New growths alongside Civil War sites
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. - If you want a Civil War vacation, book a trip to Gettysburg. When wine country calls, Napa Valley and Sonoma lead the list. If you want history and chardonnay, try Fredericksburg.
A short drive from Washington, this quietly hip city of 21,500 residents is a pleasing paradox of timeworn and trendy. Once you pass the commercial strip that feeds into Old Town, a network of brick sidewalks flush with independent bookstores, cafes, and a dozen chef-owned restaurants await.
What Lexington and Concord are to the Revolutionary War, Fredericksburg is to the Civil War. The war between the states is in this city’s DNA. You can read about the standoff between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant in history books, but here you can stand on Sunken Road, where waves of Union soldiers heading for the heights were slaughtered by Confederate troops from behind a stone wall in December 1862.
Civil War buffs have long flocked to this slice of northern Virginia to see four important battle sites. Now the state’s budding wineries, 186 vineyards strong, hug the battlefields, offering a needful diversion. While the largest concentration of wineries in the state is up north around Leesburg and west near Charlottesville, Fredericksburg and neighboring Stafford County are joining the trail.
The closest vineyard to Fredericksburg, and the homiest, is Hartwood Winery in Stafford County. This modest estate is owned by Jim and Bev Livingston. Jim, a former school librarian, became interested in winemaking 20 years ago when he planted a few chambourcin grapes as an experiment. It didn’t go well.
“We killed the vines,’’ he said. But a little rot and mildew didn’t scare him off. That same year he started the Fredericksburg Area Wine Society and was laughed at by the good old boys in City Hall. “It blows my mind to know it’s actually going to happen,’’ he said.
Free tastings are held at Hartwood’s wood-carved counter. Bev offers up six whites, five reds, and one rose, aged in barrels in the basement, pointing out the slightest hint of cantaloupe or chocolate in each variety. Hartwood’s Rappahannock Red, a beaujolais-style wine that gushes cranberries, was one of the best wines we tasted. Most wines here are medal winners, which doesn’t faze these practical folks.
“I don’t care about medals, because you can’t drink a medal,’’ said Jim.
In the same county, through a wooded stretch along Potomac Creek, is the more opulent Potomac Point Winery, a stunning 13-acre estate opened two years ago. An outdoor cafe, Le Grand Cru Bistro, is open for lunch and dinner in season. At night and in the winter, a clubby lounge called Devine is the spot for gourmet getaways. Because this land was once part of Chesapeake Bay, the terroir is mineral-rich. “We’ve been planning this for 10 years. We had the soil tested and knew it was right,’’ said owner Cindi Causey.
Among the 14 wines we tried here, the Heritage red was the power player, but the Rabelos port, aged in bourbon barrels, was the one we took home.
There are several historic bed-and-breakfasts in town, but we stayed at the new Courtyard Marriott in Old Town Fredericksburg with a
From the hotel, we walked a few blocks and came to the Sunken Road at the heart of the Battle of Fredericksburg. Part of the original stone wall is still in place. The cemetery on Marye Heights is a chilling memorial. Some markers carry the names of soldiers who died here, while others bear a number to signify the unnamed dead buried below.
To see the countryside that is rapidly losing ground to mall sprawl, take a drive northwest to the battle sites of Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and Wilderness.
Before visiting Spotsylvania, where the worst hand-to-hand battle between the North and the South raged for two weeks at the Bloody Angle, we stopped for pasta and salad at Vita Felice, a recommended gem in a nondescript mall.
After lunch we drove to the Ellwood Manor in the Battle of Wilderness National Military Park. This plantation, built in 1790, became a Union soldiers’ retreat and hospital. It attracts crowds because of what’s buried here: Stonewall Jackson’s left arm. The Confederate general had it amputated after being mistakenly shot by Confederate troops in May 1863 in the Battle of Chancellorsville. (Jackson died days later of pneumonia.)
Tour the plantation owned by the Lacy family and stand in the barren rooms with their original flooring. You can almost visualize slaves working in the fields and hear the Union Army approaching.
Just to the south, along cornfields with white Southern homes set back from the road is Lake Anna, a summer vacation spot that’s also home to Lake Anna Winery.
Ann Heidig and her husband, Bill, planted soybeans and corn on a former dairy farm as a retirement plan 20 years ago. Recognizing that the climate in Virginia was similar to France, they switched to grapes in 1990.
As the president of the Virginia Wineries Association, Anna Heidig is proud to see the industry burgeon from six wineries in 1980 to close to 200 today. “Wine and tourism, it’s a natural,’’ she said.
Lake Anna produces 7,000 cases of wine a year. Order a bottle of claret and Heidig will ask, “Which battle?’’ They have one for each.
After a full day of Civil War and chardonnay we returned to downtown Fredericksburg for another dose of Southern hospitality. Our first night we had dined at La Petite Auberge on Williams Street and were favorably impressed. Locally-caught rockfish, prepared with just the right touch of butter and lemon, was delicate and refined. Next door, Bistro Bethem is a lively spot frequented by city councilors and musicians who tuck into rarities like rabbit sausage and sage ice cream at the buzzing bar.
But the most happening place on the strip is Kybecca wine bar and shop. Step up to the Enomatic, a vending machine carrying 32 wines, order a thigh-crushing pot of lobster macaroni and cheese, and thank our Founding Fathers for making this country so great.
Kathleen Pierce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.