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

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