Saturday, October 22, 2005

Off the Beaten Path in the Virginia Mountains

We love getting away for the weekend, and we love “different” things, things that we don’t get to do often and that pull us out of the ordinary. I also, personally love fall festivals and fairs! I could live my life through fall festival foods and treats! So, every year now, we look forward for the Olive Fest at Villa Appalaccia and the Garlic Festival of the Rebec Vineyards in VA. Sometimes, we skip one of these events, because of other “obligations” with family and/or friends, but we try to make at least one of them.
This year, it was the Olive Fest that we tried to make. We tried to literally squeeze a half of a day visit to the Blue Ridge Parkway this October, on the 22nd. J had to work, so we had only half of a day to get out of town. We drove up US 220, to US 58, up to the Meadows of Dan (which to me sounds so much more poetic that “Dan’s Meadows”… it’s a spot right out of the fairy tales books to me, judging by the name alone), and the Blue Ridge Parkway, and we looked for this small vineyard, called Villa Appalaccia, that will have an “All Things Olive” weekend, with olive, olive oil and vinaigrettes tastings and of course, wine! It’s hard to follow directions in finding these wineries because they don’t have physical addresses, really, they’re located on “mile markers” and sometimes, those are hard to spot. We tried to use memories from 2 years ago, the last time we made this trip, to find our way there.
In the meantime, we were enjoying the drive through the mountainous space, up and down hills of early fall colors, and under smoky gray skies. The drive is beautiful: quaint little small towns and small, wooden shopping centers, elegant comfy homes, or run-down-looking trailers, they all add to the Virginian landscape, that we all know and find so familiar. The weather is typical fall weather, rain, here and there, bright sun peeking from the clouds at times, and as we drive higher, colder and colder air greets us. After a 2 hr drive, J spotted the Villa Appalaccia Winery to the right of the Parkway, going North. We took the gravel road off the Parkway towards the main building.
Once you leave the Parkway, you almost step into another space, all its own, quiet, and, because of the remoteness, sort of eerie. The main building has an Italian/ Mediterranean “flavor” to it, with the brick-colored stucco and the round arches around every corner and window, the stone walkway and the tile roof. I guess they meant it that way, because they also have an Italian flag on their property, and on their website they also advertise a Tuscan villa (as in set in Tuscany, Italy), that they bought recently and which can be rented by anyone who wishes to enjoy wine in the “true” wine country of Italy. Although there is no ocean nearby, as you would expect, because of the architecture, the winery does not seem out of place. Its elegance and style fits the Smokeys pretty well.
We do the olive tasting first, and we’re treated with olives and olive oils for dipping from countries as various and remote as Peru, Morocco, Italy, France, and Turkey, to the US and Romania and Greece. Some oils are smooth and almost tasteless (like the Frantoia, that J liked), others are pungent and spicy; the same thing with the olives: some are “meaty” and full of “olive” flavor, others are pickled in red wine vinegar or garlic, thyme and rosemary brine. The olives are amazing: green, black, purple, seasoned, “wrinkled”, green or black. Our guide tells us that “all olives come from the same tree, it all depends how long you wait to pick them, or how you cure them”. My favorite olive oil happens to be a French one, called “A L’Olivier”, which is infused with garlic and spices”. My favorite olives (although I’d have any amount of any specialty!) are the Gaeta ones, which are Italian, “slightly bitter in taste with hints of lemon and garlic”. I also liked the Moroccan Oil-Cured ones, which are black (of course!), naturally dried (thus “wrinkled”), full flavored with thyme and slightly bitter, too. They are all delicious! I am not really worrying about J’s experience through this all (he’s not crazy about olives!), because I am in cloud nine! I could sit there and eat 15 tons of these small fruit until I drop dead, sick with a stomach ache (as I used to do at home, back in Romania). Olives to me are right up there close to divinity! I have always thought they come from around the Mediterranean where all the Gods lived for a reason! They’re all divinely delicious!
After the olive tasting (which only happens once a year, sometimes in October at this particular vineyard; this is the link for further info: ), we went on to the wine tasting: we tasted about 10 wines made on the premises, both red and white, some dryer, some sweeter. We both agreed we cannot understand what people see (taste) in red wines, but then again we’re not wine fanatics. We agreed, again, that while the white wines are OK, or the better kind, the red ones all “taste like feet”. We like simple things: if we like something, we say we like it because it’s “sweet”, or “bitter”, or “tastes like honey”, or “like garlic”… We both giggle when people try to sound sophisticated and find that a wine tastes “like the oak barrel”, or find that one “has a rich bouquet”. We call the smell of the wine, “the smell”, and not the “nose”, and we call the “taste”, the “taste”, and not the “flavor” or “bouquet”. We both agree that making wine is a labor of love, and a work of art sometimes, but we don’t get very “sophisticated” when we try to talk about it: to us, if it tastes good, it’s good wine, we’re not looking for the 13 bugs that happened to have rested on the grapes during the fermentation process, thus rendering the future wine the complexity of its taste. (roll your eyes) We’re simple people! But nevertheless, it’s fun to watch the others trying to understand the mysteries of this potion.
After the cellar tour and the wine drinking we proceeded into the patio upstairs where we were served the standard lunch, which included bruschetta bread, and olive tapenade for the appetizer, and a salad with a mild vinaigrette and a vegetarian pasta dish, in what else but a light olive oil sauce as the “main course”. A classic guitar was strumming in the background, and a ton of “wine people” surrounded us, some solo, some with groups of friends. We kept wondering how can someone drive for the day up there and drink a whole bottle of wine amongst 2 people and then drive back?! I guess we’re still novices in the wine drinking department, because just the little bit of the tasting gave me (at least) a buzz.
After lunch, we headed to Chateau Morrisette ( While the Villa is a small little family-owned business, the Chateau is a well-marketed “monster”, with an overpriced gift shop and wines being sold at all the Harris Teeters in NC, or at least all of them in Greensboro. I only want to go by there for their gourmet “Black Dog” signature dips and oils, and not necessarily for the wines: I don’t believe anything in the US can match my palate for Romanian wine, so I don’t even try to hope that one winery will even come close one day to proving me wrong. So, after buying my mostly coveted Sauvignon Blanc Garlic Mayo (how’s this for pretentious?!?) , I discovered another treasure, in the shape of a Roasted Garlic Grape Seed dipping oil – delicious, very garlic-y indeed dipping oil!!! We looked around the gift shop at the pricey merchandise and we left in about 15 minutes, after wondering how some people can afford between a $106 and $160 purchase of wines alone. That must be a true (and faithful) passion for wine indeed. I paid my $15 total for my mayo and dip (much to the dismay of the cashier, I am sure, which changed a whole role of receipt paper before she took me) and we drove off into the sunset, towards our next stop.
The next halt was the Mabry Mill, a staple on the Virginian Blue Ridge Parkway: built in the late 1800’s, the mill is a drop of the past on this scenic road. It now belongs to the National Parks, and it’s a nice reminder of the American forefathers and the way they lived back in the day. The mill, the cabins around it and all the bridges are build of wood, and the sound of water is soothing and peaceful, albeit being on the side of the busy road. The mill stop also has a blacksmith shop, and a cabin where you can find people making crafts, just for a more genuine reminder of the past. The gift store offers souvenirs which range from videos about the Blue Ridge Parkway to locally crafted goods and foods, from postcards to VA magnets and mugs.
After a few pictures of the mill, with ducks and without, with people peeking from the window, and without, and after a few shots of the colorful “fall”-y trees, we made our way back to Greensboro.
After a 2 hour drive, we got back to our city home, and routine, tummies full of yummy olives, dips, and salads, heads full of wine (I have always thought that wines must travel upward, towards the head!), and souls full of refreshment. I’m sipping good ol’ grocery chardonnay as I’m writing this right now, and I feel good: I guess wine was just the pretext for today’s getaway, not the purpose: it gave us a good reason to go search, and in the meantime, we found hidden treasures in the mountains of Virginia. And as always, we re-found ourselves, only more rested, mentally, because our retinas have now been cleansed and our batteries re-charged one more time!

Sunday, October 02, 2005

A Scent of Fall

Summer will not give up in the Carolinas, with temperatures daily of 82-85, cloudless skies, blazing heat from the sun and trees all full of dark and rich green leaves. But I get phone calls from back home (Romania) and mom has almost finished the winter canning and preserving, and dad just finished picking the grapes, and will soon start the wine making. We're going to the local golf tournament this weekend, and that is the first sign of fall here. That event opens up a whole new season of fall fests and activities. The air is crisp and cool in the mornings and at night we watch tv and read a book with the AC off and the window wide open. Crickets are quiet earlier in the night, and flocks of birds cross the skies in the evenings, all heading South. The windows of all shops in town are dressed up in yellow and rust and WalMart is selling pumpinks and gords. Summer may be stubborn, still, but we surely are speeding her way out of the picture with everything else. It's the cycle of life and I'm always fascinated how we obediently go through it every year: without questioning, just trotting along, eyes on the calendar, we know, as we've known for centuries, that after September 21st, we must be getting ready for the winter.