Getting the Most from Virginia Wine Month
By Matthew Fitzsimmons
October is “Virginia Wine Month” for good reason. A warm, dry fall can turn a so-so vintage into a stellar one…while an early hurricane can wreak a year’s work. 2020 has been especially challenging, be it COVID-19, vineyard-wrecking May frosts, summer humidity, or late-season overcast skies. Since a strong finish can make-or-break a vineyard, you can’t blame Virginia’s winegrowers for chanting “no more rain” extra-loud this year.
But Wine Month isn’t just for winegrowers; it’s for those who love spending their weekends visiting their favorite winery (or cidery). The summer heat is over, so now’s the time to sit outside and enjoy the fall foliage. If you’re lucky, you might even get a sample of juice fresh from the crush pad.
Yet this is the most unusual Wine Month in recent memory. Gone are the days when you can just show up to a winery, cozy up at the bar and order a tasting in a crowded room. Now, you’re likely to be ushered to a private table, outdoors if at all possible. Many wineries offer reservations; a few mandate them. Glassware has largely vanished. Obviously, masks are mandatory indoors.
Wineries are taking “Phase III” seriously, so here are some helpful tips to get the most out of Virginia Wine Month.
Be Sure To (Safely) Visit Your Local Winery
Since March, nearly every Virginia winery has made serious changes in their business model – so be prepared. Since COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon, many of these changes will likely remain in place for a long time.
1. Make reservations: Sadly, not all wineries welcome walk-ins anymore. Several have become members-only. Others may allow random visitors, but only on weekdays. Many require reservations for 2 hour blocks, sometimes payable up front. Every winery has its own playbook, so plan ahead and visit their website before visiting.
Pro Tip: Visit on a weekday when scheduling and social distancing are a lot easier. Fortunately, places like Barrel Oak, King Family, Sunset Hills, Veramar, Veritas, and Walsh Family Winery are open 7 days a week, making them great places to telework (just tell your boss that the scenery behind you is a virtual background…and ignore the live patrons enjoying themselves).
2. Tastings will be different: Most wine tastings are now served in plastic cups with a menu explaining what you are sampling. Some wineries don’t even feel comfortable with this step, opting instead to only allow sales by the bottle. Anticipating this format will go on for a while, some locations now serve you mini-tasting bottles as well.
Pro tip: Bring your own glassware or purchase a souvenir wine glass. While a nice rosé is likely to taste good regardless of what vessel it’s in, glassware improves the sensory experience of your wine (and let’s face it – it’s hard to swirl your wine in a plastic cup).
3. Expect new rules: The most obvious one is bring your mask! It’s for your safety as well as theirs. And really, do you want to visit somewhere that isn’t practicing sound social distancing protocols? Wineries take this part very seriously – you should too.
Also, food options may not be readily available – which is a bummer for those who enjoy a warm baguette with their wine. Fortunately, this means you ***might*** be able to bring snacks to places that didn’t allow it in the past, so break out the picnic basket.
Pro tip: Check Facebook or websites for changes to their visitation and food policies, and see if previously child-friendly locations have changed to adults-only (which maximizes their capacity). Also, relatively few wineries offer space indoors. Know what’s available in advance in case there is inclement weather.
Look For Special Events
For many wineries, October is their busiest month. Since so much was shut down over the spring, you can expect many locations pulling out all the stops to celebrate the end of the winegrowing season and beginning of winemaking. Bring on the fall-themed events!
Perhaps the biggest outdoor event of the season is fall foliage, which goes full blast in mid-October. For especially great views, visit Stone Mountain Vineyards outside Charlottesville. The ride up the mountain can seem scary, but you’ll be rewarded by an amazing panoramic view of the Blue Ridge from their deck. Also check out the views at the Little Washington Winery and DuCard Vineyards, both on the edges of Shenandoah National Park.
If festivals are more you’re thing – you’re in luck! Several wineries have events this month, including Veramar Vineyard’s Rock The Grapes, DuCard’s Annual Harvest party, and Potomac Point’s “Sipping under the stars” movie nights. Trust me; these places really are smiling at you underneath those masks.
If you want to get your hands dirty, help out with a harvest. Vineyards try to let their fruit hang as long as possible before the rains set in, and are always happy to exchange labor for a free wine lunch.
Do an Online Event
Not everyone is ready to ‘break the bubble’. Fortunately, Virginia oenophiles can still participate in an assortment of online-only events.
Sarah and Nate Walsh of Walsh Family Wine are amazing online hosts because they are so darn charismatic. Their bi-weekly DRINKWELL events run the gamut from mini-tastings of different Walsh vintages to team-ups with places like Virginia’s Early Mountain Vineyards and Chateau Musar in Lebanon.
Another winemaker that’s been killing it with online events is Stephen Barnard of Keswick Vineyards. He hosts weekly “Tasting Tuesdays” on Facebook, with each new episode dedicated to a different Keswick wine. The chats aren’t just an online tasting; it’s a Q&A on what makes that grape varietal special in Virginia, plus stories about the vintage. It’s extra-adorable that he’s babysitting concurrent to holding his Facebook live chat.
Wineries aren’t the only local places with online tasting events. Neal Wavra of Field & Main Restaurant in Marshall hosts weekly blind tastings for a virtual audience, utilizing wines from not only Virginia but around the world. It’s fascinating to watch as he examines a wine’s sight, smell and sensation, using these clues to pinpoint where it’s from and what grapes it’s made with. Watching the audience throw out their own ideas makes the event especially interesting. Pick up a (wrapped) bottle or three the next time you visit Virginia wine country.
Before you go out just remember – whatever winery you visit, be kind. Businesses everywhere have just endured the hardest professional and personal challenge they’ve likely ever faced. They’re excited to see you, but they are operating a very different business than they had several months ago. But support local businesses, and get the most out of Virginia Wine Month.