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South by Virginia Wine

Y Radhika, writer, photographer and World Bank employee, shares her travel experiences as she shifts gears from South India to Virginia, a southern state in the US, in search of wine.

Virginia is the last bastion of the South, alias the old order, in the United States. An aristocracy still exists, horses are a passion, cotillions and debutantes have survived modernity and even a paltry royalty is alive, wine surely follows.

So, when Satish, the intrepid heir to the Vangal clan of Madras, and I, plotted to give our brethren a taste of southern (Asian or American?) royalty, we began at the very beginning - a foxy jaunt into the rolling hills and meadows followed by some heady wine tasting.

Land of Rising Sun
Holiday in Bhutan
Odyssey across US

Surfing from homepage to homepage on the Internet, looking for succor, I chanced upon these descriptions of Oakencroft -- "one of Virginia's most scenic wineries......with vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains.....and a lake with Virginia water fowl fronting the winery". Truth be told, the name appealed more than all the other descriptions--English castles rose in front of my eyes, the mixed aromas of wild roses, water, oak, grapes and wet earth assailed the senses. Calling Satish, I presented a reasoned argument for this tumult. "It's close, clearly a good place. Can we get some people together?" I blurted.

Lisa, our southern belle; Laura, our southern Italian bella; the South Indian crew of Satish the Intrepid, "Pineapple" Ponappa and I : this was our final draw. The day began like any other weekend, at noon, with a brunch of vadas, sambhar, dosas, idlis and paysam. How does one explain what is South Indian food? Ferment, ferment, ferment was our message to Laura. Dosa is to the humble lentil and rice grain, what wine is to the green grape. What's light is what's right in the south, said Satish, with the supreme confidence of one who sees no northern opposition in sight. Who is a South Indian for that matter? He or she who answers "geero" when asked what would be the result of subtracting two from two, such was the general consensus.
Surfing from homepage
to homepage on the
Internet, looking for
succor, I chanced upon these descriptions of Oakencroft -- "one of Virginia's most scenic wineries......with vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains.....and a lake with Virginia water fowl fronting the winery".

Having settled our regional identities and safely ensconced in Satish's Volkswagon bus, we set off from Washington on I - 65 to catch Route 29. As Satish' navigator I proved to be ineffective and begged the "nag"avator, Ponappa, for help. Meandering hopelessly past several signposts, traffic crossings, neighborhoods and strip malls, past farms and green pasture on either side of the road, we propelled ourselves at rapid speed past other drivers towards Charlottesville, Virginia, the closest town to Oakencroft. Here and there we chanced upon distractions such as this charming blue Beetle whose red tail lights were obligingly turned on to disarm me further. "Speed up", I shrieked to the ever-obliging Satish, who throttled the bus, leaping and bounding with abandon, while I attempted to ogle the creature through my camera lens. After several unfruitful attempts, Satish was able to get close enough for me to get this picture and for Ponappa to get an eyeful of the blonde driving the distracting creature.


One exhibit says, "It may take years for a tree to grow to its full capacity, but only minutes to cut it down". Food for thought, that. The archaeologist too would be delighted with the kind of treasures that lie almost casually scattered around and about. Be it cave paintings or cave temples, or several-storied cavelike palaces, or ornately carved temples on the tops of mountains, there's something for everyone. We must admit though that the heat and the crowds sapped our enthusiasm. We climbed only the Pandava caves, viewed the mountain-top temple built over a sheer gorge with awe through a telescope, and avoided the rest. There was one cave, which was a narrow crack in the wall where you could only go in single file. It has an exhaust fan to ventilate it but it had alarming looking dust covered "sadhus" sitting with tridents outside and far too many people crushed in single file for us to dare to venture in.

Finally, our eyes came to rest on the gentle old man facing us holding up a wine bottle. There were several glasses, and different kinds of wines. Enjoining us to pick up our glasses for a paltry dollar each, he proceeded to introduce us to Oakencroft wines.
A less charming but equally fascinating sight were these bikers heading towards a bikermela, or at least this is how Ponappa explained the hordes of motorcycle mommas and papas grimly riding off toward the sunset. "I hope he doesn't take a dislike to me" I said only half-joking as I quickly got a picture of this grim reaper on his mo'bike adorned with the requisite black flag. Biker types were never known to be drawn to me, even in my university days.

"What is a me-la?"
"Hmm, Pineapple, how would you describe a mela?"
"Radhika, ayyo, mela is just food and games and girls!"
"What he is trying to say Laura, is that the bikers are on their way to have fun at a fair of sorts where you get to eat and hang out!"
"Ah, yes, mela!" murmured Laura en sotto voce.

A charming university town that developed around the University of Virginia, Charlottesville first becomes visible as a series of narrow roads, with cars parked on either side of the downtown streets, and a single large commercial area. Parking on one side we walked into the courtyard that straddles tall buildings and shops on either side: Barracks Road is the town's main shopping center. Restuarants, specialty stores, icecream outlets, movie theatres are all there. But first things first, so we crossed the road again and stared into the hoof of a black granite horse led by a granite faced George Clark. Yes, indeed, Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, who journeyed over to see the Pacific Ocean.

The residential lots on either side of Barracks Road gave way to green pasture a few miles away from the center of town. Then the first sign appeared : OakenCroft-3 miles. The next was a large sign next to a wooden gate welcoming all and sundry to OakenCroft wineries. Turning along a narrow dirt road, past a lake (the lake on the Internet?), we parked in front of a generously spread prairie-style building. Crossing the wooden porch into the doorway led us to a warm reception area where several people gathered to taste the wines that the gentle old dispenser held forth.


But first, a tour of the winery. Our stately guide, sporting a large silver medallion nestling against a cool blue shirt, leaned on a cane topped with a gold and silver handle. He regaled us with a little history. The former US President Thomas Jefferson, architect of the University of Virginia campus chose to make his home in the area and is reputed to have tried growing grapes here. For one reason or another he was never successful. Mysteriously, for a hundred years between the nineteenth century and 1978 Virginia did not grow grapes for wines.

Felicia Warburg Rogan arrived from California in 1978 and changed all that. "She was in the wine business in California so she knew what she was doing. She made sure that we had the right oak barrels from France and even chose the people who would help us pick the grapes. We have a single family that picks all the grapes during the season - no students or part timers for us." said our guide. After showing us the oak barrels and the fermentation vats, he jokingly added that if we wanted to know what happens to the barrels in say 7-9 years, we should check out the book crates at the local K-Marts!

The barn which had been converted into a winery contained all facilities, along with the winetasting chamber itself. A low-ceiling, maps of Virginia wine country (since 1978, 46 wineries had blossomed), souvenirs including buttons, t-shirts, free corks (don't miss the necklace I created in the picture!). Finally, our eyes came to rest on the gentle old man facing us holding up a wine bottle. There were several glasses, and different kinds of wines. Enjoining us to pick up our glasses for a paltry dollar each, he proceeded to introduce us to Oakencroft wines.


Our virginal palates experienced the Blush as a fruity, fresh introduction to wine. Then came the Chardonnay, followed by the Countryside White, the Sweet Virginia, Cabernet Sauvignon and finally the Merlot. Through the tasting, Pineapple and I generally agreed that the wines tasted more like fruit cocktails and we hoped that one of the wines would present a greater alcoholic challenge and tickle our taste buds in an unexpected way.

"Did you know that to really appreciate the difference between wines we would have to give up spices? At least that's what connoisseurs do!" "You mean for the day?" said Pineapple looking faintly alarmed.

"No idiot, for life!"

The thought of giving up chili powder, avakkai and other favorites so unsettled poor Pineapple that he hunted for refuge. It was the Merlot that provided it. The Merlot it was that captured our collective imagination, tastes and budgets as well. Holding our glasses, and our fine bottle, we moved outside, pausing only for a picture, before finally settling on a bench across the lake. Green pasture and stray cows led to unconcealed mirth at the memory of a former colleague, a specialist in bovine reproduction, who was once seen fleeing the advances of an amorous bull which smelled "cow" on him!


Watching the sunset and the cows returning home an hour and a half later, we rose and piled into the now dear and familiar Volkswagon bus and returned to route 29. It was Lisa, our shy lobbyist from the Missouri Governor's office, who now took the wheel, clearly well-conditioned by her experience driving trucks as a teenager! Our forays into southern aristocracy resulted in gentle snoring all around the bus. When we finally reached Pineapple's house, we relaxed as we enjoyed the homely smell of south Indian coffee burbling in a percolator.

What is the south if not a direction, a leaning homewards, inspiring nostalgia for familiar sensations? An anti-America where the unmutable and unchanging responses create pleasure....

For more information on Oakencroft visit http://www.oakencroft.com/

Photo Credit: Y. Radhika

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