Read an Excerpt
Clouds of dust drift through the open windows of my rickety Toyota as it shudders along the bumpy gravel path of Champe Ford Road like a washing machine on spin cycle, stirring up sticks and pebbles.
The vineyard sits up ahead, just beyond a grove of ash and walnut trees so densely crosshatched that the road through it resembles a tunnel. It’s a sunny, sweltering late spring day in Virginia’s hunt country, but having entered the tunnel, it’s as if I’ve entered a different realm altogether. Light and sound disappear. The heat, meanwhile, has not been dispelled by the intersecting bands of shade but becomes more concentrated, and the air has the odd, uncirculating stillness of a locked vault, of something trapped, a gathering of ghosts.
I emerge onto a steep and narrow road to find a woman standing outside the tasting room with her hand over her brow, squinting into the slanting afternoon sun like a land surveyor. I’m late. Even before I cut the engine, she bounds out to meet me in her pale yellow blouse and white skirt.
“Hiya,” she says, giving me her hand. “Jenni McCloud.” She doesn’t squeeze but instead, at the moment her fingers come into contact with my palm, allows them to go limp—a delicate gesture meant, I suppose, to reduce the effect of their size.
I apologize for keeping her waiting. She waves me off. “No worries,” she says, as though worrying itself were the greater offense. “Come on, let me show you the property.”
A pair of sweet, rambunctious dogs runs out from the wings to escort us to her all-terrain vehicle.
“Say hello to Treixadura and Fer. Hello, cuties!”
“Treixadura and Fer Servadou,” she explains, unhelpfully.
I stare blankly.
“The grapes? Spanish? No?” she offers.
“Sorry. Never heard of ’em.”
A couple of arthritic-walking chickens join the party. “Hey, little goobers,” Jenni says, stroking their lustrous coats.
“You’ve got quite the menagerie, don’t you?”
“And a parrot inside and I’m getting pigs next. Little piggies. I love it. All this land, and all these animals. I’m a country girl. I love being able to be free on the land like this, and breathe. That’s why I moved here.”
We hop in and drive. To the east, Bull Run Mountain, soft and shimmering in the heat haze, conjures a slumbering giant, lolling on the horizon as if it were a hammock. Catoctin Mountain lies opposite at a distance. Embosomed between them, the tiny village of Aldie nestles. Other than the planes that knife across the sky, unwelcome reminders of nearby Dulles Airport and the congested exurbs of northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., feels like a time zone away. As humid and thick as the air is, I can feel myself beginning to unclench and breathe, too.
“What is that, air?” I say, inhaling.
Jenni throws her head back in laughter. “Welcome to horse country, man.”
It’s sometimes the simplest of things, the silliest of things, that draw you to people, not their well-intentioned gestures or deepest thoughts. And so it is that I take an immediate liking to Jenni for following “horse country” with “man,” for subverting the gentility of the one with the vernacular of the other. There’s a subtle point here, too: Chrysalis might be in equestrian country, but it is not of it.
Had I not turned sharply off John Mosby Highway, I would have continued to historic downtown Middleburg, skirting low-riding stone fences as I rose and dipped and wound my way through the arcadian countryside. Middleburg and Aldie are five minutes apart. They might as well be five hours. It is Middleburg that the rich and powerful flock to, Middleburg that is synonymous with the good life, Middleburg that is widely regarded as the village with a claim to history, all those battlefields of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars scattered about the lush and rolling valley. Aldie is a small town; Middleburg plays at being a small town. It gestures toward simplicity and taking it slow, but revels in its members-only aura—a private club, lacking only bouncers to enforce its codes. The smell of old money, palpable as the smell of fresh-mown grass in summer, draws new money. And the presence of both, in turn, are an irresistible turn-on for those with no money. On nice weekends, particularly in the spring and fall, droves of Washingtonians set out for Middleburg to stroll its boutiques and buy its overpriced jams and sleep late in its inns and fantasize, if only for a couple of days, that some of Middleburg’s charm and gentility has rubbed off on them.
Aldie is the opposite of a tourist haven. It is Middleburg’s unlovely, unlettered sister. The town was established in 1765 and for a time was the fourth largest in Loudoun County. By the late 19th century, however, Middleburg was incorporated and Aldie descended into obscurity, only a Civil War battle punctuating its many meager decades of nonhistory. On principle alone, I would much rather find myself with a few hours to spend in Aldie than in Middleburg, preferring the hungry, unwashed outsider over the preening insider.
The SUV rumbles over the hilly, uneven earth toward the vineyards, a yapping field dog running alongside. Jenni comes to a sudden, playful stop, and the dog nearly leaps into her lap. “Hey there,” she coos, stroking its fur. Then, like a mother grown impatient, she dispatches it: “Now, get out there and chase those deer!”
She cuts the motor and we jump out. For a second I stand staring at the vineyards, with their perfect, parallel rows of grapes, the leafy vines straining upward toward the blazing sun like worshippers seeking a god.
“You don’t get to see this much in the city, huh?”
Jenni takes a moment to drink it all in, then guides me through the rows of vines with the unwavering focus of a general in the field. The ruddy skin, the long, clambering strides, the flinty impatience—it’s as if one of those iconic pioneer women, tough-minded and independent, capable of handling anything or anyone, has stepped out of the pages of a Willa Cather novel.
“Look at you little characters,” she says, as we come upon a grape called the Norton, the prize of her vineyard and the reason I’ve made the trip out from the city. The grapes, still months from being plucked, are beginning to cluster on the vines.
“Come on, grow, Nortonians, grow!”
She runs her fingers through the tiny blue-black orbs, like a jeweler showing off the quality of the pearls. “That’s history, right there. The native grape of America. Good old Norton. Born right here in Virginia, in Richmond.”
Next to the names of the great European wines—Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay—the name Norton sounds jarring by comparison, and Jenni accentuates the effect by biting down on each syllable. The effect is to provide a kind of history lesson: elegant, sophisticated Europe; hard, pioneering America.
“I love it how in California they all think they’re making American wine with the Zinfandel. Zinfandel! Zinfandel’s from Hungary, for crying out loud. The Norton is American, it’s one hundred percent American, it’s ours. And the fact that it makes a phenomenal wine is just icing on the cake. Come on, let’s go and taste some.”
Inside the tasting room, the increasing depth and sophistication of Jenni’s wine talk (malolactic fermentation, micro-oxygenation) leaves me feeling dazed and alienated, and after pouring a couple of her white wines for me to try, she leans across the counter and says, conspiratorally, “You wanna know something? For the longest time, wine gave me the willies. I didn’t like it. I was drinking Boone’s Farm and Strawberry Hill and wondering what all the fuss was, why everyone kept talking about wine. Honest to God’s truth.” She gives an odd little laugh, a sound that starts low, in the diaphragm, but finishes high and thin and reedy.
Few businesses are more paternalistic, more rooted in tradition, in habit, than winemaking, a livelihood that is typically handed down through the generations, and most often from father to son. Women are scarce; outsiders, even scarcer. New ideas are generally anathema. And here was Jenni, who—before purchasing the seventy-plus acres of her estate (she says, pouring a lighter-bodied red) and coming north to Jefferson country from Florida after selling her diagnostic software business at the height of the tech boom—had never owned a vineyard and never made wine. Nor was she related to anyone who did. Indeed, the very idea of winemaking as a calling, a way of life, was not something that could be said to have been in her blood.
She gives an exaggerated shrug of the shoulders, as if to suggest a combination of dumb luck and happenstance, or maybe divine providence, then tips a bottle of Norton Locksley Reserve into my glass.
I can smell the wine even before I jam my nose into the bowl of the glass. I give the inky liquid a swirl and a taste, and am back again at the dinner that brought me here, a party thrown together in the chaotic aftermath of a hurricane.