Sunset Hills Vineyard
The lure of autumn weekends in New England has, let’s face it, been dampened by a climate change reality that finds the thermometer hitting 92 degrees in mid-October. So as the cooler temps at last began to register, we decided to forego the foliage, and instead headed south to Northern Virginia – Loudoun County to be specific – to investigate an artisanal tippling culture that has started to generate a palpable buzz.
What we found was a laid back sophistication, with just the right dose of southern charm, plenty of breathtaking scenery…and yet just a short zip from all that D.C. culture and urbanity. It’s also one of the wealthiest counties in America – so, as happens, there’s a serious equestrian scene.
Here’s how to do Loudoun County right.
A sprawling estate of greenery and serenity, occupying 476-acres along the majestic Potomac River in Leesburg…and it’s very much focused on the restoration of one’s health. The spa offers signature wine facials and wine wraps, Aromasoul ritual scrubs and River Rock stone massages; there’s also yoga, guided meditation, zumba and PIYO, a TRX Suspension Trainer, and an indoor heated pool. Amateur melittologists and horticulturalists will want to check out the onsite beekeeping program and commune with the herb garden that feeds into Lansdowne’s kitchens. Seriously, you could really just luxuriously lose yourself in this place for a few days – but make sure to take them up on their custom hiking and biking excursions, so as not to miss out on the beauty of the surrounding nature.
There are actually more than 40 vineyards now scattered around Loudoun County; and from Food + Wine to The Washington Post to Wine Spectator, many of them are starting to win raves. Our fave was the rustic-yet-modern Sunset Hills Vineyard, where the main tasting room is housed in a 150-year-old Amish barn, beautifully restored; there’s also a stunning terrace overlooking the vineyard. The winery itself is powered by a couple of hundred solar panels. Highly recommended are their Viognier, Cab Franc and Rosé.
Other top Loudon County wineries: Stone Tower Winery in Leesburg, for its small planting wines like Rousanne, Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir; Purcellville’s rustic Otium Cellars, with striking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains (try their Blaufränkisch); and the opulent Creek’s Edge in Lovettsville, for its Viognier aged in acacia wood.
It’s true, even in Virginia, this small brewery comes off pretty hipstery. But they offer 20 excellent beers in a stylish, rustic-industrial taproom (and terrace), on the 53-acre Black Hops Farm. Ask for a flight of four, and make sure it includes the Ghost Fleet IPA, the Wraith witbier, and their exceedingly flavorful milk stout. On weekends there are decadent barbecues, and every other week they host Sunday Morning Yoga (with beer, of course). Weekdays, pick up tasty sandwiches, salads or box lunches from Leesburg’s South Street Under before heading to Vanish.
A can’t-miss for the equestrian-inclined is the National Sporting Library & Museum in Middleburg. And this fascinating exhibition explores the role of the horse in Ancient Greek society and mythology, through an impressive collection of art and pottery.
Face it, you’re always snapping away on your smartphone camera without really putting all that much thought into it. So book a session with Lansdowne’s resident photographer Gregg Stuessi, who will guide you around the ethereal grounds to learn some incredibly insightful techniques, those that will make your Instagram page seriously pop; add another class specifically for winter wildlife shots. Share the results at #LansdowneLife.
The Lansdowne is a particularly epicurean destination, as well – with half-a-dozen options for sating your autumn appetite. Absolutely do book a table at their signature restaurant, Coton & Rye, where the name hints at its culinary pièce de résistance. Indeed, its great point of pride is a namesake private label rye whiskey, created in partnership with the nearby Catocin Creek Distilling. Start with their signature Cherry Blossom Julep, which is made with that same rye, or The Boulevardier cocktail, with rye, aperol and sweet vermouth. German chef Marcus Repp’s menu takes in the best of local ingredients: Chesapeake blue crab dip, Tidewater seafood chowder, roasted rockfish, heritage pork chop with Virginia mustard crust…even the, um, Swiss cheese is sourced from the Old Dominion State.
Every Saturday afternoon guests and locals gather with members of the Lansdowne culinary team to learn how to better incorporate real (as opposed to the marketing-speak) farm-to-table ethos into their own cooking. And, of course, to eat the finished product.
Located nearby in downtown Leesburg, this chic restaurant is built around its Chocolate Lab (get it?), which influences much of what celeb chef Santosh Tiptur presents on your plate. To wit, mac & cheese with chocolate covered applewood smoked bacon; New York strip with Burgundy chocolate reduction; deviled eggs with cacao nibs. Dessert is obviously insanely decadent, from the Guanaja sour cream chocolate cake, to the Manjari Madagascar chocolate mousse, to an artisanal chocolate platter that might just change your life. There are also cocktails made with chocolate bitters, and signature spiked Tipsy Coco drinks. For full immersion, book a chocolate making class.
Other Loudoun destination restaurants: Mokomandy, for contemporary Cajun-Korean fusion; The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, which serves on-site-sourced organic dishes in a beautiful greenhouse setting; and Hunter’s Head Tavern, an authentic English pub in an 18th Century heritage building, with a menu of Certified Humane, sustainable Anglo and American comfort food.