Throughout the pandemic, local wineries have had to get creative to stay afloat. “We realized pretty early on,” says Chelsea Sparaco of Potomac Point Winery in Stafford, that “it was kind of innovate or die.”
One innovation that proved popular: a private or exclusive tasting. The small-group events appeal to vineyard visitors looking not only to avoid crowds but also to do something special when they do go out these days. Such tastings might include food pairings, behind-the-scenes tours, and more attention from the winemaker.
The tastings, which can cost $20 to $125 a person, also are a hit with proprietors. Before Covid, Chateau O’Brien owner Howard O’Brien welcomed drop-ins and casual tasters. Now his winery is reservation-only to attract those who are serious about wine. Fewer people are visiting, he says, but those who do come buy more bottles: “Frankly, my financial numbers are better than they’ve ever been.”
Here are seven Virginia wineries worth the drive. Fall is peak season, so be sure to make reservations—which all of these experiences require.
Wine in a Meadow
In the covered, outdoor Merlot Meadow Tasting Lounge at Potomac Point Winery, visitors can sip a variety of wines in their own private area surrounded by green palms, string lights, and more than 700 newly planted Merlot vines. During a two-and-a-half-hour session ($20 a person), staff members lead a guided tasting of eight popular, preselected wines—not just Merlot. Guests can also preorder a housemade cake soaked in wine—flavors include rosé, vanilla, and chocolate. 275 Decatur Rd., Stafford; 540-446-2251.
Only for Oenophiles
RdV, a vineyard lauded by area foodies, makes just two wines. This year’s allotment of Rendezvous, one of its two Bordeaux blends, is already sold out. However, it’s not too late to try RdV’s flagship wine, Lost Mountain, which sells for $175 a bottle. During the two-hour RdV Tasting Experience ($120 a person), you get a flight of four three-ounce pours of high-end wines, including Krug Champagne (typically $75 to $100 a glass) as well as a Napa Valley Cabernet and another benchmark wine to compare to Lost Mountain. The private tasting, which includes a guided tour of the property and a seasonal food board, is limited to four people. 2550 Delaplane Grade Rd., Delaplane; 540-364-0221.
On two weekends in October, Granite Heights winemaker and owner Luke Kilyk will host an event he’s been dreaming up for ten years: a Haunted Tasting Tour, complete with both scary and funny story lines and vignettes. For $20 a person, groups of up to ten will travel through the vineyard to taste six “haunted” wines. A mad scientist may serve you one that’s disguised as a potion or acid. The 30-minute tour is mostly outdoors, with a pass through an open barn. Kilyk will lead the tour dressed as himself. “I will just probably be who I am, which is the crazy winemaker and owner,” he says. (Sorry, kids: The tasting is 21-and-over only.) 8141 Opal Rd., Warrenton; 540-349-5185.
Grape to Glass
Sit among the vines and sip wines made with 100-percent Virginia grapes during the Full Monty private tasting experience at Pearmund Cellars. Relax: You can keep your clothes on—the tasting was simply named by a fan of the British comedy film. For $50 a person, visitors taste six wines accompanied by food pairings while learning about the grape-to-glass process. The maximum group size is ten. Pearmund will accommodate special requests: If you and five friends want to try Chardonnay paired with cupcakes, Pearmund can make it happen. 6190 Georgetown Rd., Broad Run; 540-347-3475.
During Chateau O’Brien’s exclusive Cellar Tasting Sample, you’ll learn about wines that aren’t yet available to the general public. The tasting, which is $50 a person for up to four people, is led by owner Howard O’Brien, who is so dedicated to being accessible to customers that he sometimes personally delivers wine orders around Northern Virginia. Visitors can expect to sample mainly reds—what Chateau O’Brien is best known for—plus older vintages that might go back 15 years or more. The one-hour tasting includes an Irish-cheese selection, baguettes, and Lily O’Brien chocolates. 3238 Railstop Rd., Markham; 540-364-6441.
The Estate Experience
Get an in-depth look at Stone Tower Winery during its Estate Experience. Parties of up to ten travel around the property on a large golf cart while learning about planting and harvesting on the 100 acres of vines. Next is an overview of the winemaking facility and process, followed by a seated tasting of estate reds along with a three-course lunch. The three-hour event is $125 a person. Before Covid, the experience was primarily offered on weekends, but due to increased demand during the pandemic, Stone Tower now offers it every day the winery is open. 19925 Hogback Mountain Rd., Leesburg; 703-777-2797.
During “Somm Sundays” at Slater Run Vineyards, sommelier Sara Gann leads groups of up to ten in a tasting of six wines—one made at Slater Run and five from around the world—accompanied by a small plate of snacks such as cheese and charcuterie. Past themes have included Bordeaux-inspired wines made outside of Bordeaux as well as “Sparkling: Pét Nat to Champagne.” Slater Run’s Chardonnay Reserve 2020 will be featured this month in its fall theme, “Do You Know the Way to Chardonnay?” Each tasting is $30 a person and is in a private indoor tasting room. 1500 Crenshaw Rd., Upperville; 540-878-1476.
No Drinking and Driving
Sample wines from the comfort of home—these Virginia wineries ship tastings
This mountainside vineyard offers two main tasting kits, each with four four-ounce bottles. The Farm Series ($49) includes Bluemont’s yearly wines, such as “The Pig” and “The Donkey.” The Signature Series ($59) features higher-end, small-batch wines. From time to time, seasonal kits, such as a Cookie and Wine Pairing, are offered. Tastings are accompanied by an educational video, viewable online. Looking for a live guided experience? Virtual tastings can be scheduled. 18755 Foggy Bottom Rd., Bluemont; 540-554-8439.
Create your own tasting from this Shenandoah Valley winery. Twenty-six wines are available in miniature 50-milliliter bottles for $3.75 each. (By comparison, a standard wine bottle is 750 ml.) Staff can offer recommendations, and tasting notes can be sent with the bottles. The mini-bottles aren’t online, so call to place an order. 4828 Spring Creek Rd., Bridgewater; 540-828-0099.
Early in the pandemic, Stone Tower began offering one-hour virtual tastings. Customers are first shipped a tasting kit based on their preferences, with four 187-milliliter bottles—two whites and two reds—for $85 a kit. Tastings, for as few as two people and as many as 150, can be hosted on any platform. You can add two paired cheeses for an additional fee. 19925 Hogback Mountain Rd., Leesburg; 703-777-2797.
This article appears in the October 2021 issue of Washingtonian.