Wednesday, October 26, 2005
ROOTS OF THE VINE
It was a long, hot summer, as her father once wrote, and this made for top-flight grapes at Knight's Gambit vineyard, the small grapedom Jill Faulkner Summers runs west of Charlottesville with her husband and son. It's only the third year for the vineyard and their first real harvest, but the Summerses are more than pleased with its quality and bounty and are already considering expansion.
This would have delighted her father, the Nobel prize-winning novelist William Faulkner, who was better known for his bourbon but, his daughter says, was an almost lifelong oenophile as well.
"Daddy loved wine," she says, seated near a portrait of the author whom she resembles so much it is almost startling. " I think he acquired a taste for it in Paris" in the 1920s. "When I was growing up I can't remember a time we didn't have wine every night with dinner."
In the Oxford, Miss., of the 1930s and '40s, this must have taken some doing. Though the state "is not quite the outback people seem to think . . . people do drink wine there," she says, Mississippi was the last state to repeal Prohibition -- in 1966 -- and acquiring wine there during the Depression in particular had to have been a challenge.
"I don't know where he got it. He must have had it shipped in periodically from New York or New Orleans," she says. But the quantities were substantial enough that he partitioned off part of a large root cellar beneath the Oxford house in which to lay down the vintage Bordeaux he favored. Renovation of the Faulkner house recently by the University of Mississippi, she says, has turned up a number of old bottles, including some still containing wine.
Though, like French children, she was given her own small glasses of diluted wine with dinner, Summers says she remembers few vinous details from that time. "Wine didn't interest me as a girl, and the cellar was a horribly creepy place," home to snakes and spiders among other non-corked inhabitants. "I think I've been down there only once to this day."
Her interest in wine began to develop after 1954, she says, when she married West Point graduate and former paratrooper Paul D. Summers and the couple moved to Charlottesville. William Faulkner moved there as well three years later as the university's first writer-in-residence and soon developed close friendships with her father-in-law, who lived in Rockville, and a local gentleman farmer named Linton Massie.
All three were dedicated wine drinkers, she says, "and they argued incessantly about every aspect of wine -- the glasses to use, the temperature at which to serve it, the foods it went best with and so on. Paul's father, Burke Summers, preferred Burgundy. Pappy insisted Bordeaux was superior. The three didn't see each other all that often, but on special occasions like Thanksgiving, they had great fun arguing all these points."
The supply problem, however, remained a challenge. While Virginia in the 1950s wasn't dry, the state ABC stores sold few good wines and Virginia law forbade importing wine from out of state.
The solution, says the author's daughter, was memorable. Her father, her husband, his father and Massie obtained a large red horse van, "so red it looked just like a circus wagon. Pappy always threatened to mount a papier-mache giraffe head and neck on the roof so it would look like a giraffe was inside."
They loaded in it a tractable local horse ("Pappy thought they should paint zebra stripes on the horse") and drove up to Washington with the horse and plenty of straw and horse blankets inside. There, she says, they purchased "just cases and cases and cases of wine -- all the van could hold, and covered them with the straw and horse blankets."