We had a visit the other day from Paul Franson, the wine, food and travel writer based in the Napa Valley who was at Berry Hill to promote his book, The NapaLife Insider’s Guide to Napa Valley (2015). Paul writes about our three favorite things for Wine Enthusiast magazine, The Napa Valley Register, Napa Valley Life, Wines & Vines, and Wine Business Monthly, among other publications. He is a Regional Editor for Wines & Vines, providing that publication coverage of wineries outside of California.
We can’t exactly say he was promoting a “new” book. Travel guides are inherently dated, becoming obsolete the moment they are published. The first edition was published in 2012, and now three years later it already needed an update. Rather than discuss the book, Paul chose to present an overview of the valley and guide the crowd through a tasting or representative wines. Confound it, we mislaid the tasting notes, so we can’t tell you what we tasted. No loss, really — what we had was either wan or hot, and reminded us why we generally prefer wines from Europe, Virginia and New York. There’s the occasional exception, but those are rare.
When we introduced ourselves after the presentation (Paul had expressed an interest in visiting us at Annefield), when we chatted he mentioned a few other wineries he visited while in Virginia — Linden Vineyards, Barboursville Vineyards, RdV Vineyards. In our region, he visited just two, Hunting Creek Vineyards — and us. We’re pleased by the company, and anxious to see what, if anything, makes it into print.
Sunday, 21 June 2015 was a worldwide celebration of the International Day of Yoga, but we had a jump on it — a wine club member asked if she could have a yoga class at Annefield the day before, followed by a wine tasting by the participants. “Well, why not?” So they did. They brought lunch, spread out a buffet on the porch and spent the afternoon enjoying the wine, the increasingly warm weather, playing with the dogs and prowling about the house. They spread good energy and good cheer all around.
Our big plans for the day was a birthday celebration with two dozen friends, so the instant the class left we quickly set up tables and chairs on the porch. This gathering isn’t quite characteristic of us — we lean towards trying to control all aspects of one’s experience at Annefield, but not this time. So many people volunteered to bring food it seemed a gift from the Heavens, so we said (again), “Well, why not?” and a week prior put out a call for side dishes. The basic structure of the menu had been set: fried chicken (from Sheldon’s Restaurant in Keysville — people come from miles around for their chicken), and Smith Island Cakes (three of them) from Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
For those unfamiliar with them — Smith Island Cakes are definitely a local delicacy that we came to know many years ago when we had a tree farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore near the town of Crisfield, which is the southernmost town on the bay side in Somerset County, best known as Maryland’s Crab Capital. Smith Island is Maryland’s only inhabited island (Virginia has Tangier Island), 12 miles west of Crisfield in the Chesapeake Bay. The island is famous for a couple of things, one being the fact that the locals speak a unique English dialect that reflects the isolation of the inhabitants, which has an Elizabethan flavor that came down from their ancestors who immigrated from Cornwall and the West Country of England. Linguists have studied them for generations to gain insight into early English pronunciation. Care to listen? An Internet archive contains a sample here.
The other is the Smith Island Cake, which in 2008 was designated the official dessert of the state of Maryland. The cake is typically a yellow cake with a cooked chocolate frosting, but there are variations like lemon and coconut. Traditionally there are 10 extremely thin layers, and each slice is half frosting, half cake. We have a recipe but have yet to tackle this one, but they can be purchased from the Smith Island Baking Company which is on the island in the town of Ewell, Maryland. They ship the cakes frozen via FedEx (no doubt after a ferry ride to Crisfield or Onancocke, Virginia), so defrost for four hours or so before serving. They arrived in perfect condition, by the way.
We’ve been to Smith Island only once. It was an ill-timed visit, because we had not yet learned the rhythms of the season. It was early June, not yet dreadfully hot, but there was another menace afoot — the ferocious greenhead fly, Tabanus nigrovittatus. The female of the species needs a blood meal to reproduce, and the bite is horrible and they are relentless. Clouds of them followed the ferry to the island, and during the trip the captain got on the public address system and said with considerable tongue in cheek,”I’d like to introduce you to the state bird of Maryland, the Greenhead fly.” After that experience we stayed away from Crisfield the first few weeks of June.
One other tidbit to keep in mind: the inhabitants are devout Methodists, which means that Smith Island is “dry.” If you do a day trip to see the sights, don’t expect to have wine or beer with your lunch.
The Birthday Party.
There were reports of storms in the area in the afternoon, and we had hopes that they would track north of us. As the afternoon slipped into evening the skies darkened, and about an hour after things were in full swing, a thunderous storm swept in, pelting rain, tree branches flying (one smashed a hole in the table on the back patio). We had entertained the idea of setting up in the garden, but knowing rain was coming, set up in the shelter of the porch. The storm passed relatively quickly, but took with it our electric power. Fortunately there was nothing else to cook (kabobs on the grill), but we had plenty of ice, cold beer, wine and champagne (the Vermentino seemed to be the biggest hit). Also plenty of oil lamps, which were quickly deployed around the house, and we lit all of the candles in the dining room. There was no want of light. Afterwards several people remarked how cozy and intimate it all was.
When guests finally departed we had a call reporting a tree downed in the driveway, but one could get around it by driving into the adjoining field. We didn’t go look until morning, and discovered considerable damage. There is a wooded area between the vineyards and the house, and from the drive we could see seven or eight trees pushed down, either snapped at the base or uprooted. A second oak would have been across the drive had it not been stopped by a pine tree growing next to it; that one snapped at the base, too and needs to come down. All of the trees were lying in the same direction, which tells us that we likely experienced the devastating winds of a microburst.
Our electric co-op has an outage viewer on their website that allows you to see the trouble spots (we still had cell coverage). Thousands of households across the region were without power. The utility crews had a lot of work to do.
The tree lying across the drive was a white oak, about 40 feet long. A neighbor and good friend who does a lot of work for us offered to take them up for us if he could have the firewood, and said he could have it taken care of in a day. “Of course! Please, take it.”
Power wasn’t restored until 10 am Sunday, just in time for a quick shower before joining friends for a delicious brunch at Berry Hill and a well deserved giant Bloody Mary. They use somewhat obscene hollowed-out Slim Jim’s for straws. Not quite sure what to make of that, but its the perfect complement to the beast.
This edifice and its appendages stand on a very commanding height half a mile from the Roanoke which is formed opposite the door by a junction of the Dan and the Staunton . . . . The ground to the river is sloping, wavy and highly improved to a great extent up and down, which affords a fine view of the rivers and of an Island between the two latter of upwards of 1,000 acres in which that of cultivation — upon the whole — except New York or up the North River I have never seen anything so handsome.
— Letter from Wade Hampton to Aaron Burr, 25 October 1800.
Prestwould was home to four generations of the Skipwith family. The builders were Lady Jean Skipwith (1748-1826) and her husband Sir Peyton Skipwith (1740-1805). The second generation to occupy the plantation, Humbertson Skipwith (1791-1863) and his wife Lelia made modest changes to the plantation in the 1830s, but significantly upgraded the decor with the addition of grain-painted doors and very fashionable French scenic wallpapers by Jacquemart and Zuber.
As noted in the National Historic Landmark application for the property, “The domestic core of Prestwould was one of the most substantial home plantation complexes constructed in post-Revolutionary Virginia, and it survives remarkably intact.” The surviving buildings include the main house, summerhouse, office, loom house, store, smoke houses and slave houses. All of the dependencies are down slope of the main house. The arrangement of the buildings evoke life of the planter gentry in the early 19th century, and they are a significant and unique survivors.
The exterior is a rectangular, two-story structure with a hipped roof, built of cream-colored sandstone. Completed in 1795, the house stands in the center of the plantation complex. Relatively plain, the house has gable roof porches on the principal façade that faces the road, and the matched rear façade that faces the river. Having two fronts is an idiom common in the Chesapeake, where travel by the numerous rivers was more common than travel over land.
The interior of the house is especially noteworthy. The National Landmark Application describes it this way:
Outwardly conventional, Prestwould’s interior is remarkable for its juxtaposition of woodwork that reflects conservative architectural tastes with a circulation pattern so sophisticated as that of any large late eighteenth-century house in America. What architectural historians Edward Chappell and Willie Graham of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation have called the “marked division between rooms used for entertainment, family life and service” can be viewed as the culmination of a process that began in the Chesapeake a century earlier (Edward Chappell and Willie Graham, “Prestwould Architecture,” The Magazine Antiques, 147 (1995), 158). Evidence for the preference wealthy Virginians expressed for the careful delineation of public from private rooms survives in the names Sir Peyton Skipwith gave rooms in his new house. Prestwould’s plan, by means of service stairs, service entrances, and service closets that doubled as service passages, imposed these attitudes on the household, segregating service functions from both public and private rooms and the activities they contained. Prestwould’s floor plan also created a circulation pattern that rigorously channeled interaction between the family and the enslaved Africans who provided all household services. Prestwould’s plan, in other words, provides good evidence, first, of the evolution and increased sophistication of interior circulation patterns within the houses built by Virginia’s wealthy eighteenth-century planters, and second, the growing segregation of room function that was both a reflection of the pursuit of architectural refinement in late eighteenth-century Virginia and evidence of on-going adjustments to an enslaved labor force.
With its high degree of architectural integrity and remarkable preservation, its a pity that Prestwould is not so well known as other historic houses. Its preservation is no doubt aided by its location in rural Southern Virginia, which even today is not that well traveled. Given that it has not been altered, architectural historians from Colonial Williamsburg turn to Prestwould for information about eighteenth-century buildings, construction methods, and household furnishings and fixtures. The building and family are well documented, for the Skipwith family papers are preserved at Swem Library in Williamsburg, the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Prestwould is about 30 minutes south of Annefield, located two miles north of Clarksville on US Route 15. Open April 15 to October 31, Tuesday through Saturday, 12:30 pm — last tour at 3 pm; Sunday, 1:30 pm — last tour at 3 pm. Gates close at 4 pm. 429 Prestwould Drive, Clarksville, Virginia 23927 (434) 374.8672. Photography indoors is prohibited.
Our first experience with Vidal Blanc many, many years ago was on a trip to Canada where we had the pleasure of sampling an Icewine from a winery in Ontario (the name of the winery remains elusive — sorry). We served it one New Year’s Eve during a memorable dinner at Annefield in 2009. What was probably more memorable (to this chronicler) was the fact that everyone who was invited to that dinner assumed dinner on New Year’s Eve included entertainment until the fated hour, even though our intention was to have an elaborate dinner, then send everyone on their way to celebrate however they may. Our tradition is to dismiss the occasion as “amateur night” and go to bed early. But needless to say, the wine kept flowing, and five minutes after midnight everyone was ushered out the door. That is a mistake never to be repeated.
Anyway, ordinarily we aren’t that enamored of hybrids. To be frank: the taste seems a bit “off” with most. So we prefer to plant (and enjoy) the so called “classic” or “noble” vitis vinifera varieties — yet there’s something different about Vidal Blanc. Something special.
Vidal Blanc dates from the 1930s. A French grape breeder called Jean-Louis Vidal (1880-1976) was looking for a variety to use in cognac production in the maritime climate of western France. He used Ugni blanc (known as Trebbiano in Tuscany), and Rayon d’Or, a winter-hardy hybrid grape that was successfully used previously to breed Seyval Blanc. Rayon d’Or is itself a hybrid, coming from a crossing of Aramon du Gard and Seibel 405 (both of which were also hybrids). Included in this extended family tree are varieties from the Vitis rupestris (which is native to the Southern and Western United States and commonly used for rootstock) and Vitis aestivalis (a variety native to the Eastern United States).
Knowing how prolific it can be, we chose to plant just half an acre with the intention of using it primarily for blending our fun, off-dry easy to drink White blend. But with the 2014 vintage, we had so much, about half went into that year’s blend, and the other half for a single varietal Vidal Blanc, and we’re glad we did.
This Vidal Blanc is elegant and supple, with bright natural acidity. It exhibits a wonderful floral nose, complex tropical fruit flavors and has a very clean finish. This versatile and well-rounded wine is a lovely partner with seafood, spicy cuisine and sharp cheeses.
Only 73 cases were produced, but we’ll likely make more this year. We just learned that it was awarded a Gold medal in the 2015 San Francisco International Wine Competition, so don’t dawdle! We don’t expect this to last, so order yours now.
We do just two events each year at Annefield — our harvest party each October that we call Celebration of the Vine (mark your calendar! This year it will be on October 3), and each May we have our winegrower dinner called Spring Bacchanalia, which took place last weekend.
The first one was an intimate affair, with just eight guests dining by candlelight in our dining room. The second was much larger, with 48 people under a tent in the garden. We wanted something a little more intimate this year, and truthfully, the servers did not enjoy the 100 foot walk over pea gravel from the kitchen to the back of the garden, so we chose to limit the number of guests this year, based on a simple physical constraints — how many people can we accommodate on the front porch?
Last summer we hosted a Cajun crawfish boil that demanded outdoor seating, and we knew we could accommodate up to 36 people, but with all the courses and wine glasses, we needed elbow room and settled on 30 guests divided between two rows of tables flanking the front door. We now know we can manage 32 people comfortably, so that’s the number for next year.
Friday afternoon we had a little help from an unexpected guest. A black snake made its way up one of the columns to look for baby birds or eggs, and in the process cleared out the bird nests that get built up there each year. Not to worry — the baby birds departed weeks ago, so no harm done.
Saturday morning proved extremely humid, but we made quick work of pulling the tables and chairs out of storage and setting the tables, followed by the glasses and cutlery, which took hours. It seems like a simple task (and it is), but you want uniformity and precision, artfully presented, with each setting exactly the same.
Lighting came from part of our collection of antique oil lamps, which created a lovely rhythm down the length of the tables. Interspersed were blossoms from a neighbor’s Magnolia grandiflora for a decidedly Southern flavor — and the humidity certainly contributed to that, though by the time we sat down to dinner, it thankfully abated and the temperature was cool and comfortable the rest of the night, with the occasional gentle breeze.
Chef Paul Anctil, Jr and his crew arrived around 3:30 pm, expecting to begin serving at 5 pm. But guests weren’t arriving until 6 pm, so we were ahead from the outset. Time is the greatest luxury imaginable when putting on a party — there is never, ever enough of it.
So by the time guests arrived, sparking wine filling glasses, appetizers passing gracefully through the crowd in the front parlor, the room filled with friends old and new and the happy buzz of lively, excited conversation.
Many thanks to our chef and his crew, who outdid themselves that night, putting together a menu that highlighted the best local produce and producers — and our wine, or course! It was a delicious and flawless performance. Thank you.
Caromont Farm Chèvre Stuffed Peppadews with Candied Almonds
Smoked North Carolina Bluefish Mousse with Preserved Lemon Relish
Great Oak Farm Chorizo and White Bean Hummus
Shaved Edwards Family Farm “Surryano” Ham with Manchego Cheese
Roasted Fingerlings and Morcilla Michael Shaps Méthode Blanc de Noirs 2011
Rappahannock Virginia Oysters three ways: Bacon, Classic Mignonette, Sweet & Spicy Cucumber Annefield Vineyards Vermentino 2014
Melrose Bison Farm Buffalo Tartare with Arugula Salad and House Baked Crostini Annefield Vineyards Red 2012
Cucumber Citrus Granita
Braised Auburnlea Farms Chicken Thigh with Parsnip, Chickpea and Mint Annefield Vineyards Vidal Blanc 2014
Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Mushrooms from Sharondale Mushroom Farms and Hudson Heritage Farm Beef Bone Marrow and Potato Puree Annefield Vineyards Chardonnay 2014
Hudson Heritage Farms Albondigas with Cauliflower and Romesco Sauce Annefield Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2013
Duo of Bread Pudding with Annefield Vineyards Red Wine and Potts Chocolate Special Chocolate Sauce Annefield Vineyards White 2013
Friends visiting from California took an all too quick tour of the Virginia countryside and spent two nights with us at Annefield. They left Washington to visit handful of wineries up north, toured Monticello, hit a couple more wineries, then headed our way, arriving at 9 pm on Friday. The next morning with its intermittent drizzle and after a visit with our vineyard consultant, we headed out to see a couple of sights, starting with MacCallum More Museum & Gardens, followed by lunch in Clarksville at The Lake House, then on to Prestwould. We needed to head back afterwards to finish preparing dinner, but it was a civilized glimpse of Southern Virginia.
During a tour of Prestwould, we mentioned to our guide that we had visited MacCallum More that morning. This was an ascerbic and entertaining gentleman who told us about the irrepressible “Billy,” Billy being William H. Hudgins, the youngest son of the Chief Justice Edward Wren Hudgins and Lucy Henry Morton Hudgins, the couple who created the gardens at MacCallum More.
Billy, along with his mother, are largely responsible for the design of the garden. After a distinguished career in the Navy, he became a Senior Cruise Director with the Matson Lines in San Francisco; when he retired from the cruise line in the 1960s, he turned his attention to expanding the gardens. Billy took an early interest in the garden and collected artifacts for it during his wide-ranging travels.
The gardens began to take shape in 1927 when the Hudgins retained the legendary garden designer Charles F. Gillette to design the first gardens on what was then a 1.24 acre property (Gillette remains an unequalled influence on Virginia landscape design for epitomizing a regional style identified by an understated classicism, attention to detail, and the integration of architecture and the landscape).
Expanded over the years with the acquisition of neighboring lots, the garden now encompasses over six acres. A museum on the property that was completed in 1996 houses exhibits that help tell the story of the region — on the Thyne Institute, a school for African Americans active from 1875 to 1953; the Arthur Robertson Arrrowhead Collection, the largest public display of Native American arrowheads in the United States, and an exhibit showcasing the Mecklenburg Mineral Springs Hotel & Sanitarium, a unique resort that unfortunately burned in 1909 and was never re-built. A pity about the hotel, but at least we have this magical garden to enjoy.
For a detailed history of the gardens, see this link. The gardens are open Monday through Friday, 10 am to 5 pm, Saturday 10 am to 1 pm. Closed Sundays and major holidays. 603 Hudgins Street, Chase City, Virginia 23924.
We were taken up by a whirlwind this past weekend. We made a truly quick trip to New England for a niece’s graduation from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. Departing early on Saturday, we arrived in Hartford, Connecticut around 10 am. Not often in this part of the world, we resolved to do a little sightseeing that day.
Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine is in North Grafton, just east of Worcester, Massachusetts. There are LOTS of colleges and universities in the vicinity, so getting a hotel room proved near impossible, so we elected to stay in Hartford and drive. Not a bad drive; it was just one hour away.
Saturday: Hartford, Connecticut.
Hartford is what you would expect from a New England city — a little gritty, some parts charming, others clearly run-down, and still others just ancient. Our first stop, however, was not in Hartford, but a town about 20 minutes west called Farmington.
Farmington is one of those painfully precious New England villages, with streets lined with quirky grand houses, some with parts dating from the late 1600s to the 1920s — lots of clapboard and shutters, impeccably maintained and too charming for words. Greek Revival seemed to be the dominant theme, which was popular during the early Republic (c. 1820-1850). We took a turn down Main Street assuming we’d find businesses there, only to find more grand houses and Miss Porter’s School, the world renown all female college preparatory school (Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is one of its more fabled alumnae (class of 1947), as was Theodate Pope Riddle (class of 1888) (more on her below)). So we doubled back to Farmington Avenue and had a perfectly prepared pizza and a wonderful salad at the first place we came across, Naples Pizza.
We were in Farmington to see Hill-Stead, the country seat of Theodate Pope Riddle (1867-1946), the builder and founder of what is now the Hill-Stead Museum. The house is one of the best preserved Colonial Revival houses in America, and one of the first to be called Colonial Revival, and possesses a notable art collection.
Theodate designed and built Hill-Stead for her parents, Alfred Pope and Ada Brooks Pope. Alfred made a fortune in the iron business and accumulated a significant art collection that includes works by Degas, Monet, Manet, Cassatt and Whistler, among others, all displayed where the family hung them. Theodate specified in her voluminous will (we were told it was 83 pages long) that nothing should ever leave the collection, nothing should be added to it, nor should any of the works ever travel, and the house is to remain exactly as she left it. It’s a comfortable and commodious dwelling, designed to lay lightly on the land, as if it had always been there. When the house was finished she inquired of local farmers and purchased mature trees to transplant around the house so it looked like it had always been there.
She was among the earliest women architects in the United States. She was licensed to practice in New York and Connecticut, and became a member of the American Institute of Architects in 1918. All but one of her buildings still stand.
Theodate survived the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania in 1915, rather dramatically being brought to a morgue and presumed dead but for an attendant noticing the fluttering of an eyelash. A year later she married (at the age of 49) diplomat John Wallace Riddle (1864-1941). They traveled widely and adopted several children. Hers was a full and happy life.
From there we made our way back to Hartford to visit The Mark Twain House & Museum. This is the house where Twain (Samuel Clemens (1835-1910)) moved in 1871 after his marriage to Olivia Langdon to a house built with his wife’s money. He wrote his best known works there: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
The house (built with funds from his wife’s inheritance) was designed by New York architect Edward Tuckerman Potter in a dark, brooding, heavy style that defies categorization. If you were to call it anything, it could be called Victorian Gothic Revival, though truthfully it calls to mind the later scenes of Gone With The Wind (1939); recall the dark, dark house Scarlett O’Hara had built in Atlanta where she took a tumble down the ruby red carpeted stairs during a fight with Rhett Butler. Twain once wrote “How ugly, tasteless, repulsive are all the domestic interiors I have seen in Europe compared with the perfect taste of this ground floor.” (this from the Mark Twain House website.) Photography is prohibited, but we found images online — they don’t capture how brooding, dark and oppressive it is. It’s a curious thing, and one comes away feeling you know less about Twain than you did before, not more. The museum attached to the house may fill that gap, but we didn’t have the time (or patience) to spend time in it.
That night we had dinner at Trumbull Kitchen, a restaurant just steps from Bushnell Park in dowtown Hartford. Eclectic, fresh and lively — highly recommended.
Sunday: Worcester, Massachusetts.
The graduation ceremony was in the afternoon and we needed to be in Worcester by 11 am for brunch, so we headed over to Glastonbury to have a massive breakfast at Ken’s Corner Breakfast & Lunch. This is one of those neighborhood places that excel in short-order goodness — on the specials list were things like Nutella stuffed French Toast. We opted for eggs, bacon, sourdough toast, served with two pancakes as large as your head. All perfect.
We arrived in Worcester a bit early, so we drove around a bit to take in the sights. We found Bancroft Tower, a quirky Romanesque structure built in 1900 in Salisbury Park by Stephen Salisbury, III as a memorial to Worcester native George Bancroft (1800-1891), who as Secretary of War was responsible for the land-grab that brought into the United States the land that became California, Texas and the Pacific Northwest. Bancroft was Secretary of the Navy, the founder of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and served as Ambassador to Great Britain and to Germany. One used to be able to climb to the top to take in the view, but the thing is now shuttered. Still, go see it in all its quirky majesty.
Stephen Salisbury, III (1835-1905) was (naturally) the grandson of the Stephen Salisbury I (1746-1829), whose Georgian-style house (constructed in 1772) stands on the grounds of the Worcester Historical Museum. The house is closed on Sundays but we walked by and had a look. We’re told that it’s the best document house museum in New England.
The decor and the wine list at Boynton Restaurant and Spirits are nothing to write home about, but the food is absolutely stellar, and a great value for the presentation. It was a great surprise. Seafood is a real standout.
And finally, on to the Commencement at Tufts, which was outdoors under a tent, and but for the occasional breeze, a bit stifling in the 80+ degree weather. The speeches might not have seemed so long if the weather was more clement, but the overall tenor was one of self-congratulation by the faculty, not congratulation to the graduates. When it finally came time to hand out the diplomas, we had to hit the road to make our flight back to Washington. Still, it was a great trip — we learned something, saw new things, and had some really great meals.