A Weekend in Charm City.

Wings

Not really a weekend, but a day and a night in Baltimore to see Billy Joel in concert at the M&T Stadium.  Friends invited us, they had secured killer seats in a box in the stadium, so why not?

We arrived at lunchtime in time to join our friends at Kona Grill next to the Convention Center on the Inner Harbor.  We haven’t been to Baltimore in ages and have fond memories of the quirky neighborhoods where you could still find a corner neighborhood bar populated with burly longshoremen and teamsters, and in summer the painted screens in the windows of many of the houses in and around Fell’s Point.

Painted window screens are a unique Baltimore folk art, but sadly we didn’t see any.  No surprise there, really; Fell’s Point has turned decidedly upmarket from when we visited occasionally in the late 1980s, and with houses being modernized comes air conditioning.  Something was lost there, but we see that there are societies seeking to promote and preserve the practice, which is a good thing, but we think the authenticity of them might be lost to history.  An entry in Wikipedia notes that an estimated 100,000 painted screens once festooned houses in Baltimore, but a census in 2014 put the number at 1,000.  That’s a real pity.  Fortunately the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore maintains a permanent exhibit of examples, though we would rather see them in situ.

Kona Grill was selected for lunch because it provided a perfect vantage point to watch the parade of participants at Otakon, a convention taking place that weekend in Baltimore.  We joked that it was difficult to tell the conventioneers from the locals.  Otakon has been a feature each year in Baltimore since 1999. We don’t fully understand it, but its devotees enjoy “costume play,” or “cosplay” and dress up however they choose to create and present characters.  Its all very surreal — some dressed as pirates, we spotted one gentleman dressed as Colonel Saunders and carrying a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken; others were otherworldly creatures carrying impossibly large mallets or swords from video games, anime, movies — you pick it, they dressed it.  It might be worth the price of admission to the convention to see what goes on in there.

This surreal scene reminded us of another visit to Baltimore.  It was 1997, the 25th anniversary of Pink Flamingos (1972), John Waters’ break-out cult classic which was re-released that year with improved sound.  We attended a screening at the Charles Theatre on Charles Street, but first decamped to the Club Charles across the street to have a drink.  Things were still a bit dicey in the neighborhood and we had to be buzzed in, but imagine our surprise to see holding court at the bar but John Waters!  “The only movie I want to see right now is Anaconda,” he said (he was chatting with the bartender).  We kept a respectful distance and had a quick drink, then joined the growing line for the movie, which stretched down the block.  A few minutes later, out came Mr Waters, who put his arms akimbo, took a minute to take in the scene, and smiling approvingly, got into a late-model Buick parked in the adjoining lot and drove off.

We had an early dinner at Barcocina, a Mexican-inspired restaurant with breathtaking views of the Inner Harbor, then took a water taxi across the harbor to the stadium.  The concert?  Truthfully, underwhelming (we’ve heard it all before), but a great day and a night out.  Breakfast the next morning at Jimmy’s Restaurant on Broadway in Fell’s Point reminded us of old Baltimore, with the presentation of a heaping helping of pan-seared scrapple.

Kona Grill, 1 E Pratt Street, Baltimore, MD 21202 (410) 244.8994

Barcocina, 1629 Thames Street, Baltimore, MD 21231 (410) 563.8800

Jimmy’s Restaurant, 801 South Broadway, Baltimore, MD 21231 (410) 327.3273

Mallet Scimitar GrootBilly Joel

Downy Mildew is a Downer.

Downy Mildew
Downy Mildew

After a blissful few days in Cape Cod, reality came crashing back last week when we returned to the vineyard to discover that we’ve developed a mild case of downy mildew.  With downy mildew, the pathogen colonizes the underside of the leaves, causing them to wither and collapse — just when we need the leaves to ripen the fruit.

In years past we’ve been able to avoid this scourge. This year, with the relentless, almost daily rain, and an unfortunate accident made it unavoidable. You’ll recall that on June 20 we had a birthday party at Annefield and a devastating storm moved in, taking with it a number of large trees and our power supply. What we did not realize at the time, however, was that the wind took hold of the door of the tractor, flung it open and shattered the glass and bent the frame.

We only learned of this the next Monday, called our equipment service, Spaulding Equipment, which took it away and ordered a new door, which of course takes time. In the meantime, the sent us a loaner, which was all well and good, but halfway through spraying the damn thing caught fire. That isn’t going to work, and with no other tractor to be had, we had to wait.

So two weeks went by without a proper fungicide spray, and the downy mildew took hold. Finally this week with equipment again the way it should be, we’re back on a rigorous spray schedule to keep this beast at bay. Fortunately it can be controlled, but now that its in the vineyard, we must be extra-careful to keep it contained. The fruit isn’t affected now, just the leaves, but we must be careful to make sure it doesn’t infect the fruit. Not the end of the world, and véraison is just around the corner — while walking the vineyard this past weekend we spotted one cluster in the Cabernet Sauvignon that is nearly completely purple. Where has the time gone?  Clearly, time waits for no one.

Cabernet Sauvignon Berries

The Glass Onion in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Golden Watermelon Salad
Golden Watermelon Salad, The Glass Onion, Falmouth, Massachusetts

We were back in Massachusetts again last weekend, but this time for a wedding.  You would think with all this time away that we don’t have a winery to run.  That has taken on a life of its own, but anyway this was a family obligation we completed willingly and with great pleasure.

Not having quite recovered from the trip, and finding our self-imposed publication deadline looming, this week we’ll tell you about one thing we experienced and utterly enjoyed during our three days on the Cape — dinner at The Glass Onion in Falmouth.

Summers on the Cape bring to mind boat shoes, shorts, sandy feet, “lobstah” stands and seafood shacks and ice cream stores (with interminable lines after dinner).  Each town on the Cape has its own vibe and its own following, you’ll find people who go to, say, Hyannis or Dennis or Chatham or Provincetown and just stay there, in part because each town has everything you need (“putt-putt golf?”  Check.  “Inflatables store?”  Check.  “Overpriced antique store?”  Check.  Aaaand done.

It probably has more to do with what a pain it is to get around, with so many people whizzing about not very many roads, and many of them the driven sort from New York or Boston with expensive beach houses.  We saw more than one Bentley parked at the side of the road.

Then you have the locals who refer to the rest of the world as “Off Cape,” which of course implies there are only two ways to be: either the unsaid “On Cape” and everything else, which implicitly makes the Cape the center of the universe.  To them, perhaps it is — they don’t seem to stray off it much.  It does feel very much like an island wherever you are, so don’t feel compelled to make the trek to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket to experience island life.

The frenetic traffic whizzing past falls away a distant memory when you walk into The Glass Onion, a model of quiet repose.  Sophisticated but not stuffy, clean colors  and a muted setting to highlight the best of the clientele and the food.  Service is discreet and efficient, the menu sufficiently varied to call for innumerable repeat visits, and a wine list full of interesting choices.  We selected the 2014 DeMorgenzon Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch to accompany our Golden Watermelon Salad and Grilled Sea Bass on a bed of lentils. We skipped dessert (too tight trousers gave pause), but now regret it. This place is not to be reserved for special occasions, and should be patronized early to assure a seat (reservations are only for parties of six or more) and often.  It’s a place to savor the best of Cape Cod, and it’s one of the better restaurants we’ve encountered anywhere.

The Glass Onion, 37 North Main Street, Falmouth, Massachusetts 02540 (508) 540.3730
Grilled Sea Bass

Some Musings on Clarksville, Virginia.

Lately we’ve found ourselves in Clarksville rather often.  We’ve been on an art buying spree and need things expertly framed, and one of the best in the region Linda Davenport at the Galleria On the Lake in downtown Clarksville.  The work is meticulous, the frame (and the frame makes the piece) is always, always chosen after much careful deliberation.  She’s an artist.

The Galleria also sells wine from all of the wineries in the region, so if you want “one stop shopping” for wine in the region, this is the place to go.  And, full disclosure — The Galleria is one of our best wholesale customers.

Whenever our travels take us to Clarksville, we make a point of stopping by The Lamplighter for lunch.  The kitchen opens daily at 7:30 am.  You can get just about anything you can dream of (see the menu here).  It isn’t fancy, of course, and portion control is not in their vocabulary, but be sure to have the tater tots.  Another surprise is the craft beer selection (see below).

IMG_6672

When you go to Clarksville, be sure to take a moment to explore the hills to the north of Virginia Avenue and to the west and south of the business district.  Most of the town has been designated a Historic District.  The hilly topography and the lack of sidewalks makes travel a bit difficult, but its worth a slow, thoughtful drive.

You will appreciate what you are seeing if you have a sense of how the town developed.  According to the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for the Historic District Application, the town dates from 1818, and grew there where the confluence of the Dan and Staunton Rivers provided good transportation, and with the coming of the railroad in the nineteenth century, the town boomed as a tobacco center and was a center of trade and industry in otherwise very rural Southside Virginia.

An accident of geography prevented wide scale development in the region.  European settlers from Viginia were slow to inhabit the area, because unlike other eastern rivers, the Roanoke and Dan Rivers flowed into Albemarle Sound in North Carolina, which is more shallow and less navigable than the Chesapeake Bay.  The region was more dependent on overland routes to access markets; over land to Petersburg was actually the closest tobacco inspection point.  Reaching it was no easy feat, using unreliable and poorly kept roads.

A canal that bypassed the falls of the Roanoke River between Gaston and Weldon, North Carolina was competed by 1830, opening trade routes between Southside Virginia and Norfolk.  Mecklenburg county farmers could transport their goods down the Roanoke River, past the fall line via the canal at Gaston-Weldon, then on to steamboats operating on the Dismal Swamp Canal.  With this infrastructure in place, Clarksville boomed.

Later in the 1830s came the railroad, first with a line connecting Petersburg and Gaston, North Carolina, which siphoned business away from Norfolk and directed it towards Petersburg.  Recognizing that the growing railroad indurstry would supplant water transportation, the Virginia government chose not to devote funds to increasing the capacity of the canal system, and by the 1850s, the canals system was obsolete.  In 1855 the Roanoke Valley Railroad inaugurated direct train service to Clarksville, which connected Clarksville with Raleigh, North Carolina to the south, and Portsmouth and Norfolk to the east.  There were plans in 1858 to extend the line from Clarksville to Christiansville (now Chase City) to the Richmond and Danville Railroad’s Keysville depot, but work ceased with the outbreak of the War Between the States, and with it went the production, inspection and marketing of tobacco came to a halt.

Typical Clarksville Manse
Long Grass on Epps Fork Road, Clarksville, Virginia

The more significant architecture in and around Clarksville dates from these boom times.  After the War things proved difficult into the 20th century, and the town forever changed with the creation of the Kerr Dam and Reservoir, when part of the original town boundaries northeast of 2nd Street and southeast of Market Street were subsumed by the reservoir.  The streets were never renumbered, and what remains of 1st Street lies under the water.

That water is key to the town’s revitalization.  Clarksville has re-invented itself as a lakeside resort, and a very successful one at that.  Check out the innumerable activities sponsored by the Clarksville Lake Country Chamber of Commerce for a taste of what the area has to offer.   Each spring we participate in their wine festival, and next weekend (16 – 18 July 2015) is LakeFest, a celebration of the season and an excuse to put on a mighty fine party. Each year the festival (acknowledged as one of the top 20 festivals in the Southeast by the Southeast Tourism Society) draws nearly 100,000 people to enjoy hot air balloons, arts and crafts, live entertainment, fantastic local and ethnic food, boat shows, and fireworks.  The festivities begin on Thursday, July 16 and run through Saturday night.  Check it out.

Lakefest, 2010
LakeFest, 2010.

Wine, Food & Travel: Our Three Favorite Things!

Paul Franson at Berry Hill.
Paul Franson at Berry Hill.

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.

Spectator

 

Well, Blow Me Down!

That was quite a weekend.  Where to begin?

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.

Birthday Boy

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.

Cake

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.

Panorama

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.

Broken Tree

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.

Bloody Mary

Attractions: Prestwould Plantation Near Clarksville, Virginia.

Prestwould River Side View.
Prestwould river side entrance.

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 Saloon at Prestwould.  Image reproduced from "Virginia's Historic Homes and Gardens", by Chuck Blackley (Voyageur Press, 2009).
The Saloon at Prestwould. Image reproduced from “Virginia’s Historic Homes and Gardens”, by Chuck Blackley (Voyageur Press, 2009).

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.

Getting there:

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.

Grave of Sir Peyton Skipwith.
Grave of Sir Peyton Skipwith.
Summerhouse.
Summerhouse.
Open Sign
Land side entrance.