The Scoop: Upper Shirley Vineyards is the only winery along the James River, and it’s a great spot for an intimate date. Couples who appreciate tasty food and wine can make a day trip to the vineyard, which is only a 30-minute drive from Richmond, Virginia. The vineyard has award-winning wines available for tastings, and it also offers tasty food options through its indoor restaurant with outdoor seating on the property. Some couples love the vineyard so much that they plan their wedding, rehearsal dinner, or another special event here.
Upper Shirley Vineyards can be found just 30 minutes outside of the hustle and bustle of Richmond, Virginia. But it’s so quiet that it feels like a romantic getaway in the middle of nowhere. Situated along the banks of the James River, the vineyards feature lush rolling hills and a low country style white building for wine tastings and food pairings.
“We wanted to create a gorgeous and relaxing setting that drew people out for an afternoon, where they could have lunch or a wine tasting during the day and then transform the property into the perfect private event or wedding space,” said Catherine Cristman Hares, who is Director of Events at Upper Shirley Vineyards.
Couples come to spend the day at Upper Shirley Vineyards and its surrounding properties. They can visit Shirley Plantation, which dates to 1613. It is a National Historic Landmark, and the country’s oldest working farm. It is also conveniently located next door to the winery. Some couples choose to take a guided history biking tour as a date activity, and then return to walk through the vineyard grounds. This date destination has 19 acres of land, so visitors have plenty to explore.
There is also Palate Picnics, an innovative picnic experience that includes Upper Shirley Vineyards food and drinks paired with all the comforts that make a great picnic possible. Palate Picnics has worked to bring outdoor-inspired gatherings to Upper Shirley Vineyards for almost four years. All picnics happen on Upper Shirley’s back lawn.
Couples of all ages come to Upper Shirley Vineyards to spend time together. Throughout the year, a good mix of locals and tourists stop by to drink wine or grab something to eat at the restaurant.
Many retirees enjoy the food offerings, while younger visitors in their 20s and 30s tend to focus more on getting their drink on, especially on the weekends.
The vineyard is located at mile marker 30 on the Virginia Capital Trail, so it sees a great many active and outdoorsy folks looking for a relaxing stop or delicious fuel for their journey.
“We do have a lot of bikers, which could be a fun date. They can bike from the city or from a drop-off point, have lunch, and bike back,” Catherine said.
Couples often fall in love with the beautiful views at the vineyards. It’s a perfect spot for a light lunch, a private wine tasting, or maybe even a wedding.
“When couples come to visit for a date, they don’t know it yet, but they are already starting to venue shop for their wedding some day. Couples tell us all the time that they would love to get married at Upper Shirley and in most cases, we end hearing from those individuals when they do get engaged.
A History of Developing Award-Winning Wines
For wine-loving couples, Upper Shirley Vineyards grows several grape varietals that produce many types of wine. The vineyard grows a Petit Verdot, a Bordeaux-style red grape that thrives in Virginia’s climate. The vineyard’s Zachariah wine, which uses this grape, is 50% Merlot, 40% Petit Verdot, and 10% Tannat. This wine recently won a medal in the Governor’s Cup. Judges taste blind samples of wines from all the vineyards in the state and then choose their favorites for this prestigious award.
In 2021, Upper Shirley’s Tannat, a lesser-known Basque red grape also won an award at the Governor’s Cup.
The vineyard grows the official Virginia state grape, the Viognier, which was originally developed in the Rhone Valley and gives off aromas of peach and pear.
“We grow 4,5000 Viognier vines on the property. That’s an easy-drinking wine and is the most popular,” said Catherine.
Upper Shirley Vineyards also grows Merlot grapes, which are similar to the Bordeaux variety.
And the Upper Shirley team creates blended wines for wine lovers who don’t like bold reds. The vineyard has created two dry rosés that are a blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
“I love our sparkling rosé. It has this beautiful, delicate shade of pink and is the perfect complement to the seasons. Whether you’re celebrating a first date or getting married, who doesn’t love bubbles!?”” Catherine told us.
Prior to the pandemic, the vineyard held traditional wine tastings in person. However, these tastings have been put on hold, and wine tasting kits have become a new popular way for Virginia couples to sample the many flavors of the vineyard. Tasting kits are available for pickup on property and allow for fun at-home dates with top-quality wine.
Once it’s safe, Upper Shirley Vineyards will reopen its wine tastings on the property and welcome wine lovers back with open arms and delicious pours.
“A tasting takes about an hour, and you’re connecting and getting the history of the wine. Then you’re able to sit down and have lunch, or walk around the property. You have this beautiful view of the river,” said Catherine.
Offering a Variety of Dining Options at the Restaurant
The Shirley team has had to modify its wine tastings and food options in the last year. The restaurant is currently open with socially distant seating in the banquet room, tasting room, the front porch, back porch, and patios. All seating is first-come, first-served — no reservations necessary.
Due to its capacity limits, the restaurant frequently fills every seat, so the team has run with a picnic menu to allow people to take the meals on the grounds. The picnic menu offerings are all quick to make and easy for guests to carry to a quiet patch of open land.
Simply place an order on the back porch, and it’ll be ready almost immediately. The picnic menu is abbreviated, but it has proven popular for grab-and-go dates.
The picnic menu features many American lunch favorites, including a country club sandwich with ham, turkey, bacon, pimento cheese, mayo, lettuce, and tomato, served with chips. The grilled cheese is made with three cheeses and comes with soup. The market chicken salad has strawberries, quinoa, walnuts, buttermilk blue cheese, and champagne vinaigrette.
“The guests can sprawl out as far as they want and can socially distance. They can eat inside or on our porches. You can pick your spot, hang out with your family or friends, and eat high-quality food,” said Catherine.
The restaurant menu has even more indulgent and chef-inspired options than the picnic menu. Couples who want a traditional wine-and-food pairing experience can order the cheese board or charcuterie plate to go with the wine. The mezza plate, truffle fries, and mushroom flatbread are also popular among local foodies.
An in-house chef changes the picnic menu and restaurant menu about four times a year.
Upper Shirley Vineyards: A Cute Destination Outside the City
Richmond couples who want to get out of the city can make a day out of exploring Upper Shirley Vineyards. They can order food, sample wines, and wander the grounds at their leisure. It’s a good opportunity to reconnect with nature. Daters can often spot eagles flying over the river from the nearby nature preserve, Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, and many visitors like to take pictures with the horses that roam the fields.
“I can’t think of anything that has conjured the feeling of tasting my way through the hills and valleys of California’s wine country more than an afternoon wine tasting at Shirley,” wrote a journalist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
As Virgina starts to reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic, Upper Shirley Vineyards has big plans to reinstate many of the traditions it had to forgo over the past year. For instance, the vineyard plans to start offering live music concerts again this summer, as well as hosting the vineyard’s annual birthday celebration. Locals can find lots of entertainment on the events calendar.
“We’re excited to get our calendar back on track,” said Catherine. “We host a lot of events normally, and we haven’t been able to do for that the last year.”
Upper Shirley Vineyards is a place where couples can take a break from their everyday lives and have a dating experience — or an outdoor wedding — that they’ll never forget.
“You feel so relaxed when you’re here — you’re in your own bubble. It’s romantic,” Catherine said. “It feels like a destination getaway, but you’re only 30 minutes outside of Richmond.”