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:
1. CHATEAU O'BRIEN AT NORTHPOINT
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.
2. Next stop....RAPPAHANNOCK CELLARS
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.
3. Onward....CHESTER GAP CELLARS
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.
4. Last stop....GLEN MANOR VINEYARDS
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.