I confess, I was a bit of a wine snob. I had no clue that winemakers in my own state, Virginia, compete stem-to-stem with the world's top producers, garnering gold, silver, and bronze medals in international competitions. Or that nearly 200 wineries cluster into six distinct wine regions, making Virginia wine country the fifth biggest wine-producer in the United States. My wine club had sampled wines from everywhere but the burgeoning wine country in our backyard. We decided to check our bias. So we rented a van, hired a driver, and set out for four of the 24 wineries on the Monticello Wine Trail (one of 22 wine trails in the state). Here's to one smooth day.
11:30 a.m. Barboursville Vineyards
Not far from James Madison's recently restored home, Montpelier, Barboursville Vineyards was started in 1976 by one of Italy's biggest wine-producing families, the Zonins. The grounds' 900 acres were once part of Gov. James Barbour's estate. Visitors can uncork a bottle and picnic by the ruins of an octagonal mansion designed by Thomas Jefferson.
Bon vivant and chief sommelier Jason Tesauro welcomes us by dramatically serving the glass neck of a bottle of bubbly with a Champagne saber in the manner of Napoleon's mounted guards. Jason fills our flutes and offers a cheese plate that includes yummy Gorgonzola, then explains why grapes change color (to attract birds), why Virginia's mild climate suits wine grapes so well (it balances sugars and acids), and why he chose wine school over law school (no explanation necessary).
Adjacent to the winery, Palladio Restaurant chef and Alabama-native Melissa Close-Hart prepares a four-course meal, each course paired with a different wine. "The Italians see wine as food, not as a cocktail," Jason says, underscoring his point by swirling and sipping a glass of the vineyard's flagship wine, Octagon, a complex Bordeaux-style blend that many consider the state's best bottle.
Winemaker and general manager Luca Paschina plops into a chair. The tall Italian talks about which grapes grow best in Virginia climate, a list topped by Cabernet Franc and Viognier. "I want to make the best wine for this place," he says. "I listen to Virginia."
2:15 p.m. Keswick Vineyards
In a cellar behind the tasting room at Keswick Vineyards, we huddle around barrels as South African winemaker Stephen Barnard pours a light red wine made from a Spanish grape, Touriga Nacional. "This was released today," he says. "It still needs to shed some baby fat." Stephen turned down opportunities in Napa Valley to work here. "Virginia offers more creativity," he says. Sensing my California-wine preference, he adds, "If you live in Virginia, why would you buy Napa Valley wine when you've got 192 wineries in your state?"
4 p.m. Jefferson Vineyards
More than two centuries ago, Italian winemaker Philip Mazzei partnered with wine-loving Jefferson to map out a vineyard in Virginia. Though the Revolutionary War thwarted their plans, today Jefferson Vineyards, located a mile from Monticello, cultivates grapes on Philip's former land. Here, standing at a large barn-wood table, we sample a bright, buttery Chardonnay, a Viognier, and three estate reserve reds. Only 64 cases of the 2007 Cabernet Franc reserve will be bottled. Total.
5:15 p.m. Blenheim Vineyards
Winemaker Kristy Harmon estimates that nearly half of the visitors to Blenheim come hoping to see musician Dave Matthews, who founded the place in 2000. If Barboursville is near the high end of production with 40,000 cases annually, Blenheim's 5,000 cases put it at the other end of the scale. "This way I know every barrel," says Kristy.
Sipping wine in the airy tasting room as we gaze across the rolling ridges of Virginia's Piedmont region, I begin to understand Stephen Barnard's earlier point. Wine is about people and place, history, farming, and food–ideals esteemed by many Southerners, including me. Why would I buy Californian?