Photo by Dario Shhevtsova on Unsplash
By Liz Crowe
Hello and welcome to June! This month, I’d like to share a little junket I took — fully masked and socially distanced — to Charlottesville, Virginia.
Why Virginia, you ask?
Well, his name is Cameron and he’s my first-born. He’s finishing up a pharmacy residency at the UVA hospital, and about to launch himself out into the world of adult-sized things, like student loan repayments and such, but also more fun things like job interviews. This is his second year in Charlottesville and he has spoken highly of it — in terms he knows his mother appreciates, bless him.
“Mom, you’ll love the breweries and wineries.” I’m so proud.
Anyways, we made the trek and I can attest that that area of Virginia is absolutely gorgeous, with rolling hills and mountain top wineries, and yes, some very good breweries. What follows is an observation of an old American city that’s facing some well-needed realities about its history, but mostly a review of some alcoholic beverages I consumed. Enter at your own risk.
We met at a brewery called 3 Notch’d, which is named after a famous horse ride on a trail through the Virginia woods during the Revolution that was marked by three ax notches. The ride, made by Jack Jouett, was made to warn the guys in the Virginia Commonwealth legislature that the British were coming. I made my mark there (that’s what they ask you at this, one of four taprooms in the state) by trying their 40 Mile IPA — which, in keeping with the ethos of the place, commemorates the 40 miles Mr. Jouett made to save the Founding Fathers. It’s one of their flagships, and it was spot on, style-wise. Bitter, crisp, slightly higher in alcohol than some, but similar in form and structure to a Two-Hearted from Bells. The food was really great — you know you’re back in the South when there are deviled eggs on the menu.
The next day, Mr. Crowe and I took a self-guided tour of the University of Virginia campus. It’s a nice parallel to the University of Michigan in that it carries a fairly hefty price tag even for in-state students. But it also comes with similar cachet for the degree obtained. The most interesting thing we added to our “I didn’t know that” list were the Lawn Rooms. These are actual dorm rooms that were built around the perimeter of “The Lawn” behind the Rotunda, which is the building planned and implemented (as were most buildings on the original campus) by Charlottesville’s most famous guy, Thomas Jefferson. It was a gloriously sunny day and we noticed that there were piles of firewood outside these rooms, which stretched along both sides of The Lawn. Some of the doors were open, so we joined the families taking campus tours and peeked inside.
It turns out that if you are a fourth-year student in good standing, you can apply to live in one of these single-occupancy rooms, each one with its own fireplace that is needed to supplement the hot water heat. You go outside into the, well, outside to get to the toilets and showers. There are a few washing machines shared by the other Lawn Room residents (and something called “The Range,” which I think is behind The Lawn). It’s super cool in a historical way, but a stark contrast to the fancy, expensive high rises being built for student living at most campuses. This, too, is an expensive option. But the waiting list is as long as Thomas Jefferson’s to-do list, and since this is a college campus, there is controversy — including the fact that, apparently, running nude from the steps of the Capitol all the way down and back up the (pretty long) expanse of grass that is The Lawn is a rite of passage.
Moving on from there, we hit a couple of breweries. The first one was Random Row, which was a small place with minimal food service where I tasted the Aleatorio Diablo, a spot-on, perfect Mexican Lager. It was so perfect and refreshing in a Negro Modelo sort of way, I had two of them instead of trying something else like a good reviewer. But I did taste Mr. Crowe’s Sublimation Stout, an Irish style on nitro, and it, too was delicious with a lovely, creamy finish.
We grabbed food at a place down the road called Kardinal Hall that served beers from all over, including a few familiar names like Founders and Bell’s. I tried a cider from Bold Rock in Nelllysford, VA, which was just what I needed to go with the (prepare yourselves) poutine. After that we meandered a couple more blocks and arrived at our final brewery for the night, Rockfish Brewing, which is adjacent to and part of a garden store that also sells home brewing and wine making supplies. It’s a pretty cool place — small, with minimal food service. I tried their California Common, which is a hybrid style sometimes called a “Steam Beer” (think Anchor Steam) that was a fine ending for the evening.
The next day, Son Number One guided us around four wineries. Now, if you’re somewhat skeptical of wine from Virginia, allow me to alleviate that for you. These places are 60% atmosphere and 40% wine, but they’re on a scale of decent to excellent, to my non-sommelier yet highly opinionated palate. We began the day at one of the more scenic (and most popular) ones, King’s Family, which is also a horse farm and has a polo field. Alas, polo season had not yet begun, but our experience there was no lesser for it.
We started with their basic tasting menu: five different wines from white to pink to red. I’m not a huge rosé fan, but their “Crozet Rose” (pronounced “Cro-zay Ro-zay”), named for the town we were in (Crozet, VA), was one of the nicest I’ve had in a while. We progressed to a more expensive tasting menu of red blends that we all agreed were lovely and had every intention of purchasing, but I draw the line at $75 a bottle and the ones we liked best, alas, crossed that line. The views of the mountains from the huge back patio were worth the trip, though. It was everything you think of when you think “Virginia:” green rolling hills dotted with barns and fences, the occasional picturesque group of horses — all of this framed by tall mountains. And of course, there is wine to drink while you’re looking at it.
Our next stop was up some winding mountain roads to Afton Mountain Winery, which has cute little rental cabins (ergo I know where I’m staying next time, if we get back there). This place had a “hacienda” feel to it — large house with red slate tile roof, mirrored on the rentable building next to it, right beside the grape vines, all four sides glass. We tried their basic tasting again, reminded that COVID has put its stamp on this industry as well — no professionally-guided tastings, everything is self-guided. The bottle we chose was a Cabernet Franc, a grape that apparently grows very well in Virginian soil. It was a bit later, close to lunchtime while we tasted and chatted here, and the outdoor tables filled with groups of friends and families with little kids and dogs, who ran around while their parents sipped on picnic blankets.
We decided to try out one of the more famous ones, Veritas Winery, next. It’s a huge complex, with a restaurant and several rentable buildings all around it. And it was crowded. But our timing was good and we only waited in line for a few minutes for our little box of mini bottles and branded glass — that’s something that made me want to ask how these places afforded to give away glassware left, right, and center. Hungry by this point, albeit in a mellow, wine-tasting day sort of way, we got their boxed charcuterie board, which was yummy and a perfect fit for our picnic blanket (we were too late to get a table). These wines were top-notch, and by the time the clouds were rolling in, we decided to buy a bottle of their Sauvignon Blanc. But the line was way too long. Of course, being the savvy customer that he is, Mr. Crowe told me to ask the hostess outside the restaurant if I could buy one. No surprise that she ran right in and charged my card and brought me the bottle. One gets to skip lines when one Reaches a Certain Age, we decided.
Our last stop was new to the group and a sort of a “Oh, why not try one more?” as we made our way around the mountains outside Charlottesville. To say that you can’t turn in any direction, walk a few feet, and find yet another picturesque place for a girls’ day out, family picnic, or super scenic (and no doubt super pricey) wedding with wine made from the vines growing around you, is an understatement. So we pulled into Septenary Winery, which is part of Seven Oaks Farm. It was yet another look — this time a huge, old, many-columned mansion with an addition on the side that had a little pool, some tables, snacks, and the requisite tasing samples. We were a tad, uh…let’s call it “saturated by beauty” at this point, and did not anticipate finding anything new or worth purchasing. We were wrong. The red blend we bought, Manor Reserve 2015, is a blend of Cab, Merlot, Cab Franc, and Petit Verdot, and I would hold it up against almost any California red blend in the $30-50 category.*
The day went off without a hitch. I got my wine-tasting day nap and felt refreshed for dinner, which we had in an older part of Charlottesville — the Belmont Area, which reminded me a lot of Kerrytown in Ann Arbor (where Mr. Crowe and I purchased our very first house back in the late ‘90s. Never should have sold that house. But I digress).
If you love American history, really great wines served in places that feel straight out of central casting for “scenic wineries,” amazingly well-crafted beers, and friendly people, I can’t recommend a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia heartily enough. I even know an Airbnb you’ll love.
And now for a quick observation about the breweries, something that struck me as one of the early adopters — and, dare I say, founding mothers — of breweries in Ann Arbor. There wasn’t a single beer that any of us had that was not an exact representation of the style it purported to be. Which is why I want you to repeat after me: “There is NO excuse to drink bad beer anywhere you go, even if you drink at local breweries.”
Cheers to everyone!
*I am not a wine expert and I also did not ask any one of the extremely friendly staff how much of their grapes were used vs. juice shipped in from California. It didn’t really matter, since these places are worth the trip in a more big-picture, beautiful setting sort of a way.