Continuing with our six-part examination of getaway spots in the Commonwealth where you can partake in Virginia's finest, and explore an interesting town while doing it, we arrive upon probably our favorite town in the entire state: Staunton. We have featured Staunton in several Notebook entries in the past, but we're continually impressed/amazed with what this charming, artistic, and not-too-sleepy town has to offer. We prefer it over nearby Charlottesville, which sadly now resembles Northern Virginia with its traffic, road construction, restaurant and hotel prices (especially during fall weekends when the Cavaliers play in town; forget about finding a hotel or even Rodeway Inn-style motel room on those weekends).
An easy, scenic 30 minute drive west on I-64 (and calling an Interstate highway "scenic" is not a misprint) will bypass Waynesboro (a town whose potential has not been realized) and take you into Staunton. You can't see Staunton from the Interstate (except for the creepy shuttered hospital in the hills off the highway, a perfect horror movie setting if there ever was one), which makes the drive into town a true surprise for those who've never been there. The town (population approaching 24,000) looks bigger than it is, with its mid rise century-old buildings and warehouses. The town is surrounded by foothills and mountains are not far in the distance.
Vista of Staunton, from the Sears Hill bridge, which crosses the tracks near the Staunton train station:
As you walk through the charming, easily walkable downtown, you'll hear the churches and clock tower peal every hour. The town has a distinct European vibe, and the presence of the American Shakespeare Center, complete with a near-exact replica of Blackfriars Theatre, adds to the artistic feeling here. You can frequently see actors in costume walking down the street, or enjoying a beer in the beer garden adjacent to the theater before or after a matinee.
Staunton's most famous hotel is the Stonewall Jackson, built in 1924 in the center of town; the hotel was lovingly renovated after years of neglect in the early '00s, and now hosts countless weddings and business meetings every year. The blogmasters, both on tight budgets, prefer to stay at the Howard Johnson's downtown, which was a Holiday Inn in a previous life and is half the cost of a room at the Stonewall Jackson. If you view hotels/motels as a place to simply hang your hat, we suggest the Howard Johnson: Exterior corridors (easy access), four floors, extremely friendly staff (who operate their own urban garden on the premises, keeping with the progressive vibe in the town), a lap pool, quiet and clean rooms, free continental breakfast, and (here's the best part)....walking distance to downtown.
The selection of restaurants downtown rivals nearby, more famous, Charlottesville: Byers Street Bistro, Mill Street Grill, The Clocktower (located in one of the most historic buildings in town, a perfect meet-up spot if you're meeting others in town), Zynodoa, Shenandoah Pizza, AVA. You can't miss with any of these locations; each one has its own character and big city-style menus and wine lists.
And of course, the wineries are close by. In fact, one winery has a tasting room in the heart of the hip wharf area of Staunton: Ox Eye. The owners explained that they wanted to try something different; grow their grapes in the high elevation vineyards outside of town, but open their tasting room in a more urban setting. The result of vineyards in higher elevations are varietals more common to upstate New York than Virginia: Rieslings (usually they offer two Rieslings--Scale House Reserve, with peach notes, and the regular, with more citrus and honey notes); Pinot Noir (one of the few Virginia wineries to offer one); and Lemberger, a peppery red which also goes by the name Blaufränkisch. Not one bum wine here, but our favorite has to be the Riesling (both are excellent but we preferred the Scale House Reserve). The tasting room is located in a restored train coal weigh station; the train passes by directly up the steep incline next to the patio behind the tasting room. The European flavor exists here in spades.
Wine patio behind Ox Eye tasting room:
About that train: The station is a stopping point for Amtrak. The station is unmanned but the Cardinal pulls through town regularly, and brings in passengers from New York City and Chicago. The Shakespeare Theater is world-renowned, and we've met people from Iowa and California, as well as New Zealand and Italy, on the Ox Eye patio.
Hop in the car and visit three other wineries, north, east, and south of town, respectively.
Bluestone (north of town, near the historic college town of Bridgewater):
Bluestone is surrounded by hills and cornfields; the vines are planted on an incline to take advantage of natural drainage. Our favorites here are the half oak/half steel fermented Viognier, with its notes of fig, and their Steep Face, a fruit-forward Chambourcin with notes of licorice and hazelnut.
Barren Ridge Vineyards, east of town (near the town of Fishersville), sits atop a bluff with grand mountain views and a chalet-like tasting room:
The tasting here is extremely informative and the winery offers a nice mix of dry and off-dry options. The stand-outs are the Vidal Blanc, a crisp summer wine with distinct citrus notes, but not overly sweet; and their 2013 Cab Franc, mild (good for summer drinking), with a hint of oak.
South of town, about 30 minutes away, is Rockbridge Vineyard. This is one of the original Virginia wineries, and their barn-housed tasting room is adorned with bottles draped in medals. The wines here are incredibly well-priced (think $12 for a bottle of bold red), the vistas are peaceful, and the feeling here is pure Virginia.
Every wine's a winner at Rockbridge, but the two wines we keep returning to are their off-dry Pinot Noir Blanc, crisp and perfect with cheese omelettes, and their Tuscarora Red blend (Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, DeChaunac and Merlot), great with pasta or pizza.
If you're anything like the Notebook blogmasters, you may be ready for a switch to beer after checking out some (or all) of these wineries. Return thyselves to downtown Staunton, and visit two of the breweries/brew pubs downtown (near the wharf district), each with its own character and stellar crafts:
Shenandoah Valley Brewing
One thing about Staunton; you'll only get bored if you want to. And most likely, you will be disappointed to come home.