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Vintage Blue Ridge View

Tucked into hollows and hillsides, fledgling vineyards offer fine varietals.

July 01, 2001|JAMES T. YENCKEL | James T. Yenckel, formerly the chief travel writer for the Washington Post, is now a freelance writer

ORANGE, Va. — Why would California wine buffs, with a surfeit of renowned vintages in their home state, travel across the country to tour Virginia's wine country? The answer may surprise you.

As a former Californian now living in Washington, D.C., a gateway to Virginia and its more than 60 wineries, I confess to having been something of a wine snob. For years I turned up my nose at Virginia's fledgling product in favor of Napa Valley and other California bottlings that I was familiar with. But no more.

Frequent tasting forays into the northern Virginia countryside about 60 miles southwest of the capital have made me a convert. The state is making some good wines, including a few varieties that haven't been produced much in California. On my most recent trip last spring, a three-day, 300-mile loop from Washington, I sampled some of the state's best--a spicy Viognier at Horton Cellars Winery, for example, and an award-winning Pinot Grigio at Barboursville Vineyards.

But tasting the state's "niche" wines is only part of the discovery experience. Many of the vineyards are in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a rumpled green landscape of rocky summits, densely forested slopes and cascading streams. To reach them, I had to navigate one-lane back roads, sometimes tunneling through canopies of towering trees to a hidden hollow. At times mine was the only car on the road.

Another temptation is the many lovely, romantic country inns and bed-and-breakfasts, among the finest in the nation, nicely scattered throughout the area. My favorite, the place where my wife, Sandy, and I go to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, is the 10-room L'Auberge Provencale, a taste of southern France in the tiny Blue Ridge village of Boyce. Its dinner menu spotlights Virginia wines, although traditionalists can stick with a wide choice of French and California bottlings.

On our previous trips here, we have browsed the area's antiques shops and usually looked in at one or more historical sites. This is a landscape rich in history. Monticello, the idiosyncratic hilltop home of Thomas Jefferson--himself a wine fancier--commands a grand view of the countryside, as do the nearby plantation homes of Presidents James Madison and James Monroe. The Civil War raged across Virginia for four long years, and its memorials, dotted throughout wine country, provide a contemplative break from wine sampling.

I'm just an amateur in the world of wines--a consumer, not a grower. I'll let Jim Law, 46, the bearded, ponytailed owner of Linden Vineyards, one of the wineries whose product I most admire and the northernmost vineyard on my tour, tell you what Virginia offers California wine lovers. I recently interviewed Law on the deck of his tasting room, which overlooks the Blue Ridge hills. Just in from his vineyards, he was dressed in soiled bluejeans and work boots. Around us, visitors were sipping Law's wines and snacking on locally made goat cheese and hard venison sausage.

"We get a lot of Californians here," he said. "After local visitors--people from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia--probably the most come from California. Why? They often long for the good old days."

The good old days?

"I go out to Napa Valley fairly regularly," he explained. "I saw a big change about eight years ago; all of a sudden it became very Disneyland-like. Here in Virginia, the scene is more like Napa was 25 years ago. Here visitors can talk to the winemaker--to me. I'm here every day."

Almost every Californian who visits Linden buys a bottle of its Seyval Blanc, he said, and so I bought one too. Selling for $12 a bottle, it's a light-to medium-bodied white, crisp and very dry.

"It's so un-Californian--no oak aging, low alcohol. They don't make it there," Law said.

Interest in winemaking in Virginia dates to the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown in 1607. Jefferson was eager to supplement tobacco with wine as a cash crop, and in 1773, to pursue this aim, he gave 2,000 acres near Monticello to a French winemaker. But the Revolutionary War interrupted the project, as did the Civil War and Prohibition on later attempts. Success at producing fine wines in the state really was achieved only about 15 years ago.

In the 1980s, as America's taste for fine wines blossomed, Virginians tried again, using more sophisticated growing techniques. What was a hobby for some early winemakers became a profession for many more. In 1979, only about 286 acres were devoted to growing wine grapes, according to the Virginia Winegrowers Advisory Board. By 1999 that number had climbed to 1,963. Still it's not much--Virginia ranks sixth among the states as a wine producer. As Law, who works about 30 acres, notes, Virginia's vineyards tend to be small, hand-nurtured properties like his.

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