It was a rainy seven hours of driving to arrive in Charles City. Charles City County lies north of the James River between Richmond and Williamsburg along Route 5, a National Scenic Byway, part of which was once known as The Great Road. The eastern end of it follows part of an ancient Algonquin Trail that began near Jamestown. It is considered the earliest developed English thoroughfare in Virginia. The road was an important route used to transport goods and forward communications between settlements in the earliest days of inhabitancy.
I arrived at Upper Weyanoke, the family vacation home of Freddie and Lawrence Gray, poised above the James River. Upper Weyanoke is part of the larger family plantation of over 2000 acres where Lawrence grew up spending summers. Charles City is comprised of large agricultural tracts. The James River at that point is a mile wide, appearing as a lake, leading into the Chesapeake Bay and then into the Atlantic.
I was met by a warm hug from Freddie and shown into the house. We were immediately graced with the swoop of a bald eagle in front of the window overlooking the water. We both regarded this as a good omen.
I was led to an entire floor and wing with 3 bedrooms, kitchen and laundry room in my area of this palatial home. They call it, "The Farm". Freddie fell in love with Halleck Vineyard, "The Farm Vineyard" Pinot Noir, on a visit to an old friend in Sebastopol last year. She bought a case for Lawrence's birthday and it is now their "house wine".
Dramatically situated on the banks of the James, the center core of Upper Weyanoke is believed to have been erected in the 17th century as a stronghold against Indian assault following the massacres of 1622 (347 colonists were killed, including five on the Weyanoke property). Although no one knows how many garrison houses may have been built after the massacres, Upper Weyanoke is the only one that remains. It is believed to be one of the oldest houses on the James River. There are still original floors, fireplaces and doors in this section of the home. This land is where the first slaves landed in the New World and was an active port for some time. In the 40s, an addition was constructed to accommodate a family. Five years ago, Lawrence and Freddie began the three year project to bring the home to its current grandeur. It stands as a showcase of good living. There is an astounding chef's kitchen, guest rooms, guest houses, a "scary house" from the 1800s that will be a future project, gorgeous gardens, two boat houses, docks, a stunning pool house, barns and plenty of spots to enjoy a cocktail. It is a place to PARTY!!!
And you could not ask for a nicer or more gracious couple of people to party with.
After a long shower and shave, Freddie and I had our first cocktail. Then we headed to chef Annie Chalkley's home for our staging dinner. Freddie and Annie invited a dozen friends to preview the dinner planned for the following night at Upper Weyanoke. The event was auctioned to benefit the World Pediatric Project, an amazing organization that travels into the Caribbean to assist children with medical care. More on that later.
I did not realize it, but this was also my "coming out" party for the Charles City community of Annie, Freddie and Lawrence's friends. Annie and I had collaborated on the menu via correspondence. Freddie did not want to waste the effort on just one dinner, so they planned two: one for their friends and the other for the winners of the auction lot.
The dinner was wonderful and the wines were perfect matches. Annie and I made some minor tweaks, but we were good to go. And I had a whole new circle of friends.
The following day, Freddie and Lawrence took me on the rounds. First thing, we attended the last fox hunt of the season. It was held on the Tyler estate, called Sherwood Forest, original home of President John Tyler (1841-1845) and still one of the homes of the current generation of Tylers. We were served port, sherry, bloody mary's and some special little sandwiches of Virginia ham. The dogs were out and all the riders were decked in full regalia. Grooms were polishing the boots of the riders and the horses' manes and tails were braided. We were met by all the friends of the previous evening. Jeanine and Susie were riders, but the rest of us watched in the morning chill. They looked gorgeous on their gussied-up steeds in their gussied-up outfits.
When the horses were off, we made quick exit to meet Andrea Erdas at her family plantation, Westover Plantation. This august home is steeped in history and continues the glow of its noble past. Westover is considered one of the most perfect examples of Georgian architecture in America. Its elegant yet simple form and proportions, combined with a commanding setting overlooking the James River, convey the essence of 18th century artistic ideals adapted to a wealthy planter's style of living in Colonial Virginia. It is a living museum, converted into a thriving business to support the extravagant expenses required to maintain it. It is regularly a site in films, there are tours of the home and grounds, and it serves as a venue for weddings and celebrations. Andrea and Rob have taken over the family business from her mother and father who live in another beautiful home on the grounds.
From Westover, we headed to Tayloe and Susie's plantation, Upper Shirley. Again, a gorgeous period dwelling, with a history of modernizations to bring it to a state for fine living. But Tayloe has a more interesting story that prompted my visit; he has planted 35 acres of vines, is building an ambitious 15,000 foot tasting facility and venue, and is devoted to making great wine in Virginia. He has planted Petit Verdot, Viognier, Merlot and Tannat. This is a "growing" movement in Virginia, I was informed, with restaurants focused entirely on featuring Virginia wines. Tayloe was enthralled with the Halleck Vineyard wines he tasted at Annie's home, so was excited for me to visit. As soon as we got to the vineyard, we left everyone in the dust, so to speak. His trellising and pruning techniques were interesting. The soil could not be more different than in California. It is rated the most productive soil in the world. There is plenty of water and plenty of everything else. How does one stress a vine in such conditions? This is his challenge and we could have talked for hours. And we certainly will, but time was not our friend, so we headed out to another estate.
Joining us at Upper Shirley was John Hinson. His wife, Jeanine, was one of the fox hunt riders. He drove up in his fully restored, 1962 Austin Healy. It was truly a work of art. He offered me a ride back to tour his place, Evelynton Plantation, so I hopped in. He placed his cute dog on my lap and we were off like a speeding bullet. I almost soiled his car I was so frightened. We were on a narrow country road, unimproved, which exited the Upper Shirley estate, going 80mph! I tried to enjoy it for about 15 seconds until I realized I was not. My youthful days were behind me with the scenery and I was fear-struck. It only took a word and we were cruising at a pace in harmony with our bucolic surroundings.
Evelynton, a Georgian Revival manor house, was built in 1937 on the site of a previous structure which burned in 1862. Evelynton was the site of fierce Civil War skirmishes in 1862 at the end of General George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. J.E.B.Stuart led the Southern offensive in the Battle of Evelynton Heights. The original house was burned during that conflict. John and Jeanine bought the property in 2008 and fully restored it to all its glory.
From Evelynton, Lawrence, Freddie and I took a short stop for lunch at the historic Cul's Courthouse Grill, built in 1872. This was the site of another historic event, Lawrence's 50th birthday. This special occasion, he took his spot with the band and relived his wayward youth as a rockstar. Crooning songs and hammering away on his axe, he entertained guests as they danced in celebration of entering his sixth decade.
With the morning gone and dinner approaching, we headed back to Upper Weyanoke for a waking tour of the extended family's 2000 acres. Childhood stories were shared of cannon blasts, swimming parties, sleep-overs in the caboose, and bombing around the property in go-carts. We toured the family manor and chatted about the other family members. Some much needed exercise was gotten.
After our walk we settled in for a nap and dinner preparations. This would be the Main Event: the dinner for 12 that auctioned to benefit World Pediatric. This organization does extraordinary work to relieve the suffering of children through medical treatment of entirely treatable maladies. More importantly, the money donated achieves a 4x multiplier: this means that for every dollar received, $4 worth of care is delivered. This is because ALL the docs and nurses donate their time. The money goes only for medication, supplies, transportation, and a modest amount to sustain a staff to organize all the services delivered. So the funds we generated during my visit translated into approximately $40,000 in benefits for these unfortunate children. It makes one feel good to do good. And even better to do great.
Freddie, Lawrence, and I welcomed our guests as the sun was setting over the James River. Annie and Rhonda held the fort in the kitchen. The dinner was won by Janie Armfield and her husband, Billy. They were joined by their son and daughter, their spouses and a few friends. They arrived in a shuttle, arranged by Freddie, to save anyone from driving. Cocktails, bubbly and beer was enjoyed to warm the cockles and loosen the tongues. It was a gorgeous evening with temps in the high 60s.
We served as kitchen and wait staff for our guests. I LOVE that! It was a pleasure to be server and sommelier, retreating to the back with "the help", to discuss the event and our next tasks. The five of us worked like a well-oiled machine, smiles and joy throughout the meal.
Since I was not dining, I needed to be "the talent" between courses; so I took stance at the corner of the table and improvised, telling stories, describing the wine, teaching how to taste, and answering questions. The time filled easily and our guests barely realized the transitions.
It was a marvelous evening that turned into night. Everyone was well-pleased. Before leaving, a few members asked to join our Wine Club, and Janie committed to outbidding the event for next year. So our benefit to World Pediatric was doubled again. And our community expanded.
The following day I had one more event to host to cap my southern trek. This time it was in Richmond, VA. Again, on behalf of World Pediatric, I was asked to conduct a tasting at Diane and Murray Wright's French chateau-style home. This was won by Blair and Darcie Nelson, who hosted 20 friends for Halleck Vineyard wines. This added to our contribution, lifting the benefit to children for my time in Virginia. We also gained another three Wine Club members.
I left the Wrights to find my way to Freddie and Lawrence's Richmond home, just a couple miles away.Freddie and their spunky 14 yr. old daughter, Arlo, met me at the door. Arlo was decked in lacrosse attire, sporting a couple of "sticks". Freddie showed me to my lofty suite above their four story home to change and get ready for a driving tour of Richmond with she and Lawrence. We enjoyed dinner at a favorite Italian haunt, got home early, and I crashed into a 9 hour sleep. This was the most I had slept my entire trip. I awoke refreshed; after packing, Freddie and I walked a few miles around the neighborhood and the University of Richmond. Very fond farewells were bid and I headed home.
"Building Community Through Wine" is more than a tagline. It is impossible to express how grateful I am to be doing this work. I am privileged to apply myself to what I love, share it with people around the country and the world, make a living, build a legacy for my children, and contribute to making the world a better place.