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Virginia Unbridled

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Photo: Baerbel Schmidt

And though wineries in this part of the country are sprouting like chanterelles after late August rains, they seem more genuine than some of the vanity vineyards you encounter in Sonoma and Napa. At a pub in Flint Hill, we eavesdropped on a local chef raving about the wines of a new house, Gadino Cellars. The following day, we drove toward the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and found a modest shed, on which the paint was barely dry, serving as a tasting room.

Italian-American garagistes, the Gadinos pursued their dream to become commercial winemakers, and the results of their first vintage are impressive. Their premium Chardonnay is Burgundian in style—elegant, with barely perceptible oak. The Gadinos specialize in growing Cabernet Franc grapes, and the wine they make from them is medium-bodied and racy. Although we knew that it would soften and mellow in a few years, we didn't have the willpower to wait more than a few minutes, and uncorked a bottle just 12 miles further along the road, at a scenic overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The trek up the mountain to the aptly named Skyline Drive is a twisting haul, but the road, with its narrow lanes, stone-lined tunnels, and sleek Frank Lloyd Wright-style signage, is a thrilling reward, a trip back to an era of tailfinned Chryslers and full-service gasoline stations. We drove along a few undulating miles to a lookout where the view dropped straight down from our toes and the Shenandoah Mountains stretched out before us to the east. We wished we could continue along the Parkway through a bank of clouds to the south, but opted to save that for another story.

Instead, we settled for a late afternoon visit to Barboursville Vineyards, the elder statesman of Virginia wineries, established in 1976. On a plot of land that held the ruins of a house built by Jefferson, the four Zonin brothers began growing vinifera grapes in the 1800's; these days, Barboursville produces 30,000 cases of wine a year. The winery's success may owe partly to its proximity to Charlottesville and the fact that on its premises there's an Italian restaurant—Palladio—with excellent house-cured olives, hearth-baked breads, and first-pressing olive oils. But many American wine lovers acknowledge that the talent of Luca Paschina, an Alba native who came to Barboursville to work as consultant in 1990 and stayed, is what put the winery on the map. Paschina's Octagon is the most lauded wine of his portfolio.

But Paschina is only the most recent in a long line of Italian winemakers who've influenced Virginia production. In fact, in 1770, Jefferson sold some of the land surrounding Monticello, his sprawling Palladian home up in the hills just outside Charlottesville, to an Italian grower whose experiments with hybrid American-European grapes were among the first such plantings this side of the Atlantic. Grape growing at Monticello ceased by the 19th century, but the old house has been impressively restored and turned into a museum that puts flesh and bone on Jefferson's viticultural aspirations. Just paces from the house's kitchen (whose spartan, minimalist aesthetic could hold its own against the latest designs from Bulthaup), we wandered through the terraced kitchen garden, Indian-summer light dappling sprawled-out tomato plants hung with overripe fruit.

Jefferson's spirit—forward-looking, yet rooted in the land and mindful of the past—lives on in the new Charlottesville. Like other Southern university towns, such as Asheville, North Carolina, or Athens, Georgia, this is a place where people drive hybrid cars and tend to care deeply about what they eat and drink, and where it comes from. At the C&O Bar—the dimly lit college watering hole of our dreams, with early R.E.M. and the Cocteau Twins jangling through the revelry—we ordered glasses of Stone Mountain Vineyards rosé, listened to trains whistle by, and watched a table of professors and students arguing over the wine list as though it were a political treatise.

Charlottesville's most accomplished chefs are ensconced in luxurious inns just outside town. At the intimate Clifton Inn, the decadent rusticity of the rooms—claw-foot tubs, Mascioni linens, fireplaces, but nary a ruffled window treatment in sight—is echoed in the innovative comfort food of its chef, Dean Maupin, who pairs perfectly seared quail with espresso-poached pears, and orange with sesame in a rich frozen mousse.

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