Spirited excursions: Savor the season by visiting the area’s many wineries

Grapes are seen among rows of vines at Barboursville Vineyards in Barboursville, Va., on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2007. Wines from vintners in Virginia are drawing favorable attention and holding their own against products from more established regions, which has led the state to focus on growing wine tourism. (AP Photo/Michael Felberbaum)

Fall brings pumpkins to mind, but don’t forget the grapes — specifically the fermented kind.

Cool autumn temperatures and changing leaves offer the ideal backdrop to sample the bounty of wineries in the D.C. area. More than 300 wineries are spread out over 4,000 acres and 10 regions in Virginia alone, while Maryland now boasts more than 80 wineries.

That’s right: There are literally hundreds of places to get your oenophile buzz on.

So where to begin?

Eat first, drink later

Annette Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office, said the first step is to prepare for the actual visit.

“The first thing I would say is eat a big breakfast. Don’t go on an empty stomach. That’s just not a good idea,” she told WTOP. “The other thing I would say is have a plan — and plan to visit no more than three to four wineries in a day.”

Boyd recommended virginiawine.org for a map of wineries to plan your route.

“About three wineries makes for a great day trip, unless you’re going overnight, and then of course you can do more,” she said. “And fall in Virginia is just magical. The weather’s getting cooler, the leaves are turning, and to get out of the city and go out to the country is just good for your soul.”

Boyd said there are more than 100 wineries within a 90-minute drive of D.C. — a reflection of how popular winemaking has become in the region.

“The wines have just made such amazing strides in the last 15 to 20 years, in terms of the breadth of grape varieties that are growing in Virginia and the caliber of wines being produced,” she said.

‘Wake up’ to local wines

Dave McIntyre, wine columnist for The Washington Post, agrees that local wine has improved.

“I think the people that are a bit older … may have had a taste of a local wine 20 or 30 years ago and decided that this area will never make good wine. And those people need to wake up and try again,” he told WTOP.

A Virginia flag flaps in the breeze at Hartwood Winery north of Fredericksburg, Virginia in July 2017. (WTOP/Amanda Iacone)

“But we also have younger people who are a little more adventurous. They don’t have the same preconceptions that my generation had, and they’re going out there and discovering that, ‘Wow, this is really cool — that this is made and grown right here, near us,’” McIntyre said. “And I think that’s great. So be open-minded.”

That open-mindedness goes both ways.

“One of the best things about the wine scene in Virginia and Maryland is that a lot of people experiment, so you’ll find some common themes and grape varieties. But you’ll also find some offbeat ones that maybe you don’t really hear about if you just go to a wine store or peruse a shelf in the grocery store,” McIntyre said.

Go-to grape varieties

Boyd said Virginia has earned nationwide recognition in particular for its petit manseng, a white grape variety grown primarily in southwest France.

“We’re really the only region outside Jurançon, France, that is really growing and bottling petit manseng, and that’s a really interesting grape,” she said. “It grows very well in our climate and in our soil, and it makes a wide variety of styles. You can make a dry petit manseng; you can make a dessert petit manseng. And it’s really showing itself to do unique things in our climate.”

Boyd said the state also has some “lovely” sparkling white wines, along with Viognier, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.

But reds tend to be the go-to wine for the fall, and McIntyre said 2019 was a very good year for red wine in Virginia.

“You might see some 2017s that are good too, and the ones to look for, especially in Northern Virginia, would be cabernet franc, some merlot, some petit verdot, especially down around Charlottesville if you’re going that far — lots of wineries down there. Those are great varieties that do particularly well in Virginia. And those varieties will do well in Maryland, as well.”

Maryland: Move over, crabs; hello, chambourcin!

Maryland is not as well known for its wine, although McIntyre notes that Virginia is a much larger state and one whose government supported the wine industry long before Maryland’s did.

But the quality of Maryland wines is improving, McIntyre said, and it’s home to one particular variety he finds intriguing: chambourcin, a French-American hybrid grape.

“It’s not really one of the ones that’s in favor among wine snobs, but local wineries are doing really great work with it,” he said.

Some of his favorites in the D.C. area include Windridge, in Montgomery County, and the Port of Leonardtown in Southern Maryland. “Their chambourcin just won the Maryland Governor’s Cup as the best wine in the state, so the grape is getting some recognition.”

Grapes are seen growing at the Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in Dickerson, Md. (AP Photo/Chris Gardner)

McIntyre listed off several other Maryland wineries worth checking out, including Boordy Vineyards, “which is the oldest winery in the state,” as well as Black Ankle Vineyards in Mount Airy and Big Cork Vineyards in Rohrersville.

McIntyre also mentioned Old Westminster Winery & Vineyard, which is “doing some incredible stuff and unusual stuff. They’re very experimental. If you ask them about something, they’ll just say, ‘Why not? Let’s make it.’

Black Ankle and Old Westminster have planted vineyards near Clarksburg, off I-270, he added, “so we’ll see those wines coming up in a few years … There’s a lot of good farmland within a short drive from D.C. once you get out beyond the traffic.”

Virginia highlights

As for Virginia wineries that he has a penchant for, McIntyre mentioned Paradise Springs, Chrysalis, Boxwood, Walsh Family Wine, Linden, Glen Manor, Early Mountain, Barboursville, King Family, Veritas and RdV Vineyards, “which is the big one for serious wine folks. That’s appointment-only, so don’t just show up.”

As for Boyd: “I have a soft spot for Linden Vineyards,” she said, also praising Walsh Family Wine, October One Vineyard and Chrysalis Vineyards, which also produces breads and 10 kinds of cheese from their own cows. “And on the weekends, they make these amazing pizzas from their own bread and dough and from the cheeses that they make on the farm.”

Boyd said virginiawine.org offers a breakdown of specific features that different wineries offer, from restaurants and picnic areas to spots that are family- and pet-friendly.

Down-to-earth fun

The sheer list of options can be overwhelming, especially for those not familiar with wine, but McIntyre said newcomers should not be intimidated.

“It’s not a snobby activity,” he said.

“One of the things that you still find around here is that quite often, the person pouring the wine that you’re tasting will be a member of the winemaking team or the owner of a winery, the winemaker themselves — and that’s pretty cool. So ask questions,” McIntyre said.

“Obviously, pace yourself. It’s not meant to be a binge party,” he added. “Try to be courteous … Remember that it is somebody’s business. Don’t just show up with your own picnic or wine and expect to be welcomed.”

Like many businesses, wineries took a hit during the pandemic, although because many had outdoor offerings, they were able to weather the crisis better than other industries. After taking a dip last year, wine sales in Virginia have rebounded, and grew by 7.4% for fiscal year 2021.

McIntyre said the pandemic gave a boost to some local wineries because people weren’t able to travel, so they stayed close to home — and discovered what was right in their own backyard.

“Wine country is local. It’s not just California any more,” he said. “I encourage people to explore wine from around here, wherever here happens to be. And we’re in a very exciting place for wine here in the Washington area.”

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Anna Gawel

Anna Gawel joined WTOP in 2020 and works in both the radio and digital departments. Anna Gawel has spent much of her career as the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, which has been the flagship publication of D.C.’s diplomatic community for over 25 years.

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