About an hour's drive west of the nation's capital, turn off the interstate and you'll think you've stumbled upon a different century.
Beneath the peaceful gaze of the Blue Ridge, country roads edged with flowery meadows, horse pastures and old red barns seem straight out of a picture book, while slumbering little towns, world-class restaurants and a bevy of B&Bs; give more than enough reason to relax and stay awhile.
But there's something more brewing here than quiet, beautiful scenery -- or, should I say, fermenting. For this bucolic niche lies in the heart of one of America's fastest growing wine industries.
In this area alone -- essentially Culpeper, Rappahannock and Fauquier counties, only one of Virginia's many wine regions -- some 20 wineries thrive, many of which are making a name nationally.
What's most unusual is the diversity of these wineries, from enormous, French-like operations to tiny houses tucked away in deep woods. Spring through fall, flurries of events take place on their grounds -- festivals, dinners, seminars, you name it. And October happens to be wine month in Virginia.
I have to state right off that my two friends Monica and Leslie and I grew up in California, near Napa Valley, so we found the notion of Virginia wine a little curious. We were therefore interested to discover that the wine tradition in the Old Dominion reaches back nearly 400 years, long before California was even named a state.
"Virginia has the oldest and among the youngest wine industries in America," says Bruce Zoecklein, an oenologist based at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg. "It was decreed in James-town for all males to plant vines."
The early Colonial attempt, how-ever, proved frustrating, largely due to the hot, humid summers and icy cold winters. Enter Thomas Jefferson in the 1770s, who grew wine grapes at Monticello. (Many considered the second president America's first wine connoisseur.)
Jefferson encouraged Amer-icans to drink wine with meals and chose the first wines to be served at the White House. But he was never successful in making wines on a par with European ones.
The growth of Virginia's vineyard acreage peaked before the Civil War, but was decimated over four years of warfare. Then, in the 1870s, California wines began flooding the market, focusing the spotlight west.
Virginians continued to persist, however, struggling through Prohibition and the Depression. By 1950, only 15 acres of grapes grew in the state. But then the winemaking industry perked up.
In recent years, Virginia wines have taken off. Zoecklein says that viticulture is the fastest growing section of agriculture in Virginia, an agriculture-based state.
Pam Jewell of the Virginia Wine Marketing Office says that 2,250 acres of grapes are being grown in the state, with 81 wineries flourishing (11 opened just this year). And Virginia now ranks as the 10th top wine producer in the United States.
Our first stop was Oasis Winery, which must have one of the prettiest settings in a land of pretty settings. A wooden deck extends from the dark, rustic tasting room, overlooking vineyards and the softly molded peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
On fair days, you can taste wine on the deck, simultaneously drinking in the gorgeous setting; or pick up some bread and cheese (the winery sells a good selection) for an impromptu picnic.
Founded by the Salahi family in 1977, said to be pioneers in the emerging Virginia wine industry, Oasis produces some 20,000 cases annually on 100 glorious acres. Many of their wines have won awards, perhaps the most prestigious of which is the brut sparkling wine, one of the first U.S. sparklers to be rated among the top 10 in the world -- a fact we didn't know when we stepped up to the tasting bar.
Instead, we sampled several of the more typical wines. My friends and I don't know a lot about wines, but that didn't stop us from pretending we did.
Our assessment: The Chardonnay Barrel Select, considered the winery's premier wine, tasted pleasant but a bit weak (no matter that it received the Gold Medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition sponsored by Bon Appetit magazine).
The Chardonnay Dogwood Flower label was quite sweet -- perhaps too sweet. The Riesling: fruity and refreshing.
The United We Stand -- a Cabernet Sauvignon that you really wanted to love, with a name like that -- smelled of linoleum.
And this is how most of our tastings seemed to go, with the whites being better than the reds, and the reds being, well, young.
We next ventured to Gray Ghost Vineyards, simply because we liked the name (Col. John S. Mosby, who passed this way during the Civil War with his Mosby's Raiders, was nicknamed the Gray Ghost).
It's a tiny, family-owned place by the roadside in Amissville with only 9 acres of vines on a 22-acre farm, but with its share of medal winners.
I was most interested in sampling the Victorian Red and White. The Victorians are named for an era when wines tended to be sweeter. Indeed, they were sweet, but crisp and light, evoking a time of full-length dresses and lazy riverside picnics on sultry afternoons.
A couple more wineries hide nearby in the hills south of the town of Sperryville, where cute little shops enticed us to pause. The former stagecoach crossroads perches near the central entrance to Shenandoah Na-tional Park, and is now known for its eclectic mix of artists and farmers and weekend hikers and bikers.
We strolled along Sperry-ville's one main street, poking into antique stores, a fabulous fly-fishing shop (OK, we peered in through the window), and Sperryville Pottery -- great stuff.
The big draw here, though, is Cooter's Place (as in Ben "Cooter" Jones, the mechanic from the vintage TV hit The Dukes of Hazzard).
Jones is a former two-term congressman from Georgia, now running for election in Virginia's 7th Congressional District. In his spare time, he runs the red wooden barbecue joint, a little shrine to the Dukes of Hazzard, and offers occasional music festivals.
Mead and trout
Continuing on our wine-tasting jaunt, we meandered on tiny, tree-shaded lanes to Smoke-house Winery, an anomaly to the Virginia wine scene. The thatched-roof tasting house looks like something out of Beatrix Potter (complete with two cats and butterflies in the garden out front). And this winery doesn't make traditional wine, but mead -- often called the nectar of the gods.
"Mead is actually honey-based wine rather than grape-based," says John Hallberg, the young man with long flowing hair who began the winery in 1999. "It is similar to beer making in that it is boiled in a brew kettle like beer, but it has a higher alcohol level and is cellared more similarly to wine."
We spotted a dulcimer on one of the tables in the tasting house, and it turns out that many of the events at Smokehouse involve music, "usually folk or jazz-type stuff," says Hallberg.
More twisty lanes brought us to Rose River Vineyards & Trout Farm, a family-run affair deep in the heart of green hills, on land that once produced apples, corn and moonshine.
The patriarch, Ken McCoy, was sitting in the little tasting house, resembling more a hard-working farmer in his plaid shirt and suspenders than a wine connoisseur. I was most curious about the trout farm.
"It's a lovely setting," McCoy says. Two ponds formed from the Rose River sit in a peaceful wooded glen, where the only sounds are tweeting birds and the breeze rustling through the trees, and perhaps a rainbow trout breaking the surface now and again for flies.
"You can sit there all day, for free. Unless you catch something," he jokes.
I wanted to buy a bottle of wine from McCoy; the silk-screened labels were unique and pretty. But the wine -- well, I found myself commenting more on the gorgeous landscape each time I sampled. We learned that the winery is best known for its distinctive wines, including Mountain Pear and Mountain Peach, which they had run out of. Too bad.
I had heard that several wineries offer lodging on their property; others must have heard it, too, because everything was booked. So we opted instead to experience another aspect of this hidden corner by staying at a horse farm.
We were in the heart of hunt country, with several breeding and training facilities, among them Lantern Lane Farm. Most of the guests at this bucolic hideaway are horse people, who come to ride, take lessons and spend most of the day training.
The owners, Walter and Debbie Craig, didn't seem to mind that we only wanted to look at the horses. Their circa 1840 Colonial is a fabulous place, sitting on 33 serene acres of hilly meadows and woods in the middle of nowhere. There's a swimming pool overlooking horse pastures and idyllic little lanes to wander.
The next day, after a dip in the pool, a chat with the horses and a long, leisurely breakfast, we headed to Unicorn Winery. It wasn't quite open for the day, so we walked around the grounds (there's a lovely deck overlooking a tranquil pond and rows of vines).
The winery itself is a fairly small affair, housed in what appears to be a tract home. We tasted some of "the herd," as they call it, and found, as we had at other Blue Ridge wineries, that the reds were a bit young and the whites were deliciously sweet and smooth.
Our next stop, Prince Michel & Rapidan River Vineyards, south of Culpeper, was a striking contrast to little Unicorn. This is the largest winery in Virginia, with a current production of 40,000 cases a year. Established in 1983, it was the brainchild of Norman B. Martin of Culpeper and Jean LeDucq of Paris, and it's the French influence that prevails.
You drive amid 110 acres of vinifera grapes to the grand French Provincial winery, and feel as if you have, indeed, arrived in France. One nice aspect of this winery is its museum, which does a good job providing a historical perspective on winemaking throughout the world (the 1950s-era photos of naked men crushing grapes in Burgundy were rather disconcerting, however).
The self-guided tour also takes in the cellars themselves, where enormous steel vats and rows and rows of oak barrels hold the wine and signs describe the winemaking process.
The tasting room is large and polished, and, true to its big-time winery status, the tasting staff is knowledgeable and professional. As far as wines go, I think this was our favorite place -- a bottle of the German-style Rapidan River Semi Dry Riesling 2000, one of their most popular wines, came home with me.
On our way back to the interstate, we stopped by one last winery. Old House Vineyards, one of Virginia's newest vineyards, just released its first wines in June.
Another family-run business, it didn't start off as a winery. Patrick and Allyson Kearney bought the property -- including an abandoned farmhouse -- for a weekend retreat in 1998. Patrick came to know a local viticulturist, and one thing led to another. Soon the overgrown alfalfa fields had been transformed into vineyards.
You drive on a winding, rocky lane through cornfields to reach the Victorian farmhouse, now gleaming with new paint and polish. The tasting room is located in the former dining room, behind a stately dark-wood bar. Three wines were available for tasting, plus the Vidal Blanc Ice Wine.
"Ice wine is made from frozen grapes," says caretaker Kevin Hochbrueckner, explaining the sweetness. "When you go to press you get a more concentrated, sugary grape juice, more than three times sweeter than Vidal."
We had never tried ice wine in Napa. And that just proves you can't compare Napa with the Blue Ridge. Maybe the wines are better in Napa, but that's not what a visit to Virginia's wine country is about. The overall experience -- the magnificent scenery, the chance to meet friendly people and poke about little towns, the unexpected oddities, and now and again a good-tasting wine -- are more than enough reasons to make a weekend out of exploring this splendid area.
When you go
Getting there: Most of the wineries can be found by following the grape cluster highway signs within a 10-mile radius of each one. Also, watch for signs for the Blue Ridge Wine Way, an alliance of wineries and vineyards in the Blue Ridge (www.BlueRidgeWineWay.com; 800-820-1021).
Call the wineries listed below for specific directions. It's about a three-hour ride to Blue Ridge wine country from Baltimore.
Oasis Winery 14141 Hume Road, Hume, VA 22639
* Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; tours offered 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; $5 fee (includes glass) for tasting eight wines.
Gray Ghost Vineyards, 14706 Lee Highway, Amissville, VA 20106-4226
* Open January and February on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; March through December, Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. No tasting fee.
Smokehouse Winery, 10 Ashby Road, Sperryville, VA 22740
* Open February through December, Saturdays and Sundays from noon until 6 p.m. No tasting fee.
Rose River Vineyards & Trout Farm, Va. 648, Box 186, Syria, VA 22743
* Open April through November, Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and by appointment. Trout farm closed March through August. No tasting fee.
Unicorn Winery, 489 Old Bridge Road, Amissville, VA 20106
* Open April through October from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and November through March Saturday through Monday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. No tasting fee.
Prince Michel & Rapidan River Vineyards, HCR 4, Box 77, Leon, VA 22725
* Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; $2 fee to sample six wines.
Old House Vineyards, 18351 Corky's Lane, Culpeper, VA
* Open year-round Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. No tasting fee.
Other wineries in the area:
* Dominion Wine Cellars, Culpeper, Va.: 540-825-8772
* Farfeleu, Flint Hill, Va.: 540-364-2930; www.farfeluwine.com
* Linden winery, Linden, Va.: www.lindenvineyards.com; 540-364-1997
* Naked Mountain Vineyard, Markham, Va.: 540-364-1609; www.nakedmtn.com
* Rappahannock Cellars, Huntly Va.: 540-635-9398; www.rappahannockcellars.com
* Sharp Rock Vineyards, Sperryville, Va.: 540-987-9700; www.sharprock.com
Activities: October is wine month in Virginia, and lots of activities are planned.
For a complete listing of annual events, obtain the free guide from the Virginia Wine Marketing Program, VDACS, Division of Marketing, P.O. Box 1163, Richmond, VA 23218; www.virginia wines.org; 800-828-4637. Also, visit www.virginiawineguide.com, a consumer's guide to Virginia wines with expert ratings and reviews.
Here are a few fall events:
* Sept. 28-29: Fall in Love with Oasis Merlot at Oasis Winery.
* Oct. 5: Annual wine festival at Sharp Rock.
* Oct. 12-13: Harvest celebration at Smokehouse Winery.
* Oct. 19-20: Fall festival at Old Home Vineyards.
* Oct. 19-20: Annual wine festival at Unicorn winery.
* Oct. 26-27: Celebration of Colors at Oasis.
* Nov. 9-10: New Chill Chasers at Old House Vineyards.
* Nov. 15: Prince Michel evening candlelight tour and tasting.
* Nov. 30: Civil War authors' book signing at Gray Ghost Vineyards.
For more information about lodging, dining and activities in the Blue Ridge:
* Rappahannock County: 540-675-3342; www.sperryville.com; www.rappguide.com
* Fauquier County Chamber of Commerce: 800-820-1021; www.fauquierchamber.org
* Culpeper Visitors Center: 540-825-8628; www.visitculpeperva.com
Lodging: Many of the wineries, including Prince Michel and Smokehouse, offer lodging. Call the wineries for details.
Here are a few other suggestions:
Burnley Vineyards -- House at the Vineyards, 4500 Winery Lane, Barboursville, VA 22923
* Guest house available; rates are $125 per night
Christensen Ridge, HCR 02, Box 459, Madison, VA 22727
* Stay in the 1700s log cabin or five-bedroom manor house; daily rates from $200
Lantern Lane Farm, 126 Dodson Road, Viewtown, VA 22746
* Working horse farm with rooms decorated in English and French country decor; rates from $75 to $125.