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Virginia Wine Country

Williamsburg and Charlottesville bear America's wine history into the present

Posted: October 5, 2000

 
 
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Virginia Wine Country

Williamsburg and Charlottesville bear America's wine history into the present

By Sarah Belk King


A flash of hot pink caught my eye. In any other town, the brilliant swath of cosmetic-colored silk might not have stood out so much. But historic Williamsburg is a place of unadorned Georgian architecture and quiet hues -- rust-colored brick and dark green magnolia leaves. As the day passed, however, and I heard chatter in Dutch, Italian and Japanese, I realized that the woman in the pink sari was part of a rainbow mix of visitors. As the second capital of the Virginia colony, the living museum restored by John D. Rockefeller Jr., and the cradle of the American wine industry, Williamsburg lies at the very heart of America's past. But it is alive in the present and rich with the promise of the future.

Sipping Virginia Chardonnay in the King's Arms Tavern, where Thomas Jefferson may have enjoyed a glass of Malmsey, is a tantalizing way to experience the past in the present and to begin a tour of Virginia's wine country, from Williamsburg to Charlottesville. Traveling a small distance in space permits a grand exploration of time and taste, as historic places are enlivened by contemporary sensibilities that make lodging, dining and tasting wine into both history lessons and modern delights.

From the King's Arms Tavern, on Duke of Gloucester Street (the main artery of historic Williamsburg), the modern world is blissfully remote. The dining room, lit mostly by natural light, is filled with the same kind of friendly, noisy din that I expect a tavern would have contained 200 years ago. The staff dresses in period garb, which seems a bit corny even to me, a dyed-in-the-wool Virginian. But this is no tourist trap; the food is taken quite seriously. Everything is freshly made on the premises, and most dishes have a historical or regional connection.

Early mornings on Duke of Gloucester Street -- before the tourists arrive -- can feel like a step back in time. In winter, the clean, snappy smell of cedar is in the air, along with an occasional earthy whiff of horse-drawn carriages. On Sundays, strains of hymns surround Bruton Parish Church with an audible halo.

However, at Merchant's Square, at the very end of Duke of Gloucester Street, the present mingles with the past. There's an old-fashioned toy store (need a whirligig?) and a sweets shop selling caramel apples and rock candy. But there's also Rizzoli, Birkenstock and one of Williamsburg's best-known restaurants, The Trellis. The restaurant is lively on Sundays, serving locals after church, college students brunching with their parents, and tourists peering at guidebooks between courses. Alas, some dishes seem to have been made too far in advance or with less-than-perfect ingredients. The wine list, however, features 11 Virginia wineries, making The Trellis a good place to taste what the state has to offer.

It's more fun, of course, to taste a wine at the source. For instance, Williamsburg Winery, only a 10-minute drive from the historic village, features a new tasting room, a wine bottle museum and a small tavern for light meals. The setting is peaceful, even Shaker-like, with a neat, orderly landscape of vines and streamlined architecture.

Charlottesville is home to many of Virginia's most successful and distinctive wineries. While they continue to make progress with their wines, many maintain deep roots in the past.

Barboursville Vineyards is set on 850 acres of rolling farmland at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Named after James Barbour, a former governor of Virginia, Barboursville is known for its "ruins," the brick remains of Barbour's house. Designed by Thomas Jefferson, the house was destroyed by fire on Christmas Day in 1844. Barboursville's wines are influenced by the winery's Italian owner and Italian winemaker; on the estate, a new restaurant, called Palladio, serves rustic Italian fare such as homemade pumpkin ravioli and falling-off-the-bone veal shanks.

A mile away, Dennis Horton has had great success with grapes from France's Rhône Valley, such as Marsanne, Mourvèdre and Viognier, which seem to tolerate Virginia's hot, humid summers and rainy harvest seasons. Although Horton continues to break new ground (he's currently experimenting with Touriga Nacional, a Portuguese variety), he also makes wine with a truly Virginian grape: Norton, a hybrid created in Richmond in 1835, which was used to make "Virginia claret," a wine popular in the 19th century.

Prince Michel Vineyards is located right on U.S. Highway 29, a somewhat less bucolic setting than those of other Virginia wineries, nestled in the hills. But once inside the main building, visitors become happily absorbed with the wine museum (filled with antique wine-related artifacts collected by winery owner Jean Leducq) and with the winery's self-guided walking tour. Prince Michel Restaurant, which offers views of the vineyards, serves expertly prepared classics such as grilled fillet of salmon with chive beurre blanc.

I headed home in a car filled with rock candy, books on Monticello's gardens, magnolia wreaths and several bottles of wine. The only thing missing from my shopping list was a few quarts of Pierce's barbecue. (Next time, I'll skip the plantation route and opt for smoky pork and crisp hush puppies instead.) Something else I'd acquired on the trip was more intangible: a heightened awareness of how grapegrowing and winemaking are deeply rooted in Virginia's history. Seeing where the country's first vines were planted and tasting new releases from almost the same places were perhaps the most interesting -- and by far the most delicious -- history lessons I've ever had.

Sarah Belk King is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va.


For the complete article, please see the Oct. 15, 2000 issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 85.

When to Go

Spring and fall are ideal in terms of weather, but hotels and restaurants are busy then. Tourism slacks off in January and February, but some restaurants and small hotels take that time to renovate or close for vacation. July and August are hot and humid, and both the Williamsburg and Charlottesville areas are packed with tourists then. Most Virginia wineries are open daily, all year round.

Where to Stay

CLIFTON-THE COUNTRY INN
1296 Clifton Inn Drive, Charlottesville 22911
Telephone (888) 971-1800
Fax (804) 971-7098
Rooms 7
Suites 7
Rates $175­$495

Clifton, a 1799 manor, has five rooms in the main house, plus nine other guest accommodations (cottages and junior suites) in the dependencies. The three "livery" rooms are the most secluded, and they offer lake views and stone fireplaces. Room rates include afternoon tea and full breakfast. The property also has a restaurant of the same name.

THE SUITES AT PRINCE MICHEL
Route 29, Leon 22725
Telephone (800) 800-9463
Fax (540) 547-3088
Suites 4
Rates $350­$400

Prince Michel Vineyards has four comfortable suites decorated in modern French country style. Each suite has a Jacuzzi, fireplace, television, VCR, surround-sound stereo and fax machine, and a private porch overlooking the vineyards. Rates include continental breakfast. Prince Michel also has a restaurant on the property.

THE WILLIAMSBURG INN
136 E. Francis St., Williamsburg 23185
Telephone (757) 220-7978
Fax (757) 220-7096
Rooms 102
Suites 5
Rates $159­$2,500

This 107-room hotel with Regency-style decor, located in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, is known for its excellent service and Southern hospitality. Jacket and tie are required for gentlemen at dinner in the Regency Dining Room (see listing, page 93), which features live music and dancing Friday and Saturday nights. Room rates include afternoon tea. The inn also has an 18-hole golf course, tennis, lawn bowling, croquet and a nature trail.

WILLOW GROVE INN
14079 Plantation Way, Orange 22960
Telephone (800) 949-1778
Fax (540) 672-3674
Rooms 6
Suites 4
Rates $225­$330

A landmark building listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Willow Grove has five guest rooms in the main house and five in the antebellum cottages in the garden. All rooms are appointed with handmade quilts and vintage furniture. Some rooms have fireplaces; all have views of the Virginia countryside. Room rates include breakfast and a four-course dinner.

Where to Eat

CLIFTON-THE COUNTRY INN
1296 Clifton Inn Drive, Charlottesville 22811
Telephone (888) 971-1800
Fax (804) 971-7098
Open Dinner, daily
Cost Prix fixe only, $60 ($70 Friday and Saturday)
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club
Award of Excellence

Dinners are rather structured, with a cocktail reception from 6:30 to 7:15, the chef's "menu speech" at 7:15, and dinner -- one seating only -- promptly at 7:30.

THE DINING ROOM AT FORD'S COLONY
240 Ford's Colony Drive, Williamsburg 23188
Telephone (757) 258-4107
Fax (757) 258-4168
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost Entrées, $24­$33
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Best of Award of Excellence

This is a rather formal, 90-seat room with neoclassical details. Despite the conservative atmosphere, chef David Everett's menu is innovative and original. A lobster and scallop dish sauced with Sauternes and truffles was a beautifully balanced combination. Adam Steely, formerly of Award of Excellence winner The Frog and the Redneck in Richmond, has been brought on to oversee the wine program and to boost the selection of Virginia bottlings.

KING'S ARMS TAVERN
416 E. Duke of Gloucester St., Williamsburg 23185
Telephone (800) 447-8679
Fax (757) 565-8806
Open Lunch and dinner, Wednesday to Monday
Cost Lunch entrées, $7­$9; dinner entrées, $19­$28
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express

This tavern originally opened in 1772. Updated regional dishes, such as meat pies, rice pudding and Sally Lunn bread, are a delicious nod to the past.

PALLADIO
17655 Winery Road, Barboursville 22923
Telephone (540) 832-7848
Fax (540) 832-7572
Open Lunch, Wednesday to Sunday; dinner, Friday and Saturday
Cost Lunch, prix fixe only, $35 or $48; dinner, prix fixe only, $48 or $69
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard

Located next to Barboursville Winery's tasting room, Palladio would be right at home in the Tuscan countryside. Chef John Marshall combines regional ingredients and Italian technique for fare that complements Barboursville's wines beautifully. A four-course prix fixe lunch is available for $35 ($48 with wine); a four-course prix fixe dinner costs $48 ($69 with wine).

PIERCE'S PITT BAR-B-Q
447 E. Rochambeau Drive, Williamsburg 23185
Telephone (757) 565-2955
Fax (757) 565-1548
Open Monday to Thursday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Cost $3­$16
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard

A casual, family-oriented restaurant (no alcohol is served), Pierce's is famous for its tangy tomato-based sauce and authentic, smoked-on-the-premises pork barbecue. Located off I-64, between the Camp Perry and Lightfoot exits, Pierce's is a good choice for a quick roadside lunch.

PRINCE MICHEL RESTAURANT
Route 29, Leon 22725
Telephone (800) 800-9463
Fax (540) 547-3088
Open Lunch, Thursday to Sunday; dinner, Thursday to Saturday
Cost Lunch entrées, $17­$24; dinner entrées, $29­$39
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, Discover

The restaurant's new location overlooks the Prince Michel vineyards. Meals prepared by Loire native Alain Lecomte combine classic French techniques with regional ingredients, as in the foie gras with Virginia apples and cider sauce. A three-course prix fixe lunch is $35; a four-course prix fixe dinner is $80.

REGENCY DINING ROOM
The Williamsburg Inn, 136 E. Francis St., Williamsburg 23185
Telephone (800) 447-8679
Fax (757) 565-8797
Open Lunch, Monday to Saturday; dinner, daily; brunch, Sunday
Cost Lunch entrées, $11­$15; dinner entrées, $24­$38
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, Discover
Award of Excellence

An eclectic menu includes local favorites that have been tweaked (the crab Norfolk is served in a pastry shell with a Dijon sauce), as well as original concoctions. Some, like lobster and sweet pepper bisque, work beautifully. Others seem a bit baroque: pasta with shrimp, crab, truffles, mascarpone, crispy calamari and pine nuts, for example.

TASTINGS OF CHARLOTTESVILLE
502 E. Market St., Charlottesville 22902
Telephone (804) 293-3663
Fax (804) 293-9332
Open Lunch and dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Lunch entrées, $8­$14, dinner entrées, $17­$25
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, Discover

Located in Charlottesville's Downtown Mall (near the University of Virginia), Tastings includes a wine shop in front and a casual restaurant in the back. Chef Bill Curtis' wine-friendly specialties include a warm scallop salad with pistachio oil (Curtis suggested Barboursville Viognier to accompany it) and crabmeat casserole (suggested Virginia wine: White Hall Pinot Gris).

WILLOW GROVE INN
14079 Plantation Way, Orange 22960
Telephone (800) 949-1778
Fax (540) 672-3674
Open Dinner, Thursday to Sunday
Cost Prix fixe only, $48
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express

The dining room at the Willow Grove Inn offers a three-course prix fixe dinner for $48.


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