Tag Archive | Northern Neck Virginia

Book Review: The Wild Vine

Have you ever heard of the Norton grape? I had, but I knew nothing of its history. I only knew that there are a few Michigan wineries that grow it and produce wine made from Norton grapes. But I was about to become a lot more read on the history of the Norton.

The Wild Vine, by Todd Kliman

The Wild Vine, by Todd Kliman

Kliman tells the story of the discovery of the Norton grape, a hybrid created in the 1820s by Dr. Daniel Norton. It is special because it can withstand the humidity and punishing storms of Virginia and Missouri, not succumbing to the rot that so many European wine grapes do. It allows Americans, for the first time, to believe that the United States can produce wine to rival Europe.

The Norton grape almost disappeared entirely during Prohibition, when wine growers were forced in large numbers to pull up their vineyards or face the wrath of government agents. When Prohibition ended, winemakers in the East were not quick to rush back to their former occupations, and by the time new wineries were created in Virginia, the Norton was seemingly nowhere to be found. In the 1970s, against all odds, Dennis Horton discovers that some bootleggers have a small patch of Norton growing, now almost wild in Missouri. He brings it home to Virginia.

Now, thanks for a few dedicated winegrowers, Norton has made a small comeback and is being produced again. Kliman’s book documents the history of the grape, its near extinction, and its remarkable comeback. This book marries two of my favorite subjects – History and Wine. His writing style will have you rooting for the underdog, the little grape that could… You’ll have to be on the lookout for this book, and a Norton wine!

Virginia 2015: Menokin

Day 10: Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Our last stop for the day was further down the Northern Neck, at a historic home called Menokin. Home is kind of a misnomer, as it is actually a historic ruin. But Menokin is a very unusual ruin, with an intriguing story of historic preservation.


The sign at Menokin

Menokin was the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his wife Rebecca Tayloe Lee. Rebecca grew up on a plantation nearby called Mount Airy; her father, John Tayloe II, gave the Lee’s the plantation and had the home built as a wedding gift (ahhh, to be rich, and get a house and land for your wedding…).

At any rate, Menokin was built in 1769, with Georgian architectural styling and a lot of Neo Palladian influence. The Lees lived there until their deaths in 1797, and then the home fell to a couple of relatives, before being sold out of the family. It changed hands numerous times between 1820 and 1935, when it was in serious decline and vacant.


The side of Menokin

Here’s where it gets interesting. In 1940, the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), thoroughly documented the vacant home in drawings and photographs. They also issued reports on the home, and its status as an endangered historic landmark. Unfortunately, the owners at the time were unwilling to sell it to a preservation society, so it continued its decline.

By the 1960s, the home had fallen further into ruin and the owners took the drastic step of removing as much of the original wood building material as they could, to put it into storage where it could be protected from the elements. Woodwork was removed and catalogued, including mantels, doorways, windows, flooring, molding and staircases. About 80% of the building materials have been saved.


The fireplace mantle of Menokin

In 1995, the last private owner of Menokin gifted it to the Menokin Foundation, along with all of the original woodwork that had been in storage since 1968. The home at that time was a complete ruin, and a tree had fallen into one corner of the house.


The door of Menokin, in storage

The Menokin Foundation is not planning to restore the house to its former glory. Their plan is far more interesting. They are going to preserve the home in its current state of decay, with glass walls and floors that will allow a visitor to travel through the home and envision what it would have been like it its day. Once the home is stabilized and protected, select woodwork will be returned to the home, to give visitors a sense of its former grandeur. Imagine walking through a glass historic house!

Our visit to Menokin was at the very end of the day – we got there just ten minutes before the Visitor’s Center closed for the day. The Visitor’s Center is really the office for the Foundation, nothing fancy at all, but the staff there were warm and friendly and insisted on having us watch the video of their dream, and they also took us on a tour of the wood room, where all the original wood from the home is catalogued and stored. It was remarkable, and I love that they are trying to do something radically different than the traditional restored historic home concept. They stayed way past their closing time, and were genuinely interested in how we had heard of Menokin and the fact that we had come from so far away to visit.

After the Visitor’s Center, we headed over to the site, to see the home. As it is not stabilized, you cannot enter, but you can walk all around for good views of the home. It was neat to imagine in person their vision of what it will be when it is completed.


The front of Menokin

Menokin was truly one of the outstanding gems of this trip – a little out of the way, but truly a fabulous place. If you are in the Northern Neck, and can visit, do! Here’s their website for more information on the unique vision for Menokin.


One of the fireplaces at Menokin

Our last task for the day was to finish our drive to Williamsburg, Virginia.  We checked into our hotel and walked down to the grocery store and liquor store for some wine and hotel room dinner. Jon wanted to try a Trump wine (I believe the winery is owned by Donald Trump’s son), just to say he had – it was actually pretty decent.  I got a bottle of the Barboursville Riesling; it was ok – fine, but not really memorable for me.  It was a long day, but we got to see some really great things!


Driving Distance for Day 10: 134 miles – Fredericksburg, VA – George Washington Birthplace NM – Stratford Hall – Menokin – Williamsburg, VA

Hotel for the night: The Fairfield Inn in Williamsburg – excellent!