When someone handed me a glass of pinot gris at the beginning of the 10 a.m. cooking class at the Boar’s Head Inn, I shrugged and said, “Why not?” I looked around and saw I wasn’t the only one imbibing this morning. My husband, Peter, as well with the six other participants, also had no qualms about starting the day with a glass of wine in hand.
“Cheers,” someone said. Everyone took a sip and smiled.
We’d come to this venerated resort in Charlottesville to experience a Vintner Weekend, one of four held every March at the Boar’s Head Inn—so it made sense that wine would be omnipresent. And it was.
Beginning with a reception Friday evening soon after we arrived, a variety of delicious wines by Jefferson Vineyard danced on our palates all weekend. Alongside the wines, Chef Terry Sheehan’s innovative cuisine reminded our tired taste buds how creative cooking can liven up simple ingredients. In fact, that’s exactly what a weekend like this offers—the opportunity to reawaken the pleasures wining and dining can bring.
HUNT COUNTRY AMBIENCE
Peter and I pulled up to the Boar’s Head Inn on a cool, damp Friday afternoon. I was immediately struck by the resort’s hunt country architecture, which evoked an old-world ambience typical of European resorts. This may have to do with the inn’s history. In the mid-1900s the original owner dismantled an 1834 water wheel grist mill and used its components to build the original portion of today’s inn. Hand-hewn beams and cozy wood paneling hark back to simpler times, as do the inn’s vintage antiques.
Our room “on the porch” of the main inn was cozy and spacious with a four-post bed and elegant décor. After dropping our bags, we set out to explore the grounds. Behind the inn a lovely pond offers a serene setting for a stroll. Early spring buds were just beginning to pop out, so even though cloudy skies threatened rain, Peter and I enjoyed a cozy walk arm-in-arm around the pond.
Guests at the Boars Head Inn are invited to use the Sports Club, a state-of-the-art facility that serves as the training center for UVA’s tennis teams. While the outdoor pools hadn’t yet opened for the season, there was plenty of activity at the club, especially on the indoor courts. I decided to sneak in a quick run in the fitness center before the welcome reception that evening—an attempt to ward off some of the excess calories I would consume this weekend.
The trick is pacing yourself, I reminded Peter on the way to the reception, held in the Hearth Room, a lovely space with exposed beams, brick floors, a rustic wooden bar, and a huge fireplace from which a warm fire crackled. Luckily no one seemed in a rush. As we stood sipping Jefferson Vineyard’s 2007 Merlot, servers presented the first course of the evening: house smoked Virginia trout served on a Granny apple chip, the dried apple slice providing a delightful tart balance to the smoky fish. A second hors d’oeuvres, my favorite, was a braised buffalo back rib taquito with a cherry chocolate mole sauce, its savory smoky flavors pairing perfectly with the merlot.
Peter and I met some of the other guests—Greg and Ewa Brown, enjoying their fourth Vintner Weekend, had driven up from Hertford, North Carolina; Brian and Jen Mannino, a young couple from Long Island, were celebrating Jen’s birthday; and Lisa Selner from Strasburg, Virginia, met her sister-in-law, Marie Dietch who flew in from Charlotte, for a girlfriend getaway—as well as staff of the Boar’s Head Inn and Chad Zakaib, general manager of Jefferson Vineyard. I looked forward to getting to know everyone as the weekend evolved.
The chef’s dinner with wine pairings that evening was everything I thought it would be and more. As a wine aficionado, I’m constantly amazed at how little I know. And that’s the joy of learning about wine—it’s an endlessly enjoyable effort. With every course, Chad presented a different Jefferson wine and each one was a lesson. I loved how Chad described drinking an older wine compared to a younger version.
“Imagine standing close to a beautifully woven tapestry,” he explained, “so close that you can see all the separate threads as they weave into each other.” Then he paused, swirling, and took a sip of his 2007 Chardonnay Reserve. “Now imagine stepping back a few feet and viewing the tapestry from a distance. You can’t see the individual threads, but instead experience the total beauty of the tapestry. It’s just like that with an aged wine: all the flavors knit together.”
“What a metaphor,” I told Chad. “Did you just think that up?”
“No,” he said, smiling. “Remember this is what I do for a living.” I want his job, I decided.
Chef Terry introduced each course as well. With the chardonnay reserve we sampled a crab rillette, a cornucopia of flavors including cucumber, avocado, tomato and blue crab, served with homemade crackers. Mmm. Next course was barbequed quail with a lovely smoky-bacon flavor served on a bed of cheese grits and accompanied by smoked corn-edamame succotash. Chad served a 2007 Cabernet Franc with this course, noting its “ethereal nature,” “perfumed nose,” and “raspberries and cherries.”
I’ve always been somewhat intimidated by wine descriptors, but once at a wine tasting in California, someone told me, “Just describe what the wine tastes like to you.” I found that to be very freeing. I’m still a step behind, it seems, and always detect the notes and flavors after someone else points them out.
Chad told us that an easy descriptor for red wine is berries. “Every red wine has berry notes,” he said. I knew that.
Our third course was a luscious lamb noisette served with truffle potatoes and mustard greens all wrapped up in thin slices of roasted golden beets like a many-layered savory cake. The accompanying wine was my favorite, the 2007 Petit Verdot, which Chad explained is one of the five noble grapes of France’s Bordeaux region, the others being cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and malbec. I loved the petit verdot’s spicy character, especially with the bold flavors of this course.
Dessert was a decadent chocolate espresso torte with roasted figs and crème anglaise, paired with a late harvest vidal blanc, a dessert wine with tropical fruit notes and a hint of caramel. The feast ended with applause for Chef Terry, Chad, and the rest of the staff, whose talents combined to create a culinary experience we’d always remember.
A NEW DIMENSION
Who would have thought we’d ever be hungry again, but the next morning, I could hardly wait to go to the cooking class. When I saw what was on the menu—Caesar salad with homemade dressing and three-cheese ravioli—my appetite kicked into gear. Plus if I were going to start drinking wine at ten in the morning, I’d definitely need to eat something.
As each of the guests donned a toque and an apron, Chef Terry said that we’d be working in teams. “I’ll offer some guidance,” he said, “but I want to see who emerges as the leaders in each group. It’s kind of an experiment.” As soon as I heard that, I decided to have my own experiment. Since I tend to gravitate toward the leadership role—just ask anyone in my family, where I’m known as the activity director—I decided I would hang back and let other leaders emerge.
It was hard, I have to admit, but I think I succeeded. After watching the other group create a flavorful Caesar salad dressing and tossing it with some fresh romaine, I waited for someone to start mixing the pasta dough and working the machine. The two sisters-in-law, Lisa and Marie, joined Peter and me for this task, and I let the three of them do most of the work, while I took pictures and tried not to give advice.
Once the dough was the correct consistency—Chef Terry helped with this—the three of them took turns feeding it into the pasta machine over and over again until the dough came out paper thin, which meant it was time to create the ravioli. This was where the fun started. Peter, who has some experience in the food and restaurant business, was a natural at making the raviolis, as was Marie, who was born in France and like most French natives, was quite at home in the kitchen. Lisa, who admitted to being a novice cook, ended up with raviolis that looked a little untidy, but tasted as good as everyone else’s.
In fact we all ended up helping each other create these dishes and had a great time in the process. Chef Terry said he’d never seen a cooking class bond as well as ours did. Perhaps it was the never-ending flow of wine, which continued through a relaxing lunch, that made us all fast friends, but before lunch was over, we were making plans to stay in contact and perhaps meet up again somewhere down the road.
It made me realize that joining a group for a culinary weekend like this added a new dimension to our getaway. Sure, I love to escape with Peter and enjoy just-the-two-of-us time, but getting to know new people, hearing their stories, and realizing how much we have in common, can make for a more enriching experience. And anytime strangers turn into friends, it makes the world a friendlier place.
That afternoon even more wine was in store as we loaded up into a van for a tour of Jefferson Vineyard. Surrounded by rolling hills, the winery sits just a mile from Monticello on land once owned by Thomas Jefferson. Chad, the manager, greeted us and led us through the winery while explaining what makes Jefferson Vineyards unique.
“We don’t do events,” he said. “We just make wine.” Chad also told us that while they buy some grapes from other Virginia vineyards, they grow most of their own grapes. “We do a lot of work in the vineyards to bring in fruit that’s right,” he explained, “the right balance of sweetness, acidity, fruit, and ripeness.”
As he offered us a taste of the 2008 Viognier, a deliciously refreshing white with honeysuckle and apricot notes, he reminded us how to taste wine properly, including the obligatory swirl. Always the eager student, I asked, “Is it better to swirl clockwise or counter-clockwise?” I had always done it counter-clockwise.
“Clockwise, definitely,” he said. Chagrined, I tried to swirl in the “right” direction. It was really hard. Chad broke my concentration with a laugh and said he was joking. “Swirling either way is fine.”
Other wines we tasted as we progressed through the winery included a 2007 Viognier (heavenly) and Meritage (a Bordeaux-like blend), as well as some of Jefferson Vineyard’s reserve wines—chardonnay, petit verdot, and the estate reserve, each of these latter wines becoming progressively more complex, sublime, and of course expensive. Overall I was most impressed with the wines and recommend a visit.
Back at the Boar’s Head, Peter and I parted ways with the group and, after freshening up, headed for Downtown C’ville for the evening, where we walked along the lovely pedestrian mall lined with shops and restaurants. Even though the weather was still cool and damp, folks were out strolling along the brick walkways, heading for their favorite haunt.
I’d done some research and found a place with live music called Fellini’s 9, which we turned out to be a cozy spot with a rustic ambience. The dinner hour was in full swing when we arrived, but a table was available in the bar, where a pianist kept us entertained with light classical tunes. The waitress told us Fellini’s was unique in that it was the only restaurant in C’ville that successfully transitioned into a nightclub after dinner ended. A jazz band would play later, but Peter and I were beginning to fade and decided to head back to the resort.
The sun came out Sunday morning, and although we were tempted to try the popular Sunday brunch in the Old Mill Room, we opted to check out and go for a hike instead. Not far from Monticello we discovered Kemper Park, where a perfect path wound through the woods. As we walked along, we felt at peace, happy to be in that place and in that moment.
Getting away for a weekend to Charlottesville gave us the chance to slow down and enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Whether it’s a walk in the woods, a bottle of wine, or homemade ravioli, life is meant to be enjoyed to the fullest. While a stay at the Boar’s Head Inn or a bottle of Jefferson Vineyard Estate Reserve may be a bit of a splurge, sometimes you need to live a little—for you never know what tomorrow may bring.
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