The secret is out about Virginia wine. The fifth-largest producing state in the nation, Virginia has finally come into its own as a vino region, offering up a wide array of varietals like viognier and cabernet franc. Due to colder winters and a variety of soil, the state also excels at categories that are harder to grow in other U.S. regions, such as nebbiolo and petit verdot.
Today, it’s easy to drink locally produced vintages across much of the state, but some of the best are found in Central Virginia, where wineries are plentiful and exploring the historic region is simple.
For your home base, we’d suggest Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Inn at Willow Grove, a picturesque estate just under two hours from Washington, D.C. The 40-acre property boasts just 24 rooms, some in the main inn (an original 18th-century home), others in cottages scattered around the grounds. Historic structures, such as the schoolhouse and smokehouse from the original property, have been converted into luxurious suites with amenities like heated floors, deep-soaking tubs and chic, contemporary décor with pops of whimsical art — our favorite is the painting of a cow we found perched in the bathroom of the popular Butler’s Cottage.
Once you’ve dropped your bags, head out again to explore the surrounding area. Start with a tasting in the private Library 1821 venue of nearby Barboursville Vineyards, one of the region’s best-known and oldest winemakers. Its signature Octagon red — a blend of Bordeaux varietals, merlot and cabernet franc — is always worth a try, but you’ll also find an excellent nebbiolo and a paxxito dessert wine reminiscent of a fine port.
But no matter what you sample, you won’t want to leave without taking a quick stroll through the ruins of the original manor home designed by Thomas Jefferson.
Now, it’s time for lunch. Hop over to the nearby town of Gordonsville, where local institution The Barbeque Exchange often features a line out the door for its hickory-smoked and slow-roasted pork, brisket and generously portioned Southern sides. Chef/owner Craig Hartman’s background might be fine dining, but he produces some of the best bacon-studded dishes and hush puppies around. Eat at one of the paper-covered picnic tables or take your order to go as a picnic lunch.
While in Gordonsville, wander through a few of the local shops — notables include Annette La Velle Antiques, a well-curated collection of mostly European finds, and Laurie Holladay Interiors, where you can pick up a tea towel, pillow or scented candle to remind you of your trip to Virginia’s hunt country.
Next, head about 10 minutes up the road to Montpelier, where you’ll walk off your afternoon feast with a tour of James Madison’s historic home and plantation. The estate’s newest exhibition, “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” illustrates how the legacy of slavery still impacts us today.
While you’re here, be sure to visit Gilmore Cabin, home of former Montpelier slave George Gilmore, who built his home across from the plantation in 1873 after his emancipation.
Finish off your day with a locally inspired dinner at the hotel’s Four-Star Vintage Restaurant, where dishes like macadamia-dusted halibut and double-cut pork chop stuffed with Granny Smith apple and aged cheddar are paired with Virginia wines and well-made cocktails.
Try to resist the temptation of ordering dessert at dinner because the nightly turndown service includes hot tea and a treat left by your butler, who also brings signature French press coffee and housemade beignets to your door each morning.
The next day, get an early start — you’ll head closer to Charlottesville to try a selection of the area’s top wineries. The inn is happy to arrange a driver for the day to make exploring even easier.
Start at King Family Vineyards in Crozet, where you can sample award-winning meritage and rosé, and enjoy basking in the shadow of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.
From there, head to Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards for another tasting and lunch stop — snag a fresh-made pizza, if the ovens are running.
As a final stop, you could pay a visit to Early Mountain Vineyards, owned by AOL co-founder Steve Case and his wife, Jean. The large tasting room is open and elegant, featuring huge windows overlooking more than 55 acres of vineyards and countryside.
In late afternoon, return to the inn for a treatment at its new, three-room Mill House Spa, where you can, weather permitting, unwind by the outdoor pool or in the steam shower before a pampering massage.
Finish off your weekend with a casual dinner at Forked on Main, a bistro the inn also owns that’s just a five-minute drive from your room. It’s a cozy place to reflect on your vino-fueled vacation.