Virginia Wine Country has long been regarded as a bucolic oenophile destination, especially for Washingtonians who are just 65 miles north. Chef José Andrés went so far as to deem the area "more beautiful than Napa Valley." But somehow, the image of cushy country inns and rolling green pastures, while wholesomely alluring, doesn't exactly top the list for a dynamic weekend retreat. As small businesses, farms, and artisans begin to rival wineries in number and ingenuity, however, that's quickly changing.
Here's 9 of the best new places to drink, eat, stay, shop and relax in Virginia wine country. (Pair these newcomers with this list of the best wineries to visit in Virginia plus chef Andrés' picks, for a perfect trip.) An added bonus is that most of the action is taking place in the region's stunning Rappahannock County, where regulations against stoplights and chain stores make it feel like a step back in time.
One of the most exciting arrivals to Virginia wine country is, well, a brewery. Pen Druid is run by three brothers, Van, Jennings and Lain Carney, who are making beer that is literally from the land. Wild yeast is collected from right outside the brewery, and the base malt is from a whiskey distillery across the parking lot. And while their hops are currently from all over the world, their goal is to ultimately get them, along with oak barrels the beer is fermented in, from the many local farmers and producers. The brewing process is really more like winemaking, with wood firing and barrel fermenting, resulting in unique and varied beers that can taste different each time. The brewery itself, in the small town of Sperryville, feels more like Belgium than Virginia, where people of all ages come to connect with family and mingle with neighbors at the long and narrow communal tables. No TVs or bands make conversation the main focus.
You no longer have to choose between breaking the bank at a fancy inn or ruining your diet at a greasy spoon while in Virginia wine country. Here's what's happening on the food front.
A serene location for a quiet country lunch, Tula's is located in the heart of Little Washington. Sit outside in the courtyard when the weather permits and enjoy what they do best — fresh, reliable, classic Americana lunch fare, like Chicken Salad on sourdough, made with chicken raised on a nearby farm.
There's raw chocolate magic happening out in these Blue Ridge Mountains. The team at Immortal are infusing un-roasted cacao with herbs, nuts, and spices grown on their own farm, and sweetening it with the likes of organic maple syrup and coconut palm sugar. The result is some of the most interesting chocolate going, like the Black Flower bar, raw honey-sweetened with maca, vanilla, and lucuma, topped with fresh bee pollen; or Forest Cove, a blend of rosemary, golden mulberries, and Celtic sea salt; and Heart Chakra, their homage to Ayurveda, with spicy cayenne pepper, aromatic holy basil, Medjool dates, and coconut palm sugar. You can find the bars at a number of local shops, including gluten-free bakery Triple Oak in Sperryville.
As local as it gets, Timbercreek Market in Charlottesville sells seasonal vegetables and pastured meats from its very own farm. Though they've been offering the likes of kale Caesar salad and a home-grown roast beef sandwich for breakfast and lunch at the café for awhile, they've just started serving dinner on Thursday through Saturday nights (perfect for the weekender). Meat is definitely the star here and everything feels distinctly from the land, like the hay-smoked pork tenderloin with fennel pollen crust and the 60-day dry-aged bone-in ribeye. Where else can you eat a steak that grazed on a pasture less than 6 miles away? This is a great place to eat after visiting Charlottesville area wineries like Barboursville and Blenheim.
In the time of local everything, Burger Bach is going rogue. This gastropub, also in Charlottesville, sources its meat from New Zealand, where the owners believe they find the best all-natural, grass-fed beef and lamb. They're offering some serious burger innovation, with ingredients like Manuka Honey Dijon dressing, jalapeño remoulade, free-range mayo and more. Paleo-lovers and grass-fed enthusiasts rejoice.
The White Moose Inn in Little Washington offers a contemporary (read: cool) alternative to the ornate and wallpapered country inns and B&B's that were once the area's only options. With Scandinavia-meets-Napa-inspired design, the white-washed minimal look of the 6-bedroom inn is tempered by its age and history, having been built in 1834 and used as a confederate command center during the Civil War. Sleek Italian linens, beds and white marble are contrasted with vintage furnishings, wood-burning furnaces and strategically-placed agrarian antiques. Each bedroom (five in the main building and one stand-alone cottage) is completely sound-proofed, to maximize privacy, and outfitted with a king-sized bed, which can be hard to come by in small country inns. The mix of country charm and modern luxury extends to the service and experience — in addition to the WiFi code on the welcome note, you're given the manager's direct number. Additional perks include complimentary breakfast (at a very reasonable 8-10am) and a happy hour featuring local wines, Bluetooth music in the shower, 10% off at the neighboring Wellness Spa, and vintage bikes at your disposal, which is the ideal way to explore the small town. Expansion plans slated for 2017 include an additional cottage and a pool, furthering the wine country resort feel.
The Shenandoah area of Virginia is such an incredible food shed with so many talented growers, producers and artisans. But for a weekend visitor, it's hard to cram everything in. Until now. The Village Market, opened the Inn at Little Washington, brings together an incredible network of local farmers, artisan producers, and craftspeople in a small, charming alley in Little Washington. Vendors rotate each week so there's always something new, but here's what you can expect: a local apothecary selling herbal remedies, the town's Sunnyside Farm offering the prettiest no-spray produce (ever seen a purple pepper?), and the Inn itself selling baked goods (don't miss the salted oatmeal raisin cookies) and Carolina-style pulled pork sandwiches. The live bluegrass is a sweet touch.
Not new, but probably the best-kept local secret in the area is Waterpenny Farm's drive-through stand. Ignore the lure of "local" honey and produce at the farm's entrance (unaffiliated with Waterpenny) and drive up the gravel road to the barn where you can park your car, hop out, and shop for the freshest produce and eggs around. Waterpenny is especially renowned for its prolific variety of heirloom tomatoes. Though not officially labeled "organic" (small farms often struggle to pay for the expensive and red tape-laden designation) they don't spray and follow ecological practices.
They're pulling off a palpable holistic vibe in this full-service spa, the first of its kind in the area — from the book of mantras in the waiting room to the salt lamps by the massage tables to the full line of high-end organic products by covetable organic skincare label Eminence. Stop in for an age-defying facial, massage, reflexology, wellness coaching and more. Another cool offering: there's a super knowledgeable staffer who offers guided hikes throughout the county.