Sunday, July 18, 2010

Another Day, Another Winery (or two)

Carlisle, PA to Radford, VA
July 17, 2010

On the accelerated progress plan heading home, we are expressway driving, with just a brief digression planned today to sample one of Virginia’s many wine trails. Our little trip off the expressway turned into a four hour foray on beautiful Blue Ridge Valley backroads.

We hopped off I81 just south of Staunton, and headed east into the Monticello Region, where the Virginia Wineries map showed a cluster of at least a dozen wineries that could be easily visited in a day. We chose to visit just two that sounded interesting and were not too far afield.

Our first stop was Cardinal Point Vineyard in Afton. A beautiful garden planted right in front of our spot in the parking lot was all aflutter with butterflies. We hauled out our cameras and snapped away for a very long time.

When we eventually made it up to the tasting room, our host poured us samples of ten different wines. Cardinal Point’s wines are made mostly from grapes grown in their vineyard, but they fill in with about 20% of grapes purchased from other vineyards in the region.

While we were enjoying our wine, the owner of the vineyard walked in with her dog, who clearly has the run of the place. He stood up, put his front paws on the bar, and waited for our wine pouring host to come over and give him a biscuit.

After we finished tasting our wine, and buying bottles of our two favorites, we went into the winery to watch a video of a year in the life of Cardinal Point vineyard and winery. We watched from a loft level, overlooking about a hundred oak barrels, three huge stainless vats, and lots of cases of wine bottles. The family cat joined us on the couch.

No wonder wine is so expensive—there is a lot of work in the vineyard that can only be done by hand—pruning the vines, trimming extra berries (that’s what they call grapes) off the vine to make the remaining ones mature into better grapes, hand clipping the ripe grapes at harvest, and then trimming back the vines in winter. This is a family-owned vineyard, and the owners and their kids showed up in the video over and over, doing the work, along with the hired pickers. We also were interested to see all the steps to making the wine, including putting white clay in the white wines and egg white in the reds to clarify them. We hadn’t heard this step mentioned in our past tours. A chef’s secret, perhaps?

Here is a quote from the Cardinal Point video that serves as a good introduction to our next stop:
“The discovery of a wine is of greater moment than the discovery of a constellation. The universe is too full of stars.”
Benjamin Franklin

The Hill Top Berry Farm Winery in Nellysford makes all its wines from fruit and berries. They don’t grow grapes—but from afar their blackberry vines trained on wires masquerade as grape vines. Today was the first day of blackberry picking, and the winery was hopping with adults in the tasting room, and families out in the blackberry rows picking quarts of berries to take home. The berries are much larger than the wild blackberries we are used to, and they are extremely sweet and juicy. I did a little sampling out in the field.
Our sampling in the tasting room was most unusual. First, none of the wines we tasted had grapes as an ingredient. Second, the vineyard’s specialty is mead. We had to ask what mead is, because, although we vaguely remember reading about Romans consuming it during bacchanalian feasts and some Olde English bards referencing it, we weren’t paying much attention to recipes at the time. Mead is wine fermented with honey, rather than sugar, possibly the oldest purposely fermented beverage, dating back at least to 7000 BC, we learned.

We tasted about a dozen meads and wines. One of the most unusual was Lavender Methaglin, a mead infused with lavender. Some say it is calming and soothing, but Cleopatra thought it was an aphrodisiac, or at least that is what they told us at the tasting. It reminded us of Monet’s garden in the summertime, with bees buzzing all around. We tasted blueberry wine paired with chocolate, and a mead paired with smoked almonds. We tried peach, blackberry, and cherry wines, and Dragon’s Blood mead made with pomegranate. Hill Top winery’s claim is that their wines are “true to the fruit,” and our taste test backs up their claim 100%. It was a grand gastronomic adventure, and we loved every minute of it (although we didn’t love all the meads, especially the pure ones that tasted more of ferment than honey!).

We walked away from the tasting room with a whole box of bottles. We are looking forward to introducing our friends to mead.
We worked our way back to the highway via a little section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. When we stopped to hike up a meadow trail for a scenic view, we ran into a group from the Virginia Living Museum doing their annual butterfly count. They were having a very good day, with over twenty species counted already, and several more found while I was with them. If we weren’t so eager to be home, I would jump on the opportunity to spend the rest of the afternoon with them. But, I tore myself away, and we eventually made it back on the expressway again, heading south.

We considered, and quickly abandoned, a plan to drive straight home today, arriving around midnight, maybe later. Too tired, we stopped in Radford, Virginia.

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