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Visitors drink in history, scenery in Va. wine country

Wine country. Acres of vines, quaint old barns and winery outbuildings, folks sipping samples in tasting rooms, rookies taking a tour to get some basic training in how grape juice becomes wine, picnics under shady trees. Sales rooms with bottles and cases of the local product plus the usual assortment of cork pullers and glasses, special cheeses, gourmet goodies, museum pieces from wine areas in Europe.

Just your normal, everyday, ho-hum winery scene, with one small difference. This is Virginia.

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The South might not rise again, but the wineries of Virginia are very serious about their reborn product.

"Virginia is capable of producing excellent wines," says Joachim Hollerith, a partner and winemaker at Prince Michel Vineyards in Leon, Va.

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Virginia wines have not reached the world-class stature of California wines, to be sure. But for great touring, the lush green valleys and historic wonders of Virginia are more than a match for California.

There's another thing: Not only is Virginia a whole lot prettier than the Napa Valley, it's a lot more peaceful as well. Napa is always crowded, full of wine trains and tour buses and gridlock any given weekend.

Virginia's wine country, still a baby in the grand scheme of things, is a relatively undiscovered jewel. The Virginia Winegrowers Advisory Board estimates, for example, that only about 90,000 visitors tour Virginia wineries every year, although the number is growing. The always-popular Napa Valley gets at least that many any weekend (about 3 million visitors a year, according to a Napa Valley Vintners Association spokeswoman).

"We've only just begun to go our way here," Mr. Hollerith says. "Give us a chance. After all, it took a while before anybody recognized California wine, too."

Before California wine chauvinists start laughing in your Cabernet, remember that the very first wine produced by Europeans in North America was at Jamestown in 1607.

Thomas Jefferson, who liked a frequent glass of the grape, tried unsuccessfully to plant European varieties at Monticello. However, he did inspire the planting of American grape varieties.

By the middle of the 19th century, the wine business flourished in Virginia, and according to the state, one of the most popular wines in the United States just before Prohibition was Virginia Dare, a sweet claret produced at Charlottesville, near Jefferson's home.

What was a fairly sound wine industry in Virginia was all but destroyed by Prohibition, and it took a long time to return.

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One source says that in 1960, there were only 16 acres of vines in the whole state. By 1980, there were only a handful of wineries. Today, there are almost 50, and they seem to be doing quite well. Prince Michel, the state's largest winery, produces around 25,000 cases a year and expects to double that by 1992. (Again, for comparison, Napa Valley has more than 170 bonded wineries. One of its largest wineries, Sutter Home, produces 3.8 million cases of wine a year.)

Quality winemaking in Virginia always has been tough. Not blessed with the excellent Mediterranean climate of California, Virginia's vineyards have been hit hard over the centuries by unpredictable frosts, damp weather, fungus diseases and the dreaded phylloxera aphids that threaten vineyards everywhere.

Most Virginia wineries concentrate on whites because of climatic problems. Many of the vineyards are planted with European varieties such as white Riesling and chardonnay, but reds are grown and wine experts say some are getting quite good. Another popular variety here is a French hybrid, seyval blanc.

A typical Virginia white is Germanic in style, very much like the wines grown along and behind the Rhine. (It's no accident that Prince Michel's Mr. Hollerith comes from the Palatinate area of Alsace.)

Taking a lesson from the extraordinarily successful public relations efforts of the Napa Valley wine industry, Virginia winemakers combine their wine production with free tours, tastings, gift shops and festivals and special events.

Because of the growing season, harvest and crush festivals usually take place in early fall, around mid-October, which coincides with the fall color change.

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Virginia in the fall is glorious, and not far from Washington is Skyline Drive, as famous as New England for its annual fall color.

Most of the wineries are concentrated in the northern part of the state, in an area roughly bounded by Washington on the north, the Blue Ridge Parkway on the west, Fredericksburg on the east and Scottsville on the south. The main route through the area is Highway 29, which runs from the District of Columbia to Appomattox Court House.

In one afternoon of winery touring, you can see where Stonewall Jackson received his mortal wounds, walk around the boyhood home of George Washington or wander through the mansions built by James Madison and Jefferson -- and that's just a start. There are so many Civil War battlefields scattered around, for instance, it would take a month to see them all.

In fact, once in the wine country, you are poised for great history, no matter which way you go. Many of the smaller Colonial-era towns in the area escaped major destruction during the Civil War and many 18th century buildings still stand, now housing galleries, small inns or restaurants. Virginia, judging by the signs, is the elephants' graveyard for antiques.

To the north of the wine country lie George Washington's Mount Vernon, the Manassas (Bull Run) Civil War battlefields and the beauties of the Rapidan River basin. To the west lie Skyline Drive and the New Market battlefield, where cadets from the Virginia Military Institute won fame in 1864. To the south are Monticello and Appomattox. To the east are Fredericksburg battle sites, usually considered to be Robert E. Lee's most brilliant hour. This is just a partial list.

The National Park Service runs most of the historic places around the Virginia wine country, and you'll find the facilities and programs are quite good. Many of the Civil War battlefields are so large you must take a self-guided car tour, but most also have interpretive centers.

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One of the very best places to see Colonial history is at Wakefield, Washington's boyhood home, where park employees dressed in period costume explain life in the 18th century. Wakefield also is set in a beautiful area near the lower Potomac River and is close to one of the state's better wineries, Ingleside.

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"The Inns at Christmas" is a tour of nine bed-and-breakfast inns in Lancaster County, Pa. The tour will be held Nov. 30, Dec. 7 and Dec. 14 from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Dec. 1, Dec. 8 and Dec. 15 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. The inns will be decked in their holiday finery and each will offer some type of light holiday fare. Tickets (good for all six days) cost $9 and are available at any of the inns.

They include: Adamstown Inn, Adamstown, Pa.; Apple Bin Inn Bed & Breakfast, Willow Street, Pa.; the Carter Run Inn, Lititz, Pa.; Clearview Farm, Ephrata, Pa.; the Columbian, Columbia, Pa.; the Dingeldein House, Lancaster, Pa.; Patchwork Inn Bed & Breakfast, Lancaster, Pa.; the River Inn, Marietta, Pa.; and Rose Manor, Manheim, Pa.

The tour is self-guided, but shuttle bus service is available. For information, call (717) 293-1723.

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Chestertown will launch the holidays next weekend with three events. A Festival of Trees will be held at Emmanuel Episcopal Church from noon to 8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. next Sunday. An Antique Show and Sale will take place at the Chestertown Middle School for the benefit of mental health from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. next Sunday. Admission is $2.50 for adults; $1 for children. A Country Craft Guild Show and Sale will be held at the Chestertown Fire House from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. next Sunday. A $1 donation is requested. For information on the events, call (301) 778-0416.

If you go . . .

Where to stay: Virginia's wine country has a good selection of restaurants and inns. The best in the state by everybody's rating is the Inn at Little Washington, northeast of Culpeper. It also has one of the best restaurants in the state serving a selection of Virginia wines. Information: Inn at Little Washington, P.O. Box 300, Washington, Va. 22747; (703) 675-3800.

Another inn worth a look in Little Washington is the Heritage House. Information: Heritage House, P.O. Box 427, Washington, Va. 22747; (703) 675-3207. Rates run around $100 per room at the Heritage House, higher at the Inn.

What to do: Many activities are planned in the wine country in late fall and early winter. Many of the wineries offer tastings and tours.

Upcoming events include:

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Dec. 1-2: Christmas Open Houses, Rebec Vineyards, Amherst, (804) 946-5168, and Barboursville Vineyards, Barboursville, (703) 832-3824. Tasting, tours and special releases.

March 6-17, 1991: Open House, Rose River Vineyards, Culpeper. Celebrates new releases and the opening of trout season. Information: (703) 923-4050.

Sources: Recommended reading includes "Virginia -- a History and Guide" by Tim Mulligan (Random House, $9.95). Very good guide to the historic spots and good eateries of Virginia.

If you're interested in the War Between the States, or just want to learn more, check the "The Civil War Battlefield Guide," issued by the Conservation Fund and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95).

For information about Virginia -- wine country, battlefields, Colonial history, lodging and food -- contact the Virginia Division of Tourism, 202 N. Ninth St., Suite 500, Richmond, Va. 23219; (804) 786-2051. For a free map showing locations of the vineyards in Virginia, call (804) 786-0481.



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