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Virginia Unbridled

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Photo: Baerbel Schmidt

The hissing sound of a hot-air balloon causes horses to panic and bolt. Or at least that's what a horse trainer dining in Paris's only restaurant alleged, recounting the shouting match he'd had that afternoon with a balloonist flying low over his stable yard.

Paris, Virginia, is a single street of immaculately restored houses, an antiques shop, and the Ashby Inn & Restaurant, whose menu of French-inflected comfort food shows flashes of artisanal spirit, with local raw-milk cheeses and house-made duck "ham." More important, the inn functions as a gathering place for a certain set. On the eve of the International Gold Cup, one of Virginia's largest steeplechases, the restaurant was buzzing with stable talk. The stuffed-pheasant trophy on the mantelpiece watched over women in elegant tweeds, their dressage-champion daughters, and more than one gentleman wearing an ascot. Outside, a driver stood sentry beside a Volvo station wagon.

Our new trainer friend, dining at a neighboring table side by side with a female companion, seemed in the know, so we inquired about a large group of distinguished-looking Argentines who were polishing off their desserts nearby.

"Gunslingers end up in Dodge City," he said, with well-practiced timing. "Horse people come here, to Loudoun County."

Loudoun and the collection of other counties south and west of Washington, D.C., have long been a playground for the city's old guard, their horses, and their beagles. The Mellons, Harrimans, and Grahams acquired vast Virginia retreats in the early part of the century, and Jackie Kennedy rented a place at which to ride in 1961, soon after her husband's ascent to the White House. In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, just 60 miles from the National Mall, the land appears so English, so pastoral and pristine, it seems unfathomable that some of the Civil War's bloodiest engagements were fought here.

Besides the "balloonatics," there are other constituencies battling with the horse people for their ever more valuable expanses of turf. Among the tamer (and more refreshing) combatants are the wine growers, who over the last 30 years have converted an increasing percentage of the landscape closest to the Blue Ridge into vineyards. Though early attempts at viticulture in Virginia date to 1608, and Thomas Jefferson tried valiantly—and for the most part failed—to bottle fine wines from European grapes, success came only in the 1970's, due largely to the arrival of a few influential Italian producers, including the Veneto's Zonin family. In 1979 the Commonwealth had six wineries; today, it's the fifth-highest producer in the nation, with more than 100 wineries that receive a half million visitors a year. Napa, by comparison, gets 4.7 million annual visitors.

Although wine tourism seems to have shaken up the formula a bit, lending northern Virginia the feel of a lifestyle destination on the order of Napa Valley or the East End of Long Island, the infancy of Virginia's wine industry has its benefits: in Virginia, you're more likely to find the winemaker himself holding court in a tasting room. Tour buses and asphalt parking lots are rare here, at least for the time being. Along with tourists and the attendant retail dollars have come the inevitable preservation and development battles, waged over the region's future. Now seemed like the perfect time to chart a course through the state, beginning just south of the Washington, D.C., suburbs and ambling down through wine country to Charlottesville, both the academic cradle of the state and the site of Thomas Jefferson's first forays into wine production.

DON'T SUPERSIZE MIDDLEBURG, read signs in yards along Route 50, the road into the hamlet that is the epicenter of hunt country, and it was difficult to know whether they addressed the nearly audible encroaching of new D.C. bedroom community developments or projects such as Sheila Johnson's 168-room Salamander Resort & Spa, slated to open in town in the fall of 2009.

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