Roots and Vine

22 Feb

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Winter is wearing me way thin these days, and I’m not the only one it seems. So many of my friends are in the “bring on the great one or let’s get on with spring” mindset. The days are cold, my hands perpetual briquettes. I brave the air every day at 5:15am on my nighttime jog with Clar. It’s dark…that still qualifies as night in my opinion. So, I get up at the end of the night and run before the day begins, thinking all the while,What am I doing out here? Sane people weren’t meant to be out in this …exercising. Yesterday, though, I noticed in the predawn blue under the sterile halogen of the street lamp, tiny purple-white croci pushed up in my neighbor’s yard, their little buds tight, braced against the winter air, holding their little breaths.

“It’s coming”, they say. “Hold on.”

And I’ve noticed that I’m tired of holding my own breath. Seriously, I need some real fun. Cut it loose, laugh my ass off, dance till I’m out of breath fun. The past few weeks have been soft and reflective, like a shifting snow but underneath, the creek is beginning to run like a mountain thaw. The ground never sleeps for long beneath its frosted blanket of white.

So Sunday morning after my run, I knew I couldn’t stay in the house all day grading papers. I had get out and go some place warm and fun. I’ll take my medicine. I’ll grade my papers like a good little underpaid, under appreciated school marm, but I will have some fun while I’m doing it. A quick on-the-fly Internet search revealed that Tara Mills and Yankee Dixie would be playing at DuCard Vineyards in Madison County up above Charlottesville. Listening to the tracks on her website suddenly reminded me what a Virginia gal I really am. Bluegrass is in my roots, both from my Roanoke upbringing and my Irish heritage. And in my love for the vine, any winery is a fine place to be. The concert was free and DuCard has a fireplace…score.

As I drove north to Madison County, I actually thought to myself with as many wineries as you are visiting Cyndi, your readership has got to be making some judgments. Let me unequivocally state that while I love wine, I can go to a winery without lolling around in inebriated reverie or purchasing a case for my cellar, really.

. . .Stop smiling at me like that, I already have a wine conscience named Paul, thank you very much. Every time I go to a wine festival, he texts me,  “And what’s our spending limit for the cellar today? Are you being good?” and I have to stick to it. Brothers are like that.

So, I rambled up the road searching for this tiny vineyard at the base of the Shenandoah National Park. It had snowed Saturday evening in a wild draping pattern over the cedar and pine speckled mountains and through rocky valleys. I ran into white, then gold,then white. Rocks and black trees appeared amid the dusting. On the last leg of the drive, I actually laughed out loud. Ruby Thewes began to echo in my head. “Waaaaaay up in the hol-ler”, describes DuCard’s location precisely. The vineyard is situated amid open fields and cow pasture, mountain ranges and winding rural state roads. As I pulled up the drive, I knew it was worth the trip, a tiny little tasting room, nestled in a modest sized vineyard. Next to it, a tiny creek, in thaw.

DuCard has one of the warmest, most open tasting rooms I’ve experienced yet. The ceilings are high and the walls are nearly all glass, revealing the view of the mountains. In other seasons, I am sure it’s even more magnificent and I plan to go back in spring with a picnic basket. They have a lovely patio area and small stage adjacent to it. Inside, though, it’s leather couches and small garden tables aside the long tasting bar, like a great room of someone’s mountain getaway. All are invited to a nice Sunday afternoon gathering, except we don’t have to bring a dish, just ourselves.

I set up shop with papers at a table near the front, the fireside being coveted and occupied. Confession time: I had a quick tasting session beforehand. Okay, no chuckles there. DuCard has a small list of about eight wines and I directed the pourer to make sips tiny. Papers need grading. My picks include their Cabernet Franc Reserve, super smoky oak, deep and well balanced blackberry notes. The Petit Verdot will store well, as its quite hearty and full-bodied. Surprisingly, their Rosé was good even though it had a bit of bottle shock, dry with a slightly strawberry edge. The prices are somewhat high for me, though. So I obtained a glass of Cab Franc and settled back into enjoying the music of Tara Mills and Yankee Dixie for the next several hours.

Second confession: bluegrass music is my long lost love. It’s like an old flame you meet again at a highschool reunion and realize you still have it bad after all those years. You know the notes, you know the dance, no matter how long ago you heard it last. So almost immediately, I was enjoying myself way too much to grade papers except during the set breaks. The trio featured Mills on guitar and vocals, John Howard on mandolin, banjo and harmonica, and Turtle Zwadlo on upright bass. That upright bass gets me every time. It’s funny, I began to remember words to songs I hadn’t heard since I was a kid. Their blend of bluegrass and folk is like a Sunday afternoon drive on a well- traveled road. You know where you’re going and it’s warm sunshine all the way

Their rendition of Ain’t Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone, had me singing with Tara’s low and steady vocals. John’s joined hers in what I call the perfect “bluegrass wind up”, both voices twining around each other, stringing the notes out low then up like the long road outside. Tapping my feet to original tunes like New Year’s Resolution and What I Need…and even The Cat Song was what I had needed to shake off the winter cold. Letting out a few Irish yips at the end of songs felt fantastic, like being home.

There was a time and I think it’s true for nearly everyone when we want to escape our roots, where a young person thinks, “I live in the most uncultured uninteresting place on the planet”, especially if one happens to be from the rural south. I had always viewed my Southwest Virginian status as somehow less cultured than others, especially in college. My friends from all parts north or even places like Texas and California, I felt were “cooler” than me. Nothing exciting happens in a cow field or in the woods behind my house. So I left bluegrass behind for rock, punk, and jazz and other musical forms, just as I left my grandmother’s home cooking for cultural delicacies and foreign wine.

But as I sat there singing and tapping my heels to familiar songs, I began to realize that like a vine, I may have grown out, curling away from where I began, but that home ground still feeds me, still attaches to my core. The roots are where I truly lie and where I will eventually return at the end of my days. John Howard even mentioned playing in a punk band for many years and now he’s back to playing his roots. Seems like we all come back home from our journeys.

As I drove that evening down the mountain, I stopped to notice the landscape in its last breath of winter, the sun setting over cold mountains with the faintest glimmer of spring, a ghost of a rose hidden under the frosted fields.

Our love was like a burning ember
It warmed us as a golden glow
We had sunshine in December
And threw our roses in the snow

In old time bluegrass, those notes of home echo a slight longing, even the happy songs, and that’s a good place to start spring. That slow movement away from the still, quiet, and deep of the sunset, toward a longing for and a stretching out in the morning to the sun.

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