Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Undiscovered Wine Trail III: Front Royal surprises

For many frustrated Northern Virginia commuters, the town of Front Royal is this faraway destination that appears on Beltway and I-66 overhead signs - new folks in town probably never heard of the place. Region long-timers think of Front Royal as the starting point for Skyline Drive, or home of Skyline Caverns (more interesting and more pleasant of an experience than Luray Caverns, IMHO). And those are two perfectly good reasons to make weekend jaunts to Front Royal (along with another best kept secret--Raymond R. "Andy" Guest Jr. Shenandoah State Park). Front Royal now boasts a fourth reason to visit - a cool and distinctive wine trail.

Get your butz out of bed early one fall Saturday morning and get on the road by 9. By 11 AM, you'll be exploring the first winery, and if you choose to stay in-town, there are plenty of motels to pick from (national chains like Holiday Inn, Quality Inn and Hampton Inn) as well as "retro motels" like Relax Inn (on the banks of the Shenandoah River) and the Twi-Light Motel. But Front Royal is "not too far, not too close," and you can get back to the DC area by 10 PM if you couldn't find a sitter for the day.

To get to Front Royal, I-66 is the quickest and easiest route, but we suggest state highway 55, which you pick up at exit 23 on westbound 66. This route is far more scenic, and takes you by several Delaplane spots. The choice to stop at one of the wineries off highway 55 towards Front Royal (Aspen Dale Winery at the Barn; Naked Mountain Winery; Fox Meadow) is your's. But some of these wineries have already been spotlighted. For purposes of this trail, these are the four wineries to tour:


Howard O'Brien knows wine. And he'll be the first to tell you that. The first thing that comes to mind when you mention Howard O'Brien to a Virginia winery regular is "that guy is a real character!" He talks rapidly and with great enthusiasm about his unique winery, on a bluff overlooking I-66, in a renovated French farm house. You will experience great wine here - for better (the quality bar is set high) or worse (the prices---quite a bit more than other VA wineries). You can choose your tasting experience: Classic Wine tasting ($5 a person), for the usual Virginia suspects---mainly whites, a rose, and a delicious apple wine; and a Cellar Collection tasting ($10 a person--weekends only) that's for the red wine fans.

Splurge on the Cellar tasting and taste how Virginia has come along on reds. The Tannat is a unique red and not many Virginia wineries make this. Bold and hearty, a great steak wine, Tannat is Uruguay's red wine, and Howard will provide a colorful history of this grape. After the tasting (the Classic tasting is fine too; you will get a good variety from this tasting), settle in with a bottle or glass, and relax on his deck overlooking the hills and beautiful I-66.


Continuing down state highway 55, you'll enter Front Royal proper. Turn left onto U.S. highway 522, drive through the Chester Gap (a mountain gap, a village, and a winery...we'll get to the winery later), and follow the signs for Rappahannock Cellars, which is a large operation (one of the Commonwealth's most commercial spots), but Rappahannock Cellars proves that big, commercial does not equal inferior. They know what they're doing here.

The tasting room offers several tasting counters. Yes, they have peanuts and pecans and candy and other items that may remind you of Stuckey's on the way to Florida way back when, but their wine is extremely good. And they have a lot of land here; no two views at a Virginia winery are the same, and Rappahannock Cellars may not be along the banks of the river, but it does have unique mountain views in all directions. Their stand-out red: Meritage. Stand-out white: Viognier. But you can't go wrong with any of their wines.


If you liked the Viognier, Virginia's signature and admittedly unusual-tasting white, at Rappahannock, you'll flip over the selections at Chester Gap Cellars. Return to U.S. highway 522, towards Front Royal, and you'll make a sharp (very sharp) right turn into Chester Gap Cellars, which boasts one of the nicest views in the state (reach out and touch some mountains....) No limos or buses allowed, which is music to our ears. They simply don't have the room. This is a family operation---winemaker Bernd Jung (a characteristically gruff, but still friendly, Americanized German) or his wife will walk you through the tasting in the strangely unfinished-looking tasting room. Ask Bernd about the unfinished look and he'll tell you, "I concentrate on wines here." That he does. The Viogniers--both his regular and Reserve--are probably the finest in Virginia.

His reds are good too, but not as mind-blowingly good as those Viogniers. Current red offerings are Cab Franc and Merlot. And those prices - most wines are under $20 a bottle. And you'll need to save some cash for the final stop.


Follow route 522 back into Front Royal, make a left turn onto route 55, and then make another left onto route 340. Watch out for the signs for "Browntown Road," and make the left. Glen Manor is a bit hard to find, but you'll thank these directions, or your map, or your GPS (provided the GPS can find this place) once you arrive. There is simply no better place to wrap up this tour than Glen Manor. These are some of the best wines in the entire state. Really. Several California wine snob acquaintances of your blogmasters can attest to this.

Glen Manor offers a view of the mountains and Skyline Drive from its back deck. The tasting room is small, but the delights await you. Their white wine of choice is a Sauvignon Blanc, which will erase your memories of those sweet bottles of Monkey Bay from Harris Teeter. But their gems are the reds: Cab Franc and pure Petit Verdot. The red prices here are a bit higher, but lay down a bottle of Cab Franc or Petit Verdot for a few years. Their labels are handsome, and in a few years you'll open the bottle with pride.

Front Royal's wineries attract a diverse mix; even Harley-Davidson riders have been known to stop by these spots. Savor the mountain scenery and savor the vintages.





Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Northern Virginia Wine Trail Trek # 1

Living in Northern Virginia, time is a precious commodity. As much as we'd love to roadtrip to Charlottesville, the Shenandoah Valley, or the Northern Neck every weekend, our schedules (not to mention that wonderful traffic) restrict us a bit. Luckily, there are plenty of good-to-great spots in Northern Virginia to compensate. This "best kept secret" wine trail focuses on lesser-known and/or out-of-the-way spots that don't receive the fanfare of places like Tarara, Breaux or Potomac Point. So load up on road trip music (iPOD or those "relic" CDs would do---Van Morrison, Steely Dan and the Eagles are our fall winery road trip favorites), and get your behinds out to NOVAVINO territory!

The 55 Wine Affair Trail: Barrel Oak Winery, Three Fox Vineyards, Aspen Dale Winery at the Barn, Fox Meadow Vineyards

We call Virginia State Highway 55 the "Wine Highway." This two-lane highway runs parallel to I-66 from Haymarket to Strasberg, VA (where I-66 and I-81 meet). You may not drive as fast on 55, but the scenery is a helluva lot nicer. Plus, easy access to numerous wineries. In fact, there are so many now that it was hard to pick just four for this trail.

The trail must begin at BARREL OAK WINERY, now a few years open and getting better (and more popular) by the year (and month). Visit Barrel Oak once, and you'll be surrounded by upbeat fellow tasters, staff, and of course dogs. This spot is nicknamed BOW for a reason. But the outdoor seating options are numerous. Even if the parking lot is full, you're bound to find a table for yourself. Visit on a weekday afternoon for a more low-key experience. Most likely you will be visited by owner Brian Roeder, his wife and primary winemaker Sharon, or the assistant winemaker Rick. (Rick one time came up to the tasting room on a quiet Thursday afternoon from the wine lab, test tube in hand of his newest creation--a slightly unusual but still tasty Merlot--for the visitors to try). The wines are getting better all the time......favorites are their Norton (earthy but smooth), Traminette (nicely aged in steel), and their two table wines (BowHaus White and Red). If the tasting room is not crowded, climb up to their loft and relax on their sofas.

Next stop is right down the road from Barrel Oak: THREE FOX VINEYARDS. If you have a car like mine (not a lot of "tork"), that bluff leading up to the tasting room at Three Fox could be a challenge. But once you arrive, you will be amazed by the views. Three Fox is situated on a hillside, and they even have a table high up on another hill they dub "the table in the sky" (you can reserve this table in the sky; there is only one). At the bottom of another hill lies a creek as well as several picnic tables and hammocks - this place is the Wintergreen Winery of northern Virginia (see the previous blog entry for more info on Wintergreen). By their own admission, the tasting room is small (and there is a porta potty in the back for when nature calls--two, actually--but they are the cleanest, best decorated porta potties you'll ever use). Many of their wines are award-winners. The stand-outs are their Calabrese Pinot Grigio, La Boheme Viognier, and Gatto Bianco (complete with a cat on the label, which nicely balances the offerings at Barrel Oak). Three Fox's whites have the edge over their reds, in the blogmasters' opinions, but one red is definitely worth mentioning: Il Volpe Sangiovese, the closest thing we've had to a Super Tuscan in Virginia. Grab a bottle or a few glasses and take that hike down the hill (Three Fox even has a golf cart for those not able to make the hike down, and back up - for one reason or another).

The next spot on the trail opened about a year and a half ago: ASPEN DALE WINERY AT THE BARN, directly off highway 55, on the way to Front Royal. The emphasis on the barn is deliberate. The tasting room resides in the barn, and the location is an active horse and pony farm. This is one of the few wineries we'd recommend bringing the kids to, if you must bring kids, as they'll be entranced with the friendly horses and ponies nearby. This is the only winery we've been to that begins its tastings with the sweets, and ends with the drys. The reds are the winners here (although their whites are fine too). Aspen Dale has a Cab Sauv (not as common in Virginia as the Cab Franc) that is one of the finest in the region, and their Rose is easy drinking and delicious. In back of the barn, Aspen Dale has a relaxing garden, complete with fountain and gazebo.

Further down highway 55, on the border of Front Royal, lies FOX MEADOW WINERY, on Freezeland Road (up, way up, on Freezeland Road). We've spotlighted this winery in July 2010, so refer to that blog for a more detailed description. It is one of our favorites in the state, and like others on the trail, their wines just get better with each year. Stay awhile and look "down on the mountains." If you still have energy and are in "good condition," you can saunter over to other wineries in the Front Royal area, which will be spotlighted in the next blog.

Fall in Virginia is winery trail time, and even if you can't make the trip to Virginia's Napa (the Monticello AVA), Northern Virginia offers plentiful alternatives.





Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Two "Undiscovered" VA Wine Trails

A region like Virginia (and Napa, and the Finger Lakes, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon....) is bound to have several wine trails. Some are heavily promoted and work closely with local towns and Chambers of Commerce; others are largely unknown. By posting two of the more undiscovered trails, the blogmasters risk filling up these wineries with "newbies" - but one of the goals of our blog is to get the word out on some of the lesser-known wineries in the Commonwealth (by now, everyone has heard of Barboursville, Tarara, Prince Michel, Williamsburg Winery...)

The pair of Virginia wine trails outlined here target two distinct AVAs (Monticello and the Shenandoah Valley). Pick one of these trails, and prepare to drop anchor at a B&B or motel (in Charlottesville or Waynesboro for the first trail; Woodstock or Winchester for the second trail).

(1) The Secret Gems of the Monticello Trail--Wintergreen Winery; Flying Fox Vineyard; Afton Mountain Vineyards; Pollak Vineyards

Drive south of Charlottesville, on U.S. highway 250 southbound (this route passes by several wineries and you will be tempted to pull off, but keep driving to keep this special trail intact!) Around the small village of Afton, get on state route 6, southbound and follow it to state highway 151. Start the afternoon (or late morning, for you diehards out there) at WINTERGREEN WINERY, a large-scale but surprisingly relaxing place with a vast view of mountains and fields. Relax by the Rockfish river and unwined with a bottle of one of their best--Black Rock Chardonnay Reserve or Brent's Mountain Merlot. There is no better spot to start this trail.

After wrapping it up at Wintergreen, return to state highway 151 northbound and you'll end up at a spot that you probably passed to get to Wintergreen: FLYING FOX VINEYARDS. We've already spotlighted this wonderful spot so check out the review from September 2010.

After a relaxing tasting and glass (or bottle) of Fox White or "Trio" at Flying Fox (by now the fox on the weathervane could very well be "flying"), continue northbound on highway 151, where it hooks up with state route 6, and follow signs (or your map) to AFTON MOUNTAIN VINEYARDS. This Monticello AVA staple is not as well-known as some of its neighbors, but it's a must-visit. This winery makes the finest Sangiovese in the Commonwealth, and is one of the few wineries in Virginia that makes a pinot noir. Afton Mountain's new owners recently added a new tasting room, which offers one of the finest vistas in the state.

Stop four takes us to POLLAK VINEYARDS, another relatively new Monticello AVA spot which (like Afton Mountain Vineyards) has its own pond and a great, but very different, mountain view (Pollak is more valley-like in its setting, while Afton Mountain is higher in elevation). Must tries here: Meritage, Petit Verdot and Viognier.

(2) The Woodstock/Shenandoah Trail--Cave Ridge Vineyard; Wolf Gap Vineyard; North Mountain Vineyard

This wine trail requires an Interstate drive (first I-66 westbound, and then I-81 southbound), and is close to Woodstock, a charming town due west of Skyline Drive and a section of George Washington National Forest. Your first stop is CAVE RIDGE VINEYARD, between Woodstock and Mt. Jackson. This winery is really off the beaten track so have your map or GPS ready. Perched high on a hill, surrounded by trees, Cave Ridge is the proper place to start this trail. Settle in with a bottle of Fossil Hill Reserve, their signature red (a blend of Chambourcin, Petit Verdot and Cab Franc), and breathe the clean mountain air. But stay straight: You have two more wineries to hit.

Not far up the road from Cave Ridge is WOLF GAP VINEYARD, which works closely with Cave Ridge (the two wineries are what Virginia winery cooperation and friendly competition are all about). Wolf Gap is named after the gap on the VA/WV border in the Allegheny chain, and the back porch offers impressive views of both the Blue Ridge and the Alleghenies. "Wolf Gap Willie," as the winemaker/owner likes to call himself, will greet you with a smile and serve up one of the finest Rieslings in the state....delicious.

After Wolf Gap, grab that map or GPS and head back to I-81, northbound (or for a more scenic drive, if time is no object, try U.S. highway 11, which runs next to 81, instead). NORTH MOUNTAIN VINEYARD is a staple of the Shenandoah region, and has been producing award winners for years. Ample picnic tables, a wraparound porch, and a "gemütlich" (owner is German) vibe indoors. Their apple wine is a must-try, and on the grape front, the Chambourcin is one of the best in the region.

These are just two favorite trails of your blogmasters. But you can't go wrong with any Virginia winery. As George Martin said about the Beatles' songs, "they're all pretty good." Same goes for Virginia wines.

Secret Gems of the Monticello AVA trail--





Woodstock/Shenandoah Trail: