Orange County, Virginia, may be one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever visit. We traveled for miles on tree-lined two-lane roads seeing only the occasional decorative mailbox with the name of the large farm that was bordered by the fence running parallel to the road.
It’s home to James Madison’s Montpelier, dozens of wineries and two quaint towns – Orange and Gordonsville. Located in Central Virginia, Orange County is about 40 miles northeast from Charlottesville and about 80 miles southwest from Washington, D.C.
Please see the related stories from other stops on our Virginia road trip.
Our main goal in visiting Orange County had been to visit wineries. As alums of University of Virginia, my husband Chris and I travel to Charlottesville whenever we can. Since the time we graduated the wine industry has exploded in the area, but we’d never had the time to visit any of the wineries we read about. Now was our time.
So it was a bonus when we discovered so many other things to do in Orange County. Here’s our list of favorite things to do.
Visit some of the dozens of wineries in Orange County
When I mentioned visiting wineries in Virginia a friend asked, “Do they grow good wine in Virginia?” I answered with a resounding yes. And experts agree. It has been named a top wine travel destination by Wine Enthusiast magazine.
You could spend several weeks verifying the designation as there are more than 30 wineries on the Monticello Wine Trail, named in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the United States to produce top-quality wine.
We swirled, sniffed and sipped wine at four wineries during our visit, purchasing several bottles to bring home when we’re in the mood for a taste of Virginia.
Our first stop was Reynaud Florence, owned by Roe and Dee Allison. They planted grapes in 2006, starting with petite manseng, and produced their first wines in 2009. They now produce about 1,000 cases a year.
“I never meant to be in the wine business,” Dee said. “Roe said let’s plant a few grapes and make some wine for ourselves. It’s been a lot of work, but we’ve made so many good friends that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”
The tasting room has gifts and art for sale from local artists. When you visit, you’ll meet their friendly dogs T-Rey and Brixy.
Named after the mystical land where the “magic dragon lived by the sea and frolicked in the autumn mist” in “Puff the Magic Dragon,” Honah Lee produces wine from 15 varietal grapes on its 40 acres. The winery has a large tasting room and a patio. You can purchase homemade jams and jellies in the shop.
You’ve got to love the playful name of Well Hung Vineyard. You can tell the owners had fun designing merchandise with their colorful logo featuring pelvis-covering ivy leaves. Rather than a tasting room, Well Hung has a restaurant in downtown Gordonsville where we enjoyed a flatbread pizza and Chris ordered a bowl of mussels.
Our favorite winery, and the largest operation was Barboursville Vineyards, where we got a tour from the charming, enthusiastic Italian winemaker, Luca Paschina. Luca has been overseeing the 900 acres at Barboursville since 1990 with the mission of producing the fine wines that Thomas Jefferson envisioned for the area.
Now a bit of history. The property was originally owned by James Barbour, governor of Virginia and a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, who designed a mansion for him. The mansion was completed in 1821, however it was destroyed by a fire on Christmas Day in 1884 and the remaining brick walls still stand.
Barboursville has several places to enjoy its fine wines. At The Discovery Tasting Room and Visitor’s Center guests can purchase a card with six tastings. They can select their own from the 16 automated wine stations.
For more formal tastings, head to Library 1821 where guests can enjoy tastings and pare with light fare.
On weekends the Wine Barn is open, an outdoor space where guests can order snacks and wine at the counter and relax at picnic tables with fabulous mountain views.
For a real treat dine at the fine dining restaurant Palladio, open for lunch and dinner serving Northern Italian-inspired cuisine. We had a delightful lunch there, savoring every sip of the paired wines.
Stay on a vineyard or in a historic home
Our closest neighbors were the cows who roam the property by the Blue Run Cottage at Barboursville. We had to hang out on the gravel road leading to our cottage one evening as the cows were crossing and one cow saw no reason to yield his spot in the middle of the road.
We loved our charming little cottage, one of three suites in the cottage that had formerly been the home for Luca, the winemaker. We stayed in the Vermentino Suite, which had two seating areas, kitchenette and dining table in addition to a large bedroom.
Although it was too warm in August to turn it on, we also had a fireplace in our bedroom, one of my favorite features.
A cheese plate and two bottles of wine were waiting for us on arrival. Guests get a bottle of wine for each night of their stay and the innkeeper had emailed me asking for our preference or red, white or sparkling.
Guests also have coffee, tea, fruit, yogurt and another dish for breakfast left in their rooms.
Other accommodations at Barboursville include two other cottages: the Vineyard Cottage, an 18th-century cottage that was built for domestic servants and includes the Barbera Suite and the Nebbiolo Suite.
The Sangiovese Cottage was the gardener’s cottage and is suitable for a single person or a couple. There’s also the 1804 Inn, located next to the ruins, with three suites.
Another option for a luxury stay is the Inn at Willow Grove, which has 25 rooms in the historic plantation house and surrounding cottages. The home dates back to the 1770s. It underwent a massive renovation in 2008 when the current owners, David and Charlene Schibal, purchased the property. The property includes the Mill House Spa.
Visit a president’s home
A visit to Montpelier is fascinating, sobering, enlightening, and at times upsetting. Our only regret is that we didn’t have more time and we vowed to return. You could easily spend a day here, taking a tour, wandering the grounds, perusing items in the large gift shop and then hiking on some of the eight miles of hiking trails. You can dine at the Café at Montpelier, although it’s currently closed.
We had one of the best tour guides we’d ever had. He started by going around and asking every person in our group what we hoped to get out of the tour. Then during the course of our visit, he made sure to address every question.
During the visit to the home, we got to see original presidential portraits, other original art and even James Madison’s desk.
I brushed up on my American history and was fascinated to learn that it’s thanks to James Madison that we have the three branches of government, a concept he fought hard for.
The sobering part of the tour of course is that fact that 300 people were enslaved at this plantation, including 100 during Madison’s lifetime.
We were talking to Darlene Crawford, house team leader and historic interpreter, during our tour and she was telling us about the exhibition about slavery that has been installed in the basement of the home, “The Mere Distinction of Color.” It is the result of almost 20 years of archaeological and historical research.
“I saw a woman who had watched one of the movies and she was visibly upset,” she told us. “I asked her what was wrong, and she said, ‘I didn’t know our presidents owned slaves.’”
While that was not news to me, it’s hard not to be moved by other portions of the exhibition, including the story of some of the slaves whose families were separated when some were sold.
The archaeological digs continue and if you’re into that sort of thing, you can do like my friend Beth has done several times, join them! You can spend a week digging with the crew, learning how to identify artifacts and attending lectures and tours.
Explore the downtowns of Orange and Gordonsville
Orange County is home to two charming small towns, Orange and Gordonsville, less than 10 miles apart.
Incorporated in 1872, Orange was a railroad stop and home to a courthouse. In addition to offices, the downtown area houses several cute shops for browsing art, antiques and gift items.
If you’re interested in history, grab a Walking Tour brochure from the visitor’s center downtown or download one at VisitOrangeVirginia.com. Stops include the Masonic Opera House built in 1885 and the Rawlings House that dates back to the mid-1800s.
It all started with a tavern for Gordonsville, established in 1794 by Nathaniel Gordon. Famous historical people hoisted a pint there, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Major General the Marquis de Lafayette.
Gordonsville became a railroad junction, serving as a crossroads for supplies during the Civil War. A hospital, Exchange Hotel Civil War Receiving Hospital, treated sick and wounded men in 1863 and 1864. The hospital was converted to The Exchange Hotel, which is now a museum where you can see guest rooms and exhibits about the war and the history of Gordonsville.
Train travel continued after the war and during stops in Gordonsville, hungry travelers could load up on fried chicken cooked by African American women in the town who would meet the trains. That led to the town becoming known as the fried chicken capital of the universe.
Several of the historic buildings still stand downtown, housing several charming shops.
Dine at fabulous restaurants in Orange County, Virginia
You can shop for plants at lunch, dine on that famous fried chicken, and indulge in a gourmet meal in Orange County and we did it all.
It started as a tree nursery, then expanded to add a shop and café, pick-your-own farm and wedding venue. The Market at Grelen is a fantastic place to have lunch, browse for items in the extensive gift shop and then pick your own fruit from the orchards. Oh, and there are also close to four miles of hiking trails.
We ordered lunch and sat amidst the plants on a beautiful afternoon. Lucky for us, General Manager Hank Gregg was available and willing to take us on a golf cart tour of some of the 1,000 acres of property. He is the son of the owners and told us how the nursery just kept growing and the business expanded into other areas.
After the tour we headed back to the market for a flight of ice cream. That’s right, a flight. We tried six different flavors and it was hard to declare a winner.
You really don’t want to read about the history of fried chicken in Gordonsville and not be able to indulge in this delectable dish, right? Well, no worries. Champion Ice House in Gordonsville has got you covered with cold beer and hot chicken.
If chicken’s not your thing, they also have fried flounder, sandwiches, salads and a sausage plate.
For a more elegant meal, head to Vintage at the Inn at Willow Grove, where you’ll dine on gourmet food in a sophisticated setting. I can never resist tuna tartare, which was as delicious as it was beautiful.
Chris decided to try the cast-iron octopus and we chose a filet and seared halibut for dinner. Truly a memorable meal, made more memorable when we asked to take home some leftovers. They arrived gift-wrapped – in a black gift bag with paw-print tissue paper.