A New Vintage

The Blue Ridge, long known for its scenic beauty, is lately being toasted for its growing number of wineries.



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.

Prize-winning wines

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.

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