A trek through Virginia’s heartland will leave you thirsting for more, but certainly not thirsty.
By Erika Rietz
Dr. Andrew Hodson and his wife Patricia knew that at some point, they’d want a different sort of life. Nearing the twilight of Andrew’s career as a prestigious neurologist, they lived well in Jacksonville, Fla., with their two daughters, Chloe and Emily. But as they faced the next phase, Patricia quips in her no-nonsense British accent, “You can only play so much tennis.”
At a crafts fair, they struck up a conversation with a young couple, a soapmaker and a gun forger; in a previous chapter, she had been an architect and he an engineer, but they ducked out of the grind to pursue their artistic passions. Somewhat out of the blue, Andrew mentioned that he was toying with the idea of opening a winery, and the couple suggested that they visit the wine country of rural Virginia. The next weekend, the Hodsons headed to the Blue Ridge Mountains, where they discovered a charming property replete with a 19th-century farmhouse. They signed on it that day.
Take the rollercoaster drops and hairpin turns through the Blue Ridge Mountains, happening upon unmarked dirt roads that turn into secret orchards and colossal brick-and-pillared colonial estates, and you’ll see just how easy it is to fall in love with the Virginia countryside. Follow some of these roads on the Brew Ridge Trail—an agritourist trek dotted with wineries, cideries, breweries and more—and you’ll invariably be smitten not just with the place, but the people: Here, what you drink is as delightful as who you meet.
This is Thomas Jefferson’s country, and locals tend to casually know an uncanny amount of American history. In a soft, lilting accent, Albemarle CiderWorks owner Chuck Shelton traces the origins of the apples he grows on his family farm—more than 300 varieties—reverently explaining that cider was once the preferred beverage of our founding fathers. “Jefferson grew Albemarle Pippins at Monticello,” he explains, pouring a glass of the bubbly Royal Pippin, a gorgeously dry cider derived entirely of that local varietal. Sipped in the tasting room that overlooks picturesque farmhouses and timeless orchards, it’s simply transporting.
To dive even further back in history, you have only to ascend the hills of the Rockfish Valley, to the breathtaking Hill Top Berry Farm & Winery, where Kimberly and Craig Pugh also run a family farm. Kimberly, a former police detective, warmly shares her encyclopedic knowledge of meads, pyment, cyser and metheglin (all varieties of the oldest known alcoholic beverages made from fruits, honey and spices) while her husband pours samples. She gathers ingredients just steps from the tasting room to craft unusually lovely fruit wines and meads—among them, the gorgeously sweet and fragrant Lavender Metheglin.
Trek up the road and you’ll happen upon Devils Backbone Brewing, a name that probably rings a bell. A few miles from the jutted mountains of the Appalachian Trail, Steve Crandall and his wife Heidi constructed the lodgey restaurant and brewery—Steve’s own taxidermy trophies line the walls—but this is no bumpkin brewpub; Devils Backbone raised eyebrows when it walked away with the Great American Beer Festival’s 2010 Small Brewery of the Year title only a year and a half after pouring its first glass. A successful developer and avid outdoorsman, Steve’s an ambitious but cut-no-corners kind of guy; he opened a production and bottling facility just over the mountains this year, which will ramp up his production from barely under 1,000 barrels to more than 9,000, enough to keep up with local demand. Among the first to be bottled this spring is the popular two-time gold medal winner Gold Leaf Lager, a crisp, clean antidote to oppressively humid Virginia summers.
Starr Hill Brewery is not as famous in these parts for its hardware (though it did take three GABF silver medals in 2011, including one for the Colonial-style Monticello Ale); locals reminisce about a time when this was a restaurant/brewery/music venue on the downtown mall in Charlottesville, Va., where a string of before-they-were-famous crooners like Jack Johnson and John Mayer played to small crowds of University of Virginia coeds. The brewery relocated to a colossal countryside facility in the one-stoplight town of Crozet, where easygoing brewer/owner Mark Thompson keeps his mind on music almost as much as he does on his beer. There’s a massive warehouse space in the brewery where a loosely affiliated promotions company houses items like life-size Justin Bieber cut-outs and Lady Gaga posters. “We started canning our beer because it’s just better for bringing to glass-free music festivals,” he explains. At music bonanzas like Bonnaroo, Starr Hill has sated the palates of indie legends backstage since 2002. Thompson was integral in creating Bonnaroo’s Brewers Village, a veritable beerfest where craft brew is served from antique wooden tasting booths to throngs of hipster-campers.
The mountain pathway’s medal-winning trifecta rounds off with Blue Mountain Brewery, which took home its first this year: A gold for Summer Lovin’, an English-style summer ale, and a silver for Blue Reserve, a beer made with hops harvested at the brewery. From a shaded enclave outside the picturesque white-washed brewery and restaurant, the young co-owner Matt Nucci points to strings of towering hop vines, saying, “We knew we wanted to grow hops since day one.” Day one was in 2007, when he and two friends, husband and wife Taylor and Mandi Smack, traded in their jobs to build a brewery in this bucolic outpost. Though they never intended to be a restaurant, today Blue Mountain churns out over-the-moon pizzas like the Bratwurst, Apple and Onion, made with locally farmed beef. They also bought a “bunch of land” in Nelson County, and are building two new production facilities: The first is strictly for barrel aging, where they’ll turn out 750-mL bottles, and the second will house a bottling line.
Three award-winning breweries in a swath of rural Virginia might seem like a crowd, but sure-footed Mary Wolf, a former AOL exec and owner of the brand-spankin’-new Wild Wolf Brewing, proves there’s still room for more. Her son, Danny, picked up his brewing credentials at Chicago’s Siebel Institute, and after carefully researching the beer market, she decided it just made sense to open a spot of their own. This year, they moved from a small brewery/homebrew shop in a garage-like space to an historic 1910 schoolhouse that she’s converted to a brewpub, serving up Southern-influenced pub fare like fried oysters and brews like the hopped-up Alpha Ale. On the property, she’s also constructed a rustic retail village in wooden shedlike buildings that host a sports bar, homebrew shop and gift store. “I’m fascinated by this industry,” Mary says. “And it’s just fun, meeting all of the people that come into the bar and the restaurant.”
A similar sentiment echoes back at the Hodsons’ Veritas Vineyard & Winery, which in 10 years has gone from a simple operation with a sign instructing visitors to press “call” on a cell phone for tastings (a direct line to Patricia, who was usually toiling in the vineyard) to today’s tastefully opulent tasting room and ballooning white-curtained event space. Andrew and his daughter Emily are masterful winemakers, earning high praise from reviewers around the country, while Chloe runs the tasting room and events (on average, the winery hosts at least one wedding each weekend). And Patricia? She’s busy with a new challenge: opening The Farmhouse at Veritas this spring, an on-premises six-bedroom bed and breakfast. So much for tennis. •
GRANDFATHER OF THE BLUE RIDGE: Paul Saunders has lived in Nelson County, Va., for nearly 80 years, and is the authority on lots’ve things around here. A solid-as-an-oak Southern gentleman, he’s a farmer by trade with a huge, multigeneration farm that operates as a wholesale nursery and a farm market; locals stop by during the season to get fresh fruits, plants and the best peach ice cream around. More than anything, Paul’s passionate about rural life and its history: He penned the 600-page “Heartbeats of Nelson County,” a snapshot of the local folks—from country doctors and farmers to moonshiners—who are part of the tapestry of rural Virginia life. Visitors delight in his vast, Smithsonian-worthy collection of antique farm equipment including a plough from the 1700s; if you’re lucky, you can get the grand tour from the man himself.
A GREAT STAY: Former D.C.-area accountants Orquida and Dan Ingraham are the welcoming hosts at the Afton Mountain Bed and Breakfast, an 1848 rural Victorian farmhouse converted to picturesque lodging. Enjoy sunsets on the porch, and pretty rooms adorned with charming antiques.