Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Staunton Jaunt Video Clip II: Bluestone

A few miles up the road from downtown Staunton--Bluestone Vineyard, in Bridgewater, VA

Staunton Jaunt Video Clip I: Ox-Eye

Direct from downtown Staunton: Ox-Eye winery tasting patio!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Virginia Winery Weekend Jaunt: Staunton

Staunton is a historic city deep in the Shenandoah Valley and is often bypassed by travelers heading north or south on Interstate 81, or west on I-64. To the blogmasters, it is a mostly undiscovered gem - a town with an eclectic vibe (Shakespeare lovers from all over the world flock to the famous theater - and the town's slogan is "As You Like It") and a place where artists and musicians co-exist side by side. Seemingly every restaurant, from the independent (not many Starbucks here) coffee houses to the pubs and wine bars, play jazz, blues, or rock. And the occasional country and folk music (this home to the Statler Brothers, after all).

Historically speaking, there is much to see here, from Woodrow Wilson's home and the museum dedicated to the controversial President, to the beautiful, recently restored Stonewall Jackson Hotel, to the strange, creepy asylum-looking structure outside of town, near one of the I-81 interchanges (close to the Wal-Mart and Lowes, for those taking notes). The restaurants are arguably more interesting than many in Northern Virginia or even DC - not many "Capitol Hill Egos" here.

Staunton is also a great Virginia wine getaway destination. The drive is a pleasant three hours from Northern Virginia; add an extra hour if you take a U.S. highway to avoid the Trucker's Paradise that is I-81. If you opt to take I-81, there are a few wineries worth checking out along the way.

CrossKeys Vineyards, east of Harrisonburg (a town about twenty miles north of Staunton), sits smack in the middle of the "bowl" created by the Blue Ridge on the east and the Alleghenies on the west. The Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport is near here (yes, they have commercial flights, most connecting through Dulles Airport or Atlanta). The owners of CrossKeys have designed an appealing Mediterranean (think Rome) location, with arched doorways and a large, airy patio. The tasting room is a bit small but allows for an informative tasting experience. This area of Virginia benefits from rich soil (thanks to drainage from the mountains) and certain vineyards are planted on high elevations. The result: Unusual wines (for the Commonwealth) like Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Gewürtraminer. CrossKeys has an interesting selection of both excellent reds and whites. Our favorites: The Pinot Noir (think mineraly vs. Oregon), Petit Verdot, "Tavern" (made with 100% touriga nacional), and a table white called "Joy White" (totally refreshing on the hot day we visited).

After leaving CrossKeys, head on U.S. highway 33 west, through downtown Harrisonburg, make a left onto state highway 42, follow 42 to the town of Bridgewater, cross the bridge and make a right onto Spring Creek Road. This road will take you to the new Bluestone Vineyard, surrounded by mountains, sloping vineyards, and cornfields (this is Virginia farm country and other crop is grown besides grapes!) The sloped vineyards allow for good drainage, but as we learned, can be a bit of a challenge during frost season. Keeping the rootstock above freezing in this part of the state is one of the obstacles for vineyard owners to overcome. This winery offers more whites than reds (although other red selections are coming). Another good summer option was the Vidal Blanc, refreshing and just the right amount of sweetness. Beau, named after their golden retriever, is their most popular and sweetest wine, and also works well in high humidity. Of the reds, the Cabernet Sauvignon (not a common varietel in the state) is very good.

Moving closer to Staunton, via either U.S. highway 11 or I-81 South, a stop at Barren Ridge Vineyards, east of Staunton (between Staunton and Waynesboro) is in order. One of our favorites in the area, the winery has been open for a few years now and has a solid fanbase, as our last visit proved. A new one for the writers offered by Barren Ridge is "Red Barren," a unique blend of Petit Verdot and Chambourcin. Barren Ridge is an old apple orchard and we're still waiting for that apple wine.....but in the meantime, their delicious rosé will do.

At this point, after three wineries, you may be tempted to stop, but there are two more places left on the list to visit! Either pull into town and check into your motel, hotel or B&B, or get your designated driver to push south of town, on the way to Natural Bridge, to Rockbridge Vineyard, one of the original Virginia wineries, with a tasting room as rustic as you can imagine (inside a large barn), and offering a wine for everyone. Their wines are sold throughout the state. Our favorites among the large offerings: Their reserve Pinot Noir, which actually won in a blind taste test we had with a Pinot from Oregon, California, and the Commonwealth! Their Meritage is also fantastic.

Double back to Staunton, and be sure to visit the latest jewel of the downtown "Wharf" district: Ox-Eye Vineyards. Actually, it's the Ox-Eye tasting room, as the vineyards are about eight miles outside of town. The owners decided to try something different, and put their tasting room in a popular section of downtown (which has a Farmer's Market nearly every Saturday of the year, during the spring, summer and fall). This means opening at 10 AM on Saturdays, and yes, the tasting room has a steady stream of people at 10 in the morning. Their wines are all winners, but keeping with the focus on whites, which worked for this very hot weekend, we imbibed with the Gewürtraminer and Chardonnay - which we were expecting to be a tad sweet and oaky, respectively, but we were knocked out by their smooth, tropical fruity, flavors. We enjoyed the patio in the back of the tasting room, enclosed in an arched "passage way" that seemed out of Europe. The clocktower pealed at one point and added to the European flavor.

Staunton is a town from another, simpler time. Farmers, actors, musicians, and west coast transplants have made the town into a mecca of hipness, with restaurants more interesting than most found in DC or nearby Charlottesville. And now, a bonafide wine trail!

CrossKeys Vineyards

Bluestone Vineyard

Barren Ridge Vineyards

Rockbridge Vineyard

Ox-Eye Vineyards

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

More New Kids in Town

The Virginia wine industry is thriving. One analyst believes Virginia will easily top 200 wineries by the end of the year, 106 less wineries than New York, which has held the #4 spot for several years (after California, Oregon and Washington). It may be tough for Virginia to overtake New York; that state's winery count is growing too, especially in the north fork of Long Island, which has been discovered as a great chardonnay growing region.

But in late 2010, early 2011, more wineries have arrived in the Commonwealth. And as the case with all Virginia wineries, no two are alike.

Wisteria Farm and Vineyard:
Located between the Shenandoah Valley towns of Luray and Stanley, this unique winery employs sustainable practices, and as its name indicates, is a working farm. Grassy paths criss-cross the large property, through vineyards, groves of trees, and a creek hugs the property. After the tasting, the owners invite all guests to wander the expansive property, soak up the mountain views, and relax on their many picnic tables. Roosters and sheep call in the distance.

We discovered that the rich soil caused by drainage in the Shenandoah Valley, plus the high elevation in some spots, allows for growing varietals not found elsewhere in the state: Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewürztraminer. Wisteria offers several typical Virginia whites, all good (but a bit on the sweet side): Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier, Traminette. Their reds include a fine Merlot and a wine we haven't seen anywhere else: Carmine. Apparently this hearty red is growing in popularity in California. It reminded us of a cross between Norton and Cab Sauv.

The location of this winery, near Luray, makes it a good destination for daytrippers visiting the town or the caverns. It's a bit hard to find (visit their website for directions), but well worth the effort.

Cobbler Mountain Cellars:
There is a section of Virginia we call the "Virginia Wine Highway;" state route 55, which runs parallel with I-66 in the Marshall/Delaplane/Linden area. Many wineries dot the landscape here, and two of the newest are Cobbler Mountain Cellars and Capitol Vineyards. Cobbler Mountain is one of the foothills of the Blue Ridge, and in its shadow is this irresistible new spot, tucked away deep in the hills, with a winery that also serves as the couple's home built into the slope of a steep hill. Like many other Virginia winery owners, Jeff and Laura escaped the Office Space world of Northern VA (Springfield, in their case) to pursue their dream: Grow grapes (and apples, in their case) and make great wine.

Cobbler Mountain Cellars has been open for several months, and they intend to keep their doors open all year long, even in the winter (their basement will serve as a tasting room and room to "unwine-d" in). Interestingly enough, both Cobbler Mountain Cellars and Capitol Vineyards favor reds over the whites. Cobbler offers a chardonnay and hard apple cider (you can't taste the alcohol--watch out!), both crisp and refreshing. Their winning reds are a Meritage, one of the best red blends we've had in ages, and their Cab Sauv (not many Virginia wineries offer Cab Sauv and this one is a treat). On the day we visited, a group of kids (19 to 22 years old) arrived carrying ukuleles and mandolins...."Fooly Kooly." The landscape of the property seems lifted from a Tolkien story, and the owners agree. Fooly Kooly played ear-pleasing and slightly haunting acoustic Irish folk songs that echoed throughout the property.
A great addition to the Virginia Wine Highway.

Capitol Vineyards:
Capitol Vineyards, near Linden, is operated by probably the youngest couple we've met (can we see their IDs?) The tasting room resides inside a cabin that served as a Post Office, and then a general store, in the early 20th Century. A bit crammed (we presume they will be using the farm house at the end of their driveway when word gets out about their winery), but intimate. Another red-heavy winery: Their sole white is a Traminette (a bit sweet and spicy). The reds are nearly identical to Cobbler Mountain. The Cab Sauv was our favorite; a little lighter than Cobbler Mountain's. The farm house at the end of the driveway may serve as a B&B in future years (the couple has high hopes for their little getaway for wine lovers). The freshly planted vineyards hug the side of a mountain foothill. At least four deer (including a fawn) treked through during our visit. No live bands, no traffic noise, and far from the wine buses and vans. Hopefully Capitol Vineyards will remain quaint.

Visit these new spots and tell 'em VAWINENB (and the Eagles) sent you!