- - Thursday, August 16, 2018


A weekend in Harrisonburg, halfway down the valley and a leisurely 2 1/2 hour drive from Washington, is a perfect place to explore the history, wines, culture and natural beauty of the valley. It’s a lively town, in part due to the young people of James Madison University, and there was a wine and oyster festival taking place.

Harrisonburg’s elegant 19th century houses, its several museums, art galleries, a delightful Saturday farmers’ market, restaurants serving many different cuisines, and many festivals invite visitors. On the first Friday of every month, more than 20 venues in downtown Harrisonburg offer visual and performing arts from 5 to 8 p.m.

One of the most interesting museums is Hugo Kohl’s Museum of American Jewelry and Manufacturing in a converted ice house. Mr. Kohl creates designs in gold and silver, using antique carved steel hubs and dies. The tiny nuggets, or hubs, are no longer used by artisans, but Mr. Kohl’s filigree designs replicate the patterns of the 1920s. Three thousand of the little blocks are displayed along with the machines used to make rings, necklaces and bracelets.

The Warren Sipe House, built on the eve of the Civil War, is home of the Virginia Quilt Museum, displaying more than 200 quilts, dating from the 1840s. Twelve exhibits of antique and contemporary quilts from its collection and from traveling pieces invite the eye to remarkable craftsmanship. The current exhibit, “Fly Me to the Moon,” consists of 179 imaginative quilts by artists from eight countries celebrating man’s first walk on the moon.

Along with the quilts, the museum, which became a hospital for Confederate soldiers, has a resident ghost, the spirit of an 18-year-old Confederate artillery battalion commander who died of his wounds there. He was brought to the Warren Sipe House and, some say, never left. He has been sighted and even known to move objects from one corner of a desk to the other.

The Battle of Chestnut Hill was fought near Harrisonburg in 1862. The Harrisonburg Tourism & Visitor Center in the Hardesty Higgins House in the center of town, tends a small exhibit and a fine documentary on the war in the surrounding area. History walks with a fine tread here.

The town offers a varied culinary scene, from classic Italian pasta and pizza at Bella Luna, to pulled-pork barbecue sliders, fried oysters and shrimp and grits at Rocktown Kitchen.

We dined at the Victorian Joshua Wilton House, which doubles as an inn, beginning with a glass of wine in the small bar. Dinner started with a gift from the chef — a tiny arancini, a deep-fried rice ball so light it literally melts in your mouth. Lump crab beignets, with spicy carrot slaw and a touch of lemon chervil aioli, could not have been better. Main courses of scallops, duck breast, filet mignon, and mushroom risotto are prepared with care and served with interesting side items. The kitchen is equal to anything in Washington.

The less formal Clementine’s is a popular spot for lunch, brunch and dinner, serving salads, sandwiches and local specialties in an amusing atmosphere. Walls are decorated with avant garde art; whimsical touches adorn the bar and brick walls. On Friday and Saturday evenings, bands come to play. Food Bar Food is a cheerful, friendly place for brunch, where the crowd and staff are young and lively. The menu is extensive and varied.

The highlight of a weekend in the Valley might be a visit to several of the wineries near Harrisonburg. Virginia has the sixth largest number of wineries (250) of any of the states, and produces several fine wines, many available only at the winery. Traminette, cabernet franc and chardonnay are popular grapes in the Valley. We visited three wineries, set in their vineyards, and offering tastings. The winemakers greeted us like old friends.

North Mountain Winery is located in a delightful Victorian. Andrew Bender, the knowledgeable assistant winemaker, took us to the basement, where reds and whites are produced, stored, bottled and shipped. There’s a cozy tasting room on the main floor where we tasted the winery’s specialty, a refreshing, light 2017 Zweigelt Rose.

Third Hill Winery is the work of Ed and Wendy DeMello, who retired from unrelated jobs in California to become wine makers in the Valley. Ed built the rustic Western style building housing the winery with his own hands. Their wines include a delicious chardonel, a cross between the seyval and chardonnay grapes. Third Hill wines, especially the reds, hint more of France than California.

John and Shelby Higgs produce a fine, rich port, a rarity in the Valley, at Barren Ridge Winery, as well as a variety of whites and reds. Barren Ridge was an apple orchard before it became a vineyard, and the tasting room is in the restored apple-packing building.

Breweries are abundant in the Valley and the Blue Ridge and surrounding countryside offer splendid outdoor places to quaff and sip. Spend the night at the new Madison Hotel in Harrisonburg. You’ll return from your weekend sated, and with a bottle or two of good wines tucked in the back seat, having enjoyed the hospitality for which the South is renowned.

• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer, critic and frequent contributor to The Times.

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