For years, wine lovers in Maryland have had to look longingly to the west for the kind of wine tasting and touring that California is famous for.
Meanwhile, our neighbor to the south, Virginia, has quietly nurtured a fast-growing network of wine trails that provide a fun and cheap alternative for locals looking for a long weekend of wine tasting.
Virginia's wine Web site (virginiawine.org) lists 147 wineries, but at least one we visited during a quick trip over the Fourth of July weekend wasn't listed at the time. Two of the six wineries we toured were so new that they were still waiting for their first crop of grapes to mature.
On our first visit to Virginia wine country, we learned a few lessons, the most important of which is ...
1. Pack a lunch.
Our first stop was Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane. I had worried that wineries so close to Washington wouldn't feel removed enough from the bustle of the city, but Barrel Oak quickly dispelled that notion. The high-ceilinged tasting room is set on a hill with magnificent views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The bar is steps away from a gorgeous stone patio that looked like a perfect place for a picnic, if we had only thought to bring one. All of the wineries we visited served limited food (if any) and appeared to welcome visitors with their own food. Many brought picnic baskets or coolers.
2. Don't be afraid to bring the pets, and the kids.
There is plenty of room for both to run around outside at most wineries. Many places offer outside tastings in warm weather, making it easier to keep an eye on the little ones and the pets.
3. Pace yourself.
Wineries with broader product lines sometimes offer tastings of varying length. The smaller tastings could be a better choice if you plan on visiting several wineries in the same day. You won't make it too far if you try 12 wines at each place.
4. Try some new varietals.
The most unusual varietal we tried was Norton, a red grape that is named for a Richmond doctor, D.N. Norton. The grape was widely grown in Virginia before Prohibition, when all the vines were ripped out. Local lore has it that some of the grapes were taken to a monastery in Missouri, ensuring the survival of the species. Virginia is also known for white wines based on the vigonier grape, and we tasted a few wines that were 100 percent cabernet franc, a grape that is usually used only for blending.
5. Find a place to sleep before you go.
One of the trickiest tasks in planning the weekend was finding a place to stay that was near a concentration of wineries but that wouldn't break our budget. The two regions closest to Washington, the Loudon Wine Trail and the Fauquier County Wine Trail, each offer an array of bed and breakfast options, but the prices seemed to reflect the proximity to the nation's capital. We finally settled on the Hampton Inn in Manassas, a city that has several budget-priced hotels and is less than a half-hour from many of the 17 wineries in the Fauquier region. Leesburg, located in the heart of the Loudon Wine Trail, and Middleburg, a charming town northwest of Manassas, were other places we considered.
6. Buy bottles you like.
Depending on your tastes and your budget, prices may seem a little steep. Most bottles go for at least $20. But if you find a wine you like during a tasting, it's probably best to grab a bottle. Virginia wines are not widely available at wine shops, and wineries are prohibited from shipping directly to Maryland customers.
7. Make friends with your "bartender."
One of the nicest features of wine tasting in Virginia was the personal attention we received from the people doing the pouring. At most places, we had a single person who guided us through the tasting and was happy to answer even the most basic questions. We learned a lot, but we never felt any pressure to buy.
8. Take notes.
Each winery provided a tasting sheet and pencils, and we later wished we'd used them. After trying so many wines in a day, it would have been easier to compare and contrast wines we tasted in the morning to those we sampled in the afternoon.
9. Consider leaving those free glasses behind.
As we drove home to sounds of glasses clinking in the trunk, we realized we'd have been better off returning the souvenir glasses that nearly every winery included in the price of the tasting. If you've been in need of wineglasses, great. Otherwise, consider leaving them behind.
Exploring Virginia wine country
Wineries listed in order visited:
1. Barrel Oak Winery
3623 Grove Lane, Delaplane
This dog-friendly winery (BOW for short) allows you to bring your pooch into the spacious tasting room. BOW features paw prints on the labels and plenty of dog-related wine items for sale.
2. Miracle Valley Vineyard
3661 Double J Lane, Delaplane
Just a few minutes away from Barrel Oak, this winery features the coziest tasting room we visited. If you're not a fan of animals, you will appreciate the winery's "no pets" policy.
3. Aspen Dale Winery at the Barn
3180 Aspen Dale Lane, Delaplane
This winery features a lovely tasting room in a 200-year-old barn with a koi pond and thoroughbred farm behind it. Visitors are invited to take a stroll through the horse farm to the vineyards beyond.
4. Three Fox Vineyards
10100 Three Fox Lane, Delaplane
The tasting room was quite crowded when we visited, but the gently rolling hills around it gave us plenty of room to roam. From the spot the winery has dubbed the "table in the sky" we took in beautiful views and watched fellow visitors playing horseshoes and relaxing in the winery's hammock.
5. The Winery at La Grange
4970 Antioch Road, Haymarket
Located in a restored manor house that dates to the 1790s, this tasting room features the widest food selection of any we visited. The winery offers generous meat and cheese plates, as well as baguettes, dips and spreads for sale.
6. Pearmund Cellars
6190 Georgetown Road, Broad Run
When we visited on the Fourth of July, this winery was rocking. Cars lined the driveway entrance, and the large tasting room was abuzz with visitors but not overly crowded. Outside, a band played while burgers sizzled on the grill.