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Friday, September 12, 2008

Virginia Wine Academy: A Guest's Personal Experience

This was the single most perfect way I could have possibly spent these few days. If you are at all interested in wine, you won't want to miss the Virginia Wine Academy at Meander Plantation. The most impressive part of this package is the number of experts involved, all willing to share their knowledge and their passion for wine in general and Virginia wines in particular. Meander's restaurant (which took an award from the wine industry last year) serves VA wines exclusively.

When I arrived Sunday evening, there was a champagne reception for all the folks attending the 'academy'. Traveling alone, it's always a concern about meeting and mingling, but the small class quickly became a group of friends with a common interest: wine! We tasted a couple of wines, had our introductions and some time to visit, and then all went off in their separate directions for dinner.

Next morning, we met in the 'library' dining room for a private breakfast just for class attendees. There were others staying at the inn who were not part of the wine school package. We were served just-from-the-oven muffins with berries, a plate of fresh fruit, and were given a choice of sweet or savory breakfast. Since my preference is for protein in the morning, it was a relief to not be faced with french toast and pancakes, without other options to start my day. Breakfast was perfectly delicious, generously portioned, with all local foods. Nicely done.

We immediately got down to business with an introduction to wine -starting world wide and bringing it all the way to Virginia in short order. The overseer of the academy is Warren Dunn, an extremely knowledgeable and entertaining guide, who is obviously enthusiastic about his topic. Notebooks are provided with all sorts of information, from wine descriptors to why certain glasses are used all the way to bottle shapes, corks, labels, and openers. We tasted and learned about five separate wines in the first session alone! You learn pretty fast that you really need to pour out your glass, instead of drinking everything that goes in it. It's about tasting, not drinking (at least until lunch!) and there were some serious lessons that went with every taste.

Next, we were visited by a winemaker (who brought wines to taste, of course) who gave a seminar about the terms used to describe wine, and then he paired wines with each course of our lunch. The food pairings were really interesting, and apparently we could have taken an entire course on that alone.

After lunch, yet another vintner visited to spend the afternoon explaining the process of planting and tending the vines throughout the growing season. After that, it was off to the inn kitchen for a quick demonstration about cooking with wine, given by the chef. We saw a couple of reduction sauces and got a taste of things to come...

One of the couples attending class were partners in a winery and brought along a few bottles for us to try during the break before dinner. Hard to believe nobody was tipsy, but we had all been careful during the tastings and sat out on the wonderful verandah and watched the sun set over the mountains in the distance that clear, cool afternoon. Heavenly.

Dinner was five courses all paired with wines by - you guessed it - another winemaker. Actually, this one was a large operation and the owners and wine maker and hospitality manager were all there from the winery. Each wine was introduced as the course was being served, and the winemaker described the wine - how it was made, the decisions made along the way to achieve the wine, and told us what to look for in flavor, color, taste. It was fascinating! And the dinner? Oh my goodness! Sea bass, quail, steak, and chocolate cake. (Ok, there are far more perfect descriptors for each, but you get the drift.) Course after course of exquisite morsels perfectly matched with excellent wine. How's that.

I fell into bed. Next morning, more breakfast?! No. I made arrangements for coffee only, and while I'm happy with that decision, the rest of the class had their muffins and fresh fruit and everybody ordered the egg dish, which was a creamy baked concoction filled with herbs and looked delicious. They were full of praise. I had my coffee and was quite content. Off to the wineries! First we picked grapes at Meander and crushed them and tested for sugars. Then off to a wonderful tiny one-man operation. Then a tour of one of the largest wineries in Virginia and lunch with the vintner. Information, information, information!

Dinner (dress) was the culmination with crabcakes, duck pate, tenderloin and then ginger cheesecake with red wine poached pears. And wines! All introduced by the delightful couple who own the winery who shared their stories as well as teaching us about their wines.

In the morning, one more delicious breakfast (I wasn't about to pass that up again) with eggs baked with gruyere and cream, and sausage, and the prettiest fruit plate you ever saw. We all traded addresses and promised to stay in touch and then agreed to meet up at one last winery on our way out of town for a tour of the operation.

LOTS of information, LOTS of new things learned, LOTS of incredible food, LOTS of wines -some I liked, some I didn't, all were interesting- and lots of new friends, too.

I can't say enough good things about this class. But before I finish: Meander Plantation is steeped in history, remarkably beautiful, well-staffed, and well cared for. Service was impeccable at every turn. Amenities in the room (and tripled sheeted beds, which I love) were top notch. The inn was spotless, and the innkeepers gracious and warm.

What a delightful experience.

Sandee

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