This Washington, DC-area winery offers a sniff of history and a taste of the Virginia countryside. The wine? Not worth fighting for.
Not many wineries can claim terroir that includes 160-year-old lead shot and rusted belt buckles, but the Winery at Bull Run can. It borders the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Fairfax County, Virginia.
There, just beneath the neat rows of Norton grapes, the Confederates shocked the Union Army with a thrashing in July 1861, beating back the blues' attacks after hours of intense, blood-running battle. First Bull Run, as the battle is known in the North [it's called the Battle of Manassas in the South, for obscure reasons], sent alarms to Lincoln and the Union brass: This is not going to be easy.
The Winery at Bull Run has a unique story to tell, a lovely 225-acre spread, beautiful views of rolling hills, and, as the closest winery to Washington, D.C., a great location for weekend visitors. You can bring your own food and enjoy a picnic with a bottle of Bull Run's wine.
But, forewarned: The wine is not very good. More on that later.
Nice place to visit
The winery sits on 225 acres, its activity centered around two barnlike buildings designed to demonstrate Virginia's early agricultural heritage: a rustic tasting room and adjacent winemaking facility.
Only 8 acres are planted with vines; most of its fruit comes from a 115-acre farm in Rappahannock County, near the town of Little Washington, Virginia.
Norton: America's First Grape
The vines grow something called the Norton grape, which I'd never heard of. Originating in the 1830s in Richmond, Virginia, the fruit reached serious 19th-century viticultural cred in Missouri, America's Napa Valley of its time [!]. Norton returned to Virginia after prohibition. It's a hardy grape that can withstand Virginia's humid, stormy summers and you-never-know springs and falls.
Some of Bull Run's Norton vines are planted just 50 feet from the parking lot, on a high patch of ground that's nearly 100 percent clay. "It'll grow anywhere," tour guide Drew explained.
We got a taste during the vineyard-and-winery walkaround, and I've got to say I was surprised how much I liked the Norton wine [blended with 10% Petit Verdot]. The aroma was high with spice, there was some sort of jumpy fruit on the tongue, and it carried a touch of acid and tannin. Not wonderful by any means, but drinkable and unusual.
More on Bull Run wine & tasting: Sub-Meh
The rest of Bull Run's wines were a disappointment, even in the context of mid-Atlantic wines, which struggle for national recognition.
The presentation doesn't help. The tastings appear as six flimsy plastic cups numbered with Sharpies. The Viognier -- Virginia's most-grown and, sometimes, -admired white varietal -- was flabby, lacking the expected in-your-face floral perfume that distinguishes good Viognier.
The Rhone-style GSM blend [grenache, syrah, mourdevre] was a crushing disappointment, chaotic and rough. The cab and petit verdot were all acid and tannin and indistinct red fruit. The Chardonnay was okay-ish, tasting a bit like those mass-market $12 bottles with clever names.
Yet you'll pay for the privilege of tasting these wines.
For some reason it costs $15 to reserve a table in the tasting room. The plastic-cup tasting was $18. A snack box of grocery-store meats, cheeses, and do-dads was priced at $35, which was crazy. The production tour, which included a taste of five wines and a be-logo'd souvenir glass, cost $36.50. Our visit tallied just over $100, and that didn't include the $32 bottle of Vidal Blanc, a Sauv Blanc-ish white, that my lovely wife nursed while I did the tour. Had she joined, we'd be checking out at close to $150.
If you bring your own picnic and buy a bottle of Bull Run wine, you'll pay only $40 or so for the privilege. A way better value.
A safe place to picnic
My wife is no history buff, but had she been she could have taken in the displays of the Civil War history -- guns, swords, shot, shells, belt buckles, canteens, and so forth, all said to have been found on the winery property itself.
One sign tells the story of how, as the Union Army left Washington to head for Manassas Junction, intending to capture a key railroad depot, many Northern tourists came on horseback and carriage and farm wagon to picnic and view the expected glorious victory.
As the defeated Northern army retreated, the road was clogged with the battle tourists returning to D.C., slowing the soldiers' progress and exposing them to a devastating rout.
Today tourists can picnic on the same land without putting anyone at risk, Yankee or Rebel.
Winery at Bull Run: https://wineryatbullrun.com/