Hometown Tourist, Ch 9: What do you do during a shutdown?

This weekend my best friend came to visit with a request to do “touristy stuff.” Generally that would not be too hard given that it’s Washington DC, right?

But as anyone following the news knows, her request proved challenging given that we are in the middle of a government shutdown. Aside from a cursory drive around the monuments so she could “see” things from the car that plan was dead in the water. If you are curious, this story on Mashable is a very accurate depiction of what things look like. It’s actually really depressing and i am deeply concerned about the lasting negative impact this will have on our local economy. But that is someone else’s blog fodder, not mine.

Shutdown be damned, when your best friend wants to do something touristy improvise, adapt and overcome, as Mr. Os would say. A quick brainstorm/cocktail later, I had it all planned out right there on the cocktail napkin.

With Halloween coming the obvious fun spot to check out would be the Exorcist steps. If you’ve seen the movie, the steps are a famous part of the movie related to the character Karras. Here is what they look like:

Ooo! The exorcist stairs are not so scary in the day without the Hollywood staging.
Ooo! The exorcist stairs are not so scary in the day without the Hollywood staging.

Nothing spectacular, sure, but see the movie first and it’s still kinda cool. And i was surprised how many tourists were stopping by—maybe my Exorcist steps wasn’t as original as I’d first thought, but they were fun.

After laboring up those stairs we worked up a sweat and the second part of my plan sprang into action. Time for cupcakes! Yes, this craze is a bit “done” and in DC (especially around G’town) it’s tough to avoid a cupcake shop. Then again, why would you? Even the most lame shop is pretty great because, well, it’s cupcakes! That said, there are four shops in Georgetown alone, two with national TV shows. So again my creativity was, well, the equivalent of low-hanging fruit. Very sweet, fun to eat low-hanging fruit.

We bagged Georgetown Cupcakes on principle. Well principles. For one, even though the company is on TLC, and I’m not famous, i deserve to be treated with courtesy. The few times i have been there the staff is condescending. Second, the line is ridiculously long, and there is too much to do to spend an hour in line for cupcakes. Which brings me to three, Georgetown cupcakes aren’t that good. GASP! I said it. Why anyone waits in a line that goes around the block is beyond me. Especially since some of the best cupcakes in the city can be found within blocks of Georgetown Cupcake—in fact, in more centrally located places around Georgetown.

So, we bypassed that establishment for a crowd pleaser: Sprinkles. I’ve taken a young girl here on my first (and last) DC Cupcake taste test. That much sugar in a little girl is not a good idea, and her mother probably got a medal for it at the end of the day. Or a badge, seeing as she was visiting for some girl scout jamboree. Either way, after tasting almost every cupcake DC had to offer, and shimmering with the energy a pound of icing will provide, she swore these were the best of the bunch. At the time, I favored a different (perhaps more refined) cupcakery. But that said, the staff was unbelievably generous with her. Imagine being 11, running into a store and declaring that you watch them on TV and just *LOVE* them. How the person behind the register responds can make or break your day.

Just a selection of the delicious cupcakes you'll find at Sprinkles on M Street in Georgetown
Just a selection of the delicious cupcakes you’ll find at Sprinkles on M Street in Georgetown

The cashier didn’t miss a beat and graciously replied, “well aren’t we lucky! How about some cool stickers with your cupcake as a thank you?” Maybe it seems like a small gesture, but it made her day. This time we sampled a caramel apple and red velvet cupcake.

Also, being a dog owner, i got a huge kick out of the fact that they make doggie cupcakes. My husky—at 17 and a half, could have qualified. But his palate tends to the savory side. The dachshund is an electric pig with no “off” switch and sure as heck doesn’t need anything additional to whatever else she finds to eat!

This made me laugh: cupcakes for dogs
This made me laugh: cupcakes for dogs

Because we were aiming for a tasting, but not GLUTTONY or sugar coma, we made Baked & Wired our final stop. These three (with one honorary mention to Hello Cupcake which is actually in DuPont Circle—and therefore too far for this trip) are top of the heap, in my humble opinion. Baked & Wired remains my personal favorite. Until recently, it was unknown to outsiders and had a terrific low-key vibe.This time it was a lot more touristy, but when you make a cupcake that good, it’s just a matter of time before word gets out. I was actually shocked to find a line out the door.

Decisions, decisions at Baked & Wired on Thomas Jefferson Street in Georgetown
Decisions, decisions at Baked & Wired on Thomas Jefferson Street in Georgetown

We got a red velvet (for comparison, duh) and a Tessita here.

So, how did they rate?

  • Baked & Wired’s Red Velvet. As i mentioned, i’m a big fan of Baked & Wired so i was devastated that the cupcake was slightly on the dry side. After a second bite i found the frosting really sweet, but almost artificially sweet. It didn’t have that nice cream cheese taste. Grade: B-
  • Baked & Wired’s Tessita. My best friend dubbed this, “a shot of sugar.” This so called shot of sugar was a vanilla cake with a dulce de leche center and hazelnut frosting. It was delicious but just too much. Mr. Os was very disappointed that we didn’t get the strawberry cupcake—his personal “go to.” He agreed the Tessita, though good, was best for those with an extreme sweet tooth. Grade: B
  • Sprinkles’ Red Velvet. The cake of this cupcake was nice and light, the frosting was the right amount and you got a little bit of the cream cheese taste in the frosting. Again, Mr. Os chimed in. Not a fan of Red Velvet cupcakes in general, he said this was “hands down” the best version of Red Velvet cupcake to ever touch his taste buds. Grade: A+
  • Sprinkles’ Caramel Apple. We wanted to love this one but it just missed the mark. The cake had a lot of cinnamon but not enough apple. That meant the apple flavor was overwhelmed by cinnamon and then both were lost with the frosting. Speaking of, the frosting was too sweet in contrast to the cake. It just didn’t come together the way we wanted. Grade: C

I selected the above based on my friend’s criteria (touristy). It helps that we’ve been friends for 15 plus years so i have a good idea about what she likes and doesn’t like.

While there are some excellent museums open (Spy Museum and Newseum to mention a few favorites, but unlike public museums, these cost money), the majority of things are closed and finding things to do requires some creativity and flexibility.

In all seriousness, if you have a trip planned to Washington DC right now, i would recommend rescheduling it. There are still plenty of things to do, but they aren’t the things you want to see if you’ve spent time traveling here or even more frustrating, paid money to get here. And you can always contact me if you want some ideas of what a hometown tourist does to entertain guests and significant others during downtime.

Hometown Tourist, Ch 8: GreenHat Bottling Party

This past weekend i won the lottery. Well, a lottery.

Pure luck and honest living contributed to me being able to take Mr Os to bottle gin for New Columbia Distillers. These people are both famous, and (depending on your friends, infamous) makers of Green Hat Gin. Full disclosure: gin is par with tequila for me. But, Mr. Os swears it’s the *only real martini* and is always on the hunt for the perfect gin.

According to him, this gin actually makes the top 5. That’s saying something. As i write this i realize its quite possible for people to get the impression that a) i’m a total boozer and b) i have a drinking problem based on my most recent posts (wine, caverns, wine, whiskey and…now…gin). I don’t. Although, i suppose someone with a problem might say that too, but this is not me sitting on “de” river in Egypt. I drink only red wine these days, in large part because i’ve discovered 4HB works for me (aka “The Four-Hour Body” by Timothy Ferriss). But that’s a different post, and another blog.

But my love for Mr. Os inspired me to seize the moment. And then the moment? Well it presented itself.

(Back Story/Digression: months ago a friend mentioned a “gin bottling party.” He explained that a local, relatively new distillery uses volunteers to bottle gin. According to our friend, it was 2-3 hours, during which you were served gin and tonics, bottled 40-60 cases of gin, left with a thank you and bottle of gin. As i said, i can barely stand the smell of the stuff. BUT, something new to do in our hometown?

Always. Where do i sign up?? As it turns out, through their newsletter/a lottery (larger groups might get in sooner, contact them).

The gin bottling parties are quite popular and as mentioned, operates on a lottery system. You receive an email, respond per email directions and enter the lottery. Of course, I would be remiss not to offer a small comparison between my previous experiences with Copper Fox Distillery and New Columbia. Aside from the fact that one involved a bottling party and the other was a simple tour they were still, well, night and day.

Unlike burnished copper pots in a rustic old barn, Green Hat comes from a warehouse off of New York Avenue, filled with brand new polished stainless steel equipment. And apparently there’s a difference in time, too. For Gin, the entire process from grain to bottle is about a month.

What does a gin bottling party look like? Allow me:

First, the labels must go on the bottles like this:

Step One
Step One

After you have several cases labeled, they go to the filling station where the magic starts.

Bottles are filled on this machine.

Step Two.
Step Two

Caps are screwed (or gently hammered). Yes, this was an amazing workout.
Then the New Columbia Distillers label goes across the cap.

Step Three
Step Three and Four

Now it’s time to hand-write the volume of alcohol and proof and stamp the batch number. 

Step Five
Step Five and Six

Now onto the home stretch here…these cute little plastic items go on.

Step Seven
Step Seven

And then get gently melted with this handy tool. (I can only imagine how badly this would fry my hair.)

Step Eight

Bottles go in the box, get sealed and viola! You’ve bottled gin.

Although the other people in our group weren’t as chatty as i would have hoped, this was still loads of fun and a great way to spend a few hours on an afternoon. After we finished, one of the owners, John Uselton, gave us a tour of the distillery. As a thank you for our civic duty, bottlers were offered a discount rate on any products.

My only complaint for the bottling was the discount, which was disappointing. Since Green Hat costs $36 in a liquor store, i didn’t think $30 was much of a ‘thank you.’ i would think they could offer bottlers a $10-$11 off the purchase price. From a marketing perspective, it sounds better: ‘hey, thanks for helping us out. we would like to offer you a 30% discount.’ I mean, we are captive audience. And, unlike our group, I bet nobody would walk out empty handed. That said, the gin was good enough that Mr. Os got a bottle. But even though he got a bottle, if the discount was 30%, we would have purchased two bottles instead of one.

If you are local to DC, this is a must do. If nothing else, get out and support a local business. For tourists, this was fun but requires a little advanced planning to get on the list. Tours, however, are easy (and fast—maybe 10 minutes)

Be sure to read the Washington Post article at the tasting station. It’s a fantastic write-up that tells you how New Columbia got started. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it online…typical Washington Post.

Shenandoah: Getting There and Places to Stay

Getting to Shenandoah from Washington DC is relatively straightforward by car. It’s as easy as hopping on Route 66W, driving to exit 13 and following the generally good signage from there.  At the end of this blog, I’ve included another “super fancy/leave your worries at the door” option for people who just want to enjoy the day without thinking of travel directions, or designated drivers.

There are dozens of bed and breakfasts and cabins throughout the Shenandoah area—in fact at least one winery (Sharp Rock) offers a B&B on the property. Check out the Discover Shenandoah website for ideas.

Now, we were traveling with two dogs—which is always tricky. We also agreed we would rather spend our money on wine tastings than a beautiful room. So, we set our lodging budget at the $100 range. Combined with the dog bit, our options were limited. We ended up at the Days Inn.

I honestly can’t remember staying at split level hotel where your room door opens up to the great outdoors. When i used to travel to Kalamazoo, MI for work we would get nervous of being stuck at Motel 6 in a not so nice area. But it was, like most Days Inns, a fine, no frills experience that happened to be conveniently located (and w/ AAA membership, the room ended up being $109 with the pet fee!).

If you prefer upscale accommodations this is not the place for you. Like i said, we prefer to spend money on activities and believe for the most part, all hotel rooms and beds are pretty similar when you close your eyes. To its credit, the Days Inn has a pool, a mini-golf course and a huge field for dog walking. They also offer a complimentary breakfast. It’s more like a snack (fruit and pastries). We found out later that Flint Hill also accepts pets, FYI.

If you are traveling to Shenandoah for Luray Caverns and the park, this hotel is in a perfect location. If you are traveling for wineries, it’s very manageable…just off the loop so you’ll do minimal extra driving.

Another important tip for the Shenandoah area: 90% of the businesses do not take American Express. This Plan accordingly.

A final option to consider is getting a driver. This could be as swank as a limousine for up to 8 people, or a van, or just a driver who knows where all the best wineries are located. For my money, the go-to guy is Gary Ford. Three wineries he recommended we check out on a future wine tour were Vintage Ridge, Barrel Oak and La Grange. Gary can be reached at 540-229-7466. If you do decide to go with Gary, please follow up with me and let me know how your experience was (although I’m confident it will be good news). With a larger group, this could be the best way to go—and ultimately be the most cost/time effective. Gary knows everybody.

Another Shenandoh Side Trip: Copper Fox Distillery

Copper Fox Distillery, the “whiskey” part of the Blue Ridge Wine and Whiskey Loop, can’t be sandwiched between vineyard visits. It wouldn’t do it justice.

We started the day off at Copper Fox, which opens at 10:00—early for hard liquor, but since they can’t (by law) offer tastings we thought it made sense to kick things off here.

Located in Sperryville on River Lane, this distillery could easily have been plucked from an episode of Boardwalk Empire. It operates out of a rustic barn where almost everything is done without high-tech gadgets. The distilling process is done largely by hand, with care, appreciation, respect and love; the old fashioned way.

Passing through this door is akin to going back in time when you visit Copper Fox Distillery.
Passing through this door is akin to going back in time when you visit Copper Fox Distillery.

Upon entering the old wooden barn, we were warmly welcomed and told the next tour would start in 10 minutes. We were invited to sit down in a comfortable waiting area or take a peak in the gift shop. Since i noticed two cats in the waiting area, i was relegated to the gift shop. (I am deathly allergic to cats).

If you’ve been on one distillery or beer tour, you know they tend to follow a general pattern: harvest wheat and barley, malting, cooking, fermenting, distilling, bottling, labeling and BOOM you are done.

Barley
Wheat
Cooking
Cooking
Fermenting
Fermenting
Bottling
Bottling

This tour was not different as far as the order. What was unique was that our tour guide was an employee/investor. This is his “second career” and his passion for the whiskey and desire to share it comes through.

It’s important to note that Rick Wasmund, the proprietor, is doing something very different—like the pioneers, he’s blazing a trail while respecting to the old ways. These are distinct American whiskies with a unique taste. And how his whiskies get that unique taste has everything to do with the process he’s created. In fact, Copper Fox was the first distillery in North America, and remains one of the only ones to malt its own barley—a variety developed at Virginia Tech. They use a mix of roasted apple and cherry wood to smoke and flavor the malted barley.

The finished product!
The finished product!

My Dad is technically is a bourbon drinker but he would have enjoyed this tour. If you are in the area, i recommend a visit. Tours were free, and the store offers a discount. Not to mention, there are some fun gifts and stocking stuffers.

Blue Ridge Whiskey and Wine Loop: Day Two

The second day of our Blue Ridge Whiskey and Wine Loop began at about 8:00 a.m., on an overcast gun-metal gray day. Mr. Os started the day off right with coffee (albeit mediocre). I took a 9:00 a.m. detour to Luray Caverns, while he took care of Crash and Sophie. Then it was off to Gadino Cellars, whose staff (and wines) set a high bar for the rest of the wineries we visited.

After literally driving over a winding mountain road and some beautiful scenery (strikingly reminiscent to the foot alps surrounding Vienna, Austria) we took a right off 211 onto School House Road. Driving down, we thought at first we’d made a wrong turn because it looked like we were driving into a school. Instead, we passed around behind it, down a small dirt road, looped to the right and drove into a parking area. Based on the service and quality of wine, I wonder how long it will be before they need more parking.

Hidden behind these gorgeous flowers is one amazing winery: Gadino Cellars
Hidden behind these gorgeous flowers is one amazing winery: Gadino Cellars

We were greeted by a lovely staff who immediately engaged us in conversation. When the owner heard our dogs were in the car, he generously offered to put his lab in the back room so ours could come into the tasting room. After Mr. Os got them settled, Emily took fantastic care of us. Of all the wineries we visited, she was the only individual who asked us about our taste preferences, and what we liked in a wine. More importantly, she worked all of this back into the tasting; great salesmanship as well as also just being a nice touch. As a side note, there were occasional tip jars—whenever we saw these, we made use of them. These are hardworking, knowledgeable people who shape the reality of your experience, so pay it forward, I say.

The tasting at Gadino is $6 and currently includes seven different wines. I’m not a Chardonnay person. I find the Chardonnay’s most people serve to be overly buttery. So *as a non-Chardonnay lover* this was the best Chardonnay I’ve ever tasted. It had hints of citrus and apple but without that horrible, too buttery taste that I loathe (but Mr. Os likes).

We followed the Chardonnay with a 2012 Luminoso (Petit Mensang & Vidal Blanc), 2011 Sunset (Traminette & Seyval Blanc) that would go fabulously with a stinky cheese, before shifting to the reds. Starting with a 2011 Moonrise Rose, it was followed by a 2011 Cabernet Franc, probably the most popular of the red varietals among Virginia Wineries (Viognier among the whites), then the Nebbiolo, a bold red awarded the VA Governor’s Medal (Silver). It’s an Italian Piedmont, and was fantastic! That said, we opted for the Cabernet Franc. Although 2011 was abysmally bad weather for Cab Franc in Virginia, Gadino Cellars was one of the few wineries that made a successful (award winning) go with the grape. As one friend would say, this bottle is “imminently quaffable.” It could lay for a couple years, unlike most VA wines. Personally, I like that they’re ready to drink now, because we don’t have a wine cellar lifestyle. Oh, and Gadino let us keep our tasting glasses!

After packing the dogs back in the car, we headed to Rappahannock Cellars. Of all the vineyards we visited, this was most “corporate,” which is not to say it wasn’t charming, or welcoming. But it was the most organized…polished, with an eye to profit. Its wines were as well made as the large tasting room was well run. The casually uniformed (black top) staff was well informed and well trained. Upon entering and going to the right there were about twelve prepared tasting places awaiting new guests, each with a tasting menu, two glasses (the only one of the wineries with both red and white glassware) and water to rinse. As a side note: we were told not to rise with water, as it will water down your next wine. If you’re switching from a white to a red, take a wee bit of red, swish around and rise with that.

Rappahonnock Cellars tasting room while large and open had the most "corporate" feel of all the vineyards we visited.
Rappahonnock Cellars tasting room while large and open had the most “corporate” feel of all the vineyards we visited

Aaron was our server (although I fear this is the wrong word—he’s a vintner in training, and also works on the vineyard). He was engaging, but also able to talk compellingly and in immense detail about the vineyard, grapes, the impact the weather was having on the vines. It was fascinating, and he is one of the rare folks able to not only explain, but translate the complex and convey the passion about what makes him love wine making. Ask for Aaron if you go!

Here's Aaron, doing a fabulous job talking about the beauty of Rappahonnock Cellars
Here’s Aaron, doing a fabulous job talking about the beauty of Rappahonnock Cellars

The tasting at Rappahannock Cellars consists of eight wines. Of these, the Meritage was my favorite. A red blend (with me, that probably goes without saying) beauty with medium body. It could be pared with game or just enjoyed on its own. Tastings are $8 (TIP: if it’s your first time checking in on FourSquare, you get a free tasting!!). Pets aren’t allowed inside the tasting room but are welcome on the grounds. This one is not to be missed, and although the wines were generally all at the highest price point (about $25 average) these were also some of the most…accessible, or at least broadest taste appeal. They’ve got something for everyone.

Just down the street is Desert Rose Ranch & Winery, about a three-minute drive down a back road. Just a “of interesting note” aside, between Rappahannock and Desert Rose Ranch you’ll see the now defunct Oasis winery. Its owner is the infamous Tareq Salahi, one of the White House crashers of a couple of years ago—sadly, this was one of the preeminent wineries in the state. Now, it’s in a state of ruin.

But drive on, and you’ll come to the most fun winery on the loop. Desert Rose Ranch wins the “Congeniality” award. While the wines here are newer, in about two years they will grow into their own (so to speak). Interestingly, Desert Rose was the only vineyard on the loop that produced a pure Merlot and Cab Franc, others were blended. Well-behaved dogs are welcome inside the tasting room, which has a part-time mascot dachshund named Gigi. We decided on the Cabernet Franc, which was the only one we tried that wasn’t a blend, but in fairness, it was also a 2010—not the afore mentioned problematic 2011.

A snapshot of the tasting menu at Desert Rose Vineyards.
A snapshot of the tasting menu at Desert Rose Vineyards

Our final stop of the day was Chester Gap Cellars. What a view—even if they had a mediocre wine (and they don’t), the view would make it all worth it. Instead, Chester Gap had two of Mr. Os’s favorite Viogner’s—and two of the best priced! Tastings are $7 and waived with a bottle purchase (again, one of the few that offers that great deal). My grandmother was a huge fan of Merlot and Chester Gap had one that we know she would absolutely have loved. In her honor, we purchased a bottle and I actually enjoyed a glass while writing. I should say neither Mr. Os or I are necessarily fans of the varietal, so I’m not sure if that says this is really terrific for Merlot lovers, or they’d be disappointed. All I can say is, it’s a very enjoyable and drinkable wine. And the people were super nice although by this time the dogs were getting stir crazy and so I unfortunately missed writing down their names.

One of the furbabies behaving, but not really behaving.
One of the furbabies behaving, but not really behaving

This vineyard sits on top of a hill and has the most gorgeous and expansive views. Like DuCard, I would happily return here to sit on their porch, enjoy some wine and bring a picnic. They don’t serve food, four tables picnic tables to enjoy the views.

What a gorgeous view at Chester Gap!
What a gorgeous view at Chester Gap!

Side Trip in Shenandoah: Luray Caverns

We went to Shenandoah for the Blue Ridge Whiskey and Wine Loop, but we stayed close to one of the biggest tourist destinations in the area. In fact, our hotel turned out to be ridiculously close (under ten minutes) to Luray Caverns. Mr. Os, decided to get up early and get coffee, then offered to walk the dogs while I went to check it out. (He said his $24.00 entry would be better spent on grapes, and he preferred to read about it in my blog with a nice glass of that wine).

So off I went, properly caffeinated, into a misty wet morning. The history around the formation of the caverns goes back to continental drift. Simply put, Luray Caverns is a series of underground limestone sediments. After years of shifting tectonic plates between the Americas and Africa, the older rock began to tilt upwards in the Appalachian Mountain area, creating these caves.

They were officially discovered in 1878, by Andrew Campbell. Upon entering the caverns, Mr. Campbell fell, extinguishing his lantern in the process. After regaining his footing, he found the lantern, re-lit it, and saw this:

When Andrew Campbell stumbled into the caverns, this was the first thing he saw.
When Andrew Campbell stumbled into the caverns, this was the first thing he saw.

I guess I should break this post into two different areas. As far as the natural caves, they were terrific, impressive, and interesting to look at.

This is my favorite shot from Luray Caverns. Really interesting stuff for the science geeks in all of us.
This is my favorite shot from Luray Caverns. Really interesting stuff for the science geek in all of us.

However, in terms of the people charging for a peak at this natural wonder, my first impressions were very negative and unfortunately had a lasting impact on the rest of visit.

I arrived at 8:40 for a 9:00 am tour. There was a bit of line and only one person to sell admissions tickets. She was not equipped (in any way) to deal with a large party and that couldn’t remember how many people were actually in the group. Yep, you read that correctly. They didn’t know if they were a party of 13, 14, 15… Nine? Then they didn’t know how many adults, children and seniors were in the party. There were plenty of staff at the caverns so i’m dumbfounded why someone couldn’t step up and open another register for those of us who could articulate how many people were in our party. “Me, party of one…cash.”

When it was finally my turn to purchase a ticket, I asked the cashier, an older woman who I’ll refer to as “M”, if I would be able to get in the 9:00 a.m. tour. After all, Mr. Os was dog sitting and we had a loop to get to! She replied, in a rather syrupy Southern accent, “well i don’t know. it just depends.” On what, she didn’t say, or if it was a 50/50, 70/30, or “slim chance.”. Frankly, I would think it’s a yes or no question.

As I mentioned, it costs $24 for an adult ticket to Luray Caverns. Although the ticket includes a one hour tour, entrance into the car and carriage caravan and Luray valley museum, i thought it was too expensive.

Most people go to Shenandoah for the Caverns and make wineries a side bar excursion. I would recommend the reverse. Go for the wineries and make this a morning activity. It is interesting but unless you’re a geologist it’s a two and a half hour excursion at best, if you ask me. That said, it’s a unique experience and a good way to break up two days of wineries. Or maybe just a fun way to work up a thirst…and the need for a good glass of wine.

Blue Ridge Wine & Whiskey Loop

I read once that the average American has something like two weeks paid vacation and 52 weekends to travel. The point being there is always time to travel, if that’s your priority. There is a lot of truth to the statement, but who really has that much time to travel? I mean, how many of us can really blow off family, or other “soft obligations” just because we want to travel? I know it would go over like a lead balloon in my house.

So, we need to meld proper motivation, with the opportunities afforded us. In my case, I am blessed to work for a company that offers summer Fridays. We get one a month and, assuming I have no client obligations, and my work is covered, I get to enjoy a long weekend.

This past weekend was my last summer Friday for 2013, and so I decided to do something inspired to celebrate it. In June, my summer Friday was part of cycling with my Dad, July we had to retake the house (there is only so much dog hair you can live with) so I was hell-bent on doing something fun in August.

It’s been a long time daydream to visit Virginia Wineries. I know the wines can’t (at this point) hold a candle to Italy, South Africa, or CA but who cares? I’ve always wanted to do this since I moved here. After a little research, Mr. Os and I settled on the Blue Ridge Whiskey and Wine Loop. The “loop” consists of eight wineries and one whiskey distillery. I figured, why just do one? Eight examples of the grape (avg. eight samples per winery) would give me a good perspective on the state of wine in Virginia, or, at least one region of the beautiful state. Why not take advantage of the summer Friday and do the entire loop over two days? Without a satisfactory answer for why not, we decided to pack up the husky, dachshund and an overnight bag, and hit the trail. Or, the loop.

We started at Glen Manor Vineyards, outside of Front Royal, VA. Door to door, it was less than two hours at a leisurely pace. The vineyard, established in 1995, initially specialized in Sauvignon Blanc and four red Bordeaux varieties of wine: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Additional acres were added in 2006, and 2008, to accommodate more vines and varieties.

We were greeted by Jorge and told they would be happy to do our tasting outside so our two fur babies could get out of the car. They’ve got one of the more impressive/expansive views, and plenty of comfortable outdoor seating overlooking the vineyards. Our tasting menu consisted of a 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, 2011 Cabernet Franc, 2011 Vin Rouge and 2012 Petit Manseng. The Petit Manseng, although refreshing, was too sweet for me. Mr Os liked the Viognier the most here. The vintners were most proud of their 2010 Hodder Hill, and another friendly DC couple who made this an occasional weekend destination spoke highly of it. If you ask really, really nicely, you can get a full bottle now, although they prefer to sell the smaller half bottles. In September they will start selling full bottles and the couple we highly recommended we snap one up. We did, but won’t be able to taste it until September.

Our gorgeous view while enjoying a wine tasting at Glen Manor Vineyards
Our gorgeous view while enjoying a wine tasting at Glen Manor Vineyards

The tasting fee for Glen Manor was $5 (it varies depending on how many wines are offered). And folks, when you go on VA winery tours, be prepared to pay $5-$8 for a tasting per winery. Before you get bent out of shape, you need to know that these wineries were dealing with party vans of folks who were not interested in buying even a bottle. And, let’s face it, they’re in business to move grapes. Perhaps that’s one reason why many vineyards do not accommodate limos or groups larger than six. Glen Manor does not, for example, nor do they provide food. Regrettably, few places did offer food. There’s a huge biz opportunity here, for the right entrepreneur. That said, at many places you’re invited to bring your own picnic and enjoy the view—which I have to say (if properly prepared) could actually be an *even better experience!*

Our next stop was Sharp Rock Vineyards. Wow, it’s on our short list if we decide to return. Actually, we did this without dogs (they were dropped off at the hotel). That said, Sharp Rock was extremely friendly. The charming tasting room is nestled in the foot of Old Rag Mountain and is a really gorgeous property. In addition to being a vineyard, they also rent cottages (no pets, we asked).The tasting room is in a renovated old barn and was by far the most laid back vineyard we visited on our first day.

Yep, this old barn is home to an amazing Rose wine. Enter and enjoy!
Yep, this old barn is home to an amazing Rose wine. Enter and enjoy!

Our host, Jim, was the vintner, owner and really into wine. And you got a real sense of pride about the awards Jim’s won, but more than any other winery we visited he exhibited the most enthusiasm about what he was producing. Clearly, Jim takes a lot of pride in creating award winning wines, and that’s why his vines are destined for greatness. Of those we tried, there was one that screamed out above the rest. The Rose was absolutely amazing and both Mr. Os and my head popped up immediately as we tasted his 2012, made of 100-percent Cabernet Sauvignon. It was light, refreshing and approachable for my/the average palate. In American Bandstand terms, I’d say this was definitely something you could easily “dance to,” which is a primary way I’d rate wines.

The  great wines sampled at Sharp Rock Vineyards
The great wines sampled at Sharp Rock Vineyards

As you know, i’m no oenophile but I’m pretty sure this isn’t common terminology.Whatever. It was fan-tastic, with an extra syllable just thrown in for its yummy nature. In fact, it was so good that we took home two bottles and look forward to making them part of one of this year’s Thanksgiving/Friendsgiving feast. For the record, it’s Mr. Os’s favorite holiday, so we celebrate T-Day over any number of weeks, with sides and wines galore. Anyway, the tasting fee at Sharp Rock is $5; light food is available to enjoy with a bottle outside the tasting room. Sausage/cheese/baguettes were in a cooler, we didn’t take advantage of those…next time we would. He was one of the more talkative and interesting people who did our tasting, but any time you have the vintner doing the tasting, you’re dealing with a pro, and someone who will help you understand what and how to appreciate one of the most popular pastimes in humankind.

Our final stop for the day was DuCard Vineyards. Wow, this place is also stunning. This was our favorite of the day, although who knows if it was timing and the mellow of previous vineyards, or the beautiful time of day that made everything perfect and ideal—as everything always seems to be at most vineyards, or breweries for that matter! I’d say the views at DuCard are rivaled only by appeal of its fantastic staff.

The views from DuCard Vineyards are fantastic. We can't wait to go back and enjoy a late lunch.
The views from DuCard Vineyards are fantastic. We can’t wait to go back and enjoy a late lunch.

 

The wine tasting menu is extensive here and included 10 wines, by my count (again, average was eight). I’m partial to reds. DuCard did not disappoint. While the wines are only beginning to approach comparison to established areas (South Africa, Italy; not yet CA/France) many VA red’s are good enough to stand on their own. My personal favorite on this tour was DuCard’s Petit Verdot. It fit as well as a pair of Prada’s. That said, we decided on buying a few bottles of the “Virginia Native Norton,” which is a native varietal, as the name suggests. We decided to lay them down to pair with our upcoming Thanksgiving Turkey, which, if it isn’t another Popeye’s special order again…will be…a Christmas miracle. But, I digress.

The tasting menu at DuCard Vineyards was extensive (and quite good)!
The tasting menu at DuCard Vineyards was extensive (and quite good)!

The tasting fee at DuCard is $6, and is refunded if you purchase two or more bottles of wine. This was one of the few places that offered that incentive, which is easy enough to take advantage of, so do! The other bottle we purchased was the commemorative 2nd Corps., part of the 150th “sesquicentennial” anniversary of the start of the Civil War in Virginia. A Viognier-based blend, in old-style bottle and label, clearly I’m a sucker for packaging. Luckily, in this case what’s packaged is easy on the lips, tongue and taste buds.

Light food is available to enjoy on the premise. We saw three different groups of people having a picnic outside and can’t wait to do the same. DuCard is also pet friendly in its tasting room, if your dogs are well behaved! The little ones would have enjoyed it we just enjoyed the view (which matches the logo).

At the end of the day, we visited three wineries. Our personal favorite was DuCard. I loved the overall vibe and the knowledgeable staff. Although Sharp Rock a very close second, is unique and really defies comparison.