We tend to think of winery visits as a fair-weather activity. Yet, “off-season,” winter visits can often yield a more personalized and all around fulfilling experience.
We tend to think of winery visits as a fair-weather activity. You’re either sitting on a sun-cooked patio sipping a crisp white in the summer, or staring at a sea of fall foliage and bracing for the coming chill with a hearty red in the fall. Yet, once winter arrives, the tide of tourists pouring into tasting rooms gets cut back like so much dead vinifera.
Despite that, winter can be one of the best times for a trip to a local winery. Sure it may lack some of the appeals of harvest time—the vineyard tours, the turning leaves, the throngs of sweat pant-clad tourists—but, “off-season” visits can often yield a more personalized and all around fulfilling experience. What’s more, many area wineries are designed with winter in mind and boast cozy tasting rooms with roaring fires.
Afton Mountain Vineyards
Dating back to 1978, Afton Mountain is among the oldest vineyards in the state. To hear owners Elizabeth and Tony Smith discuss AMV’s rain shadow and unique airflow, you get the impression that it exists in its own charmed micro-climate. What’s interesting is how the wines seem to back up that claim–from a remarkably floral and nuanced stainless steel Chardonnay; to a light and delicate Pinot Noir (you read that correctly, Pinot Noir! In VA!); to a rich, tannic and age-worthy Petit Verdot.
Yet, even if all the wine-lingo above sounds like the ramblings of a fancy-lad (to which I say “Fie upon you, you foul fustilarian! Fie!!!”), I promise the trip to Afton Mountain Vineyards is worth it for the setting alone. Just off the tasting room sits a cozy living area, where couches encircle a crackling fire. But the real draw is an outdoor pavilion with 360-degree mountain views. This hub for cold-weather conviviality is winterized with clear covering, heat lamps and a little something they call The Friend Maker.
OK, as much as it may sound like the title of 2008’s lamest action film, “the friend maker” is what Afton Mountain regulars have dubbed the gas fire pit that serves as the social center throughout the winter.
Early Mountain Vineyard
There’s a lot to be said about Early Mountain Vineyards. A labor of love by former AOL CEO Steve Case and his wife/badass entrepreneur in her own right, Jean, Early Mountain functions not only as its own vineyard, but as a central hub for all things Virginia wine. In the tasting room, the products of Early Mountain share the stage with an array of other top Virginia wineries. Better yet, all net proceeds are donated back into the local wine industry, dolled out in the form of cash grants to Virginia vineyards in need of extra capital.
If that warms your heart, you should try sitting near one of the Early Mountain’s five roaring fires. That includes three outdoor fire pits, one on the patio, and a two-sided fireplace at the center of their stunning tasting room. Opposite that is the winery marketplace, where, in addition to a full menu of gourmet goodies, you can grab all the fixings for s’mores, so your kids can go off and (with any luck) not burst into flames while you’re knocking back a few.
Paradise Springs Winery
Don’t let my edgy street persona fool you, I was born and raised in Northern Virginia—Fairfax County, REPRESENT(™ Starbucks)! And not only is Fairfax home to the man future generations will hail as the greatest wine-writer/most brutal dictator of his day (I’m expecting an unusual career trajectory), but it’s also home to one the Commonwealth’s best winter wineries.
Unfazed by the cold weather, Paradise Springs keeps daily operating hours all winter long. Roaming the grounds, you’ll discover marvels of Virginia architecture, including a 19th century log cabin renovated by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. Still most of the activity takes place in the massive barn–a stunning construction of wood and stone where glasses of award-winning Chardonnay and Petit Manseng are enjoyed around wine barrel café tables. All this activity pours out onto the 100-seat patio—fully enclosed for the winter—where local musicians perform every weekend around the great stone fireplace.
With its stark, modernist design, the tasting room at Pollak may lack the rustic charm displayed by many of its contemporaries, but any chill projected by the minimalist interior is immediately offset by a roaring fire and warm hospitality. But the main reason to rush out to Pollak this winter is to experience the end of an era. Veteran grower/winemaker Jake Busching has departed to start his own Mt. Juliet vineyards with Bordelaise-educated Benoit Pineau stepping in to take the reins. And while this shakeup will undoubtedly lead to many great vintages from all involved, many of the wines (2010 and earlier) currently featured in Pollak’s tasting room mark the last collaboration of the this great Virginia winemaker with this great Virginia label. Stock up on what little remains—especially any of the stellar 2010 vintage—I’ll claim a mere glass and a half per bottle as a finder’s fee, and leave you to enjoy the rest.
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And that’s just scratching the surface. The state is loaded with winter-ready wineries. Lost Creek hosts regular “Winter Wine Nights” with prix fixe dinners and live music; the tasting table at Barrel Oak winery flanks a massive stone fireplace; and Veritas’s always-popular tasting room takes on an especially cozy vibe during the colder months.
Have any favorite vineyards to visit during the winter? Leave them in the comments below.
Photo by: CM Sims