The Purveyor eyed me warily as I walked into his shop, located on a charming, picturesque side street just off of Main in historic downtown Lexington, Virginia. I apparently didn’t strike him as fellow traveler on the wine tasting circuit. Perhaps his nose was finely attuned to sniffing out “Who’s Who” in the world of high-brow alcoholic beverages.
Maybe he simply smelled the moonshine in my blood.
“So, which of the Villa Appalaccia wines do you like best?” I asked him. Eyegal and I had veered off the beaten path coming up from Alabama for my 30th high school reunion and driven down to Meadows of Dan. There we hopped on the winding Blue Ridge Parkway to take in a couple of well-known wineries near Mile Post 170 on the way into Roanoke.
Château Morrisette was checked off and Villa Appalaccia was just around the next switchback when Eyegal–bless her heart–started to get carsick. We were driving some new wheels (her “birthday car” in fact), and at that point it was time to get off Bent Mountain as fast as possible to ease her vertigo before she barfed all over the new interior.
Now I stood there looking at The Purveyor’s rack of Villa Appalaccia wines and figured that after all that I might never make it back up to the Parkway and visit the actual winery. Best to gather now while the grapes were ripe unto harvest.
The Purveyor took so long answering my question that I wasn’t sure he’d heard me. Finally, he leaned back a little, lifted his chin, and in his cultivated, Virginia gentleman planter accent said, “Well, now that all depends…”
On whether or not you’re sitting by the pool on a summer’s evening munching light fare, in front of a winter’s fire leaning against your lover and eating chocolate or cozying up to a 16-ounce filet mignon and baked potato, apparently. It was way too much information for me to process in my present state of Napa Valley naiveté.
“Well, can you recommend a couple of dry reds? I prefer those over sweet.”
He named a couple, and after I’d chosen, The Purveyor placed my purchase on the counter and rang me up while attempting to make small talk with the yokel who had apparently stumbled into his shop in search of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“Where are you from?”
“Huntsville, Alabama. But I grew up near here. In fact, we’re here for my 30th high school reunion.”
“Hmmm, well how about that. Which high school?”
“Franklin County High School, just south of Roanoke.”
“Oh really?” he smiled knowingly, as if he’d just peered into my soul and suddenly had me pegged.
He sat back a little on his stool and looked at me out of the corners of his eyes, his brow furrowed, head tilted to the right and chin lifted just a hair. He looked like he’d just seen some aboriginal species for the first time.
I recognized that look–more a smirk, really–immediately. It was the same one our more pedigreed, blue-blood cousins further up the Shenandoah Valley, the ones whose family trees had roots reaching back to Civil War and Revolution-era movers and shakers, had always given us poorer Scots-Irish who had migrated downrange into the nooks, crannies and shaded, tree-camouflaged coves of The Blue Ridge Mountains.
I knew where he was going with this. I’d been weighed in the balance and found wanting. But it was a beautiful day outside and I was generally full of good will, so I decided to play along.
“Yes,” I grinned, “we Franklin County folk have been known to dabble in the ‘alcoholic arts’ from time to time. Who knows, maybe somebody will bring a couple of Mason jars full of the ‘good stuff’ and liven up the party.”
“Well,” he replied haughtily, “I’m sure that will be quite the hootennany.”
He drew that last word out with extra emphasis and a little too much edge. I’ll admit; it got to me.
I had a flashback to those times when the kids from Patrick Henry High–the sons and daughters of Roanoke’s professional elite–with all their money, flashy cars, preppy clothes and Ivy League aspirations had looked down on us and made fun of our backwoods, country ways. I recalled the time the Kempsville High (Virginia Beach) baseball coach had called us out as “cornshuckers” in the papers the week before the 1977 state championship game and then, to make matters worse, went out onto the diamond and backed it up.
It was an odd way for The Purveyor to treat someone who had just purchased a $20 bottle of wine from his shop. As I walked back out into the crisp, fall air with my purchase in hand, I almost turned around faster than white lightning and went back inside. The thought occurred to me that the best use of my bottle of Villa Appalaccia Cabernet Franc might be as a billy club up side The Purveyor’s over-sized skull.
Later that evening, though, the snobby slight was a distant memory. The bad taste in my mouth left by the encounter had been replaced by the succulence of freshly-grilled dogs and burgers, compliments of my old cross country teammate Jeff who hosted a tailgate party at his business situated in the shadow of Boones Mill Mountain. I confess that I wore my Alabama script “A” ball cap to egg him on (Jeff is a University of Tennessee alum). He returned my playful taunt by parking his monster Franklin County pickup truck next to the table where I was sitting and blasting me with several different versions of “Rocky Top.”
From there we made our way to the Homecoming game in Rocky Mount at Cy Dillon Stadium, located at the foot of Bald Knob. Cindy and Susan led us in cheers and the school fight song as our Eagles proceeded to thrash the rival Martinsville Bulldogs 35-0. The Class of 1980 was sandwiched between the Class of 2000 above us and the Class of 1965 just below. We joked that the older you are, apparently, the fewer steps you’re expected to climb. But it felt like 1979 nonetheless, although this time, we actually won.
On Saturday night we re-convened in Roanoke. Old friends squealed in delight and embraced each other as they donned their adhesive name tags decorated with their senior “environmental” portraits. Whatever walls that separated us in high school had long since crumbled, washed away by life’s torrential rains. Now there was a only a sweet, diffuse love, a gaseous bonhomie that spread across the room, bathing everyone–rednecks, geeks, jocks, politicos, stoners, cheerleaders, whatever your social caste “back in the day”–in soft, warm light.
Of course, the cash bar probably helped.
We had a lively table back in the corner. Daniel and Rebecca and I swapped stories of family and friends from long ago. In the course of time, the talk naturally turned to moonshine. Her grandfather had made it, and my grandfather on my mother’s side had run it. Daniel had even taken up microbrewing his own homemade beer down in Durham, presumably all squared-away and legal. Rebecca and I smiled at the prospect that our grandfathers perhaps knew each other and had maybe even worked together on a few madcap, midnight runs with those “damn revenuers” in hot pursuit.
Eric, the man who would be President in 8th grade, came in late and began to work the room and press the flesh, just like it was the the closing days of a campaign. An attorney now in Rocky Mount, he’s been mellowed-out and humbled a bit, I think, by several close, hard-fought, but ultimately unsuccessful runs for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. That night, he appeared more focused on warmly greeting old friends and regaling them with stories of the apple of his eye, his beautiful high school freshman daughter, than on some future political office.
We had debated politics in high school, and now I leaned toward the long-time Franklin County Democratic Party politico and whispered softly, “Eric, I think I’ve become a little more liberal in my old age.”
He smiled and put his arm around me. “It’s okay, ” he replied, “I knew you’d come around.”
Jeff and I had called a truce the night before. We would put aside natural rivalries and root for each other’s teams during reunion weekend. This worked out well for me (the Gators bit off more than they could possibly chew), but not so well for my Volunteer friend. I’m sorry, Jeff, I truly am.
But even with the heartbreaking loss to LSU, Jeff partied on, his ear-to-ear, high wattage smile lighting up the room. Part of the agreement was that if he would dance to “Sweet Home Alabama,” I would then follow-up with a flat-foot to “Rocky Top.”
Soon, Ronnie Van Zant “turned it up.” A flock of aging Eagles and friends congregated on the dance floor, flapping their wings and melding to the groove while I attempted to lead the crowd in “Roll Tide, Roll” during the appropriate pauses in the song. A few minutes later, we all climbed “Good Ol’ Rocky Top” together. My Scots-Irish blood boiled as we slapped the floor, our heels and toes keeping faithful time with the rustic rhythm of our mountain forebears. Our people. My people.
I closed my eyes and imagined dancing that way in a deep, hidden hollow by the light of a full, Franklin County moon, the sweet smell of corn and yeast hovering like fermented fog. Rebecca’s grandfather and my own are a little out of breath after loading up a hollowed-out, souped-up ’40 Ford coupe with jugs of Franklin’s finest, another vintage batch for another madcap, midnight run.
The Purveyor, woefully off-course, stumbles upon the scene. I see my grandfather grin, and I hear the ominous snap of a wooden stock meeting steely double barrels, then the crack of a warning shot fired over the interloper’s head. Silence follows, the sound of one shell spared, left unused in the second barrel “just in case.” I wonder if the Purveyor ever chanced to stumble upon a Franklin County hootenanny like that, whether or not he would ever come out of that hollow alive.
I awoke from my reverie and stared down at my feet. They churned and swirled, possessed with a mind of their own, tracing out long-lost patterns I’d never dreamt possible. I knew then that while I may currently reside in “Sweet Home Alabama,” my roots run deepest in the rich, red clay of my Villa Appalaccia, feeding my soul with the intoxicating wine of cherished friends and old-timey mountain music, the ancient liturgy of moonshine nights.