In the Shenandoah National Park, driving north on Skyline Drive, I passed through banks of fog. A result of overnight rainfall and chilly morning temperatures, the mist was obscuring my view of the valley below. Occasional glimpses were offered as the clouds briefly gave way. Then and only for a short time, the Shenandoah Valley was illuminated. Low clouds hung over the farmland below and I could just make out the silhouette of the distant Allegheny Mountains. It is one of the state’s most beautiful regions and it does not receive nearly the attention it deserves.
I have lived in Virginia for more than twenty years. During that time, I have traveled most of the back roads as I explored the state’s wineries and other attractions. Yet, it is only recently that I have come to know the Shenandoah Valley. The Valley is a large place and, from my home in Central Virginia, some of its furthest reaches are a difficult day trip. Nevertheless, my recent discoveries find me returning with greater and greater frequency. I have become a huge fan and advocate of this region and I believe that it produces some of the best wine in the entire Mid Atlantic.
The majority of Virginia wineries are clustered along the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains and closer to the large urban centers in the eastern part of the state. The Valley, however, is Virginia’s hidden wine secret. It’s position between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains makes it a much better growing region with cooler temperatures, higher elevation, less rainfall and rocky, limestone soil that is ideal for viticulture.
Historically, the Shenandoah has been one of Virginia’s major agricultural areas. Beginning in the late 1970s, as the wine industry began to take root, the region slowly transitioned a small part of its total acreage from cattle and row crops to grapes. The Shenandoah became Virginia’s first and largest AVA (American Viticultural Area), but the Valley offers much more than wine.
There are simply too many options to mention, but I will list a few. If you are interested in history, the Valley is full of colonial, revolutionary, early American and Civil War historical sites. If you are looking for outdoor recreation, the Shenandoah National Park is easily accessible and Front Royal is the canoeing capital of the United States. Bryce and Massanutten are both four-season resorts offering lodging in addition to a range of seasonal activities. Finally, some of Virginia’s famous farm-to-table agricultural operations, like Polyface, Open Gate and others, are located in the Shenandoah.
For anyone intent on exploring the Valley, it is best to divide it into manageable sections. From north to south, the region is 170 miles long, so it may not be possible to see everything in a single trip. Outlined below are a couple ideas for organizing your visit.
Winchester and the Northern Valley
The City of Winchester is at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. It is an area rich in early American and Civil War history and a perfect base from which to explore some of the state’s premier wineries. The city is fairly small, with a population of 30,000. Despite that, it has the capacity to accommodate large numbers of visitors. The Apple Blossom Festival is the largest local event and draws thousands to the city each spring. Dining and lodging options are too many to mention. The Winchester Visitors Bureau site is a great resource for planning your stay.
Wineries of Note
There are more than 20 wineries within an easy drive of Winchester. Several of these should make your short list.
South of Winchester, near Mount Jackson, you will find one of Virginia’s most highly regarded wineries. Cave Ridge Vineyard occupies some of the region’s finest viticultural acreage and that is reflected the quality of the wine.
Glen Manor Vineyards is one of the Mid Atlantic’s premier terroir-based wineries and produces truly world-class wine. As an added bonus, it sits right up against the Shenandoah National Park, so from the tasting room you can enjoy one of the best views in the state.
Currently open by appointment, a new tasting room is under construction at Muse Vineyards and this will mean regular tasting hours. In the mean time, the award-winning wines are very highly regarded and worth your time to call ahead and make the drive.
You can drop in, but I strongly recommend checking their calendar and making an appointment for the “enhanced tasting” at Veramar Vineyard. This will grant you access to a food pairing with their reserve and club wines in a guided, small-group setting.
Other Points of Interest
Incorporated in 1725, Old Town Winchester has been bricked over and transformed into a pedestrian mall. Here and on the surrounding streets you will find restaurants, entertainment and many of the city’s historical sites. Friday evenings, in season, you can also enjoy a free concert on the mall.
There are three museums within a few blocks of Old Town. These galleries are dedicated to George Washington, the Civil War and the Shenandoah Valley. Other similar options included the Patsy Cline House, the tomb of Lord Fairfax and the oldest house in the city—Abrams Delight, built in 1754.
If you are interested in the Civil War, the city changed hands 72 times during that conflict, which is more than any other city. There are seven major battlefield sites preserved in and around Winchester. You can also visit the headquarters of Generals Stonewall Jackson (Confederate) and Philip Sheridan (Union).
No matter how you travel, you will need an automobile to visit most destinations in the Shenandoah Valley.
Car—Winchester can be reached by car within hours from most cities on the eastern seaboard.
Air—Dulles International is 45 minutes from Winchester. Alternately, it is a 75 minutes drive from Regan National in DC.
Train—See listings for Amtrak stops in Winchester.
Staunton and the Southern Valley
Recently named one of the best small towns in America, Staunton has a thriving urban center and a very lively arts and entertainment community. Stay at the stately Stonewall Jackson Hotel and be within easy walking distance of the downtown area. There are a number of other options for lodging and nothing is far from the town center. Dining and entertainment options are numerous. For more information the Visit Staunton site is a great resource
Wineries of Note
There are about a dozen wineries in the Southern Shenandoah and many more on the other side of Afton Mountain. Several of the interesting Valley wineries should top your list.
A few miles north of Staunton, you will find Bluestone Vineyards. You will want to relax on the patio with a glass of their high-end red blend (or any of their other award-winning wines) and enjoy an unobstructed view of the Allegheny Mountains.
The Blue Ridge Mountains seem to completely surround CrossKeys Vineyards and make it a lovely destination for a tasting or lunch in the attached bistro. The 35 acres of estate fruit are used to produce a number of wines, but I strongly recommend the single varietal Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot.
Jump Mountain Vineyard is open on the weekends by appointment, but that is largely a formality. Call ahead and then visit a relatively new winery, but one with infinite potential. Both the drive to Jump Mountain and the view from the tasting room are just spectacular.
Within easy walking distance from downtown Staunton, you will find the tasting room for Ox Eye Vineyards. It is in a lovely old building in the midst of a reclaimed warehouse district and they are famous for their cool-climate varietals. Be certain to taste their Lemberger and Riesling.
Other Points of Interest
Downtown Staunton is a thriving, small-town urban center. It probably looks much the way it did 75 or 100 years ago and maintains the classic American Main Street feel. There are many dining and entertainment options in addition to numerous art galleries. Stay in town or park your car and spend a few hours wandering the streets.
A short walk from downtown and right next door to the Stonewall Jackson Hotel is the highly regarded American Shakespeare Center. The Blackfriars Playhouse is a recreation of Shakespear’s original indoor theater and the performances are some of the finest you will encounter anywhere in America. You will find it hard to believe the playhouse is located in a town of this size.
President Woodrow Wilson was from Staunton and you can walk to his Presidential Library, which is not far from the town center.
At the edge of town, you will find the Frontier Culture Museum. Early American and early-modern European buildings have been moved to the property, where they are used to tell the story of the immigrants that settled the area. It is a living-history experience that is fascinating for visitors of any age.
Much like the Winchester area, a car will be necessary to reach any of the destinations outside of Staunton.
Car—Staunton can be reached by car within hours from most cities on the eastern seaboard.
Air—Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport is 45 minutes from Staunton. Alternately, it is a 90 minutes drive from Richmond International Airport.
Train— See listings for Amtrak stops in Staunton.