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Ross Halleck
March 24, 2015 | Ross Halleck

The South, a Vintners Journey: Part 1

It is impossible to characterize a region from a single journey. One collects experiences and attempts to connect the dots to create a complete picture. We do this throughout our lives and even with our lives. But the magic is in the moments rather than the lines that we construct. 

My trip carried me from Atlanta, to the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee, into the Appalachian hill country of North Carolina, to the great plantations of eastern Virginia, and on into the historic urban enclave of Richmond. I am grateful for the time shared with friends, old and brand spankin' new. Much good was enjoyed and done.

Starting in Atlanta was fitting, as I have missed it. Since 2008, when the economy took its tailspin, I haven't visited. But prior, I was there several times a year. Halleck Vineyard wines were served in the finest restaurants across the region. I attended tastings, hosted dinners, participated in the High Museum Wine Auction, one of the most prestigious in the country, and built a community of friends. So I was excited to return to Atlanta.

It started in a shoe store of all places. But this is a story for another blog, sparked at the Ahwahnee Hotel last November in Yosemite National Park. I left Foot Solutions in Sandy Springs with new friends and several pairs of shoes. If you go there, talk to Brian or Marcia :-)

We have a wonderful Wine Club crew in Atlanta with almost 40 members. It was fitting that we convene at Restaurant Eugene. Linton Hopkins won the James Beard Foundation Award in 2012 for the best chef in the Southeast. If you consider that New Orleans is part of the Southeast, not to speak of all the other states, cities and towns, this is a very big deal. He and his wife, Gina, have hosted me numerous times for dinner during my visits. They can seat only 16 for private dining, but they squeezed in 20 of us and took care of our every need. And no one felt crowded. 

The meal was organized by another Gina (pronounced Jenna) and Angelle. I could not have been bookended by two more gorgeous women, inside and out. I met new friends over the joy of sharing delicious food, every course expertly paired with each of our wines. It was my pleasure to work closely with Juan Cortes, Eugene's sommelier, in dialing-in the menu. But it was the artistic command of the kitchen that delivered on our efforts. Kudos to the chefs!

A portion of the proceeds will benefit the High Art Museum, a cultural icon of Atlanta and the entire Southeast. It was a privilege to return on a mission to enjoy and give back.

My stay in Atlanta was short. The next morning I headed northwest, through Georgia, hopping across a short span of North Carolina, into the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. I was bound for Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a tourist town on the rim of the Park, to visit a dear friend and Baptist minister, Bill Black. 

Bill and I met on the ski slopes of Colorado during the Beaver Creek Food and Wine Festival. We started chatting on a chairlift and became instant friends, skiing and tracking with each other during my work at the Festival. Bill is the first Baptist minister I've met. We connected on a spiritual level that could never be constrained by his Christian orientation or my Jewish roots. He has been out to California a couple of times since our meeting, so it was my turn to visit his turf.

Driving through the Great Smokeys was eye-opening. I didn't even know it was a National Park! It is 30 miles wide and 70 miles long with very few roads. It is the most visited National Park in the US. To describe it as gorgeous, diminishes. Upon entering, I was welcomed by a herd of lounging Elk. They were reintroduced into the park about 10 years ago and have been thriving. From the top, at the borders of North Carolina and Tennessee, there is an overlook where you can peer across the unbroken landscape at the "blue smoke" rising off the hills, the source of its name. This mist is a function of water evaporation from the forests and it is nothing less than mystical to witness.

It did not prepare me for Gatlinburg, however. Gatlinburg is a cross between Disneyland and Las Vegas, situated on the edge of the Park. I arrived on a Monday. It was jam packed with people, large (mostly) and small, on the streets and sidewalks shopping, carrying ice cream cones, cotton candy, and popping in and out of the tourist attractions, bars and eateries. It is no more than 20 blocks long and there are 6 pancake houses. The throngs of tourists must really like their breakfasts.

Bill met me in town and immediately introduced me to "inner Gatlinburg". We had a Parton's Deli sandwich made by Dennis, who took over the sandwich shop from his father. Dennis was my age and had not traveled more than one trip to Texas his whole life. He made a mean sandwich, steamed in a contraption out of the '50s. 

After a brief pitstop in Bill's picturesque quaint mountain home just outside town, he drove me back into the Park along swollen Little Creek to the historic site of Cade's Cove. I was expecting water, but Cades is a cove defined by the circle of mountains surrounding an ancient settlement. It was first inhabited by native Americans, then by generations of settling families. They were cut off from anything that they could not supply for themselves by days of travel, so this fecund paradise fulfilled their every need through agriculture and hunting. 

As the afternoon waned into the evening, we toured some of the early homes, barns and church that remain. We walked the cemetery, noting the names of the families and the generations represented since the early 1800s. We parked ourselves on a knoll, surrounded by the Cove, drank wild moonshine and talked. Because talking is where our friendship began and stands as the basis of its flourishing. 

I spent a couple days touring the area with Bill. We took a steep hike off-trail up a creek to a remote waterfall he had not visited for 20 years. I bought a hand-made broom by one of the artisan families, the Ogles, that have continued to ply their trade for generations. 

And then we made plans for Bill to join me with friends for my upcoming vintner dinner in another part of Appalachia in North Carolina, near Asheville. I left the following morning.

I headed out to visit my friend and amazing chef, Susi Gott Seguret, at her family homestead outside of Marshall, North Carolina.

Susi met me in Asheville to take care of some last minute shopping for the meal. After a short stop at the farmers market, we headed to the Grove Park Inn, made famous by its early resident, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote several books there while battling alcoholism and depression.

This hotel is in the grand style of lodges, reminding me of the Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park. Perched high above town, it sports huge fireplaces blazing with split tree trunks, ringed by rocking chairs. It is elegant and monumental in scale. We enjoyed a delicious meal of fresh trout on the veranda overlooking all of Asheville. 

After lunch we toured some galleries, for which Asheville is famous. I had been told it was the Bohemian mecca of the south and it had all the charm that implies. 

At afternoon's end, Susi and I caravanned to her family homestead almost an hour away into the hills. She is an amazing woman, having resettled on her family's 200 acre homestead after living in France for 20 years.

She accommodated me in the "luxury suite", an old cabin without running water and no mobile connection. But it did have electricity, so was the only building on the property that had an electric heater. All the others were heated by wood stoves. My cabin was 100 years old, and one of a dozen buildings of its vintage on the farm. Susi's 50 year old main house had a chef's kitchen, centered around a wood stove that is still used. 

The family meal that night could have been enjoyed in a chateau in Provence, but it was punctuated by the banjo playing of "Daddy", who is suffering from dementia, and a bottle of Halleck Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. Our wines, in fact, share good company on the rack with French Burgundies and Bordeaux in the kitchen. 

The performance was spectacular. It was an extraordinary and unique cultural experience. 

The following day, we headed to Three Graces Dairy, down the road a piece, to pick up cheeses for the evening's meal at Laughing Frog Estate. Diane tasted us on some of her selections, then we headed back to the homestead for an extended tour of the property. 

We visited Susi's parents compound where she was raised. Susi is almost 10 years younger than me. Until a teenager, the family shared a large room. Much of the inspiration for the compound came from Cade's Cove in Tennessee, from where I had just come. They had no running water, electricity, and obviously no television. Susi was bussed to school an hour each way daily. Her teenage son still follows this regimen, leaving home just after 6:00 am to catch the bus.

The compound has grown since then, adding a few rooms, plumbing (forced by the county) and electricity. But her parents still heat and cook with the wood stove, cutting the wood at over 80 years old. Susi's daddy cannot do nearly as much due to his illness, so the extended family pitches in to care for him and keep the place up. We headed up to another cabin, much newer but in traditional style, that Susi's brother built by hand to serve as an art studio for Susi's mom. She uses it as a daily retreat for her water colors. 

After the tour, Susi completed the prep for the meal. We headed out to Laughing Frog for our vintner dinner. 

I was completely taken aback by the Laughing Frog Estate, home to Kelley and Stephen Wilkinson. The pictures I had seen display a large rustic lodge peeking out of a wooded background. The web site also appeared somewhat rustic, given my background as a marketing guy and coming from Silicon Valley. These, coupled with my introduction to Appalachia from Susi's family home, set my expectations. 

The home was absolutely elegant, modern, gorgeous, of impeccable taste and unexpected. The main part of the house is a log home, built in classic planed timber style of the region. It is enormous, surrounding a large brick pass-through fireplace and rimmed by windows. Susi's father laid the first rounds of the foundation and taught a class in log-home building on the site when the house was first under construction 18 years ago. Then, the Wilkinsons appointed the home with an extravagant chef's kitchen, marble floors, gorgeous furnishings and completed an addition in classic European style. This section of the house has a great room that towers 35 feet, large stained glass windows, balconies overlooking the room, wainscoting throughout, coffered ceilings, and stunning art everywhere. There are outdoor decks and terraces with views that take your breath away.

When I got over my shock and a quick tour, Susi and I got to work to prepare for dinner. We set the table and got the meal on the stoves and into the ovens. 

The musicians arrived. Al Petteway and Amy White, married for 20 years, were Grammy Award winners. Their music graces the background of the Ken Burns film, "Civil War". For our meal, they composed and performed pieces to go with each course based on the menu and description of the wine. Playing guitars, a banjo and a harp, the styles ranged from locally inspired string picking to rock to folk. 

My friend, Bill arrived with his guests, Clair, Debby and George, to fill the table. We dined for 6 hours serenaded by Al and Amy. We enjoyed blessed conversations reserved for those who can spend the time, are lubricated by wine, and have all their needs being met. 

When the dinner was complete, we retired to the Great Room for a finale concert. 

There were dishes and a kitchen to clean, so Susi and I stumbled out at 1:30am, tired and well-pleased for our effort. 

By 10 am, I was heading to Virginia. I stopped at my first gas station to use the bathroom.




George & Debbie Carriker's Gravatar
George & Debbie Carriker
@ Mar 28, 2015 at 5:26 PM
The dinner @ The Laughing Frog was perfect, Perfect food Perfect wine Perfect music Perfect environment & best of all Perfect old friend Perfect new friends which made a Perfect evening.

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