Loudon County's booming wine business makes it easy to visit a whole host of vineyards.

Whether you're a wine connoisseur or a novice, there's plenty to learn-and a whole lot of fun to be had-in the outlying portions of Loudoun County, Virginia. Attendants at quaint tasting rooms and sprawling vineyards will help you distinguish between cabernet franc and viognier grapes, stainless steel and oak aging techniques and wines made from wet summers versus those produced during drier months.

Residents of the nearby Washington, D.C., metro area may prefer to keep this quiet, but word is out: Northern Virginia wine country has emerged in recent years as one of the best in the U.S. Less than seven hours' drive from Columbus, vineyards are opening so quickly that even those in the industry have trouble keeping track of them.

"In 2002, there were 10 vineyards in Loudoun County, and now there are nearly 30," says Vicki Fedor, owner of North Gate Vineyard.

Loudoun County has the perfect setting for a burgeoning wine business, explains Jeffrey Judge, a vineyard owner and member of the Loudoun Winegrowers Association. The area has a mild climate, rich soil and rolling countryside that encourages moisture and cool air to drain into the valleys. Also, its close proximity to Washington brings a strong economic impact that has helped the wine business proliferate. "People need to get away from people," says Judge.

Grapes grown in Loudoun County stand out, according to many locals in the industry. "A lot of varieties that are grown here make us distinct," says vineyard owner Cameron Moore, referring to the region's cabernet francs, viogniers, petite merlots and others. He also stresses that the area's tendency toward small vineyards-such as Loudoun Valley Vineyards, which he and his wife own-results in more handcrafted wines than those that are mass-produced at big vineyards in California and elsewhere.

Making wine in Virginia is not a new idea, despite the surprise success of more than 200 vineyards and wine-tasting rooms now available statewide. As early as 1607, when the English settled Jamestown, residents were acutely aware that the climate is good for growing grapes. In the early days, however, tobacco became the crop of choice.

Nearly 200 years later, Thomas Jefferson attempted to produce wine at his Monticello residence. But numerous complications, including 19th-century prohibitionists, caused Jefferson to import his wine from Europe.

Finally, in the 1970s, there was a groundswell of interest. Since then, Virginia's winemakers have spent several decades perfecting their practice. As if to emphasize that point, just last year Monticello reopened Jefferson's original wine cellar, and the historic plantation near Alexandria, Virginia, now hosts regular wine festivals.

Meanwhile, the state's vintners are bringing home honors from around the world: the London International Wine Fair, the San Francisco International Wine Competition, the Finger Lakes International and even a Hong Kong competition. Considering the other amenities available in the area-historic sites, quaint restaurants, world-class resorts and a quick drive into the nation's capital-northern Virginia offers an easy driving vacation, whether it's a weekend getaway or a longer visit.

The shortest route between Central Ohio and Loudoun County is along four-lane highways from Columbus, going slightly southeast to Morgantown, West Virginia, and then due east. Enter wine country by turning south on picturesque, two-lane U.S. 15, which winds for less than an hour through the Blue Ridge Mountains, until you're in Leesburg, Virginia's picket-fenced horse country at the edge of Washington's suburban sprawl.

If you're looking for lodging, the Lansdowne Resort, a AAA Four Diamond recipient, is a good place to meet up with family and friends from throughout the country due to its close proximity to Dulles International Airport. Lansdowne has 296 rooms, a full-service spa, a golf course, swimming pools and sweeping views of Loudoun County and the Potomac River. The resort offers tips to those who want to tour the surrounding wine country. Arriving on Friday evening means being greeted with music from D.C.-area rock bands in the resort's cozy Stonewalls Tavern, where you can sample the hotel's own wine label. Breakfast buffets, perfect for kicking off a day of wine touring, are available in the Riverside Hearth.

Several bed-and-breakfasts also dot the area, including the Norris House Inn, a cozy six-bedroom home, circa 1760, in the heart of Leesburg. More accommodations can be found on the Loudoun County Bed and Breakfast Guild's website, loudounbandb.com.

While planning a trip, keep in mind that each vineyard's tasting will cost $3 to $10 a person. Visit a maximum of three or four wineries a day, as "many of our wineries can include seven to 12 wines in a tasting," explains Jackie Brown-Saunders, director of media relations for Visit Loudoun. Groups of 10 or more should make reservations for wine-tasting rooms and shuttle services, listed at visitloudoun.org.

Following are some of Loudoun County's vineyards, organized into three geographical areas.

LEESBURG AREA

In the center of Loudoun's wine country, historic Leesburg is located just 33 miles northwest of Washington. Established in 1730, the community has 21 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, including Oatlands Plantation, which is open to the public April through December. Slightly north of Leesburg is the base for White's Ferry, the only ferry that crosses the Potomac to Maryland.

Leesburg's brick sidewalks lead to a variety of restaurants and shops. First Fridays of each month feature evening music and other festivities. There are many special events throughout the year, including the annual Flower and Garden Festival, April 21 and 22, which will involve 150 displays by florists, landscapers and others.

Wineries just outside of Leesburg include:

North Gate Vineyard

From its 2009 gold award from the Virginia Wine Lover Magazine Classic Wine Competition to the 2008 gold from the American Wine Society Commercial Wine Competition, North Gate has won plenty of plaudits. Situated on 26 acres, vineyard owners Mark and Vicki Fedor planted their first grapes about 10 years ago, after spending years in the high-tech field working with an Internet provider. Their environmentally friendly tasting room opened just last year with power supplied by a large solar panel. Prior to opening the tasting room, the Fedors provided grapes to other winemakers in the area. "It's a very supportive, close-knit industry," Vicki says.
North Gate, 16031 Hillsboro Rd., Purcellville, Virginia, (540) 668-6248, northgatevineyard.com.

Dry Mill Vineyards and Winery

Located in the restored barn and stables of the former Loudoun Hunt Club, Dry Mill is one of the county's newest vineyards, opened in 2009. The barn's former hayloft includes an events room and two balconies overlooking the facility's nine acres. In cool weather, weekend afternoons will find a roaring fire in the hearth and entertainment by local musicians. This family-owned vineyard has released only a handful of wines so far.
Dry Mill Vineyards and Winery, 18195 Dry Mill Rd., Leesburg, Virginia, (703) 737-3930, drymillwine.com.

Willowcroft Farm Vineyards

High on the Catoctin Ridge, Willowcroft grows several varieties of grapes to make a range of red and white wines and has won awards from the American Wine Society. It's Loudoun County's first modern-day vineyard-Willowcroft Farm founder Lew Parker planted his first grapes in 1981.
Willowcroft Farm Vineyards, 38906 Mt. Gilead Rd., Leesburg, Virginia, (703) 777-8161, willowcroftwine.com.

POTOMAC AREA

The fertile soil along the Potomac River has proven to be a catalyst over the last 25 years for successful winemaking in eastern Loudoun County. Wineries here include:

Tarara Winery

The late Ralph J. Hubert-Tarara's founder and one of the original developers of nearby shopping destination Tysons Corner-had ties to Ohio: His parents owned a fruit farm that included a vineyard in his hometown of Avon Lake. For Hubert, starting Tarara in 1985 on a 475-acre farm situated along the Potomac was a retirement project that returned him to his agricultural roots.

The vineyard's wine-tasting room is tucked into the lower level of the house still owned by Hubert's wife, Margaret, and tasting room attendants like to share stories of the family's wine-making history. After sampling a few wines-six generous sips for $10-walk it off by roaming around the property to enjoy mountainous views and scenic Potomac vistas, or settle into a chair positioned near a Walden-like pond. During the summer, Tarara offers a Saturday evening concert series featuring mainly East Coast bands. Concert manager Kim Parker adds, "Wine is available for purchase at the concerts."
Tarara Winery, 13648 Tarara Ln., Leesburg, Virginia, (703) 771-7100, tarara.com.

Hidden Brook Winery

Just a few miles south of Tarara along a country road, Hidden Brook owners Eric and Deborah Hauck focus on American-French hybrid grapes. In the rustic wine-tasting room in a log building, sample the vineyard's reserve white and red blends, oak-aged chardonnay and full-bodied merlot and cabernet.
Hidden Brook, 43301 Spinks Ferry Rd., Leesburg, Virginia, (703) 737-3935, hiddenbrookwinery.com.

Lost Creek Vineyards and Winery

Adding still more diversity of atmosphere, Eric Hauck's parents offer this Tuscan-style tasting room nearby. Featured here are the vineyard's variety of whites, reds and rosés.
Lost Creek, 43277 Spinks Ferry Rd., Leesburg, Virginia, (703) 443-9836, lostcreekwinery.com.

Fabbioli Cellars

Before leaving this region of Loudoun County, stop at Fabbioli Cellars. A multiple recipient of the Virginia Governor's Cup and Eastern Seaboard awards, Fabbioli is praised for its ability to produce exquisite cabernet francs, as well as others. If it's available, buy a bottle of the Aperitif Pear Wine (which won the 2009 People's Choice Award at the Virginia Wine Showcase) to try back home.
Fabbioli Cellars, 15669 Limestone School Rd., Leesburg, Virginia, (703) 771-1197, fabbioliwines.com.

WATERFORD AREA

Founded in 1733 by Quakers who trickled south from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Waterford offers a handful of shops and plenty of historic sites, including a mill, a tavern, cemeteries, historic homes and more. At the Waterford Market, pick up a knitting kit, a leg of lamb and various local crafts. (There are no restaurants in town, so plan to eat elsewhere.) The entire village of Waterford and surrounding farmland was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1970. Among nearby wineries are:

Sunset Hills

After passing several vineyards along the way, you get to the party barn at Sunset Hills. The tasting room here is in a brightly lit, 130-year-old restored Amish barn where cheese and warm bread is served.

"A passion for wine" lured the owners into the business when they started growing grapes in 1991, according to Abby Ebbington, who oversees marketing for the 22-acre facility. But don't be fooled by the quaintness of the surroundings-owners Mike and Diane Canney are successful entrepreneurs who have figured 154 solar panels into their wine-making process.

The Canneys began making wine after Mike started several technology-based companies and Diane ended a career in intelligence. With a winery manager who brought experience from Oregon and New Zealand, Sunset Hills has won several awards. The party barn opened only three years ago and tends to fill up on weekends, when musical entertainment is scheduled.
Sunset Hills Vineyard, 38295 Fremont Overlook Ln., Purcellville, Virginia, (540) 882-4560, sunsethillsvineyard.com.

8 Chains North

After leaving Sunset Hills, you may be tempted to nap, but forge ahead because five other tasting rooms are barely a mile apart. Slightly southeast of Sunset Hills, 8 Chains North owner Ben Renshaw has made wine in the area for a couple of decades and still manages and consults with seven other local vineyards. "He does a lot of blending," explains tasting room manager Krista Hawk, regarding the vineyard's uniqueness among others in the area. From April to October each year, the spacious tasting room hosts local musicians every Friday evening from 6 to 8 pm.
8 Chains North, 38593 Daymont Ln., Waterford, Virginia, (571) 439-2255, 8chainsnorth.com.

Loudoun Valley Vineyards

In good weather, enjoy the spectacular views of the Blue Ridge and Catoctin mountains from this vineyard's wraparound deck. Winemaker Bree Ann Moore grew up visting vineyards in Sonoma County, California, and graduated from the University of California at Davis in 2002 after completing a wine chemistry internship at Beringer. She and husband Cameron purchased the Virginia winery in 2008.
Loudoun Valley Vineyards, 38516 Charles Town Pike, Waterford, Virginia, (540) 882-3375, loudounvalleyvineyards.com.

Crushed Cellars

One of the area's newest tasting destinations, this small vineyard offers a twist-cheeses made with Crushed Cellars' vidal blanc and cabernet wines, fresh baked breads and more. Focused on locally grown items, this tasting room sometimes even sells products such as eggs. Chickens and other animals occasionally greet visitors here.
Crushed Cellars, 37938 Charles Town Pike, Purcellville, Virginia, (571) 374-9463, crushedcellars.com.

Hunters Run Wine Barn

Visitors looking to experience Virginia's hunt country can stop by to sample local wines in this equestrian-style facility. Irish native and barn owner Geri Nolan offers a festive environment in which visitors can enjoy local wines and nibble on Irish cheeses and warm bread-all while sitting around the fire or peering over the rail from a table in the hayloft.
Hunters Run Wine Barn, 40325 Charles Town Pike, Hamilton, Virginia, (703) 926-4183, huntersrunwinebarn.com.

Sherry Beck Paprocki is editor of Columbus Monthly Homes.