Winery-Hopping around Charlottesville, Virginia

The Chardonnay at Pollak Vineyards tasted of crème brulée and fig. Or was that the Viognier? Our fifth Virginia Charlottesville-Piedmont region winery of the day, my notes were just a wee bit wine-sotted. The Chardonnays and Viogniers were starting to swim together.

The wine and view at Blenheim Vineyards

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Virginia wines are winning awards!
  • The countryside is intoxicating.
  • Good for foodies, connoisseurs, and anyone who enjoys wine.

Luckily my husband, Rob, was doing the driving through the gorgeous rolling hills of Charlottesville in central Virginia. If you can’t find a DD, however, you’ll be happy to know that several tour operators will take you around to a selection of the 20 wineries along the Monticello Wine Trail.

Arcady Vineyard has a B&B and offers such tours for guests and non-guests alike. Overnighters get a wine-and-cheese check-in, sparkling wine in the room, and turn-down chocolate and port.

Starting at Monticello

The story of Virginia wine obsession begins with Thomas Jefferson, and so there we started our foray into grapes. Jefferson is credited with bringing grape rootstock from France to the U.S. at his mountain-top home of Monticello.

The former president was a farmer first and foremost, growing 40 varieties of peas alone, in addition to other crops to produce food, beer, and wine.

Jefferson’s legacy of growing grapes and making wine strongly survives in the surrounding two-county area. Today’s functioning historic garden at Monticello still grows grapes.

On the Virginia Wine Trail

Wine-lover that I am, I discounted the naysayers — including my Richmond relatives — who put Virginia wine in a class slightly above swill.

Next stop, Jefferson Vineyards, uncorked our modern-day lessons on Virginia wine. The drive around the region is enough to feed the soul with its mountain vistas, orderly vineyards, orchards, and horse and other farms.

The terroir produces certain varietals that perform better here than anywhere else in the world, including Viognier, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. Whites are crisp and clean; reds tend to be the state’s weakness.

“There’s a lot of red clay – what a grape needs to be struggling a little bit,” said Hunter Sisser, our guide and tasting jockey at Jefferson Vineyards.

“The Virginia wine industry is slowly growing,” he said. “It’s gaining its own national and international renown.”

Subsequent winery visits substantiated his claims. Keswick Vineyards won “Best White Wine in the U.S.” at the Atlanta International Wine Summit with its first vintage, a 2002 Viognier Reserve.

Keswick Vineyards

It continues to rack up the medals, including 2011 San Diego International Competition awards, where its 2010 Verdejo, another Virginia niche varietal, won a platinum medal and “best Verdejo” award.

“It’s taken Virginia a while to realize we’re not California,” said winery co-owner Cindy Shornberg. “It’s been eye opening all across the state. Our goal was to make a good red wine, and now we’re winning awards for that.”

Whites vs. Reds

“Reds are tough in Virginia because of the weather,” said Kirsty Harmon, winemaker at Blenheim Vineyards, a gorgeous property owned by famed musician Dave Matthews.

She described them as “softer reds” while we gazed out from the tasting bar atop a hill that overlooks grapes in-the-making. Beneath our feet, wine was aging in American and French oak barrels visible through a glass floor.

Equally gorgeous, Pollak Vineyards too claims national and international awards: gold and silver medals from the Dallas International, San Francisco, and California Cabernet Shootout competitions.

The Zonin family operates Virginia’s Barboursville Vineyards and 11 other wineries in Italy. So it’s no surprise to find among its 15 varietals and 21 types of wine some Italian reds. (The climate here is similar to the Piedmonte region of Italy, notes Carter Nicholas, sales manager.)

Its Octagon signature brand, however – a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot – scores the big points in regional and worldwide tastings.

A complex of 830 acres, Barboursville harkens back to its Jefferson roots with the ruins of the circa-1820 mansion designed by the former president. Destroyed by fire in 1884, the estate’s servants quarters survived.

The Zonins use the historic home when they visit, but otherwise let out The 1804 Inn’s three suites plus three other cottages as exquisitely appointed accommodations for overnight guests. Many end up having over-indulged at Barboursville’s divine, Italian-influenced Palladio Restaurant.

Virginia’s Piedmont region may lie an hour away from dining capital Richmond, but it suffers not one nibble for it; in fact, with its farming heritage, dining here just may trump the metro area.

Take Clifton Inn, a designated Relais & Chateaux where we stayed, for instance. A small dining room tucked onto the back porch of a historic home also with Jefferson connections, it serves an ambitious menu of small plates. It hosts regular wine dinners by local winemakers.

In each room, a bottle of Madeira helps finish off a day of high-hills bacchanal. A leaflet informs guests that Jefferson kept Madeira fully stocked in White House cellars while he presided. And so we began and ended the day in fine Jeffersonian tradition.

“Good wine is a necessity of life for me,” Thomas Jefferson once said. I’ll drink to that.


The wineries charge a tasting fee of $5-$10 including souvenir wine glasses. Some conduct tours at certain times.

Arcady Vineyard Winery Tours and B&B, 434-872-9475

Barboursville Vineyards, 540-832-3824

Blenheim Vineyards, 434-293-5366

Charlottesville Virginia, 877-386-1103

Clifton Inn, 434-971-1800

Jefferson Vineyards, 434-977-3042

Keswick Vineyards, 888-244-3341

Monticello, 434-984-9822

Monticello Wine Trail

Palladio Restaurant, 540-832-7848

Pollak Vineyards, 540-456-8844



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  1. says

    A very nice article! It’s nice to see a variety of vineyards recommended instead of the same ones over and over again! We do appreciate being included. We love showing off our wine country here in Charlottesville!

  2. says

    I love to see wines from beyond the traditional and famous areas being recognized. Not because I’m a wine snob – in fact, I’m the opposite. I like to see regional wineries supported because they’re another aspect of the local food movement. Drinking wine a few feet away from the grapevines is really a special experience.
    Thanks for sharing this one.

  3. says

    Oh yes, wine country tours in sunny Virginia! You wouldn’t believe that there are some new, seemingly almost impossible, nevertheless surprisingly attractive wine regions north of California and Oregon: rather cool-climate British Columbia in Canada. It’s really worth spending a weekend in the Okanagan Valley or Namarata Bench enjoying lovely food paired with their Syrah or Pinot Noir or some of other flavourful wines. You won’t leave without a few bottles!


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