The Lows and Highs of the Wine Business.

A bird's nest in the Pinot Gris.

A bird’s nest in the Pinot Gris.

With harvest, two things are weighing on our minds.  One is our excitement from our first relatively mature harvest of Vermentino, the other the distressing state of our Pinot Gris.  One a high, the other definitely a low, and an increasingly difficult issue for winegrowers in the mid-Atlantic states.

First, the low point.  This year we are contending with a relatively new pest for Eastern growers, the Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD).  We wrote about this pest last year (“I Love The Smell of Malathion in the Morning!“) so won’t repeat here — only what’s new this year is we definitely now have it in Charlotte County.

SWD enjoys cherries early in the season, then turns its attention to grapes as they ripen late in the season.  No fruit is immune — it will attack stone fruits like peaches, nectarines and plums, and other fruits like raspberries and blueberries.  It seems to be attracted to darker fruits, so in the vineyard it will concentrate on red grapes and seemingly avoid the white varieties.

The insidious thing about them is their life cycle — adults can live up to nine weeks, and you can have 14 generations in a single season.  Being an invasive species, they have no natural predator.  The female lays eggs under the surface of berries, where they hatch in one to three days, and feed on the berries before emerging as adult flies.  With the short life cycle, repeated insecticide applications become necessary.

There are three organic compounds that you can use — two insecticides, PyGanic, which is pyrethrin-based (and unfortunately resistance is being reported from the West Coast), Entrust, which has spinosad as an active ingredient (a naturally derived toxin), and a kaolin-clay product called Surround, which supposedly dessicates the insects.

Regardless of the mode of action, the insecticide does not penetrate the fruit so the larvae remain unharmed and will emerge on schedule.  The more potent (non-organic) insecticides we have been using, like Delegate and Malathion, have greater residual activity.

Another that supposedly works well is Imidan, but the re-entry interval on that one (the re-entry interval is the time specified when it is safe to re-enter the area sprayed) is 14 days, so there is no point in using that one.  Perhaps after harvest in a vain effort to reduce their numbers for next year, though at this point it just seems spiteful.

And this new foe comes with additional cost, because these pesticides are not cheap.  PyGanic, for example, costs $250/gallon, and Entrust is over $400/quart.  One treatment of our older vineyard would require 22 ounces of Entrust, and we’re allowed a maximum of five applications, which comes to $1,600 for the season.  Given the short life cycle, resistance to these substances will develop relatively quickly, and at that point, there is no stopping them.  When that happens, we may need to think about producing only white wines.

The fruit, while under fire, is intact — but because of the SWD we picked this past weekend — much earlier than we would like.  And so it goes in the glamorous wine business.





And Now Comes the Vermentino.



That’s all very depressing, so on to more positive development.  Last year we had our first Vermentino harvest.  The vines were planted in 2011, yielding a relatively small crop so all of the wine was used in a blend, but this year we expect to have enough fruit to present our first single-variety Vermentino.

For those unfamiliar with it, Vermentino is best known for its Italian examples, being widely planted in Sardinia.  It goes by other names: Pigato in Liguira and Corsica, and Favorita in the Piedmont.  In France its believed to be the same grape as one called Rolle.  In Virginia its grown by those wineries with close ties to Italy, Barboursville Vineyards and Villa Appalachia Winery. The first East coast example we tried came from Raffaldini Vineyards in the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina.  There are a number of West coast examples, but none that we’ve enjoyed.

Italian bottlings almost always come from close to the sea, producing wines that are bright and zesty with high acid and generous aromas; these are championed as a perfect pairing for seafood.  Examples from the higher, landlocked vineyards in Piemonte are a bit more floral, often rich and with considerable minerality.  The more unctuous Piemonte examples bring to mind Riesling or Viognier.  With this grape you can obtain complex aroma and flavor with modest sugar levels, which makes it well suited for early harvest on warm sites — a valuable characteristic that makes it well suited for Virginia.

The Vermentino is performing so well, we are contemplating removing the Pinot Gris and planting more Vermentino.  Given the wine’s popularity (and the investment), we’ll give it another year, but those tight, tight clusters just turn to mush as the fruit ripens (and the SWD doesn’t help, either), so in the long run it is better to plant what grows really well in our climate.  That said, we also need to see how the market accepts Vermentino (though Barboursville Vineyards has done quite well with it), and if there is market resistance, we might plant the grape that everyone loves to hate, and for which there always seems to be a market, that ubiquitous Chardonnay, in spite of the fact that it grows best on the East Coast in cooler sites at higher elevations.

Hidcote Manor Garden and a Vineyard Visit.

Hidcote Manor Garden and the Town of Chipping Campden.


And now back to our European adventure.

A stunning expression of the arts and craft garden is maintained by the National Trust in this remote corner of Gloucestershire, at Hidcote Manor on the outskirts of the town of Hidcote Bartrim, near Mickelton and Chipping Campden.  Its’ creator was Major Lawrence Johnston (1871-1958), an American who naturalized in England (Major Johnston obtained the rank of Major from his service in the Great War).  He was a bit of a cypher — a very private man who obsessively collected plants (several are named for Hidcote and Johnston, such as Hidcote Lavender and the Lawrence Johnston Rose), and and created a masterpiece in what was once a simple field adjoining a manor house purchased by his mother in 1907.  In 1948 it was the first property accepted by the National Trust on the strength of the garden alone.  An excellent summary of his life (of which little is really known) appears here.

The genius of the place is now the commonplace “garden room” with a strong backbone of carefully tailored shrubbery and in some instances exuberant plantings so typical of the English cottage garden style, while in others the restraint one expects of Italian and French gardens.  The dramatic axes cutting through the garden are breathtaking, the intimacy of the smaller spaces, with their unexpected color combinations and structure are startling.  Johnston was a “gardener’s gardener” — you see echoes of his work in the designs of masters like Russell Page (1906-1985) and Penelope Hobhouse (born 1929).

Russell Page was particularly struck by the garden, and wrote of it in his book Education of a Gardener:

At one point we come through a yew arch into a tiny square hedged-in garden filled with so large a circular pool that there is barely room for the narrowest of paths between it and the hedge. The raised pool, perhaps twenty feet across, looks all the larger for being so compressed and the unusual proportion of the whole breaks down, for a moment, the mechanism of one’s habitual criticisms and judgments. One is free to accept and feel this little scene as intensely real; the pool becomes like a sea which reflects the sky and a floating leaf. A passing bumble bee and each chance-grown plant in crevices of the stone border seem to shine with a special clarity – time and space exchange their scale.

After Mr Johnston donated the property to the National Trust, while he was welcome to use it and visit, he thought the experience spoiled by the presence of so many visitors.  So he never returned,and devoted his energies to his garden in the south of France, Serre de la Madone, which he started work on in 1924 an remained there until his death in 1958.  He devised that property to Nancy Lindsay, the daughter of his good friend Norah Lindsay.  It passed through the hands of a succession of owners, but in 1999 it was acquired by the Conservatoire du Littoral, with contributions from the town of Menton, the Conseil Général des Alpes-Maritimes, the Conseil Régional (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) and the foundation Electricité de France.

Perhaps there’s a trip to the Côte d’Azur in our future …


We spent a little time exploring Chipping Campden and had lunch there, then drove on to see one of England’s wineries, Three Choirs Vineyards near Newent, Gloucestershire.  Given the northern climate and lacking the requisite number of growing degree days, most vinifera don’t grow very well, so the wines were made using a variety of hybrids, many unfamiliar to us — Madeline Angevine, Phoenix, Reichensteiner, Solaris, Rondo, Regent, Triomphe, Orion, Schonburger, Siegerrebe.  The trellising system was novel, with but two wires supporting the massive cordons.

With that it was back to the car an on to the city of Bath, a World Heritage site.  Bath is known for its Georgian architecture and the ancient Roman baths at its heart.





























Can The California Drought Get Any Worse? Sadly, Yes.

Approximate location of maximum subsidence in the U.S., identified by research efforts of Dr. Joseph F. Poland (pictured). Signs on pole show approximate altitude of land surface in 1925, 1955, and 1977. The site is in the San Joaquin Valley southwest of Mendota, CA.

Approximate location of maximum subsidence in the U.S., identified by research efforts of Dr. Joseph F. Poland (pictured). Signs on pole show approximate altitude of land surface in 1925, 1955, and 1977. The site is in the San Joaquin Valley southwest of Mendota, CA.  Image and caption courtesy of the California Water Science Center.

Can the news from California about the drought really get any worst?  Short answer: “yes.”

Two recent items caught our attention.  One from the Paso Robles Daily News: “Seawater threatens Central Coast’s Water Supply,” by Scott Brennan, 4 August 2014).  This story describes how groundwater supplies in the Central Coast (from Monterey down to Oxnard — this includes the Paso Robles and Santa Barbara wine regions) are experiencing saltwater intrusion from overdrafting of the aquifers there.  The farmers in that part of California rely more on well water than surface water because it is not readily available to them, since most of the available surface water primarily goes to the Central Valley and the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco.  More than 80 percent of the region relies exclusively on groundwater.

Seawater intrusion into freshwater aquifers is a growing problem in Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, the Eastern Shores of Virginia and Maryland and many other coastal areas resulting from an increase in sea level due to climate or land subsidence.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in the subject of California’s drought is by now familiar with the U.S. Drought Monitor’s ever more dire map showing drought conditions in the state.  An update is published each Thursday, and repeated by the media in the days that follow.  This week’s report shows that nearly 60 percent of the state is in exceptional drought.

What the Drought Monitor doesn’t measure is groundwater.  The second eye-opener was a study recently published in Geophysical Research Letters,Groundwater Depletion During Drought Threatens Future Water Security of the Colorado River Basin” used satellite data to measure groundwater loss in the Colorado River Basin, the river system that supplies water to much of the Southwest, including Los Angeles, San Diego, and Las Vegas among others — some 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland.  The NASA-managed satellite program analyzed data from December 2004 to November 2013 and found that the region had lost nearly 53 million acre-feet of water.  Seventy-seven percent of that loss was groundwater (as noted in one story on the matter, this is enough water to supply the entire country for eight years).  The study measured change in mass over time to reach this terrible conclusion.  What they are unable to determine is how much water remains.

Unsustainable groundwater draws result in what we see pictured here: land subsidence, which is a problem all over the United States, but especially in parts of California.  Draws on groundwater in the Central Valley of California, for example, is causing extreme subsidence such as that pictured here.  The collapsing ground is creating all sorts of infrastructure problems.  Some commentators seem to think that groundwater recharges like a sponge — it rains and the aquifer soaks it up, but in some cases the water is ancient — in some cases, called “fossil water,” as is the case of the Ogallala Aquifer under much of the Central United States.  The recharge rate of that aquifer is believed to be one half an inch per year.  This is so low, it is essentially non-rechargeable.  Meanwhile farmers and others in the Plains states (and in California) are drilling deeper and deeper wells to reach water.

With the land subsiding, surely storage capacity is compromised as the formerly water-filled soil collapses unto itself. .See, for example, “In California, Demand for Groundwater Causing Huge Swaths of Land to Sink,” by Julie Schmit (National Geographic Daily News, 25 March 2014).

Other commentators are now raising what some may consider unthinkable: mass-migration of people out of California, because the Nation needs to appreciate that the state simply does not have the water resources to sustain the number of people living there now.  Another sobering statistic: one-third of produce consumed in the United States is grown in California’s Central Valley.  That food production will need to go somewhere, and it appears to this writer that fertile farmland in the East is an increasingly more valuable commodity.  The wine business, of course, will wither like everything else.

We may be experiencing another Dust Bowl, and its been said before, but California is, after all, a desert, and we easily lose sight of that because of the bounty produced there by water from other places.  A recent editorial in The Los Angeles Times mentioned that 80 percent of the water consumed in Los Angeles comes from elsewhere, and more must be done to conserve and use what they have intelligently, such as using greywater systems to capture water used for washing, for example.  There are some hard choices to be made here, and the sooner the better.

Praying for rain does not qualify as action, but really, what are the options?  One option is building desalinization plants; one to the tune of $1 billion is under construction in Carlsbad and will provide 50 million gallons of water per day in San Diego County (there are 14 more plants proposed between San Diego and San Francisco).  This sounds like a lot of water, but it will provide only seven percent of water needs for the county.  And there is a recurring problem with them — primarily cost, but there are objections for environmental reasons.  Plants are taken off-line when cheaper water sources become available, and its happened time and again in California (in Santa Barbara one was built in the early 1990s and never used because the rains returned; in Sand City on the Monterey peninsula, there is a plant that produces 300 acre feet of water per year), and more recently in Australia, where six new plants were built but four closed in 2009 when their drought ended.

It may seem extreme, but drought has caused other civilizations to collapse — recall the history of the Maya in Mesoamerica, the Anasazi in the southwest,  among others.  Jared Diamond examined these and other examples in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking Penguin, 2005).  There’s much to learn from these cautionary tales.  For those not wanting to read the book in its entirety, an excellent review appears here.  From this vantage point, long-term sustainability as far as water is concerned in California appears to be a pipe dream, and it is time to wake up.  If this is the start of a mega-drought as some scientists fear, there isn’t much choice in the matter.


A Stop by Blenheim Palace, then on to the Cotswolds.


We needed to get from Cambridge to the Cotswolds, and among In the gorgeous rolling countryside between them lie innumerable interesting sights.  We needed a stopping point, and really having seen Cambridge there was no reason to see Oxford (with apologies to graduates of that esteemed institution, but to us it would be more of the same).  But outside of Oxford is a town called Woodstock, and close to Woodstock is the extraordinary estate called Blenheim Palace.

Blenheim is the only English country house that is not royal or ecclesiastical to be called a “palace”, and it was deemed so important to the nation that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.  It was built as a gift to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough by a grateful nation for his triumph in the Battle of Blenheim during the War of the Spanish Succession, which put an end to aspirations of European dominance by Louis XIV of France.  The house is also notable for being the ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill.  Reportedly Adolph Hitler gave orders that it not be bombed, because he intended to occupy it himself should Germany prevail in World War II.

Built in the curious, grandious English Baroque style, the palace was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor.  Vanbrugh had been selected by the Duke, but his wife Sarah Jennings wanted Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of Saint Paul’s in London; the two were often at loggerheads, and in the end the building was completed by Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh was not allowed on the property.  This Baroque style quickly fell out of favor and was replaced with the Palladianism that is so recognizable and remains popular on both sides of the pond.

The Gardens.

Henry Wise designed the original garden in an Anglo-Dutch Baroque manner with a decided military cast, with mock fortifications and regimented parterres.  After the first Duke died in 1722, his widow Sarah impounded the River Glyme and built a triumphal bridge over it.  In 1764, the 4th Duke commissioned Lancelot “Capability” Brown, then at the height of his fame, who transformed the park by making the canal into a serpentine lake.  He also naturalized the woods, designed a cascade and placed clumps of trees in strategic positions to enhance the landscape.  During the 1930s, the 9th Duke replanted a ‘military’ avenue of trees east of the palace and commissioned Achille Duchêne to design a water parterre west of the palace.

Built more as a monument, the architecture is, in a word, overwhelming in its pomp and power.  With its 2,000 acres and 187 rooms, its a bit much to manage and pay for.  For a “peek behind the curtain,” and a history of the personalities that have loved the place, have a look at this article that appeared in Vanity Fair (June 2011), “Magnificent Obsession: Blenheim Palace.”

From Blenheim Palace, we were on our way to the Three Ways House Hotel in the village of Micklton near Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds, home of the illustrious Pudding Club, where we had a table booked for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant.  Very traditional (but fresh) British food was the order of the day, of course.  The Cotswolds is a garden spot, as we’ll see on a visit the next day to one of the most famous gardens in the world, Hidcote.


























Graduation Day at Cambridge.


The dons of Oxford and Cambridge are too busy educating the young men to be able to teach them anything.

– Samuel Butler

Back to our travels.

With a slightly heavy heart, but looking forward to getting out of the noise, soot and traffic of London, we took the train to Cambridge.  It was a journey of but 47 minutes, and took us a world away.  By coincidence it was graduation day, and the scholars were milling about in white tie.  A friend who lives in Manchester who is also an alum of Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge and came down for the day to take us around.

It was neat to see the graduates and their families milling about, but because of the ceremonies and celebrations many buildings were closed to us.  Still, we were able to see many of the venerable old buildings.  The college chapel at Gonville and Caius College, for example, is the oldest in Cambridge, dating from 1393.  After a walk around the college, we had a simple and affordable lunch at Loch Fyne Restaurant on Trumpington Street.

After lunch our host continued our tour and took us punting on the Cam River, which runs through the center of town and affords wonderful views of the colleges lining its banks.  After a stroll through town, we returned to our hotel for dinner and an early bedtime in preparation for our journey to Blenheim Palace the next day.

Loch Fyne Seafood and Grill,  37 Trumpington Street, CB2 1QY Cambridge, Cambridgeshire +44 01223 362433

















Beware the Concussion! Mitigating Hail Damage in Vineyards.

Hail Cannons c. 1901

International Congress on Hail Shooting, 1900. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Farming is difficult enough, but lately wine growers around the world – particularly in Europe – have been battered by hail storms.

“Languedoc hit by hail catastrophe” (Gabriel Savage, Drinks Business, 9 July 2014).

Between 12,000 and 15,000 hectares of vineyard in the Aude [29,600 to in 37,000 acres] – about a quarter of the department’s total plantings – have been affected by the storm, which lasted for less than half an hour on Sunday afternoon. Among the worst hit areas were appellations around Carcassone, especially Minervois and Corbières, where early reports indicated that 80-100% of vines have been damaged.

“French winegrowers fear for harvest after hail batters prized vineyards” (Anne Penketh, The Guardian, 29 June 2014).

Some of France’s most prestigious vineyards are counting the costs of fierce hailstorms that have battered the Burgundy region for the third consecutive summer. Hail stones as big as golf balls, buffeted by 60 mph winds, swept across the Côte de Beaune region on Saturday afternoon, causing winegrowers to predict between 40% and 80% of the grape harvest would be lost.

The regions hardest hit include Volnay, Meursault and Beaune, home to 2,000 winegrowers.  Decanter reports that about 5,000 hectares had been hit, primarily in Pommard and Volnay, with damage estimated in the range of €75 million.

“Médoc properties devastated by hail storms” (Wine Searcher staff,, 10 June 2014).

Close to a thousand hectares of Bordeaux vineyards were hit by hailstorms on Sunday night, with the northernmost part of the Médoc, close to the Gironde estuary hardest hit. Vineyards in Cognac were also badly affected by hail and gale-force winds.  Parts of Cognac were hit badly in early August last year and an even greater area of Bordeaux was damaged by hailstorms, completely destroying nearly 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of the eastern Gironde, mostly in the Entre-deux-Mers district.

 Decanter reports that the storms that hit Bordeaux and Congac during the first half of June cost insurers as much as €900 million ($1.2 billion). Bloomberg News reports that in 2013, insurers paid more than $4 billion as a result of hailstorms.  And many growers, particularly in Burgundy, lack insurance.


Oh, the joy of farming in a continental climate.  So let’s have a look at hail.

How is hail formed?  According to the Texas A&M University Department of Atmospheric Sciences, hail forms when raindrops are lifted up into the atmosphere during a thunderstorm, then super-cooled by sub-freezing temperatures in the upper atmosphere, turning them into ice balls.   They can grow and become the size of baseballs or softballs, falling 90 miles per hour and cause immense devastation.

Can we blame climate change?  Of course we can, but scientists would urge caution, given that while Burgundy, for example, has been pummeled three years in a row, that is too short an interval to declare that this is a trend – just bad, bad luck.   But given a warming world with surface temperatures rising, the effect of more water vapor being carried skyward into the freezing troposphere suggests that more frequent, violent storms are the order of the day.  What to do?

“Solutions” in the vein of geo-engineering include cloud seeding with silver-iodide smoke generators and hail cannons.  Burgundy has 34 of these smoke generators, which were deployed in June.  It’s impossible to measure their success – how could you control for it?  Would the hail stones have been larger without it, or more far-reaching?  Faith seems to have a lot to do with it.

“Beware the Concussion!”

An older technology than the silver-iodide smoke generator is the hail cannon.  Generations ago, French farmers believed that the ringing of church bells would help mitigate damage from hail, so the bells would toll whenever a storm approached.  Later, military cannons were used, and in the late 19th century we have the development of the hail cannon.  Modern versions are powered with acetylene, and send up a shock wave at 200 miles per hour.

Space Gun

The Space Gun in Things to Come (1936)

The image of the hail cannon shooting skyward reminds this writer of technology envisioned by H.G. Wells and brought to the screen by producer Alexander Korda and that great stylist William Cameron Menzies as director in the 1936 British science fiction film, Things to Come.  The movie was written during a time when the horrors of the “Great War” were still vivid, and the prospect of another was on the horizon — and it shows.  The first two-thirds of the movie dealt with impending war and its aftermath.

The last third depicts a wondrous future, full of hope and promise.  Scientists and scientific reason provided leadership and salvation for humankind.  In the closing moments of the movie, it is the year 2036 and a sculptor foments a Luddite revolt among the people, seeking to stop the firing of a great cannon that is poised to propel the first explorers into space on their way to the moon.  Cabal, the leader of the people warns the crowd marching on the space gun intent to destroy it, “Beware the concussion!” Cabal believes nothing should stop scientific progress and he intends to fire it, damn those gathered there to destroy it, who were clearly killed by the immense cloud of smoke and fire produced by the gun on firing.  The dialogue in the closing scene as Cabal and Passworthy contemplate what had just happened goes to the root of the meaning of progress and ties it to the meaning of human existence:

Passworthy:  Oh, God, is there ever to be any age of happiness? Is there never to be any rest?

Cabal:  Rest enough for the individual man — too much, and too soon — and we call it death.  But for Man, no rest and no ending.  He must go on, conquest beyond conquest.  First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him.  Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars.  And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.

Passworthy:  But… we’re such little creatures.  Poor humanity’s so fragile, so weak.  Little… little animals.

Cabal:  Little animals.  If we’re no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done.  Is it this?  Or that?  All the universe?  Or nothingness?  Which shall it be, Passworthy?  Which shall it be?

It’s a bit ironic that the version of “progress” embodied in the hail cannon is, in its way, a step back in time, echoing those church bells — and unfortunately probably as effective.  When deployed, the cannons are fired repeatedly, emitting a blast every six seconds to a minute during the course of a storm, sending a sonic boom skyward (imagine, for a moment, the neighbor’s displeasure). Proponents believe that the shock wave generated by the cannons disrupts hail formation, and a single cannon is said to protect 190 acres.  We’re picturing a reaction from the neighbors comparable to that of the mob in the Things to Come intent on destroying the thing — or attempting to destroy the owner with lawsuits over the noise.

Modern Hail Cannon

Photograph of Hail Cannon by Eggers, Ltd.

Unfortunately, no one has been able to prove that the technology works, because results are impossible to quantify. The cannons are available in the United States; One supplier is Newton Systems International; another is Eggers, Ltd in New Zealand.  We are not aware of anyone using them in Virginia.

Andrew Jefford writing for reported on a visit to Chateau d’Issan in Margaux.  When the vineyard manager Clarisse Branche reported that the property had lost half of its crop to hail in 2008 and 2009, fruit valued at €2 million; the cannon cost them €150,000 (in the United States the cost is in the range of $50,000).  Since using it — and they’ve used it 10 times each year since acquiring it — they report having no significant losses.

Another “solution” is a physical one – netting.  But to work, they must have a fine mesh, and that blocks sunlight, which is fine in a an arid climate like Mendoza in Argentina (where these nets are commonly used), but in a cooler region like Burgundy would pose a problem.  In a recent story on the practice noted (“Burgundy vineyards experiment with anti-hail nets” (Bill Nanson & Wine Searcher staff,, 18 July 2014)):

The response of the Burgundy marketing board (BIVB) in Beaune has a certain labyrinthine ring to it, yet is unequivocal: “As their use is not specified in the AOC texts, it is forbidden — in France, for viticulture, if it is not expressly permitted, it is forbidden.”

Here in Virginia we are not immune from hail storms, though mercifully we are not subject to the same forces that create hail events in the plains states of the central United States.  We may have an advantage with our humid sub-tropical climate, because the atmosphere may be warm enough that if hail should form, in most cases it will melt before reaching the ground (that said, we found a report of two-inch hail falling in Southampton county on 11 July 2014, and one-inch hail falling in Prince William county the day before that).  We have had small incidents of hail damage in years past — torn leaves, a few bruised berries — but nothing on the scale of poor Burgundy, or any of those other French wine growing regions.

There Will Always Be An England.


Our annual respite from the rigors of daily life – otherwise known as a vacation – this year took us to the British Isles, specifically to England and Ireland. It felt like a homecoming, because so much of it is familiar. The language, of course, and the place names that were brought to the New World by those brave colonists so many years ago. The pubs felt very much like bars in the United States, the cooking so familiar – what was listed on so many menus as an “English Breakfast” and an “Irish Breakfast” was pretty much what we serve at our own table, except for the beans and black pudding.

Tradition courses through the veins of its people. We’ve wondered why, for example, they drive on the opposite side of the road, and learned from guidebooks that it is a holdover from Feudal times, when one needed to have the right hand free to engage in combat when astride a horse in battle. Then there’s that relentless affection for their monarchy.

One sees everywhere the trappings of Empire and privilege, a bit faded, but still much in evidence. A plaque at the entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum reminds visitors that the building was dedicated by “Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Empress of India.” There was a time when, for example, you could travel the length of Africa, from Capetown to Cairo, without leaving British Territory. That legacy is apparent on a stroll through the British Museum, which is an odd name for an institution that houses objects from just about everywhere but Britain, most notoriously the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. And where else can you see a giant head from Easter Island?  The riches to be found in London are mind-boggling.

Yet while being so mindful of its past, London in particular is firmly rooted in the present: witness the infamous Shard, the London Eye, and all of the other modern additions to the city’s skyline, its fashion scene.  It’s a vital place, full of wonders.


Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.

— Samuel Johnson

First Night in London: Launceston Place.

Launceston Place

It used to be that the journey was the point, the experience of getting from point “A” to point “B” was as much a part of the joy of travel as the place.  Not so with modern air travel, which has sadly devolved into one insult after another, well known to any traveler.  The start was strangely swift, with TSA being not busy at all, but that happy event quickly turned sour with a two-hour departure delay.  Fortunately we had a four-hour layover in Dublin, giving sufficient time to be herded and re-processed before flying on to London.  Its a shame that modern travel has turned into one insult after another.  What is the alternative?  Small planes have fatal crashes with distressing frequency, so we joked about winning the lottery and buying our own Boeing 757 so as not to have to endure the experience ever again.

That insult notwithstanding, we arrived on time and braved London traffic to our flat in Kensington, and even had a moment to clean up before heading out to dinner at Launceston Place, a fabulous restaurant just a 10-minute walk from our flat.  This leisurely paced and oh so civilized meal was the perfect antidote to the prior 24 hours.  We opted for the tasting menu with wine pairings.  Each pairing inspired and perfect.  The sommelier’s descriptions were as delicious as the food; he had a talent for relating each wine to the place, and to the food so we had insight into how the disparate parts were brought together into a perfectly integrated meal, each course a wonder.

Taste of Launceston Place

22 June 2014

Amuse bouche

Organic Asparagus cooked on the barbecue, hens egg, mores and wild garlic

2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Dog Point, Marlborough, New Zealand

Hand Dived Scallop with truffle cassonade, confit chicken wing, compressed apple and grated truffle

2011 Riesling Grand Cru Rosacker, Agapé, Vincent Sipp, Alsace, France

Sole with Patron pepper and brandade, piquillo, squid, brown shrimp and fennel

2006 Chablis Grand Cru Vaudésir, Olivier Leflaive, Burgundy, France

Wagyu Beef Rump with Cévennes onion stuffed with Bourguignon garnish and red wine sauce

2006 Bussia Riserva, Giacomo Fenocchio, Barolo, Italy

Selection of Cheeses

Graham’s 20-year Tawny Port

Cucumber Buttermilk with Lime and Mint

Raspberry Delice with white chocolate and caramelized white chocolate

2011 Riesling, Tamar Ridge, Tasmania, Australia

Organic Asparagus

Hand Dived Scallop


Wagyu Beef Rump

Raspberry Delice


Mike had a birthday a few days before, so they brought a little something at the end.  It’s no wonder the place has earned a Michelin star and has been awarded four AA Rosettes in 2013, one of only seven restaurants to receive the accolade in the United Kingdom that year, as well as being awarded AA ‘Notable Wine List’ and ‘Best Wine List’ at the Tatler Restaurant Awards.

Launceston Place, 1a Launceston Place, London, W8 5RL Telephone 44 020 7937 6912

Windsor Castle and A Night at the Races.

Windsor Palace

The rest of our group arrive Monday morning.  After they got settled, we made our way to a pub for lunch, made our way to Paddington Station to meet the last member of our party, then made our way to Windsor to see Windsor Castle.  The history of that ancient fortress is too rich to recount here, but suffice to say it is, in a word, impressive.   Majestic is probably a better description, with the Gothic tracery of Saint George’s Chapel, and the Georgian opulence of the State Apartments.  As we toured the State Apartments one room was being set up for a dinner for one of Prince Charles’ charities.






From there we made our way to the Royal Windsor Racecourse for Monday night racing.  That was a bustling place, and very smart.  We had dinner in the Castle Restaurant with a sumptuous three-course meal.  Scanning the program one sees some notable name: The Prince of Wales had a horse in a race, as did the Niarchos family, Lord and Lady Rothschild, the Earl of Carnarvon, etc.  The food was equally impressive.










A Visit to Kensington Palace.


In the morning we stopped by Kensington Palace, that ancient pile that is another home of the royals.  The public areas give glimpses of the ruling families from widely divergent viewpoints: the 17th century on view in the Queen’s State Apartments, the 18th century represented by the majesty of the King’s State Apartments, and the 19th century with an exhibit called “Victoria Revealed.”  An unusual view of the 20th century royals is presented by a review of exquisitely tailored royal fashion from the 1950s to the 1980s.











The Churchill War Rooms.

From there we made our way east and stopped at Memorial Albert Hall for lunch, for no particularly good reason other than being famished and it was the first place we came to that was open at that late hour.  Next up was a stop at the Churchill War Rooms for a look at Winston Churchill’s underground bunker where the British action for that terrible war was conducted underground.  Fascinating to learn that after six years underground, at the conclusion of the war the soldiers who worked there tidied their desks and went home.  The rooms were sealed up just as they were when the lights were cut off on 16 August 1945 and not disturbed until   Adjacent is the interactive Churchill Museum, which tells the story of the incredible story of the great man.

After a stroll through Saint James Park to see the exterior of Buckingham Palace, we traveled to Regent Street to dine at Veeraswamy, the venerable Indian restaurant that is the oldest in London.

Veeraswamy, Mezzanine Floor, Victory House, 99 Regent Street, London W1B 4RS 44 20 7734 1401











Iconic sights spanning the centuries: The Tower of London with parts dating to the 11th century at one extreme, and the 20th century London Eye on the other.   The Tower is a bit much, with a Disney-ish air, entertaining nonetheless.















“Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”


Our original plan was to take a train out to Canterbury to see Canterbury Cathedral, but on checking the price of train tickets discovered that the price had tripled since we last looked, so we opted to stay in London.  Its not as if we had seen everything already; far from it.  Like all great cities, London is burdened with a near deafening roar of traffic, and a break from it would certainly be welcome.  We’ll be on our way to Cambridge soon enough.

So instead we took the tube to see Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, Saint Paul’s Cathedral.  Its heartening to know that the thing was completed in his lifetime.  His tomb bears an inscription in Latin composed by his son:

Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, not for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you. Died 25 Feb. 1723, age 91

The crypt in particular is filled with melancholy monuments to many of the great men who contributed to the nation, military figures like the Arthur, the Duke of Wellington (who defeated Napoleon) and Horatio Nelson, who perished in the Battle of Trafalgar.   Interestingly, many poets, scientists and artists, too.




From there after lunch at The Punch Tavern on Fleet Street in The City (and had a fabulous Chicken, Wild Mushroom and White Wine Pie), it was on to another sort of monument, only this one a monument to a single man, Sir John Soane, an early 19th century architect whose quirky museum were given to the nation on his death in 1837.  The objects are arranged as he left them, all in their Enlightenment exuberance in spaces lit on many odd levels with the walls and ceilings punctured in the most unusual places.  From there a stroll to Covent Garden to see the old market, then back to the flat to recuperate a bit.

Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP +44 20 7405 2107

Punch Tavern, 99 Fleet Street, London EC4Y 1 DE +44 20 7353 6658

 A Day and Night at the Museums.


One of the benefits of empire is the collection of “stuff.”  Through Britain’s long history, the combination of military might and an acute awareness of status led to the acquisition and building of the most amazing houses and collections.  The British Museum and the National Gallery are but two repositories containing objects that are preserved not just for Britain, but for the world.

Take, for example, the remains of the Parthenon now housed in The British Museum.  The name of the institution is itself a bit of a misnomer, given that most of the objects have come from outside of Britain.   Sadly due to a late start we did not have much time, so we visited a few highlights: a Moai from Easter Island; the Portland Vase; and of course, the Elgin Marbles, those remnants of the Parthenon that the Greek government attempts to reclaim every few years, without success.






We started the day with a sufficiently large English breakfast at a tea room called Richoux in Knightsbridge across from Harrod’s (followed by a stroll through Harrod’s), and that afternoon we had high tea at another timeless institution, that venerable department store Fortnum & Mason, which has been at the same location on Picadilly for over 300 years.  The list of teas was mind-boggling, and we don’t take caffeine in the afternoon and settled on a bottle of wine while the rest of the group had tea.  After an assortment of finger sandwiches stuffed with chopped egg, smoke salmon, and cucumber (of course), towers of sweets and scones were brought to the table.  All very civilized, but far too much sugar for this chronicler.







Suitably fortified, it was off to The National Gallery to view the nation’s premier picture collection in a suitably impressive 19th century building facing Trafalgar Square and the Nelson Column.  Strolling the galleries was like paging through an art history text: one gallery held an unfinished Michelangelo, a favorite Bronzino (Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time), and works by Titianm Giorgione and Pontormo.  Elsewhere one finds the iconic Leonardo da Vinci Cartoon of the Virgin with Saint Anne and John the Baptist, works by Botticelli and Vermeer; name a world artist from the last 500 years and they have not just an example of their work, but some of the best.




The museums are open late on Fridays, so that evening we stopped at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is dedicated to the decorative arts and design.  We arrived quite late so there was not much time for it, but it took on the quality of a disco with a disc jockey, drinks and a very young crowd milling about (museums wishing to broaden their demographic, take note).

And with that, the next day, on to Cambridge.

Richoux Restaurant, 86 Brompton Road, London SW3 1ER +44 020 7584 8300

Fortnum & Mason Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon, 181 Piccadilly, London W1A 1ER +44 020 7734 8040

England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted message, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control — that, perhaps is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.

― George Orwell, Why I Write