Virginia Wine Trail: Declaration of Epicurean

Drinking and eating in the Jefferson tradition


The Chardonnay at Pollak Vineyards tasted of crème brulée and fig. Or was that the Viognier?

After our fourth Virginia Charlottesville-Piedmont region winery of the day, my notes were just a wee bit wine-spotted. The Chardonnays and Viogniers were beginning to swim together.

After a total of six wineries in two days, we learned three important lessons about Virginia wines: 1. They are NOT California wines and do not try to be; 2. The beauty of their setting is equally intoxicating; 3. The region’s gourmet inclination is deeply steeped in local heritage.

Thomas Jefferson himself uncorked the story of Virginia wine and food obsession, and so there we began our foray into grapes and grub.
Monticello Legacy

Jefferson has been credited with bringing grape rootstock and recipes from France to the U.S., to his Virginia mountaintop home of Monticello.

“Dinner is served in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance,” Monticello signage quotes Daniel Webster, circa 1824.

The former president was a farmer first and foremost, growing 40 varieties of peas alone in addition to a number of other crops, producing food for the table, beer and wine. The historic site tour takes in the home’s kitchen, wine cellar and beer cellar.

With nearly 25 wineries in the surrounding two-county area (250 in all of Virginia), Jefferson’s legacy for growing grapes and making wine survives, along with his delight for fine food.

The still-functioning garden at Monticello keeps the historic site’s Café in fresh produce and special garden tours are available with paid admission. Gift shops sell heirloom seeds and Monticello brand peanuts, root beer and preserves.

On the Vineyard Trail

After a bolstering 18th century-inspired lunch at neighboring Michie Tavern, another historic complex where the fried chicken is legendary and part of an all-you-can-eat buffet of dishes Jefferson himself probably once enjoyed, we were ready to hit the wineries.

First stop, nearby Jefferson Vineyards. Here, we started our lessons on Virginia wine which is quickly inching in on the West Coast wine industry.

The drive around the region is enough to feed the soul, with its mountain vistas, orderly vineyards, orchards, horses and farms.

The terroir produces certain varietals that perform better here than anywhere else in the world, including Viognier, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Whites are crisp and clean, while reds on the other hand tend to be the state’s weakness.

“There’s a lot of red clay – what a grape needs to be struggling a little bit,” said Hunter Sisser, our guide and tasting jockey at Jefferson Vineyards. Jefferson Vineyards produces about 8,500 cases of the state’s 450,000-case annual production, he said.

“The Virginia wine industry is slowly growing,” he added. “It’s gaining its own national and international renown.”

Subsequent winery visits substantiated his claims.

Keswick Vineyards won “Best White Wine in the U.S.” at the Atlanta International Wine Summit with its first vintage, a 2002 Viognier Reserve. And it continues to rack up the medals, at the 2011 San Diego International Competition the 2010 Verdejo, another Virginia niche varietal, won a platinum medal and “Best Verdejo” award.

“It’s taken Virginia awhile to realize we’re not California,” said winery co-owner Cindy Shornberg. “It’s been eye opening all across the state. Our goal was to make a good red wine, and now we’re winning awards for that.”

“Reds are tough in Virginia because of the weather,” said Kirsty Harmon, winemaker at Blenheim Vineyards, a gorgeous property owned by musician Dave Matthews.

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Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: joeytheg
    1018088 4

    i've been to the virgina wine producing area and certainly agree that the wines are not california. i don't think that's a compliment. it's interesting that the red wines which should do best (climate wise) should be italian. but, the grapes mentioned are not italian.

    the article doesn't mention prices....a familiar fault with travel articles. it's as if all of us are rich and don't care. i found wine prices high for the quality presented.

    the area is beautiful, however, and well worth a trip. Monticello and to a lesser extent other Virginia presidential homesteads are certainly worth a visit.

    Jan 23, 2012 at 3:06 PM

  • Snooth User: rick923
    943582 0

    I'm surprised you didn't comment on the Norton grape - a truly native red hybrid, that was the passion of Dr Daniel Norton, created in the 1820's near Richmond, Virginia. This grape is inky, unique and remains in VA, and also has become an important part of the Augusta Appellation, near St. Louis, Missouri.

    Jan 23, 2012 at 3:17 PM

  • I brown-bagged the Barboursville Octagon at a party of fellow wine geeks last year, all of whom were in the trade. I believe it was the 2002 Octagon which I received from Luca Paschina at the winery. Some thought it Bordeaux; others, an Italian red. No one nailed it as Virginia and all were surprised and even impressed with its depth and character. It was excellent and, for me, certainly possessed the character and quality of a better claret. Truly, Virginia wines ARE Virginia, not California, France or elsewhere. Properly made, they express the terroir of the Piedmont Plateau and the "Atlantic Uplands." If one would experience the spirit of that viticultural region, one must be open and receptive to tastes, aromas and subtle (and not-so-subtle) nuances that are expressed by the wines of Virginia and, similarly, those of Pennsylvania, New York State and, yes, New Jersey, too :-)

    Jan 23, 2012 at 7:45 PM

  • The Charlottesville region is very nice, although I'm surprised you missed Horton Vineyards so near to Barboursville, which offers their tastings for free and has so many varieties, some of them really interesting and unusual, that you really need to bring a designated driver just to be able to taste half of them.

    But y'all really need to do the area up around Leesburg/Middleburg/Delaplane sometimes. The wines in the Northern Virginia appellation have become really quite good, capable of holding their own against wines anywhere in the world. And the scenery even beats Charlottesville.

    Virginia whites have been good for quite a while now. The reds weren't until recently, but this is rapidly changing for the MUCH better. Some are now shockingly good.

    Jan 24, 2012 at 7:15 AM

  • The reds are starting to really come along. One relatively new winery, Mountfair, makes only reds and has consistently done a great job with them. And they throw the best parties to boot!!

    Jan 24, 2012 at 8:05 AM

  • Most Virginia reds had this "hole" in the body about 2/3rds of the way through each sip, but in recent years they had eliminated most of the other flaws that used to plague Virginia reds. However now many of them seem to have eliminated this last little peccadillo too, and so they are quite good.

    And some of the Nortons have gotten rid of that strange little flavor twist, sort of a lawn grass taste, that used to be their bane. The first one of those I had was two years ago at Chrysalis, but several other wineries seem to have also discovered whatever trick it takes to make them good and they are now almost like some Malbecs.

    It seems that Nortons can be cellared for quite a long time. I recently opened a bottle of Horton Norton (LOVE the name!) I had laid up in a particularly environmentally uncontrolled location for 19 years, and to my surprise it was really not bad.

    Had a bottle of Delaplane's "Cinq," a sort of bordeaux-ish blend, the night before last and it was good through and through. I have a couple of bottles of the now-defunct Kluge "New World Red" laid up. Kluge is soon to be reopened by none other than Donald Trump.

    I've been to most of the wineries in the north but I haven't been to Mountfair yet.

    Jan 24, 2012 at 11:01 AM

  • Blenheim, Jefferson, King and Pollak are all great Virginia wineries. Good job. Prospective travelers should also seek out Mountfair and White Hall. Thanks for not mentioning Trump!

    Jan 24, 2012 at 8:45 PM

  • Note the comments that "Virginia wines are not California wines", they are supposed to be?!! That's the beauty of terrior, the relationship of grape, place and vigneron. I enjoyed most of the wines I tasted in Virginia. I hope they build on the potential. And I hope the industry does not fall victim to wine snobbery (too late?) by dismissing anything that isn't a "global wine". The beauty of Norton grape, with its distinctive flavors and its potential for sustainable production practices (Try that Viognier!), is that it is truly unique to eastern North America. It is the model for the New American Viticulture, our path to sustainable viticulture in eastern North America.

    Jan 25, 2012 at 9:15 AM

  • Snooth User: Jimmy Cocktail
    Hand of Snooth
    204415 379

    I will say that while the Charlottesville area is quite historic, I would ask that anyone interested in Virginia wine seek out the rest of the state as well. We have a total of five AVAs in the state and the one area that isn't covered by an AVA may be one of the most exciting, Loudoun County in Northern Virginia.

    In the past Virginia did have a bad rep for its red wines but that certainly isn't the case anymore. The Bordeaux varieties perform very well here, especially Cabernet Franc and our not so secret secret is that there are several wineries that make a fantastic Tannat. Of course the Norton grape is native to Virginia and there are several very nice examples to be found. On the white side Viognier is the flagship grape, but did anyone realize that Albarino is being grown here?

    It is a very exciting time to be involved with Virginia wine, I really hope that you all get a chance to come and experience it with us!

    Jan 25, 2012 at 1:03 PM

  • I LOVE most Virginia viognier! It's citrus notes make it a really refreshing wine for drinking out on the porch on a lazy summer day. I get a strong hit of grapefruit in the finish which leaves a very pleasant aftertaste and makes you eager for that next sip.

    Loudoun (and some of the wineries in Fauquier and a little ways to the other side of the Shenandoah River in Clarke) should be an AVA. Call it "Middleburg." There are a lot of wineries around Middleburg and Delaplane that have a strong character common to them all and unique to the region.

    But "Northern Virginia" is a HUGE AVA now and includes those wineries (Willowcroft, Naked Mountain, Philip Carter, Delaplane, Three Foxes, and dozens of others) along with the very different terroirs and tastes up north and northwest of Leesburg and over toward Harper's Ferry like Tarara, Fabbioli, Hiddencroft, Hillsborough, and many more.

    The differences are much greater than those you can taste between the wines of, say, Rutherford and Stag's Leap in Napa.

    And I am SO GLAD that Virginia reds are getting so good (still a bit spotty, though; there are some bad ones out there, too)! The 2011 vintage may be a nasty setback -- it rained almost every day all summer long pretty much throughout the whole state, and some of the vineyards in the Northern Neck were badly damaged by a hurricane (that fortunately missed most of the Commonwealth).

    It's hard to stress vines throughout most of Virginia, alas! Everything grows so well here. The soil is so fertile and the climate so moderate most years that the plant life stays pretty fat and happy most years.

    Jan 25, 2012 at 2:40 PM

  • Snooth User: Jimmy Cocktail
    Hand of Snooth
    204415 379

    Woody, glad to see that you love Virginia wine so much!

    There was an effort to create an AVA for the Loudoun County area several years back, the problem lies in that there are simply too many soil types through the area for there to be one single defining terroir. So it was decided to abandon the idea of an AVA and market the wines as Loudoun County instead. At the time of this writing, there are thirty wineries in Loudoun County alone!

    You do make some good points though. 2011 was a terribly rough vintage. We had a nice dry summer but the rains began about a week before harvest and didn't let up for a month and a half. Some Albarino looked very good and of course the Norton handled it with its usual aplomb, but grapes like Chardonnay and Cab Franc will be decidedly hit or miss. And of course, you are absolutely correct that a hurricane did do some terrible damage to the Northern Neck.

    As you allude to, many things grow very well here. Canopy management and dropping fruit are constant reminders of this. It is because of these techniques though that Virginia wine has began to make its mark on the world.

    Jan 25, 2012 at 4:40 PM

  • Having been to Paris quite a few times before I was looking for a new experience of all things French. The wine tasting lunch at O Chateau was the perfect example. Taking place in the underground cellars, which have been fantastically decorated with a modern twist, the experience appeals to all the senses. The wine was great, the abundant amount of cheese and cured meats were scrumptious and the wine tutor was informed and very entertaining. I genuinely left feeling my understanding of French wine had increased! Thank you to

    Jan 29, 2012 at 8:14 AM

  • Snooth User: kalbright
    689497 19

    You should add the Chateau Morisette near Roanoke. It has a great tour with wine tasting at the end. They also have a fabulous restaurant.

    Jun 16, 2012 at 8:29 PM

  • Snooth User: kalbright
    689497 19

    That should read Chateau Morrisette

    Jun 16, 2012 at 8:31 PM

  • Snooth User: messygonzo
    1327679 35

    The reds are starting to really come along. One relatively new winery, Mountfair, makes only reds and has consistently done a great job with them. And they throw the best parties to boot!!

    Aug 02, 2013 at 6:05 AM

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