It's been a long week. With finances run amok and the government hurrying to stabilize the economy, many Washington insiders and Wall Street traders are saying the same thing today: I could use a glass of wine.
Luckily, finding one won't break the bank. And weekend travelers looking for a short yet affordable trip are just in time for prime wine-tasting season between Washington and Richmond.
"On one hand, what's more disposable than a $20 bottle of wine? On the other hand, wine makes people happy," said Susan Westbrook, who owns White Fences Vineyards and Winery in Irvington, Va., with her husband, Bill. "We're still hanging in there at a time when, I think, it's sort of seen as an affordable treat when people sort of need it."
Pete Johns, one of the owners of New Kent Winery in New Kent, Va., said, "Truthfully, I think to a degree, the wine industry is recession-proof. People drink when they're happy, and they drink when they're sad."
Tucked between the Potomac and Rappahanock rivers, the stretch of land known as Virginia's Northern Neck harbors ideal conditions for growing grapes.
But the fertile territory is a fairly recent discovery for many of the area's vinters. Of eight wineries that stretch through the region, nearly all have opened up their doors to visitors since 2002.
"It's just the momentum that the wine industry has been gaining, not just in Virginia, but all over the country," said the area's veteran proprietor, Doug Flemer, who has run Ingleside Vineyards since 1980 on Flemer family-owned land hailing back to 1890. "People are becoming more interested in wine not just as a hobby but as a business."
Still, Flemer said Virginia vineyards, like so many businesses, are struggling in the face of a sinking economy. Whether paying double or triple for petroleum-based products necessary for wine production, or seeing visitors buy a bottle or two instead of a full case to save money, Flemer said the wineries are taking a hit.
"It has definitely affected our industry," Flemer said. "Everything has been affected by the oil prices, particularly. And now people are not traveling as much. I often hear that people are staying closer to home, but they're also staying off the roads, too."
If you do decide to venture out for a stress-free weekend reprieve, autumn weekends are an ideal time. Though harvest came a bit early this year -- "the grapes really tell us when to pick 'em," Westbrook explained -- October is a great month to visit.
"People like taking that fall drive through the country," Westbrook said. "It's a beautiful time, particularly in Virginia, to sort of sit out on the porch, take in the crisp fall weather and have a glass of wine."
At Vault Field Vineyards in Kinsale, owner Keith Meenan said now is the time for travelers to get out and see the fall foliage "before they have to hunker down."
Some attractions sprinkled from north to south include:
Potomac Point Vineyard & Winery
275 Decatur Road, Stafford, Va., 22554, 540-446-2266
Tasting: Starting at $5 for eight wines and olive oil bar
The northernmost stop on the Northern Neck Wine Trail, Potomac Point is about 30 miles south of Washington, D.C. Arrive on Friday evening and enjoy live music in the courtyard for $5. Or enjoy an afternoon lunch from the winery's bistro and relax in the courtyard or picnic area. The winery also offers October specials, ranging from 10 percent off three bottles to 20 percent off for a case, as well as food and wine pairings during the weekends for $22.99, according to owner Cindi Causey.
Oak Crest Vineyard & Winery
8215 Oak Crest Drive, King George, Va., 22485, 540-663-2813
The Brandts family officially started selling wine at the vineyard in 2003 in a move that co-owner Dorothy Brandts describes now as "a hobby that went astray." Today, Oak Crest Vineyard and Winery sells 11 wines, cheese and crackers, as well as artwork from local artists, including Brandts'. Relax by the patio firepit with a glass of wine or enjoy a complimentary tasting.
5872 Leedstown Rd., Oak Grove, Va., 22443, 804-224-8687
Tasting: Starting at $3
Ingleside is preparing for the winery's 29th annual harvest celebration on Oct. 18. For $15, the celebration includes a tour of the vineyard, winemaking demonstrations, crafts, music and wine tasting. Reservations recommended.
Last year, the bash brought about 800 to 1,000 people to the winery, according to Flemer, and the vineyard expects a similar turnout this year. Ingleside is also opening a one-bedroom house available for weekend rentals along the Rappahanock River. A two-night minimum stay will run you $350.
Belle Mount Vineyards
2570 Newland Rd, Warsaw, Va., 22572, 804-333-4700
Ray and Catherine Petrie had lived on their property for nearly a decade before they decided to go into the wine business. Today, their vines are eight years old and the Petries run a business that Catherine, director of operations, calls "quite arduous but rewarding." About two hours from D.C., Petrie said the property also has five two-bedroom cottages for rent for nights away from home, available for $95 per night.
Vault Field Vineyards
2953 Kings Mill Rd., P.O. Box 128, Kinsale, Va., 22488, 804-472-4430
Vault Fields opened in Sept. 2007, and to Meenan's delight, it has already won several awards for its wine. The vineyard has six wines available for tasting, with the tasting fee waived for visitors who buy four bottles or more.
Athena Vineyards and Winery
3138 Jesse Dupont Memorial Hwy, Heathsville, Va., 22473, 804-580-4944
Established in 2002 by three friends who worked in health care, Athena Vineyards is situated on the Great Wicomico River. Not much farther south in the town of Kilmarnock, travelers can also visit the town's Scottish Days festival, scheduled for Oct. 18.
White Fences Vineyards and Winery
170 White Fences Drive, Irvington, Va., 22480, 804-438-5559
In business for five years, White Fences offers $3 tastings for its Meteor wine. By request, the vineyard also hosts wine pairing events that allow visitors to sample wines with five rounds of matched hot appetizers, followed by a glass of their favorite wine, for $25. Rentals modeled on picturesque religious revival tents are also available for rent through Irvington's Hope and Glory Inn.
New Kent Winery
8400 Old Church Road, New Kent, Va., 23124, 804-932-8240
Tasting: $7, including tour.
The newest kid on the block, New Kent Winery opened its doors in May 2008 just 20 minutes outside of Richmond. For $30 this weekend and next, the winery is preparing for draft horses and large wagons to take visitors out into the vineyard to sip wine, taste cheese and eat fresh bread.