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In the Shenandoah Valley: Wineries, History and Some Drama on the Zip-Line

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Story and photos by John Griffin

When I was a child, my father would occasionally sing that old ballad, “Shenandoah, I long to see you …” I could hear the words again echoing across the years when a friend invited me to spend a week at Massanutten, the resort in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.

The time would be the end of September, though the leaves wouldn’t be quite ready to turn color, she said. Still, there should be plenty to do, since most children would be back in school by that time. And if there wasn’t, then we could enjoy having plenty not to do.

Our arrival was made by way of a detour dinner at the Inn at Little Washington, one of the finest restaurants in the country and certainly worth going several hours out of your way, if haute cuisine at luxurious prices is in your line – and you’ve made reservations weeks in advance. After a lengthy meal that sailed by almost too quickly, during which we dined on the faux rustic, full-flavored charms of macaroni and cheese topped with fresh black truffle shavings and pecan-crusted rack of lamb with a tagine of garden vegetables, we set off for the resort.

Neither my friend nor I can lay claim to having been blessed with an innate sense of direction, so we missed our exit in the dark and almost ended up in Harrisonburg a half hour away. Or was it Staunton? Greenwood?

Anyway, we finally found ourselves at Massanutten, a 5,200-acre sprawl filled with hotel, condominiums, apartments and homes, golf courses, ski resort, indoor waterpark, neighboring casino, you name it.

Our condo was actually two units on two separate floors, each with full kitchens, comfortable beds, fine if somewhat institutional furnishings, and wifi, so we two computer junkies would not be separated far from work. (And I could recharge my MP3 player, so I could hear Springsteen’s version of “Shenandoah” a few more times.) The kitchens were a blessing in the long run. Too much of the food we sampled, on the resort and off, proved under par, though Romano’s Italian Bistro in nearby McGaheysville was a fairly decent exception.

Soon we were beginning to understand a new meaning of “massanutten,” a word that the Indians used to describe a bread basket and the entire valley in which the resort is situated. Nuthin’ is plenty for someone who just wanted to spread out and enjoy the peace around us.

A grape day

On our first morning, we set off to explore the wonderful world of Virginia’s wineries. Touring wineries is something I love to do because you can learn a great deal about an area’s agriculture by the way it grows grapes and then treats that precious fruit once it’s off the vine. And Virginia is the wine soil that Thomas Jefferson hoped to turn into a new Bordeaux or Burgundy. The winters proved too cold for that, and Jefferson’s experimental plantings didn’t make it.

Yet other farmers have persevered. Today, the state now has more than 130 wineries, several of which have budgets large enough to beckon tourists and locals, especially from the D.C. area, in TV ads. Better still, people are enjoying what they’re tasting.

“It’s not so much the quality of Virginia wine that impressed me, which it did,” said Jeff Siegel, co-founder of DrinkLocalWine.com, which held its second annual conference in Virginia earlier this year. “It was the state’s degree of professionalism. One of the perceptions of regional wine is that it’s a bunch of amateurs making wine in their garage. But that’s not the case in Virginia, where the wineries I saw are run by people who understand that wine is not just a passion, but a business. And that’s one key to making better wine.”

The pastoral setting of Barboursville Vineyards.The pastoral setting of Barboursville Vineyards.

Since the release of the movie Sideways, however, the drive for tourist dollars has led many wineries to become something akin to adult theme parks. Such was the case with our first stop, Barboursville Vineyards, which is owned by an Italian wine family that decided to remain in the old country. Instead, visitors could enjoy an all-too-typical faux Tuscan tasting room with all of the wine-related knickknacks you might want to take back home with you after dropping $5 for the tastings.

Just don’t have a question about the wine. Though the woman who poured our samples had her opinions about which she preferred and she knew what the production level was of most, she had no idea about the areas in which the grapes were grown, what the growing conditions were like, what raising a grape in Virginia is all about.

Still, the winery produces a spectacular Cabernet Franc and a vibrant Viognier, amid a few regrettable and sometimes overpriced offerings, and we left with a bottle before going on to explore the peaceful, manicured grounds. There’s an old inn on the Charlottesville-area estate, which is next to the fascinating ruins of a mansion once occupied by Governor James Barbour and designed by Jefferson.

In other words, the wine part of our trip to Barboursville Winery was wonderful, if you overlooked most of the wine part.

A chilled bottle in the tasting room. A chilled bottle of Horton’s Rkatsiteli, a well regarded white dessert wine. The grapes are an ancient variety grown primarily in Eastern Europe, therefore they do well in the cold winters of Virginia.

Down the road, we came upon Horton Vineyard, which was everything the first stop was not. I have to confess that the first Virginia wine I ever tasted was a Horton Norton, a varietal that thrives in the cold winters Virginia can get, and I loved it, so I was particularly anxious to taste what else they were producing.

The down-home tasting room was far more authentically rustic, the people behind the counter more personable, and the tasting was free. Plus, if a server didn’t know the answer to a question, he or she asked someone who did.

The Norton was still a wonderful choice, rich and dark with plenty of fruity overtones. Again, there was a great Cabernet Franc and a honeyed Viognier, both of which could easily prove to be the state’s finest grapes.

The cellar at Prince Michel is directly below the tasting room.The cellar at Prince Michel is directly below the tasting room.

We finished our wine trek with a stop at Prince Michel near Charlottesville, which was sort of a cross between the first two wineries. The exterior, with its kinetic sculptures, was certainly lovely to behold, and the servers inside were both helpful and friendly. The wines were fine, if not exceptional.

We were more taken with an almost accidental detour to the historic 1910 Montpelier train depot, which has recently been converted into a museum. The once-abandoned building has been restored to its original pristine condition, which includes signs over the door designating which areas were built for “colored” and “white.” As if that weren’t unsettling enough, the interior features displays showcasing what life was like during the era of Jim Crow and on to the time of desegregation.

The Montpelier station was built in 1910 and restored earlier this year.The Montpelier station was built in 1910 and restored earlier this year.
A bulletin board in the "white" section shows some of what might have been posted in the station's early years. A bulletin board in the “white” section shows some of what might have been posted in the station’s early years.
People in the "colored" and "white" sections of the station could see each other through the ticket seller's window.People in the “colored” and “white” sections of the station could see each other through the ticket seller’s window.

We went into the “colored” area first, tiny and fairly bare. The ticket seller’s window offered a glimpse into the area reserved for white folk, since he had to serve both, albeit not at the same time. The white area is adorned with symbols of the area on the bulletin board, including a poster from the movie Birth of a Nation and a cigarette ad with a grinning Sambo puffing away.

Many reminders of an uglier past filled the station and a few seemed to jostle to life with violent force when a train passed.

The depot had been restored by the Montpelier Foundation, which has also undertaken the renovation of President James Madison’s nearby home. We didn’t have enough time to tour Madison’s Montpelier, priced at $16 a person, but we will never forget the free trip to the train station.

Swapping one adventure for another

The plans we made for the rest of the week were great. Yet somehow when we set out on one adventure, we ended up having another.

Joining us for a few days during the week were my friend’s sister Joan and brother-in-law, both of whom seemed eager to try out the resort’s newest attraction, the zip line. For $35 a person, you could zoom across four cables high above the valley plus two practice runs.

We showed up early for our adventure, got strapped into the harnesses that we would use, picked out our helmets and even got fitted for gloves. Then we rode up the side of the mountain on a conveyor belt that dropped us off near the practice run.

Use your hands to brake before coming in the landing on the zip line.Use your hands to brake before coming in the landing on the zip line.

I’m never one to do anything first, so I gladly let the rest of the team take the first practice run ahead of me. We were halfway through when it got to be Joan’s turn. Something happened to her as she mounted the small platform and she fell off about five feet to the ground below. At first she seemed to be fine, just a little shaken. But she eventually had a small seizure and passed out for a short while.

Help from the resort came quickly from two directions. I guess the assistants who are needed during ski season are ready the rest of the year, too. An ambulance was finally agreed to, and Joan went off to Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg. We followed as quickly as we could and had no trouble following directions that time.

She was released a few hours later, bruised but otherwise unbowed.

Though neither she nor her husband had any desire to give it another go, I went back to the zip line the next day.

Are you a thrill seeker? I don’t see myself as one, though I have parachuted and hang-glided before. I also don’t care for heights. Perhaps that’s why I wanted to go. Face those demons and have fun. The zip line runs certainly were fun, even if I ended up going first half the time. They just didn’t last long enough, though the longest line was 450 feet and the pulley managed to get up to 35 miles per hour, according to the guide. I felt as if I could have sailed through the air all day.

Touches of fall

The summer in Massanutten had been dry and hot. I was told to prepare for nights in the 40s and cool days, so I packed accordingly. While we were there, the temperature never dropped below 75 while we were outdoors and one day hit 98.

What that meant, however, was that fall began to hit while we were there. The popular tulip trees began to turn yellow, and the row of maples in front of the condos got more red and sparse with each day.

The home of Gov. James Barbour burned on Christmas Day, 1884.The home of Gov. James Barbour burned on Christmas Day, 1884.

It was a perfect time for a leisurely hike up and down the mountain we were staying on, a chance to breathe in some clean air, refresh the senses with a new, yet tranquil view. The incline can be fairly steep, so the quickest way to the top is the ski lift, which carried us over the fall colors and high above the valley basket. This was the Shenandoah of song, with the Blue Ridge Mountains in a permanent – and, yes, bluish – haze in the distance. Not quite the neighborhood of John Denver’s country roads, but the spirit was close.

When the lift reached the top, I noticed a wake of buzzards circling off to the right. “Why do they hover over the zip line?” I asked the aide who helped us out.

“They make a good clean-up crew,” he dead-panned.

Thankfully, Joan made it out in time.

If You Go

Tips

After sitting through a sales spiel upon arrival at the resort we were pressed to buy a $99 activity pass. With the waterpark closed for the season and a visit to the regular pool requiring a car ride to get to, we realized that we would probably have to do three activities a day for seven days in order for the card to pay off. Maybe it’s a better deal during ski season.

Be careful while driving at night. The deer take over the resort roads, as well as the golf courses, after the sun sets.

Where2Stay

Massnutten Resort
1822 Resort Drive
McGaheysville, VA 22840
540.289.9441
www.massresort.com

Year-round activities and all manner of lodging at various price points. Check the website for information, hours and rates on activities including zip-lining.

Where2Eat

Restaurant at The Inn at Little Washington
Middle and Main Street
Washington, VA 22747
540.675.3800
www.theinnatlittlewashington.com

Romano’s Italian Bistro
42 Island Ford Road
McGaheysville, VA 22840
540.289.5770
www.romanositalianbistro.com/

What2Do

Barboursville Winery
540.832.3824
www.barboursvillewine.net/winery

The winery’s Tasting Room is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day, from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Saturday, and 11:00 am to 5:00 pm on Sunday.

Horton Vineyards
Open for Tastings
7 Days a Week
10 am – 5 pm
800.829.4633
www.hortonwine.com

Prince Michel
January 2 – March 31
Monday – Thursday 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Friday – Sunday 10:00 am – 6:00 pm.
April 1 – December 31
Every day 10:00 am – 6:00 pm.
www.princemichel.com

Montpelier Train Depot
Route 20
A few miles south of Orange, VA
http://montpelier.org/blog/?tag=train-depot

4MoreInfo

Shenandoah Valley Web
What to see and do in the Shenandoah Valley with information on where to stay, dine, and shop
www.shenandoahvalleyweb.com

John Griffin has traveled the world and is the editor of the food e-zine www.SavorSA.com, an online resource for foodies in San Antonio, Texas.

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