton, to run all food operations. Like a high-end country store, it offers topiary trees, homemade jams and lunch platters. We chose a sampling of artisanal cheeses and settled into wicker chairs on the porch. —continued on page 22

Right down the road, and close to Monticello, is Jefferson Vineyards. For history buffs, Jefferson inhabits a site where Thomas Jefferson and his colleague Fillipo Mazzei tried to grow grapes back in 1774. At 25, it's one of the state's oldest wineries; it's also the state's fifth largest. The tasting room is simple, and there's a $5 tasting fee, but it's worth it (and you get to keep the glass). Their wines are consistent award winners, and the atmosphere is friendly but professional.

Bob Steigleder, one of the many retirees who work there, gave us a tour of the winery. While the process is pretty well-figured-out, he says, "there's still a tremendous amount of art involved in winemaking."

If it hadn't been closed, we would have stopped at BRIX Marketplace on our way out. The cute old-fashioned gas station serves great takeout gourmet sandwiches. We could have used the snack at the next stop, Barboursville Vineyards, one of the five largest in the state. The winery has a fabulous restaurant, but we weren't looking for a three-course meal that afternoon.

Perhaps the best-known and most-well-respected Virginia winery, Barboursville deserves the praise. Thirty years ago, an Italian couple started the vineyard, which has produced award-winning wines year after year.

Barboursville wines are the house wines at the Inn at Little Washington, considered one of the best restaurants in the world. This year Barboursville opened a new Octagon barrel tasting room, which can be seen on the tour. Another highlight is the ruins of the Thomas Jefferson-designed Barbour mansion, which visitors can walk through.

Barboursville's tasting room often sees a lot of traffic and can sometimes feel stuffy. Instead of staying for a tasting, we bought a bottle of the cabernet franc and joined a game of bocce on the grounds. Thomas Jefferson would be happy. Americans are finally embracing wine — it just took 200 years.

The Annual Monticello Wine Trail Festival takes place Oct. 14-15 at the Boar's Head Inn in Charlottesville. Visit www.monticellowinetrail.org for more information.




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