To read more about regional wine, see Toast Missouri Wine Country.
Set beside the Blue Ridge Mountains and within a 30-mile radius of Charlottesville, more than two dozen picturesque wineries beckon you to visit. All offer relaxed and friendly wine tastings; tours are available at some. But this is Thomas Jefferson country after all, so start your visit by going to Monticello to reacquaint yourself with the man's genius. The other must-see is the University of Virginia campus, also designed by Jefferson. The magnificent rotunda and lawn bordered by quaint faculty residences echo Monticello's classical themes. Birth of a Wine Country
Given Jefferson's reputation as a wine connoisseur and the fruitfulness of his gardens and orchards, it's ironic that he failed in establishing viticulture from which he could make wine.
Fortunately for us, the vineyards that today grace the hills of the region produce grapes that often result in outstanding wines. Overall, the ambience is pressure free and devoid of snobbery--many wineries are family owned and operated. Typical of the people you will meet is Lorraine Kendrick, a retired middle school principal and human resources director, who was tending to tasting at the Oakencroft Vineyard & Winery when I stopped there. She told me that the big question people ask her is what kind of wine they should like. "I tell them that it's a matter of their own personal taste. There is no one right wine for everyone," she says.
A Sampling of Charlottesville-Area Wineries
Starting at the northeast quadrant of an imaginary circle around Charlottesville, the award-winning Horton Cellars lies 25 miles northeast of the city, past tidy horse farms trimmed with great expanses of white board fences on U.S. 33. A state-of-the-art winery, renowned for its Norton red, this facility pours 36 wines and has ventured into producing a Viognier (vee-oh-NYAY), which Dennis Horton says is possibly their best white wine.
Just south of U.S. 33 is Barboursville Vineyards, the area's largest and most stunning. This is where you can spend serious time. In the tasting room, they pour 16 to 20 wines. Unlike the other wineries, they charge $3 for tasting, but you get to keep the glass. A short walk from the winery takes you to Governor Barbour's Mansion, the ruins of a house designed by Jefferson and destroyed by fire in 1884.
Meal To Remember
Make reservations for lunch at Palladio, the restaurant at Barboursville. While you can choose to order any two, three, or four courses ($32-$51) paired with wine, my advice would be to go for four and forget about dinner. Take your time, and savor the flavors.
Superlatives are dangerous, but I think that the lunch I enjoyed at Palladio last fall was the very best I've ever eaten. To start, roasted red peppers stuffed with tuna and capers teamed perfectly with their Pinot Grigio. Then, spinach fettuccine, served with shrimp and a full, woody Chardonnay Reserve, was followed by duck, pink and fork tender. The companion wine was a rich and distinctive Octagon Fourth Edition. For the finale, an exquisite tiramisu teamed with a sweet, fruity Phileo. This was food and wine to remember.
South of I-64
First Colony Winery, tucked away off State 20 south of I-64, is a young effort, but in 2001 it produced a very fine Cabernet Franc Reserve. Their winemaker, Jean-Michel Jussiaume, brings experience from France, Hungary, Australia, and South Africa.
Off of State 151 in Nellysford, southwest of Charlottesville, you'll find Hill Top Berry Farm & Winery, smallest of all the area wineries. Here they do everything by hand. Their wines come largely from berries and other fruits grown on the property. Blackberry Delight, a light dessert wine, is perfect with a bit of chocolate.
On to Higher Ground
Afton Mountain Vineyards on Route 631 south of I-64 is another family operation with lots of smarts. Some 15 years ago, Tom and Shinko Corpora left their cosmopolitan Washington, D.C., lives behind and bought a vineyard on the southeastern slope of the Blue Ridge. There, with their two young sons and Shinko's parents, they've built a home and a winery that combines the newest and oldest of technologies, including a gravity flow system and a wine storage cave. Particularly interesting is their Gewürztraminer (guh-VURTS-trah-mee-ner), which few of their neighbors produce.
Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway and I-64, Veritas Vineyard and Winery opened in June 2002 but has already produced some fine wines, including their Cabernet Franc Reserve 2001. Eight tables overlooking rows of vines invite visitors to linger.
Viticulture North of I-64
At the other end of the winery age spectrum, Oakencroft Vineyard & Winery at 20 years is the oldest of the Albemarle County wineries. Located just west of Charlottesville with vineyards overlooking a pretty lake, Oakencroft tends to be a popular stop for University of Virginia students with visiting parents.
White Hall Vineyards, tucked away on Sugar Ridge Road off Route 810, is a destination in itself. Even though you're out in the country, the winery is definitely uptown. In the sleek and spacious tasting room, you'll be guided through some dozen wines, including a Gewürztraminer, a distinctive Cabernet Franc, and a Soliterre 2001.
King Family Vineyards, just south of the tiny town of Crozet, was the newest in the area when I visited. Indeed, the tasting room was not yet finished (it has since been completed), but the winery had already produced some fine wines, including a Viognier and a Cabernet Franc of note. As I approached the vineyard in midday, I met Ellen King and her mother-in-law bouncing along the road on a tractor. Her father-in-law followed in a truck laden with grapes. "We've always worked hard together as a family," Ellen told me. "That's why we knew the name here had to be King Family." Her husband, David, and their three sons complete the cast.
For more information: Contact the Charlottesville/Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau, (434) 977-1783 or www.charlottesvilletourism.org.
Afton Mountain Vineyards: (540) 456-8667
Barboursville Vineyards: (540) 832-3824 or www.barboursvillewine.com
First Colony Winery: (434) 979-7105 or www.firstcolonywinery.com
Hill Top Berry Farm & Winery: (434) 361-1266 or www.hilltopberrywine.com
Horton Cellars: (540) 832-7440 or www.hvwine.com
King Family Vineyards: (434) 823-7800 or www.kingfamilyvineyards.com
Oakencroft Vineyard & Winery: (434) 296-4188 or www.oakencroft.com
Veritas Vineyard and Winery: (540) 456-8000 or www.veritaswines.com
White Hall Vineyards: (434) 823-8615 or www.whitehallvineyards.com
Where to Stay
In Charlottesville, the obvious choice is the Boar's Head Inn, a sprawling full-service resort where doubles in fall months range from $188 to $328 (1-800-476-1988 or www.boarsheadinn.com). Two rooms are handicap accessible, as is the main inn. Far more intimate is the Silver Thatch Inn, where innkeepers take solicitous care of guests. Prices here are similar to the Boar's Head ($150-$175;  978-4686 or www.silverthatch.com), but breakfast is included. The Silver Thatch's restaurant has earned its own awards for fine dining. Their signature Thai Steamed Mussels ($8; sold seasonally), made with red Thai curry, coconut milk, and fresh limes, won a gold star from me.
East of Charlottesville is the exclusive, Italianate-style, 600-acre estate, Keswick Hall at Monticello. The 48-room hotel/resort, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, offers any diversion you could dream of. A couple of rooms are superbly outfitted for visitors with disabilities. Guests are treated to a temporary membership to Keswick Club's private golf, tennis, and spa facilities. If you can afford the sky-high rates ($343-$685) or just want to splurge, this is truly the place to stay; 1-800-274-5391 or www.keswick.com.
Cozy inns and bed-and-breakfasts dot the area, but we found two particularly interesting. High Meadows Vineyard Inn, a Virginia Historic Landmark on the National Register, is located on a bend of the James River in sleepy Scottsville. Guests stay here for a variety of activities from bass fishing the James to biking and enjoying the gourmet dishes that come from the inn's kitchen. Seven rooms and five cottage rooms are done in period furnishings, and the absence of phones and televisions in some of the rooms ensures quiet. On the weekend, figure around $200 to $300 including multicourse dinner and breakfast; 1-800-232-1832 or www.highmeadows.com.
On the western side of Charlottesville, in Nellysford in the Rockfish Valley, the Meander Inn Bed and Breakfast has five guestrooms, each with a bath and furnished in antiques. Count Alain San Giorgio of Monaco, his wife, Francesca, and their 11-year-old daughter, Catalina, are as relaxed and fun loving as any B&B hosts ever could be. Animal life abounds on the property, and the view of the Blue Ridge is breathtaking. Rates, including home-cooked breakfast, are about $125 double--a bargain; (434) 361-1121 or www.meanderinn.com.
Atop the Blue Ridge sprawls the year-round, full-service Wintergreen Resort (rates range $129-$179;  325-2200 or www.wintergreenresort.com) where you can ski, rock climb, mountain bike, play tennis, golf, hang out at the spa, or simply relax. Horseback riding takes place down in the valley, where for $46 an hour you can enjoy a trail ride through gentle, lovely scenery. No experience is necessary--the horses know their way.
When booking accommodations, always ask about packages that can save you money.
Special in the Charlottesville area are hot-air balloon rides, which, in suitable weather, launch at sunrise and sunset. The landscape below, painted in fall colors, is awesome and the quiet drift aloft is surreal. Guests meet at the Boar's Head for an elegant adventure aboard one of Rick Behr's 10-passenger balloons (165 per person; 1-800-932-0152 or www.2comefly.com). However, for something more special, seek out Mandy Baskin, owner/chief pilot of Monticello Country Ballooning, who schedules outings in four- and six-person baskets--pilot and three or five passengers. The cost? $180 per person (packages are available). Make a reservation by calling (434) 996-9008.