Written and Photographed by Annie Leister
Late spring in Charlottesville means it’s time to start hitting the vineyards for afternoon Virginia winery picnics. With more than 30 boutique wineries in the region, we’re lucky to have a bunch of opportunities to take in views of our Blue Ridge Mountains while eating, drinking, and relaxing outside on their properties.
Since winery visits are one of my favorite ways to spend a warm-weather weekend, I’m always on the lookout for new picnic ideas to try with our local wines. Here are a few of my favorite Virginia vineyards, paired with wine-friendly picnic lunches that won’t break the bank.
BRENT MANOR VINEYARDS
Along with the views and the warm welcome from owners Tracie and Jorge, I love Brent Manor for the variety of wines available. As a smaller winery, they’re limited in the scope of their on-site production, but always have several Portuguese imports available to round out the selection-recently including a dry sparkling wine by Luis Pato.
And for your friends that still aren’t sure how they feel about wine, there is always a wine cocktail special. I am not normally one to condone wine-heavy mixed drinks, but on another trip to Brent Manor I enjoyed a refreshing, Traminette-based libation with lemon juice and simple syrup that hit the spot on one of Virginia’s more humid summer afternoons.
Speaking of summer in Virginia, let’s talk fried chicken. My boyfriend and I put our friends in charge of the food for a picnic at Wine Till Nine, one of Brent Manor’s weekend concert events, and we were pleasantly, if laughably, surprised when they showed up carting a red-and-yellow Bojangles Box: 12 pieces of seasoned fried chicken, six biscuits, and sides of coleslaw, dirty rice, and mac and cheese. Although bubbles are always a good choice for fried chicken, we decided to try one of Brent Manor’s in-house selections and picked the Viognier.
Though Viognier is French in origin (could you tell from all those vowels?), it’s become the signature grape of Virginia. Almost every winery in central VA has one as part of their lineup, but there’s quite a range of styles. Floral is probably the most common adjective that you’ll see on tasting room lists, and it often has honey and peach or apricot flavors as well. With this light and aromatic flavor profile, Brent Manor’s Viognier was an indulgent, just plain fun match for fried chicken.
The drive out to Moss Vineyards from Charlottesville is not for the faint of heart. The tasting room is about 40 minutes north of downtown and takes you up some steep, narrow mountain roads. But the views, and the privacy, are worth it.
For our picnic on their covered patio, I tried something I’ve wanted to do for years: a taste test pairing local wine with Bodo’s Bagels, a much-loved group of three New York-style bagel shops found only in Cville. This turned out to be the cheapest of our vineyard picnics. For a group of four, we bought a dozen bagels and three spreads for just $20.04. And despite skimping on the food budget, we still ended up with some spot-on pairings.
Bodo’s jalapeño lime cream cheese, sweet and bright and with just a bit of vegetal spiciness, was lovely with Moss’s Viognier (and color-coordinated with the bottle to boot). But the surprise hit of the day was the Vino Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon with olive cream cheese. Bodo’s makes this spread with black olives and also pimento-stuffed green olives.
I love olives any way they come, but something like a sharp tapenade would have been much harder to pair with wine. This dip left just an impression of olives instead of a palate punch. It’s a cream cheese with some brine and some depth, and it highlighted the gently aged Vino Rosso for an unexpected win.
GRACE ESTATE WINERY
After doing two non-traditional picnics, we decided to go somewhat back to basics and spend a vineyard afternoon eating Things on Toast at Grace Estate Winery. A lot of vineyards now offer baguettes and snacks, but these can be up-charged quite a bit. I’ve seen $15-$20 for half a baguette and a few pieces of cheese. While it’s nice to have options for an impromptu vineyard visit, this one was a planned-ahead picnic.
For an easy bread option with no slicing needed, we settled on Wegmans brand Rosemary & Sage Bruschette Toasts. At $2.99 for a bag of approximately 48 mini-toasts, there’s a lot of room for ingredient trial and error! We also picked up a few cheeses, roasted garlic hummus, a jar of roasted red peppers, and a package of Citterio bresaola-similar to prosciutto but made with air-dried beef.
Grace’s Estate Chardonnay was versatile enough to work with a lot of these ingredients. It’s medium-bodied and bright and has a mildly creamy finish from light oak. A small amount of Viognier gives it hints of stone fruit and makes it more summery than your typical Chardonnay.
Our favorite toast matchup was the bresaola with Beemster Gouda. The rosemary sage toasts added a savory, herbal flavor and a nice texture, like more refined croutons. Garlic hummus by itself was a little sharp to work well with wine, but the sweet red peppers toned it down and made it play nicer with the Chard.
For something sweet, we brought a few jams and a mozzarella to add creaminess (and because I want cheese in all courses of every meal whenever possible). We crafted these dessert bites on Saltines for a hit of salt to round out the flavors, but if you’re not partial to a salty-sweet combo, water crackers or even boxed shortbread would be nice alternatives. We paired these with Le Gras Cuve, an approachable white blend of mostly Vidal Blanc that has a sweet, tropical aroma but no residual sugar. It was perfect with an apricot peach jam.
Grace Estate makes lunch setup easy with plenty of round tables on the patio as well as picnic tables out on the grass under old oak trees. The tasting room and patio are built over a sloping hill for better views of the fields and mountains.
Pro tip: for a picnic like this with lots of moving parts, make sure to bring a small cutting board, plenty of spoons and not-too-sharp knives, and a handful of napkins or kitchen towels. Plus ice packs for the cheeses, meats, and jams!
Annie Leister was born and raised in Pennsylvania Dutch country, but is now a southern transplant enjoying grits, red-eye gravy, and Virginia wine. When not eating or drinking à la south, Annie works as a freelance writer, editor, and interpreter.