The Shenandoah Valley AVA is a nearly 100-mile long stretch that begins north of Winchester and ends south of Lexington. Earlier this summer, we spotlighted the northern tip (Winchester) and southern tip (Lexington) of this region of farms, Americana towns, villages, and soil nicely drained by rivers and creeks running through the AVA, including the world famous Shenandoah River. The final stop is near the geographic center of the AVA - the Staunton/Harrisonburg area. Four very different wineries are within a few minutes drive from both of the Valley cities (Staunton/Harrisonburg and Waynesboro actually make up a "microplex," and share an airport--Shenandoah Valley Regional--which has commercial flights offered by United and Frontier Airlines).
Both Harrisonburg, home of James Madison University, and Staunton, home of several liberal arts schools, offer unique downtowns with numerous specialty shops and restaurants. And both cities have abundant hotels, motels and B&Bs, so dropping anchor after a day of tasting should pose no problem. Best of all, the towns are easy to get around - you don't have to drive far to get to VAVINOLAND.
Beginning in Staunton, you don't have far to go to visit the first winery: Ox-Eye Winery is the only Virginia tasting room located in a downtown section of a city in the Commonwealth. A few yards away from the hip wharf area of Staunton (home of the weekend farmer's market, several restaurants, and a great wine store), the Kiers family decided to place their tasting room in an urban environment, instead of having "just another winery next to a vineyard" (their vineyards are about eight miles from town). The tasting room and backyard patio are so irresistible, you may not want to leave. They open at 10 AM during the weekend, so you can get an early start. Wines you're more likely to find in upstate New York are the star whites here: Gewürztraminer, Traminette, and Riesling (the higher altitude in this part of Virginia allows these varietals to thrive here). Their steel aged Chardonnay is delicious, and they're the first Virginia we've visited that offers Lemberger, a spicy red that would pair well with a juicy steak, in any season.
The tasting room at Ox-Eye:
The aforementioned patio in the back is a perfect way to start (or end) your day. The patio is literally at the base of a mountain, and when the clock tower peals every hour, the sound echoes throughout the picturesque town. Shut your eyes and you could be in France or Germany.
As difficult as it might be, wrap it up at Ox-Eye after a few glasses (or a bottle), and jump back in the car to head north, towards Bridgewater and Harrisonburg. Your second stop is Bluestone Vineyard, which opened its doors about two and a half years ago and is already a regional, and state-wide, favorite. Surrounded by cornfields as well as vineyards, Bluestone already has an admirable number of vintages for its young age. Traminette and pinot noir are offered here as well; the blogmasters are still amazed at how well some spots in the Commonwealth excel at wines more commonly found in other states. Probably their most popular wine is a table white named Beau, after their golden retriever. This wine, the dog, and the proximity of James Madison University (for 21+ old females) probably explains why this wine is so popular. A bit too sweet for us, but would work very well on a 100 degree day with spicy food. Our favorite wine here was their Quartz Hill Red, a delicious blend of Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin, with powerful notes of currant and pomegranate.
Bluestone Vineyard lies on the western side of the I-88 corridor near Harrisonburg. A quick jaunt to the eastern side of the Interstate (after stopping in downtown Harrisonburg for lunch), near the airport, lies CrossKeys Vineyards. An impressive Mediterranean-style building and courtyard with tables and umbrellas greets visitors. The tasting room, like Bluestone, is usually hopping - once again, proximity to a large state university town doesn't hurt. Yet another pinot noir (who needs Oregon and California?!) is the standout wine here. One thing pinot noir fans will notice (for better or worse, depending on your taste buds) is that Virginia pinots have little in common with west coast pinots, in both character and alcohol content. These pinots are more mineraly, not too far removed from the cab francs that are found in nearly every tasting room in the state. But like Virginia wine in general, they do grow on you. CrossKeys is more of a red wine spot (while Bluestone is more of a white wine destination); however they do have a fine oaked (not too oaked) chardonnay here, with soft notes of vanilla. A table white called "Joy" was created for the fans of sweeter wines (there is a red table called "Joy" as well, a Chambourcin with a mild sweetness).
CrossKeys was built with parties and weddings in mind, as well as winemaking, and if there happens to be a large event occurring while you visit, you won't have far to drive to escape that. The final stop is northeast of Harrisonburg, near the town of Stanley (on business route 340 towards Luray). Wisteria Vineyard is about as pure Virginia as you can get, complete with wandering farm animals, a mountain creek on the property, and a sipping porch. The first thing we noticed was the "back to nature" vibe of the location; if a winery existed near Woodstock, New York, it would probably resemble Wisteria. The wine is special, too. One red that was new to us is "Carmine," which is popular in California and resembles a lighter Merlot. They're the only winery in Virginia that offers this varietal. They have a Merlot as well, and their star white is their Traminette. This spot is a little further away from Harrisonburg/Staunton, and could be recommended for your drive back to the DC area. But it is certainly worth a visit--and it's one of the few wineries in the state that would appeal to children (courtesy of the free grazing farm animals).
The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is a unique AVA that offers varietals you simply don't find in other parts of the state. With three sections of the valley bursting with flavor, the hardest decision is which part of the valley to pick (north, south, or central valley).