Touring Virginia’s wine country has become such a popular pastime that many of us have forgotten the time, not so long ago, when the term Virginia wine referred to a handful of vineyards near Charlottesville. Now there are nearly 200 vineyards and wineries in the Commonwealth.
As recently as 1950, there were only 15 acres of commercial wine grapes under cultivation in Virginia. That’s not because the Commonwealth was a vintner’s backwater with no viticulture. It’s because the industry had been destroyed by the Constitutional amendment commonly known as Prohibition—a nationwide ban on the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages.
Generations of Virginians—most notably, Thomas Jefferson, who grew wine grapes in Monticello but never produced a bottle of wine—had toiled to match varietals with climate and soils throughout the state. And progress was made. By the late 19th century Virginia wines were rising on the world stage. Then, according to the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, a Virginia Norton wine was named “best red wine of all nations” at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873. Then came a gold medal for Norton at the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 when the Eiffel tower was constructed.
Then . . . came the women’s temperance movement to snuff it all out. The movement tried to outlaw coffee and caffeinated beverages, along with alcohol. Imagine life without your morning java. Coffee was spared, but the nation’s vineyards were left to nature.
After Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, only half the breweries in the U.S. reopened—the rest were bankrupt. And it would take another generation for vines to begin producing the quality wines that led to the early rebirth of the Virginia wine industry in the 1970s, most notably those of Waverly Estate in Middleburg and Barboursville Vineyards.
The incredible growth of wineries in Northern Virginia has redefined the area as a world wine region. It means countless opportunities for weekend touring because each tasting room, like the wines they serve, has a unique character all its own. Whether your weekend travel plans call for an elegant patio in the Italian tradition, a rustic former country cottage, or an authentic Virginia barn, you can find what fits your weekend.
The wine boom has provided two big benefits to wine lovers and the wine-curious. First is the variety of options. North Virginia is in a different climate zone than the Piedmont, which differs from the Western Mountain zone. The soils range from granite-based to sandy loam, and the combination of climate and soil lends a distinctive flavor to each grape and the wine produced from it, something the French call terroire. In English: There are wines for every palate.
The second benefit is price. Like most locally crafted foods and beverage, you can expect to pay a little more per bottle. But there are Virginia wines in every price range.
Sometimes, though, just the chance to tour the countryside, enjoy the view, have a picnic and glass of vino, and—if you’re lucky—lose cell coverage for an hour is one of the best benefits of all.