Washington, D.C., may be all about political jockeying, but drive some 50 miles south and you'll find yourself in the heart of Virginia's horse (and wine) country.

By Matt Lee and Ted Lee
January 26, 2011
Baerbel Schmidt Northern Virginia equestrian, Lilly Potter, getting ready for a ride near Salamander Farm, in Middleburg.
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.

Johnson, cofounder of Black Entertainment Television, is one of the new Middleburg landowners: business barons who've been making an impression by thinking big and differently. Another, Cisco Systems cofounder Sandy Lerner, a philanthropist with an interest in animal rights, caused a stir when she purchased Ayrshire Farm and denied local fox hunters the right to pass through her land. (She sharpened the barb by opening a roadhouse tavern named the Hunter's Head, where a mounted huntsman's bust—sporting a riding helmet—overlooks the bar.)

But both Johnson and Lerner seem to have settled into their communities, and each offered an olive branch to her neighbors in the form of an excellent provisions store in downtown Middleburg: Lerner's Home Farm Store sells heirloom vegetables and rare-breed meats raised on her land; Johnson's Market Salamander is a prepared-foods mecca run by lauded D.C. chef Todd Gray. Both places happen to be just a stone's throw from Linda Tripp's—yes, Ms. Lewinsky's confidante's—German Christmas shop and Wursthaus.

Nevertheless, our first 15 minutes here proved that Middleburg's hunt-country bona fides remain intact. Like ski bums and surfers, Middleburg's equestrians have their own argot for discussing the sport's ripest conditions. We woke up one misty, bleak morning after our dinner in Paris to find the crowd at the Coach Stop, a diner along Middleburg's Main Street, raving about the excellent "scenting" and "footing" (for dogs and horses, respectively).

We tucked into a breakfast of country ham with grits and red-eye gravy and lingered with In & Around Horse Country (a bimonthly paper) until the sun burned off the fog. On the town green, the church bazaar was in full swing, offering items such as used jodhpurs and horse tack at fire-sale prices. One of us picked up a fern-gray custom-tailored riding blazer, and the other found a broken-in horse blanket, which had CHISHOLM embroidered on the flank in script, to picnic on. Then we shopped for fried-chicken box lunches at Market Salamander before heading to the Gold Cup.

The race takes place on the third Saturday in October, several miles south of Middleburg on a vast, impossibly green rolling plain called the Great Meadow. We drove along narrow asphalt back roads through fields—some trimmed with fence posts painted a deep black-green, others with stone walls stretching straight as plumb lines along their road frontage. In the fields, hay bales spotted the landscape with painterly irregularity.

The Gold Cup is a tough ticket, and  at $55 per car and up to $11,000 for a railside tent, can be an expensive one, too. Families, frat boys and their girls, and people traveling on a budget tend to reserve the cheaper territory at the narrow ends of the roughly oval course. But the prime viewing spot is from Members Hill, a sloping green in front of the homestretch, and the most coveted places on the hill are the tailgating spots alongside the fence, where drivers of vintage wood-paneled Wagoneers and late-model Land Cruisers alike back up, open their doors, and party.

The race itself is visually stunning and perfectly paced for the attention of the tailgaters. At the crack of the pistol, all eyes watch as horses and their jockeys bolt out of sight. As the horses round the course, you see in the distance the jockeys' pastel jerseys flashing back into view now and again. That far away, their pace appears leisurely, languid even, and the tailgaters in their Lilly Pulitzer and wide-brimmed hats can relax, sip their juleps, nibble tea sandwiches, and primp the floral centerpieces on the table (or on the roof of the Mercedes). Then, several minutes later, the volume of voices along the track fence rises, and the crowd pivots to behold the pack of horses come thundering down the straightaway to the final jump and the finish line.

Compared with the plumminess of Members Hill, the wine-country experiences in this area have a neighborly informality. At Chrysalis, a winery founded in 1997 with the mandate to make the Norton, Virginia's native grape, viable for wine production, visitors are encouraged to cook out on the iron grills on the property. When the server conducting our tasting uncorked the winery's Petit Manseng—in our view, the house's finest wine, a Sauternes-like elixir and a superb match for foie gras—she volunteered, "Y'all, my girlfriends and I call this our hot-tub wine."

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.

In the same neighborhood is opulent Keswick Hall, whose laird-of-the-manor grandeur carries a hint of fun: among the hunt-club prints and Chippendale chairs in our room was a framed collection of brightly colored Best in Show ribbons that somebody's poodle had won. Keswick Hall's restaurant, Fossett's, has its own surprising charms. Its anterooms, festooned with over-the-top swags, open onto an elegant white dining room with enormous arrangements of calla lilies. Here, we found the best service of the trip, and some of Virginia's most compelling seasonal food—quail with chanterelles, rockfish with mussels and fava beans. The extensive wine list, heavy with the state's best bottles, included some exciting discoveries: King Family Vineyards Michael Shaps Viognier, made by a négociant in Burgundy, and Blenheim Vineyards' Petit Verdot, and Albemarle Rosé from Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard.

Patricia Kluge, an heiress and philanthropist, entered Virginia's wine game in 1999, and the estate was initially dismissed by many critics as a lark until its wines—sparkling ones, in particular—began consistently garnering ratings in the mid-90's from wine writers.

The Kluge Estate has far and away the most elegant tasting room and café in all of Virginia, and it's staffed by what appear to be UVA students. The one who ushered us through our sampling of the Kluge range didn't look old enough to buy cigarettes, but he was a natural wine-talker, with what seemed like a deep knowledge not only of the riddling and time spent on lees of Kluge's vintages but also of all sorts of wines the world over. He attributed his expertise to his father, a doctor, who had always encouraged his wine curiosity.

When he reached to pour us flutes of Kluge's 2002 brut sparkler, a 100 percent Chardonnay cuvée with a yeasty nose and crisp green-apple flavors, we spied the five-barrel monogram on the cuff of his Oxford shirt. We asked him his name, and took our second sips.

"Ernest William Beasley the Fourth," he replied. "But everybody calls me Bubba.

Matt Lee and Ted Lee are Travel + Leisure contributing editors.

Getting There

Fly into Dulles International Airport (IAD) and rent a car—an essential for touring this region. Middleburg, the northernmost town in hunt country, is just a half hour's drive from Dulles.

When To Go

The most festive time to visit Virginia's horse country is during Gold Cup race weekends, which happen in October and May every year. See vagoldcup.com for race schedules and tickets.

Where to Stay

Clifton Inn 1296 Clifton Inn Dr., Charlottesville; 888/971-1800 or 434/971-1800; cliftoninn.net; doubles from $235.

Goodstone Inn & Estate Intimate, luxurious rooms and pristine grounds. 36205 Snake Hill Rd., Middleburg; 877/219-4663 or 540/687-4645; goodstone.com; doubles from $330.

Keswick Hall 701 Club Dr., Keswick; 800/274-5391 or 434/979-3440; keswick.com; doubles from $325.

Red Fox Inn Spacious rooms in the heart of downtown Middleburg. 2 E. Washington St., Middleburg; 800/223-1728 or 540/687-6301; redfox.com; doubles from $195.

Where to Eat

Ashby Inn & Restaurant 692 Federal St., Paris; 540/ 592-3900; dinner for two $90.

Coach Stop Restaurant 9 E. Washington St., Middleburg; 540/687-5515; dinner for two $40.

Market Salamander 200 W. Washington St., Middleburg; 540/687-8011; dinner for two $40.

Palladio Restaurant Barboursville Vineyards, 17655 Winery Rd., Barboursville; 540/832-7848; barboursvillewine.com; dinner for two $140.

Where to Sip

C&O Bar 515 E. Water St., Charlottesville; 434/971-7044.

Chrysalis Vineyards 23876 Champe Ford Rd., Middleburg; 540/687-8222; chrysaliswine.com.

Gadino Cellars 92 Schoolhouse Rd., Washington, Va.; 540/987-9292; gadinocellars.com.

Kluge Estate Farm Shop 3550 Blenheim Rd., Charlottesville; 434/984-4855; klugeestate.com.

What to Do

American in Paris An eclectic collection of American country antiques for sale. 694 Federal St., Paris; 540/592-9008.

Monticello 931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy., Charlottesville; 434/984-9822; monticello.org.

Skyline Drive/ Blue Ridge Parkway Sperryville; see blueridgeparkway.org for driving maps, bloom schedules, and road conditions.