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(Image: Pippin Hill)

Take a day trip to this winery, cooking school and restaurant outside Charlottesville

Seeking a more immersive culinary experience at a winery than what a cheese board or charcuterie plate can provide? Then look no further than Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards. Located about 15 minutes outside Charlottesville, the property is part winery, farm, tasting room, restaurant and cooking school. I headed there recently on a cold damp February day made brighter with wine pours and seasonal cuisine in their cheery tasting room.

Vineyard manager Brooks Hoover gave us a tour of the five and a half acres of vineyards, part of the Monticello AVA (the winery is also a member of the Monticello Wine Trail), on which they grow grapes including viognier, petit verdot and sauvignon blanc. Adjacent to the vineyards is a kitchen garden managed by certified horticulturist Diane Burns, where produce grown is used as a seasonal basis for the menu. She's also overseeing the construction of a new chicken coop that’ll soon be the source for farm fresh eggs and poultry.

But it's probably the wine that initially draws you in for a visit, as it should. Pippin Hill currently produces 6,200 cases per year of fourteen different wines, from both estate-grown grapes and those purchased from nearby vineyards, and hopes to ramp up soon to 7,500 cases. Six of their wines were recently given awards at the 2018 Virginia Gold Cup. Pro tip: if you taste something you like there, buy it, as bottles aren’t currently distributed or sold outside of the tasting room. The overarching wine making goal is balance, Hoover told me; the wines are made to stand on their own without needing food to pair alongside (though you'll definitely be tempted by the tasting menu, more on that in a bit.)

My recommendation is to start with a tasting flight at the bar, then figure out your favorite(s) and spring for a glass or bottle. I was really impressed with their viognier, a northern Rhône native grape which has emerged over the years as Virginia's signature white varietal (albeit one that can be a little intimidating to pronounce. It's "VEE ohn YAY".) Pippin Hill’s is made in a dry style, with vibrant acidity and minerality and notes of lemon and pear; it would be a fantastic partner with oysters or any seafood, really.

Speaking of crisp whites, their sauvignon blanc is equally stunning, with tart green apple, bright citrus and balanced acidity that makes it super versatile with just about anything; I could also crush a well-chilled bottle all by itself on their patio when warmer, sunnier days are among us.

On the red side, my hands down favorite was the petit verdot, which touts notes of plum and black currant and finer, silkier tannins than what the grape usually provides. And if you share my love of bubbles, don't miss the sparkling blanc de blancs, made with 100% chardonnay grapes in the traditional method (like Champagne.) It's got a creamy mousse, with a clean style and aromas and flavors of green apple and lemongrass and just a touch of brioche. Super impressive.

The Tasting Room is overseen by executive chef Ian Rynecki, who previously had stints at Michelin-starred restaurants Danko and Spruce in San Francisco. It’s open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday through Fridays and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and closed Monday. In the late afternoons, the menu becomes a bit more limited; best option is to book a reservation for lunch. Dishes feature wine pairing suggestions, but feel free to go off script and order whatever you like--Pippin Hill’s wines are elegant, restrained and make nice with anything on the menu. The menu changes depending on the availability of ingredients; a few recent standouts for me are the farro piccolo with kale, roasted winter squash and parmigiano, linguini alla chitarra with fried cauliflower, a viognier reduction, golden raisins and chervil and peppercorn skirt steak with charred scallions, coal-roasted sweet potatoes and and garlic cilantro butter. Whatever you do, save room for the toffee carrot cake if it’s on the menu; like a cross between carrot cake and sticky toffee pudding, it’s served warm topped with basil gelato, crème fraîche and candied almonds (currently drooling).

For a truly special experience, groups of six to 16 can book the Vintner’s Table on Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., a four-course wine and food experience priced at $75 per person ($65 for wine club members.)

And for a more interactive fun for a date, girls’ night or gift, book a spot in one of their fun wine classes, which include a gourmet meal, two glasses of wine and tips and recipes to take home. Upcoming options include Chesapeake Bay Goes Gourmet on May 16, which focuses on how to prepare freshly caught fish and shellfish, Shenandoah Summer on June 13, a celebration of the bounty of summer with food cooked on the smoker, too, and Sauces 101 on July 18.

Not to say that a visit here any time of year won't be enjoyable, but having seen photographs, it's the spring and summer months that seem the most enticing, when the garden will be churning out dozens of different crops to use in the kitchen, from lettuce and tomatoes to beans and herbs. I'm definitely looking forward to returning. They'll be kicking off the summer season with a Solstice Wine dinner on Thursday, June 21, with a four-course meal and wine pairing on the veranda.

There are lots of wineries welcoming visitors in Virginia these days, but Pippin Hill strives to be just a little bit different, Dean Porter Andrews told me. "We wish to offer the most stimulating wine experience possible for our guests, from aspiring beginners to the most dedicated and knowledgeable wine experts," says the co-founder of the Easton Porter Group, who co-owns Pippin Hill along with his wife Lynn Easton. "We strive to share our appreciation for the regional farming and agritourism that is in our own backyard with our guests...all delivered with a welcoming sense of relaxed elegance." Yup, time to plan that warm weather road trip.