Thomas Jefferson just couldn't get it right, but it really wasn't his fault. Jefferson, a distinguished statesman, inventor, architect and scientist, tried to cultivate Europe's great grapes in Virginia as early as 1770 but was interrupted by the Revolution, which left his vineyards untended and deteriorating. Though he tried nobly for 30 years afterward to perfect grape-growing in Virginia, his efforts were frustrated by climate and lack of technical expertise. In the end, winemaking became one of Jefferson's few failures.
Jefferson's disappointment, however, may have sown the seeds for today's winemaking successes. Currently, Virginia is dotted with nearly 100 vineyards and wineries, many of them near Charlottesville. The area is rich in history --James Madison's home, Montpelier, is nearby, and a short ride to the east are Jefferson's estate, Monticello, and the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, which Jefferson designed.
There are two dozen wineries within a half-hour drive of Charlottesville, and although it may call for some circuitous travel, the trek is rewarding. Jefferson Vineyards, where the president made his first plantings in 1774, is a short drive east of Monticello. Just over the hill is the Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard, a winery, food and crafts center with Albemarle House, a Georgian-style manor, as its focus. Kluge rambles over 1,800 acres, and visitors should be prepared to spend a half day touring its gardens, winery facilities and crafts shops.
Jefferson designed a handful of houses, including Monticello, Poplar Forest (his intended retreat, near Lynchburg in south-central Virginia), and Barboursville, built for Virginia Governor James Barbour. The ruins of that house, decimated by fire in 1884, bring added interest to Barboursville Vineyards, one of the state's largest wineries, about 29 miles northeast of Charlottesville at the intersection of Rt. 33 and Rt. 20. Jefferson's preference for Italian architecture is reflected in the winery's Palladio Restaurant, designed -- as was Monticello -- in the style of the Italian architect of the same name. Nearby is Horton Vineyards, which not only cultivates European varietals but also champions Virginia's native grape, Norton.
Turning west from Charlottesville, the hills are alive with beautiful vistas off the Blue Ridge Parkway. It's worth a detour to take a ride along that fabled road, and also to visit a trio of small wineries just off the Parkway. Just 15 minutes west of Charlottesville is King Family Vineyards, whose inducements also include Sunday afternoon polo matches in summer. Nearby in Afton are Cardinal Point Vineyard and Winery and Afton Mountain Vineyards, a pair of wineries with appealing picnic grounds and splendid views of the mountain country.