Visitors drink in history, scenery in Va. wine country


November 18, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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