Without question, the best tourism slogan belonging to any state is “Virginia is for lovers.” When it was originally conceived, the idea was to insert a word—history, beach, nature—before “lover,” but by the time the slogan debuted, in a 1969 issue of Modern Bride, the modifiers were deemed unnecessary: Virginia was for lovers of all. Adventurers, history buffs, and foodies have fallen hard for the commonwealth, and most recently it has become a destination for wine lovers. Thomas Jefferson planted sangiovese vines at Monticello, and many Virginians since have tried their hand at viticulture. Those efforts are now bearing fruit. Today, the state is dotted with world-class wineries, from the gentle terrain of horse country just outside Washington, D.C. to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There’s never been a better time to raise a glass.
Wine and windswept peaks outside the nation’s capital
I wake up at Salamander Resort & Spa to the sound of hounds baying in the nearby woods.
Pity the fox, I think, even knowing that the hunts here are just chases. (Still stressful, though.) It’s hard to believe I’m just an hour from D.C.; Virginia’s horse country feels centuries and fathoms away from the hustle of the capital. Opened in Middleburg in 2013 by BET cofounder Sheila C. Johnson, Salamander represents, to my mind at least, a new type of Southern luxury, one that is inclusive and doesn’t rely on antebellum nostalgia. Thankfully, this luxury continues to include biscuits. I have a couple of them, topped with honey and housemade preserves, at the resort’s main restaurant, Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill, to fortify myself for a hunt of my own—for the future of Virginia wine.
Soon I’m in Leesburg, at Casanel Vineyards and Winery, looking out onto a gentle valley combed neatly with grapevines. The sun peeks over the Catoctin Ridge, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, shining its light on a landscape that’s famous for its beauty. The fruit of the region’s vines, sadly, hasn’t always enjoyed the same level of esteem; although viticulture has a long history in Virginia—the first vines here were planted in the early 17th century by Jamestown settlers—a loose regulatory environment and a proliferation of what are dismissively referred to as wedding wineries have led to Virginia wine sometimes being maligned as unsophisticated. Happily, that’s changing, thanks to wineries such as Casanel, which grow their own grapes and focus on quality.
Casanel, which was founded in 2006 by Casey and Nelson (hence, Casanel) DeSouza, sets itself a particularly daunting task, as it’s one of the few wineries to champion Norton, one of Virginia’s native grapes. A gold medal winner at the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair, the varietal later fell into disrepute, ending up with a reputation for producing a fruity, somewhat muddy sweet wine. Here, though, it’s delicious. I try the delicately floral Red Spark and the buttery, Bordeaux-like N2, made with 100 percent Norton grapes, and stock up on a few bottles before I hit the road. There are two pro tips for wine tasting in Virginia (or anywhere, really). The first: spit. The second: remain well fed. Fortunately, my drive takes me back through Middleburg, where I stop at Knead Wine, a pizza-and-wine shop that Jarad Slipp and Allie Nault opened last summer. I dig into the Gibbons—a pie piled high with Hobbs Country bacon, roasted piquillo peppers, tomato, chile, and pecorino—and wash it down with a Thibaut-Janisson Extra Brut, made with 100 percent chardonnay from a winery just outside Charlottesville.
My next stop is RdV Vineyards, named for its owner, a former U.S. Marine named Rutger de Vink who spent two years petitioning the sheep farmer who owned the land, on the southerly side of Lost Mountain, to sell it to him. De Vink suspected that this granite slope could produce world-class wines; he was right, and he’s now one of the most lauded wine-makers in the state. Guests at the appointment-only winery are greeted with a flute of Dom Pérignon before they taste RdV’s Bordeaux-style blends, Rendezvous and Lost Mountain. The latter, in particular, is a real stand-out: It’s lively yet restrained, buttery and rich but also structured, characteristics resulting from the hardy vine’s hunt for nutrients.
Despite my best efforts, I’m feeling sluggish and full. Fortuitously, the same mountain terrain that’s home to so many of Virginia’s great vineyards offers some stellar hiking, too. Shenandoah National Park spans 200,000 acres along the Blue Ridge Mountains. When I was a kid, my mom, sister, and I would come down here to hike for what seemed like miles and miles along the trails that flow from Skyline Drive. (My mother recently informed me our longest walk was 2 miles, but I’m sticking to my story.) Today, I go for a jaunt up a jagged mountain called Mary’s Rock. The lichen-covered boulders, the rustling of sassafras trees, and the calls of warblers and jays take me right back to my childhood—and this time the march isn’t forced.
After 90 minutes of brisk climbing, I reach the 3,514 foot peak and look out over a carpet of trees fading into mist. A peregrine falcon circles just beyond my fingertips. Rejuvenated, I head back down, bursting with a newfound appetite and zest. Thank goodness, because it’s time for dinner at The Inn at Little Washington, Patrick O’Connell’s small-town temple to high gastronomy. The three-Michelin-starred restaurant, which O’Connell opened in a former garage in 1978, was the subject of a PBS documentary last year, and in 2021 it became the first restaurant in the U.S. to receive a Michelin Green Star for sustainability. But those plaudits don’t fully capture the vibe of a place that has a farm where two llamas live, protecting the sheep from coyotes, and a gazebo with a chandelier and a stained-glass door—for the chickens. The gesture is at once beautiful and absurd, luxurious and cheeky.
The farm has a gazebo with a chandelier and a stained-glass door—for the chickens.
The same can be said of the entire experience at the Inn—equal parts whimsy and sterling. In the bathrooms, a Dan Aykroyd SNL sketch, “The French Chef,” plays on repeat from hidden speakers. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” says O’Connell, standing in his signature spotted chef’s pants before a glimmering copper kitchen. “We want you to have fun.”
There are two tasting menus available: The Gastronaut’s Menu (seven courses laden with foie-gras confit, morels, and more) and a vegetarian option, The Good Earth. Looking for lightness, I choose the latter and am happily swept away by a tide of beurre blanc. In O’Connell’s hands, I don’t miss the meat. A “crabcake” made with heart of palm and served with tomato tartare and lemon-dill remoulade does nearby Maryland proud. A few sweet ravioli, purses of potato, leek, and mascarpone, are finished with spring peas, artichokes, and a burst of lemon essence. The earth is indeed good. It’s dark by the time I make it out of the Inn. I spy a light flickering in the distance. It may be a star—but I like to think it’s the chandelier in the chicken gazebo, keeping the birds warm at night.
Ghosts of the past and promises of the future in Charlottesville
My alarm, not the hounds, wakes me this morning. It’s a two-hour drive to Charlottesville, but by dint of coffee and a heavy foot, it’s still early when I arrive. Eager to dive into this famously food-driven city, I pop into MarieBette, a bakery owned by couple Jason Becton and Patrick Evans that offers spins on hipster pastries, including a Cronut-adjacent bronut, a brioche feuilletée, and a pretzel croissant. I take a box of bronuts and walk down cherry tree–lined streets to the IX Art Park Farmers Market, manna for the hungry.
Charlottesville is a city midstride in its own reinvention, and many of the most exciting developments are blossoming in the bones of old buildings. The farmers market is an outdoor affair on the grounds of what was once a textile factory and the largest private employer in the town, Frank Ix & Sons. In 1999, after the plant shut down, a Munich-born businessman named Ludwig Kuttner bought it and made it the centerpiece of a 17-acre development with retail, office, and art spaces, including a sculpture garden, where today scores of vendors man their tents. If anything speaks to Charlottesville’s diverse future, it’s this market. An Afghan vendor sells rice pilau while her husband, a tailor, offers alterations. Kombucha makers, bakers, and farmers all jockey for foot traffic. I may have just eaten a bronut, but, as someone whose hunger for biscuits shall never be quenched, I sidle up to Hog Haven Farm for a B-and-P sandwich: smoked bacon (B) and pimento cheese (P) along with a free-range egg and tomato aioli.
That’s when I see a man in a chicken suit. Turns out it’s Lud-wig Kuttner himself. He once wore the suit at Burning Man, he tells me, which is where he came up with the idea for the IX Art Park. “Charlottesville didn’t really have a contemporary arts center,” Kuttner explains, “so we thought, Why not create one?” Susan Krischel, a former assistant D.A. in New York and now a curator and Kuttner’s partner, escorts me inside an immersive space called The Looking Glass. Still clutching half my biscuit, I’m astonished by the array of work: a gnome house made of hand-felted wool, a garden of straw goddesses, a 50-foot-long caterpillar. I emerge half-dazed into the blinding light, mind wobbly, a bit like Alice. That is, I gather, the point.
Charlottesville rests in the shadow of Virginia’s most famous son, Thomas Jefferson, whose home, Monticello, is practically required viewing. High on a hill, the estate, long familiar from the back of a nickel, doesn’t disappoint for its beauty. Jefferson, a ninja-level architectural tinkerer, was inspired by Roman villas and the Hotel de Salm in Paris. At the same time, the dark side of the plantation’s past is not ignored; over the past few decades, the foundation that runs Monticello has been excavating Mulberry Row, a long lane along which many of Jefferson’s 400 enslaved African American laborers lived and died. Also readily visible is the tiny, rough-hewn cabin that was home to the family of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman with whom Jefferson is thought to have had six children. A little ways from the main house, a placard marks the former nailery, where boys about the age of my 10-year-old son toiled from sunup to sundown. Every half hour, a volunteer gives a presentation on slavery, holding up enlarged photocopies of the meticulous records Jefferson kept of humans sold and bought. I carry their names with me from the hillside.
It’s a short drive from there to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. The pretty brick building sits next to what was once Vinegar Hill, a middle-class African American neighborhood that flourished from just after the Civil War until 1965, when it was razed for “urban renewal.” Executive director Dr. Andrea Douglas leads me on a tour. “For many years,” she tells me, “this building was the only place a Black child could get a high school education in Charlottesville.” One room is dedicated to the history of the segregated school. The other is chock-a-block with works from local artists, including a lively triptych of gamblers by Frank Walker, who not only attended Jefferson Elementary School but still lives across the street, and a sculpture by his brother Bo Walker, whose bronze sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. I’ve passed countless times on walks through Brooklyn College, near my home.
Next, I head to another transformed space—The Wool Factory, where reams of gray wool flannel were once made for the post office and military. It’s now home to Broadcloth, a top-notch restaurant from chef Tucker Yoder; Selvedge Brewing; and The Workshop, a wine-and-coffee spot where I order a macchiato and scan the bottles of red for clues about my next stop.
Jefferson dreamed of the Virginia hills covered in vines, and Barboursville Vineyards, one of the commonwealth’s best wineries, embodies that fantasy. Gianni and Silvana Zonin, sixth-generation wine-makers from Veneto, Italy, founded the winery in 1976, and it feels like a transplant from their native land. The winemaker, Luca Paschina, looks every bit the Italian farmer in his patchwork newsboy cap and quilted vest. The sun slants sideways on the land, and the villa has a rosy glow. Paschina, who trained in Piemonte among the crus of Barolo and Barbaresco, tells me he loves how freewheeling Virginia is. “You can grow anything you want,” he says, sipping a minerally fiano, an Italian variety grown on the East Coast for the first time in 2015. “There are no rules.”
With that, he leads me into Palladio, the winery’s fine-dining restaurant, which opened nearly a quarter century ago. The menu draws on Italy for inspiration but stays local for ingredients. For instance, the surprisingly light pillows of gnocchi are accompanied by locally foraged fiddlehead ferns and mushrooms. The roasted red beet soup—a sort of Italianate borscht—comes with sunchokes grown in the estate’s garden. Three of Barboursville’s most sought-after wines keep me company: Octagon, a Bordeaux blend named after Jefferson’s favorite shape; a crisp Vermentino, as nice as anything poured seaside in Liguria; and, as an accompaniment to the tiramisu, the sweet Paxxito, made from air-dried grapes. By the time I check in at The Clifton, the elegant Colonial building is lit up against the night sky. I want to linger with a nightcap by the library fireplace, but my bed beckons, and I cannot resist its call.
From city to town to country to sky along the Blue Ridge Parkway
Crisp sunlight streams through the cherry tree branches and into my eyes. I groan and try to dig deeper into my pillow, but I have a long journey ahead of me, to Primland—a sprawling country estate in the commonwealth’s southwest corner—and time is already fleeting. Part of the appeal of Primland is Primland itself, an estate larger than Manhattan bought in the 1970s by French-Swiss billionaire Didier Primat and now run by his family. There are miles of trails to hike, rounds of golf to play, and turkeys to shoot—if I want. But I’m just as excited about the getting there, because Primland is just 13 miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of America’s most beautiful roads. Like Skyline Drive, the BRP was hewn in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, and it cuts through some of the great forests of America, gilded on either side by endless wild-flowers. The route snakes 469 miles, starting where Skyline Drive ends in Shenandoah and traveling all the way to the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina—and I have a significant chunk to cover today.
But, of course, a man has to eat. I make it two hours on just a bit of leftover bronut, but when I reach Roanoke I put another notch in my biscuit belt at Scratch Biscuit Co. I amble down Memorial Avenue while devouring my Jezebel sandwich (pimento cheese and ham—who could ask for anything more?) and make a quick stop to browse the warehouse shelves at Black Dog Salvage. The store is stuffed with everything from piano keys and old stereos to neon lights and glass doors, but mindful of my tiny Brooklyn apartment I leave with only a (new) dish towel.
From its inception in the early 1930s, the Blue Ridge Parkway was meant as both park and road. Its designer, Stanley Abbott, wasn’t an engineer but a landscape architect, and he intended the parkway to be driven at low speeds. Tucked into the driver’s seat of a powerful new Lexus ES 250 F Sport AWD, it’s hard for me not get the zoomies, but I let the engine simply purr as I tool along. There are 168 bridges, 26 tunnels, and more than 260 overlooks along the route. This section weaves past the ominously named Purgatory Mountain and the hardscrabble cabins atop the Peaks of Otter, both of which remind me of how proximate hardship has been in these parts. But also, look ing out onto Appalachia unfolding below, of the beauty still here.
I make it to the front gate of Primland by midday, but I don’t climb the steep hill to the lodge just yet. The road, a narrow, hairpin-turning affair called Didier Primat Parkway, curls above Meadows of Dan, which I just have to see for myself. The name makes me chuckle, like the Chronicles of Kevin or the Epic of Melissa, but “Dan” is the river here, and, it turns out, the meadows that surround it are fittingly epic.
I arrive back at the resort in time to throw my bags down at the tastefully appointed main lodge before hightailing it out again for a ride on an RTV, a sort of glorified off-road golf cart, one of the seemingly endless array of gentlemanly and gentlewomanly activities offered. My guide, Carlton, and I wend our way through the forest as if on a slow-motion roller-coaster. In woods that seem totally unpeopled, he points out mounds of stone that were once chimneys and, by crystalline creeks, the foundation of what was once a grist mill. The sun, though, is already turning loblolly pines into long shadows, so we head back to the lodge, leaving thousands of acres untapped.
The road cuts through some of the great forests of America, gilded on either side by endless wildflowers.
It’s late by the time I dine on a perfectly roasted pork porterhouse from nearby Tobaccoville, North Carolina, on the patio at Elements, the resort’s farm-to-table restaurant. From the newly built cellar comes a bottle of petit manseng from Monticello winemaker Michael Shaps. I sip slowly, enjoying a moment to contemplate the history of this land and this state.
At precisely 10:30 p.m., I climb up a spiral staircase to the observatory that Primat’s daughters built in 2009. The domed roof is open, framing a canvas of stars. Three large television screens surround a powerful Celestron CGE Pro 1400 scope. Rani Klisiewiz, the resident astronomer, greets me, then dials in some coordinates. The scope swivels; the roof does too. Suddenly, a cigar-shaped galaxy appears on the screen, glowing red. “That galaxy is 250 million light years away,” Klisiewiz says. “That means it might not even exist anymore.” For the next half hour, we gaze at celestial objects that may or may not still swirl in space. Some I recognize, like Orion’s Belt; others I’ve never seen before.
Staring at the heavens naturally puts one in a philosophical mood, and my mind goes to time and scale. I started this trip with eyes and senses fixed on Virginia’s terroir, how millennia-old soil and centuries-old passion have come together in the last few years to be expressed in bottles. Then I moved south to Charlottesville, where I was struck by how close history, much of it painful, still feels. And here I am now, peering into a darkness riven with light, at galaxies that may have already burned up or are per-haps still whorling away, where the future and the past rush by each other, like cars on a two-lane highway snaking through the mountains.
Next Up: Three Perfect Days in Puerto Rico