Walking the grounds of Keswick Hall, I see a blue mist slowly rising over the rolling hills of Virginia. Keswick Hall sits like a golden jewel in the midst of them, elegantly reflecting the look of an English country manor, just as the Colonists would have desired. Except, this is distinctly American, with a brush of Italian, a dab of France and a bit of overstuffed Southern comfort awaiting inside.
Archway after archway opens into a welcoming home-like environment in which you might expect to find your rich uncle, ready to entertain you with the luxuries he has gathered from around the world.
I feel so transformed myself that I fully expect to see Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and James Monroe – the third and fifth U.S. presidents – crest the hill on trusty steeds. It is the perfect beginning for an elegant day of wine tasting in the heart of Virginia wine country: Charlottesville
It was Jefferson himself, that devout gardener, who first attempted to grow grapes for wines in the New World. Having cultivated a taste for fine wines in France, he felt his own Virginia soil and temperate climate would prove perfect for viticulture.
Jefferson’s experiment failed, but modern day wineries daily prove his theory correct. Virginia sells more than 250,000 cases of wine annually, according to the Virginia Wine & Food Society, making it the fifth largest wine producer in the U.S. It is also fifth in the number of wineries, with more than 80.
Few of the wineries produce in mass, leaving plenty of room for family and boutique wineries to stamp each bottle and each tasting with its own personality. Keswick Hall set up a tour that included meeting some of these winemakers.
Sitting in the Palladio Restaurant at Barboursville Winery, I can hardly believe my eyes. A lean, handsome Italian man is leaning over me and personally shaving truffles onto my sumptuous meal. He moves down the table, sharing the rarity of real European black truffles with his guests.
This delightful man is Luca Paschina, winemaker and son of winemakers. He entertains in that easy, graceful way unique to Italians who value life’s most important blessings: food and love.
With each delicious course, we taste a different wine. Each layer builds upon the other, the wine and food are perfect complements, and all is enhanced by pleasant company. The combination makes everything taste especially wonderful.
Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, stands proudly in front of the university he founded. This building and the central campus complex reflect his architectural genius.
Fully gorged on Northern Italian-style food, we stuff ourselves into a van and head for the vineyards. Jefferson’s own attempts at wine making bordered this very vineyard. A ruin of a house, located on the property, was once occupied by James Barbour, an early Virginia governor.
Destroyed in a fire in the 1880s, the home was designed by Barbour’s friend, Jefferson. The octagon room is echoed in the name of a Barboursville wine, my favorite of the Keswick reds, which is called, of course, Octagon. Today, Shakespeare plays are performed on this site.
From there, our Keswick Hall designated driver takes us to Edgewood Estate, one of the few grand Colonial homes still standing. It was built by Dr. Thomas Walker, who, with a good farm breakfast, delayed British troops long enough for Jefferson and the Legislature to escape.
This event saved the author of the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson) and leaders of the Revolutionary war. More recently, the estate was owned by singer/songwriter Art Garfunkel.
We receive warm greetings from Al and Cindy Schornberg, vineyard owners, and Stephen Barnard, winemaker. At a reception on the verandah, we taste their wines. The most impressive is the Nektar, almost sweet enough for dessert.
Al and Cindy landed in Virginia after a near tragic plane crash – a wing fell off. Their brush with death served as a wake-up call. Al decided, after great success in the high tech world, to pursue his agrarian dreams of winemaking, like his great-grandfather.
Later that evening, we indulge in yet more wines at Keswick Hall during a blind wine tasting, which we all fail miserably. Only the winemakers succeed in identifying both local and imported wines, and even they make a few mistakes.
With fresh palates, we head out the next morning to the Kluge Estate Winery. Patricia Kluge, who recently emerged from a well-publicized divorce from billionaire media man John Kluge, is rich, remarried and making wine.
Her Kluge Estate is the most formal and organized of the wineries in Charlottesville, a testimonial to the grace and force of her personality. Her Farm Shop emits wonderful aromas from cheeses, jams and other goodies available for tasting and purchase.
A formal tasting table offers samples of her New World Red, a full-bodied wine that runs US$ 58 a bottle. The couple on the tasting stool next to me leaves with a case. I prefer the sparkling white wine, at a more reasonable US$ 38 per bottle. It goes well with the chocolate cloud of a dessert I sample from the Farm Shop.
From the most formal to the most rustic, we head to Blenheim Vineyards, where we’re met at a wine barn by winemaker Brad McCarthy, whose partner in this venture is musician Dave Matthews.
The temperature in the barn is set for the wine’s comfort, not ours. We stand, freezing, in front of a pine board bar, sipping while Brad talks wine talk. I don’t know if it is the temperature or the taste, but this is my least favorite stop.
Later, I find myself seated in comfort at Fleurie, a wonderful Charlottesville restaurant. The food, French-style, is good, especially my rack of lamb, and there is the added benefit of sitting at a table next to thriller writer John Grisham, who really is as handsome as his book jackets indicate.
He lives here now, in Charlottesville, and greets people as he leaves. He stops briefly at our table, as he recognizes our local companion, and asks the mandatory, “How are you?” Assured she is fine, he graciously tolerates short name-only introductions, nods sweetly, and then takes his leave with his wife. After all, this is Virginia, where good manners matter.
The next day, we soberly explore the homes of Jefferson and Monroe. A tour of the University of Virginia, a must to see the architectural brilliance of Thomas Jefferson, completes our exploration of this historic area.
These days, Charlottesville works to write a new chapter in its history, in perfect harmony with its most famous citizen, Jefferson, the ultimate example of cultured agriculture.
IF YOU GO
Keswick Hall at Monticello
Rooms start at US$ 295, but if you want the one movie actor Paul Newman and his wife JoAnne Woodward stayed in, it will cost US$ 895. The hotel will also organize a wine tour for you. Packages start at US$ 910 for two, which includes two nights, three meals, afternoon tea and wine packages.