Stanburn Winery

One of the benefits of going to big tasting events is it exposes me to Virginia wineries from all over the state. At one such event I found a bottle of 2015 Cabernet Franc from Stanburn, and quickly snatched it up for my Cab Franc-loving mother. But I admit – I almost kept it from myself, as at that point I’d never visited Stanburn and wanted to know what I was missing. Fortunately, my trip to southern Virginia allowed me to find out.

Many wineries have a fun story about how they got started, but I think Stanburn’s takes the cake. Family patriarch Nelson Stanley got the idea of starting a vineyard from…plumbing. That’s right; he was doing the plumbing for nearby Chateau Morrisette when he heard they needed more grapes. Nelson figured he had the land to do it, so in 1999 he planted his first vines.

Like many others in the wine business, the vineyard eventually turned into a full-fledged winery.  At 1300-1500 cases/year it’s still on the small side; to purchase bottles you’d either have to visit their tasting room, go to a local festival, or make the trek to The Virginia Tasting Cellar in Farmville. Now Stanburn’s vineyard is at 19 acres, about half hybrids and half vinifera – including 2 acres of Barbera.

Mike Shaps was their first winemaker, but that position has since been taken over by Jocelyn Kuzelka, a local and long-time friend of the family. If you haven’t heard of her give it time. She also consults for Albemarle CiderWorks.

After chatting a bit David Stanley let me try the entire tasting menu…and I think a few additional ones after that. Thank goodness I pace myself for these events!

White wines: We started with their dry and sweet-style Vidals, the “Highfly” Traminette/Vidal semi-sweet blend, a full Traminette, and a Chardonnay. My favorite was the regular Traminette, which was dry and well balanced.

But the most interesting story was that of the Highfly – named after the horse ridden by Civil War General J.E.B. Stewart (a native of these parts). It was definitely an easy drinking white, but calling it a ‘festival wine’ would be an insult. Everything about this wine was just on target. For $15 I also thought it was a total steal.

Red wines: I liked both the 2015 and 2017 Cabernet Francs; the first had some good body and complexity, while the 2017 was lighter and spicier. The 2017 Poorhourse was a 100% sweet-ish Chambourcin. We ended with the 2017 “Big A”, a very nice Chambourcin/Cab Franc blend.

My favorite reds though was a special tasting of their 2018 Barbera and 2016 Chambourcin. Barbera is rare in Virginia, and 2018 was a rough year in general. But that Barbera was soft, fruity, and subtle. It was young but easily can be enjoyed now.

The most surprising though was that Chambourcin. Most wines of this varietal tend to be too light and fruity for me – but not this one. It had fruit, but also a very noticeable smokiness to it that I honestly don’t think I’d ever seen in a Chambourcin before.

Southern Virginia isn’t (yet) known as a major wine destination, and when wine is discussed it’s probably better known for producing wines on the sweet side. But from what David showed me that reputation needs to be revisited!

Southern Virginia Wine Field Trip

Sometimes I forget how big Virginia is. Having lived outside D.C. for over a decade, I’m long accustomed to having a few dozen excellent wineries within an hour’s distance. An hour further, Charlottesville or the Shenandoah Valley beckons. But given my quest to visit every single winery in Virginia, sometimes you gotta hit the road for days at a time. This is one such trip.

A note about the author…

The Southern Virginia AVA has about a dozen wineries, many placed on old tobacco farms. On the face of it, that sounds pretty good. That is…until you realize these locations are usually an hour’s drive away from each other. This lack of wine clusters makes it challenging for all but the truly insane Virginia wine purists to make a dedicated wine-focused trip to this area.

That said, there’s a lot of good wine to be had down here, with everything from sweet Muscadine to hybrids to traditional Bordeaux-style blends, served in tasting rooms that range from someone’s home to outright mansions. Yes – go ahead and scoff at sweet wine or native American vines (I admit – I do). But as the old adage goes, the customer is never wrong – and they definitely have customers.

Three Sisters at Shiney Rock

I asked around why this AVA seems to have such a focus on sweet wines and found it has more to do with good business sense than with issues with the terroir. See, a disproportionate number of these “southern” wineries are tiny, mom-and-pop farms who decided to put their land to more productive use and realized (shocker!) that alcohol is a big seller. Lacking the money or experience to grow European Vitus vinifera, they turned to varietals or styles that are easy to produce – namely hybrids, vines native to North America (aka Vitis labrusca), or fruit wines.

The area’s demographics also favor of this approach. Southern Virginia is both thinly populated and lack many well-known tourist attractions. As locals are often the main audience, these wineries must cater to local tastes – which translates to sweet and/or fruity. Not surprisingly, a few also have breweries on site.

Beer tasting at Sans Soucy

But vinifera lovers – don’t despair! Despite the area’s rep for sweet wines, I found several excellent wineries that catered to my own palate. As with everywhere else, vinifera can thrive when care is put into good site selection and maintenance, and having a growing season that’s 2-3 weeks earlier than the rest of the state brings its own advantages. I dare you to drink anything from Rosemont and other vinifera-focused vineyards and walk away thinking this area can’t produce world-class wine.

One thing you won’t find are many fancy tasting buildings. Everywhere has a small-town vibe to it, with most places opting for more modest setups in transplanted or refurbished barns, side-buildings adjacent to their homes, or (for Tomahawk Mill) a flour mill. Maybe these aren’t the places you’d have a big event, but the scenery is just as pretty as you’ll find elsewhere in the state. As an added bonus, in nearly every case the wine maker (usually also the owner) was pouring my wine at the tasting bar, which is become rarer and rarer everywhere else.

Despite the miles on my car, I’m very happy I made this trip. I got to see a side of Virginia that few transplanted yankees get to see, and walked away with a fresh realization that you don’t need a fancy tasting room to have a good time.

While wine was the focus of this trip, I admit I had some side-excursions – including a visit to the American Armed Forces Tank Museum at Danville. Who would have thought tanks and wine paired so well together? Special thanks also to The Chandler House Home Bed and Breakfast.


Where I visited:

  • 2 Witches Winery & Brewery: 4 acres of mostly hybrids, also some Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • Altillo Vineyards: 5 acres of vinifera.
  • American Way Country Wines: 15 acres of fruit and vegetables.
  • Bright Meadows: 10 acres of hybrid & American grapes, plus blueberries & blackberries.
  • Hunting Creek Vineyard: 5 acres of mostly vinifera with some hybrids.
  • Rosemont Vineyard: 27 acres of mostly vinifera with some hybrids.
  • Sans Soucy (not on map but close to Bright Meadows): 7 acres of vinifera & some hybrids, plus fruit wines and beer.
  • The Homeplace Winery: 9.5 acres of hybrids and some vinifera, also some fruit wine.
  • Tomahawk Mill: 4 acres of mostly vinifera.
  • Three Sisters at Shiney Rock: 2 acres of American vines, plus fruit wines.
  • Virginia Tasting Cellar: Tasting room right outside this AVA but primarily selling southern VA wine.

Not visited on this trip: Hamlet and Preston Ridge.

Photo credit: Virginia Wine Marketing Office

Burke’s Garden

Burke’s Garden is what happens when you spend too much time on Google Earth. Maybe it’s the explorer in me, but I love to scroll all over the world. One day I was looking at the SW corner of Virginia and discovered an unusual bowl-shaped valley and thought…”What’s this”?

That’s Burke’s Garden at the bottom on a topographic map

What I found is one of Virginia’s natural wonders; a lush valley surrounded by high mountains, practically cut off from the rest of the world. Today, it’s the home of about 300-ish people – mostly Amish – who take advantage of the fertile land to raise high-poundage cattle.

I stayed at the Burke’s Garden Cottage, a B&B a short drive down from the local general store. This may be a misnomer; it’s stocked with fresh baked goodies and they offer good, hearty meals as well. Because seriously – you can’t go wrong with Amish food.

At the end of every September they throw a festival full of music, arts & crafts, and of course food. If you’re going to pick a time to visit, this would be a good one. But short of the dead of winter it’s not like there’s every going to be a bad time to visit this place.

Not visited this trip is part of the Appalachian Trail, which crosses the crest of the valley. From what I could see there is definitely some excellent hiking here. I was too busy soaking up the serenity of it all to explore much beyond the country roads – but maybe next time?

Assateague Island

Assateague is one of my all-time favorite Virginia get-aways. A 37 mile-long barrier island stretching from just south of Maryland’s Ocean City into Virginia, it’s not well known even within the state. Sure, it has beaches and islands, but we have lots of those. It has something that’s much harder to find – wild ponies!

“Ponies” is a misnomer. The herd are mostly made of adults, although their diet doesn’t allow them to grow very large. The myth is their ancestors washed ashore from a floundering Spanish galleon, only to make their homes here. More likely, they are descended from horses left unattended by tax evaders who tried to hide their wealth on the island…only to lose them in the wild. But that’s not nearly as cool a story, so the Spanish myth persists.

The park is divided between Virginia and Maryland, with the later being the more touristy of the two. The closeness to Ocean City would make the beach popular in any circumstances. But coupled with several packs of wild horses and beach-side campgrounds, it definitely gets crowded. And unlike it’s Virginian neighbors, the horses here roam free – so watch where you drive.

I prefer the quieter Virginia side. You enter the Virginia half of Assateague via Chincoteague Island, home to a small community stacked with small shops and B&Bs. This is the setting of Misty of Chincoteague, a popular children’s book back in the 50s.

I often stay at Tom’s Cove Campground; it’s very family-oriented, with lots of spots overlooking the bay. A number of RVs seem to make an almost permanent home there, in addition to weekend campers. The camp store has your basic amenities, and the showers are more than serviceable. The worst you have to worry about (besides mosquitos) are late-night parties.

Horses on Virginia side are fenced in and can usually only be seen at a distance – for their protection, no doubt. It’s not unusual to see long lines of cars parked along the road, their windows down and phones & cameras taking in the view.

The park offers other attractions, including nature walks, biking, and a beach. Overall you can traverse the entire island in half an hour.

Of course the star of the show are the ponies. Every July the town does the ‘running of the ponies’, where they take the ponies from Assateague and swim them over to the town for the equivalent of an annual checkup.

Telling this story gives me Anthony Bourdain-esque guilt trips; if you share a fun travel story, people will come. And too many people ruins the fun for everyone. So do me a favor…keep this on the down-low…OK?

Cold Harbor Battlefield

One of the most engrossing battlefields I’ve been to, hands down. It’s right around the corner from Gaines’ Mill battlefield, so you can do a double header.

Cold Harbor was one of the last battles of General Grant’s 1864 “Overland” campaign. Lee constantly anticipated Grant’s moves, who time and time again found the Confederate army entrenched between him and Richmond.

Grant once again tried to maneuver around Lee, this time at an intersection known as Cold Harbor. Unfortunately, confused orders and bad maps caused a critical delay, which Lee took advantage of by converting his hasty defensive position into a strong fortification. Even worse, the Union army failed to detect the extent of this trench line. When Grant’s attack kicked off on June 3rd, his army plummeted into one of the most lopsided engagements of the war.

Today, the trench lines of both sides are easily visible, and surprisingly close together. The Confederate line is placed on a low ridge and passes through the woods, not far from the parking lot near the visitors center. You can either take a walking or driving path; I chose to walk.

My trek was rewarded with a series of plaques detailing various small engagements and a close up look at the trenches of both sides. It was especially sad to see a plaque which explained how during a temporary truce, one recovery party discovered a trench with 244 Union dead and only 3 survivors.

The loop takes you through to the Union side and ultimately back to the visitors center. It was a sobering walk. The diary entry of one mortally wounded Union soldier still haunts me: “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed”.

Fischer’s Hill Battlefield

I’m a history buff in general, and a military history buff in particular. So living near the epicenter of Civil War history, you can imagine I’m in my element.

For background, the battle was fought on September 21-22, 1864 during the final Union push into the Shenandoah. Still reeling from a very recent defeat at Winchester, the Confederates retreated to Fischer’s Hill, near the northern mouth of the Shenandoah Valley. Jubal Early’s Confederates could only muster 9,500 soldiers, while Sheridan’s Union force had almost 30,000.

This location was nicknamed the “Gibraltar” of the Shenandoah. The position was the narrowest part of the valley, anchored by Massanutten Mountain to the east and Little North Mountain to the west. Its defensibility was augmented by the hill’s steep slopes, situated behind a small creek. If well defended, this position could shut out a Union advance.

Unfortunately for them, Confederates were so few in number they were unable to properly defend the position. Ideally, their line would have reached the length of the valley from mountainside to mountainside. Instead they could only man a portion of the line; their left flank was essentially exposed.

Seeing the enemy line didn’t reach the mountains on the western side of the valley, VIII Corps commander Gen. George Crook devised a plan to sneak around the Confederate left flank at night. Crook selected a lawyer to plead his case to Sheridan; a Colonel (and future President) named Rutherford B Hays. Not wanting to dare a frontal assault, Sheridan accepted Crook’s plan.

The maneuver was successful. Two Union divisions surprised the Confederate left flank, rolling up their battle line while at the same time Early was a frontal attack. Early and much of his army got away, but the crippled Army of the Shenandoah was thereafter unable to oppose Phil Sheridan’s ‘burning’ of the Shenandoah.

But what makes any battlefield tour fun are the human stories – and this one has a doozy. The confederates posted a lookout in the high branches of a tree, hoping to spot the Union troops at a distance. I wonder – did he see them outflanking him? If so, what did he say? Did he flail his arms saying “Um….guys….GUYS!!!! LOOK TO OUR LEFT!!!”. If so, it must have been a shock to see two Union divisions baring down on their position. Even now, the tree bears scars from the battle.

Thanks to a non-profit the battlefield at Fischer’s Hill (aka Ramseur’s Hill) has recently received a well deserved upgrade. These include a parking lot, walking trail, and “Civil War Trails” signs explaining the flow of the battle and the background of key commanders. There’s still work to be done, but it’s a good start.

The parking lot is small but it’s been almost empty every time I’ve ever visited it. There are sign posts at the start of the trail, but be sure to go to your right and up the hill after you pass thru the gateway. The trail (dirt in some places, gravel in others) goes in a loop, passing a still-standing tree which was used as a look-out post by a Confederate soldier who tried to warn his commander of a large Union force bearing down on their flank. Overall, the ‘hike’ takes less than an hour.

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

If you can only visit a handful of Civil War locations, this should be one of them. Appomattox is a historically accurate reconstruction on the foundations of the original village. But the real attraction is the storytelling of the guides, who tie together the ‘big picture’ of Lee’s surrender to smaller human stories connected to the grounds. It’s a well spent $10 vehicle fee.

You start at a visitors center, where you see historical artifacts and have the option of viewing a short film. But the highlight is the home of the McLean family, where the surrender took place. While the home is a reconstruction, NPS painstakingly recreated it, even retrieving original furniture from the descendants of various treasure hunters (many of them senior Union officers present at the surrender).

As I was an early arrival, I got a private tour of the house from an OUTSTANDING volunteer. If you’re reading this I assume you already know the momentous events that occurred here. But what made it special were the human interest stories that you’ll never hear anywhere else. A few of my favorites:

1) Wilmer McLean’s story that the war “started in his front yard and ended in his front parlor” isn’t 100% accurate. Actually, his wife Virginia Mason owned considerable property in Virginia, and she had a pre-nup spelling out what was ‘hers’. The McLean house in Manassas that suffered damage from the first Civil War battle actually belonged to her. So it’s more accurate to say the war “started in his WIFE’S front yard and ended in THEIR front parlor”.

2) One of the McLean children left a doll in the parlor where the surrender was conducted. Union officers joked it was a ‘silent witness’, and one absconded with it (one of many ‘souvenirs’ taken from the McLeans). Fortunately the original doll is now on display in the museum.

3) One sad story is the fate of Thomas Tibbs, a Confederate soldier from Appomattox. After Tibbs was paroled (like the rest of Lee’s army), he walked down the road to his parents house – the shortest walk home of any Confederate soldier. Unfortunately after 4 years of warfare he only knew the life of a soldier, and eventually joined the (now united) US Army. Ironically, his commanding officer was the infamous George Armstrong Custer, who also fought at Appomattox. Both died fighting in the Indian Wars.

North Carolina Diving / USS Spar, U-352, and Aeolus

Moorehead City is a great diving destination. I don’t have a lot of diving notes but plenty of photos.

The wrecks are huge so you don’t feel claustrophobic. I dove several, but the only wrecks I can identify with my photos are the Spar, Aeolis, and U-352.

The USS Spar was a Coast Guard vessel which now rests at 110 feet. I think those are sand sharks.

USS Spar

But the highlight of the trip is U-352, a German sub which was sunk on May 9, 1942. It sits at 115 feet.

It’s often difficult to get good photos of U-352 since its especially cloudy, but I did get these nice videos.

Last but not least is the wreck of the Aeolus, a cable line layer which rests at around 120 feet. No real notes or other photos for this one.

Chuuk Lagoon

When you’re a WW II history buff AND you’re into diving, Chuuk lagoon (formerly known as Truk) is the place to go. It took me a good 18 hours to get there (from home to Hawaii, Hawaii to Guam, Guam to Chuuk). Hands down, it was my favorite diving trip ever.

On May 17th I boarded the diving boat Odyssey and started a 7 night trip. The skipper was an American, but a good part of the crew were locals with a few foreign nationals (Aussies and a few Europeans). The trip cost $2795 per person double occupancy plus airfare. I supposed I could have gotten a larger room, but I was saving for the next trip so this suited me just fine.

In terms of diving, you definitely get your money’s worth. The trip is 7 nights, with the 1st day all travel and two morning dives on the last day, returning on the 23rd. In between we typically had 5 dives a day, often two on the same wreck plus a night dive. All told, I did 21 dives.

Most but not all dives were on wrecks. Occasionally we’d see some WW II debris on the ocean floor and just putter around. But the really fun ones were wreck dives.

Of the wreck dives, most were penetration dives. Usually, we just lightly penetrated the outermost superstructure, usually the bridge or a hold that was wide open. But on a few occasions, we went deep inside the structure to places like the engine room – much farther than I’d ever penetrated a wreck before. It’s not for the faint of heart!

Luckily for me, I only got ‘lost’ once, when I turned around to take pictures only to learn that my diving buddy had already taken off. It was NOT a fun experience to find yourself all lonely in a wreck, but I just ‘followed the light’ and made my way out.

The majority of the wrecks were merchant marine ships, but we saw a handful of military vessels. We also had lunch on one of the islands – the sole time we went on land (outside of standing on a sandbar).

  • Kiyosumi Maru #1, military transport. Penetration dive. Bottom time 53 minutes, max depth 84 feet (18 May)
  • Kiyosumi Maru #2, penetration dive. Bottom time 54 minutes, max depth 90 feet (18 May)
  • Yamagiri Maru. Bottom time 55 minutes, mad depth 87 feet. (18 May). I think the video is from this dive.
  • Fumitzuki, destroyer. Bottom time 63 feet, max depth 113 feet (19 May)
  • Shinoku Maru #1, naval tanker. She is notable for participating in the attack on Pearl Harbor. No penetration, just a look around the outside. Bottom time 43 minutes, max depth 123 feet. (19 May)
  • Shinoku Maru #2, bottom time 62 minutes, depth 70 feet. Penetration dive. (19 May)

I think this video was from this dive, but it’s hard to tell

  • Shinoku Maru #3, bottom time 44 minutes, depth 100 feet. Night dive. (19 May)
  • Unkai Maru. Bottom time 44 minutes, max depth 100 feet (20 May)
  • Fujikawa Maru #1. One of the most famous wrecks in the lagoon, in particular for the “R2D2” looking air compressor . Bottom time 51 minutes, max depth 104 feet (20 May)
  • Fujikawa Maru #2, bottom time 51 minutes, depth 104 feet (20 May)
  • Fijukawa Maru #3, bottom time 51 minutes, depth 107 feet (20 May)

Not sure if the 4th video is for the Fijukawa, but taking a good guess

  • Hoki Maru, transport. Famous for having a hold full of neat artifacts, including a truck. Bottom time 28 minutes, max depth 135 feet. (20 May)
  • Pizon Reef for a shark feed! Bottom time 53 minutes, max depth 81 feet (21 May)
  • Rio de Janerio Maru #1. Another famous wreck; bottom time 58 minutes, max depth 102 feet. (21 May)
  • Rio de Janeiro Maru #2, night dive into the engine room. Bottom time 53 feet, max depth 100 feet. (21 May)
  • Nippo Maru #1, passenger cargo ship. Bottom time 62 feet, max depth 123 feet. Lots of photo opportunities, including a Japanese tank in the cargo hold. (22 May)
  • Nippo Maru #2, bottom time 28 minutes, max depth 127 feet. (22 May)
  • Wreck of a “Betty” Mitsubishi attack plane. Bottom time 32 minutes, max depth 65 feet. (22 May)
  • Sankisan Maru. Bottom time 32 minutes, max depth 70 feet. (22 May)
  • Kensho Maru. Bottom time 46 minutes, max depth 111 feet. Famous for its engine room. (23 May)
  • Heian Maru. Bottom time 45 minutes, max depth 97 feet. (23 May).