STRASBURG, Va. (AP) — Thomas Jefferson may have been the first winemaker in Virginia, but it took another 200 years for the industry to blossom in the state. Today, with 300 wineries, Virginia is the fifth-largest wine region in the United States.
While 70 percent of the state's wineries are clustered in eastern Virginia, it's worth a trip across the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west side, where some of the state's best wines are produced in the scenic Shenandoah Valley.
Nestled between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountain ranges, the valley's dry climate, warm days and cool nights produce some outstanding grapes.
The valley is about an hour's drive from Washington, D.C., but my husband Rick and I approached it from the south, after driving up a portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had planned to stay one night in the charming town of Strasburg and then head the four hours home to Pennsylvania — until we discovered the multitude of wineries in the area and added another day to our trip.
There are two dozen wineries in Shenandoah County, primarily family owned boutique operations growing French-American hybrid grapes. We visited five of the tasting rooms in the northern region, all of which boasted stunning mountain vistas. Tasting fees ranged from $4.75 to $10, and wines were priced at $18-$30.
Shenandoah Vineyards in Edinburg, established in 1976, is still run by 90-year-old Emma Randel, who lives in the log house where her mother was born in 1895. Two decks offer lovely views of the mountains.
Fifteen acres are planted with riesling, chardonnay, vidal blanc, seyval blanc, chambourcin and traminette. We were partial to the Rebel Red blend.
Eleven miles to the north in Maurertown is the North Mountain Vineyard & Winery. At 1,000 feet (300 meters) of elevation, this land has been farmed since the 1700s, and grapes first were planted in 1982.
In addition to more traditional varietals, North Mountain grows the German-Austrian gruner veltliner and zweigeit grapes. The winery makes a spiced wine based on a traditional German gluhwein and an Oktoberfest white blend of traminette, vidal blanc and riesling. We bought a bottle of claret, a Bordeaux-style wine that North Mountain supplies to George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation.
From North Mountain, we took a beautiful, winding route over the mountain to the Cedar Creek Winery near Star Tannery, perched at 1,100 feet (335 meters) on the banks of its namesake creek. Cedar Creek produces only 30 cases of cabernet franc and 120 cases of chardonnay each year. Here, you can experience a vertical tasting, sampling different vintages of each wine with owner Ron Schmidt, a retired law enforcement officer.
We thought Cedar Creek's wines were the best of the tour, especially the 2009, 2010 and 2012 cabernet franc and the 2011 chardonnay.
At lunchtime, we traveled to the Valerie Hill Vineyard & Winery in Stephens City, where the tasting room is in a Federal-style brick manor house built in 1807 by Revolutionary War Capt. Peter Rust. The winery was serving chili and cornbread, which we enjoyed with a glass of 2015 petit verdot on the screened porch.
Valerie Hill features live music on weekend afternoons. And from October to February, "History & Hauntings" dinners include a tour of the building and ghost stories about a woman in the cellar who cries for help and a boy locked forever in the attic. The fee is $49 per person.
The James Charles Winery & Vineyard in Winchester, established in 1995, produces 10,000 cases per year of a variety of wines, including ameritage, cabernet franc, petit verdot, riesling, sauvignon blanc and viognier, for which it won a double gold medal at the 2016 San Francisco International Wine Competition.
The winery's expansive patio provides a scenic setting to enjoy a bottle of wine and a bread and cheese plate. For $30, you can attend a vintner's table seated tasting with food pairings.
Our final stop was Veramar Vineyard in Berryville, which has 26 acres (10 hectares) of grapes including the Spanish white varietal albarino and America's oldest native grape, Norton. Veramar consistently earns ratings in the 80s from the likes of Wine Enthusiast and Robert Parker, most recently for its 2015 merlot, chardonnay, cabernet franc and seyval blanc. We picked up bottles of the latter two.
Veramar hosts picnics on its large patio on Friday and Saturday afternoons for $29.99, and plans a music and tree lighting gathering Dec. 2 with mulled wine and cookies.
In addition to the wineries, the Shenandoah Valley is dotted with historic sites dating back to colonial times. You can hike in Shenandoah National Park.
Quaint inns and bed and breakfasts include The Inn at Narrow Passage in Edinburg, the site of Stonewall Jackson's headquarters in 1862, and the Hotel Strasburg.
If You Go...
SHENANDOAH VALLEY WINE TRAIL: http://shenandoahvalleywinetrail.com/
SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK: https://www.nps.gov/shen/