In the Virginia Piedmont, a Broadbanded Gentry Is Remaking the Cultural Landscape

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006; D01

By any traditional definition, Madison, Va., population 211, is country. Twice as far from Fairfax as it is from Charlottesville, it's a place where, according to Joan Tanner at Feed Store Antiques, a bear came through town the other day and ate two birdhouses and three bird feeders.

The commercial part -- about six blocks long -- has its share of empty buildings, including the former Madison Coin-Op Laundry and the Inspirational Bookstore. Others have needed paint for a generation, maybe two. All of Madison County -- which, like a lot of places in the Virginia Piedmont, hit its peak population in the mid-1800s -- is now so sparsely settled that it can't support its own emergency room.

Until recently, the town's most authentic dining experience arguably was the Mountaineer Cafe. Beneath the Madison Mountaineers high school sports banner, guys in hunting-lodge caps and work boots with big wads of keys hanging from their belts smoke at their tables. Two eggs, toast, coffee, fresh-diced home fries, and a slab of locally cured country ham as big as your hand goes for $5.95.

At the beginning of the year, however, the earth moved a little. Right across the street from the Mountaineer, Sue and Mike Riley opened up the Madison Inn Restaurant. The tables sport damask tablecloths and fresh miniature alstroemeria lilies. On the walls are original paintings that are priced as high as $1,200. The Atalon 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon -- Sue Riley's favorite red -- is described as having "rich aromatics, dense black fruit flavors and opulent mouth feel." Steak and oysters with bearnaise butter, called "The Cow Goes Pearl Diving," is available for $30. The ciabatta flat bread is flown in from California.

Call it the Santa Fe-ing of the Piedmont. Virginia's Blue Ridge from Middleburg to Charlottesville is undergoing a dramatic transformation. It is becoming urbane without the urban. Or even suburban. It is becoming a place where people can make city-quality money, and satisfy city-quality tastes, without the city. Where "viewsheds" are jealously guarded, this change involves the search for a new and distinct authenticity that combines storing your breadmaking flour in an antique Hoosier cabinet while bemoaning the way the rain-laden clouds interfere with your computer's satellite connection.

You can find similar combinations in Santa Fe, N.M., with its blue corn and opera, roasted green peppers and quirky bookstores, and adobe designed by architects. It is exponentially increasing across the country as charming places that once were merely tourist destinations fill up with residents who can make an urban-scale income wherever they can stay connected.

You see it from the Big Sky Country of Montana to the Gold Country of the Sierras, to the Piedmont of North Carolina, to the mountains and coasts of New England. This Santa Fe-ing is marked by a profusion of high-end and inventive food, wineries, shops, restaurants, theater, moviemaking, film festivals, bookstores, music and the arts in landscapes that don't look too different from the way they did a century ago, albeit better kept up. Think of it as Monticello with broadband. It's a combination of the 21st century and the 18th century, the Information Age and the Agrarian Age. It's a place that sees the last two centuries of industrialization as a nightmare from which we are slowly awakening.

This world is loaded with ironic consequences, such as wide-open spaces where the cops, teachers, carpenters and electricians can't afford a place to live. Perhaps the greatest irony is that the very process of this Santa Fe-ing is being hastened by sophisticated technologies, by laptops and cellphones and Web retailers that will deliver anything anywhere overnight. If folks like the combination of round bales, field corn and sushi-grade Hawaiian tuna, they can now have it in the Santa Fe'd Piedmont, which is roughly 2.5 million acres of Clarke, western Loudoun, Fauquier, Rappahannock, Culpeper, Madison, Greene, Orange and Albemarle counties.

The question is what kind of world these immigrants are creating with their new powers.

James McDaniel, the cook at the Mountaineer who is brother to Rose Marie McDaniel, the waitress, who is sister-in-law to Debbi Hensley, the owner, doesn't want to disrespect the Madison Inn and the new ways it represents, but he's proud that at the Mountaineer, folks "complain I give 'em too much food." By contrast, he says, he's "never been real good at eating ambience. Never got full on it. You can stack it up as high as you want, but it's not country."

Invasion of the UPS Trucks

Bellevue Farms is a horse-laden area north of Warrenton with imposing homes on pieces of land large enough that two sport wineries. When Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL, bought his place here, he snapped up a half-dozen neighboring properties to ensure his privacy.

It's quiet living, which is why the community association flap going on there now is instructive. It's about traffic. Nothing bumper-to-bumper, mind you. Some residents find annoying the people in the BMW convertibles visiting a winery to sample the Vidal Blanc. But more interestingly, it's about all the UPS and DHL trucks punctuating the serenity.

It seems that of the 112 owners of the formidable properties snuggled up to Wildcat Mountain, almost half do business out of their homes. Restrictive covenants written in the 1970s originally aimed at preventing people from running hair salons out of their basements are now grappling with the way the Internet has changed how and where people live and work.

Tom D'Albenzio is one of these Internet-enabled artisans. He was a computer maven for AT&T who, over his corporate life, followed what he calls a classic migration pattern from Brooklyn to Staten Island to New Jersey to the Piedmont. Since the 1980s, he commuted from his place in Bellevue Farms to Herndon until he retired from the phone company. He was brought back as a consultant in 1999 to deal with the Y2K computer crisis because he is an expert on "legacy systems." Think of them as "the senior citizens of computer systems," he says. "New ones are coming along to take their place, but they're still valuable, and you can't just get rid of them."

He proved so irreplaceable that when IBM took over these systems' management for AT&T, Big Blue hired D'Albenzio full time to keep the old circuits chugging. The big difference is, they preferred he do it from home.

"I was one of the last people to go to work from home," says D'Albenzio, 61. "I'd spent 37 years working at the office. I found it a little bit hard to get adapted. I really miss being in the office, the social contact -- if I've got a question about something, sitting on somebody's desk. The conference calls and the e-mail are not the same, although I'm getting more and more adept at it as time goes on."

So now he spends his days in front of his computer in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, "just me, and my cats and my cattle." (He's been raising and selling grass-fed beef off his 13 1/2 acres for 18 years. He has 20 Herefords.)

D'Albenzio's pattern has become so common that the only people who really understand the economies of these counties may be the FedEx drivers. They're the ones who know what kind of "cottage multinationals" can be found at the ends of all those gravel roads.

'A Station Before Heaven'

This Piedmont is geologically different from the Triassic Lowlands on which much of the Washington area has been built. As you cross from the coastal plain into these parts, the terrain abruptly becomes more rolling, framing more vistas. It is marked by undulating country lanes snug between the roots of ancient trees, and fences built and painted with more care than some houses. This preserve, largely east of the Blue Ridge from Middleburg to Charlottesville, some 120 miles long and 30 to 40 miles wide, is today at the heart of the Santa Fe-ing of the Piedmont.

"I could live anywhere -- Santa Fe, Montana, Colorado," says Robert Duvall, the horseman and Hollywood star of classics such as "Lonesome Dove."

"My favorite city in the world is Buenos Aires," says the tango aficionado. He still keeps a place in Beverly Hills -- "small, just to have a place to go, rather than a hotel."

He chooses, however, to live at Byrnley, his 360 acres near The Plains.

"It has gentle hills. It's peaceful, beautiful. Reminds me of parts of England."

"It's a station before heaven," says Luciana Pedraza Duvall, his wife.

This new culture is all about juxtapositions. Within 20 minutes of Duvall's farm there are three stages outfitted at levels that would delight many Off-Broadway theaters. These include the $6 million Rice Theater complex at Highland School in Warrenton, with its killer 32,000-watt surround-sound system; the $2.5 million extravaganza at Hill School in Middleburg donated by Sheila C. Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television; and the Fauquier Community Theatre at Vint Hill.

Far more important to Duvall than that, though, is that it's a place where he has made important human connections.

It's a place, he says, with "some of the best horsemen in America. You speak with humility when you are a horseman here." It's a place where his wife could give him, as a special Christmas present, "a young colt, half Andalusian, one-quarter Arab, one-quarter thoroughbred. Very smart." The colt, Manu, came from the nearby farm of Alan Geoffrion, who boards, breeds and trains horses. Duvall encouraged Geoffrion to write his first novel, "Broken Trail," which they made into a TV movie starring Duvall. It just premiered on AMC, setting a ratings record for the cable network. "My friendship with him was the catalyst that made the whole thing happen," Duvall says.

New kinds of connections mean new kinds of problems, however.

The Talk of the Town

Fifty miles west of Washington, in Warrenton, Va., population 8,295, the Arby's just shut down.

It has been replaced by a Starbucks. The town's third.

Didn't use to be this way. This is a county that still has almost as many cattle and horses as people. One of its landmarks is Clark Bros. Guns, with the life-size bear on the roof and the firing range out back. As recently as the late 1970s, the only place in the entire county to buy fresh fish was from the guy who sold it out of the back of his pickup truck on Saturday morning.

Nowadays, the Safeway recently underwent a "lifestyle remodel," expanding its wine section to 115 aisle-feet with 1,200 varieties. It competes with a similarly stocked Giant. Yet Warrenton has just seen the opening of its fourth wine and gourmet shop.

It is called the Galloping Grape and it is the talk of the town not just because, back behind the railroad tracks, in the building that used to house the Warrenton Farmers Coopfeed store, it offers hunks of Basque sheep cheese for $23.25 and wines from everyplace from South Africa to local Virginia vineyards.

The big deal is that it primarily smells of leather.

What it mostly sells is $700-to-$1,700 big, wide, comfortable Western saddles, as well as cowboy boots, hats and tack.

Kim Pinello, its proprietor, admits that the Galloping Grape may seem an odd combination.

But this combination is at the heart of the Santa Fe-ing of the Piedmont.

In Sperryville, Orlean, Paris, Millwood, Boyce, Berryville, Philomont, Aldie, Hamilton, Barboursville (Shakespeare at the Ruins), Madison, Washington, Hume, Amissville, Chester Gap, Flint Hill, Woodville, Waterford, Lincoln and so many other hamlets that have no declared populations at all, you can find combinations that include:

A computer technician named Gomer who agrees, as long as he's here, to behead with a sharp shovel the copperhead you've just shooed out of your kitchen; a company named Blast Away Hauling and Home Improvement; people who teach lost migration routes to geese, swans and cranes by training them to follow ultralight aircraft; two stages in a village of 183 -- the Theatre at Little Washington and the Ki Theatre, competing for entertainment dollars with demolition derbies; the possibility of borrowing a Havahart trap from a neighbor to capture the skunk eating your Araucana chickens' eggs so you can safely shoot the critter with the .22-caliber pistol you borrowed from the same neighbor; one bookstore in Berryville, two in Flint Hill and, in Warrenton, a Borders; mothers with hyperactive children driving long distances to buy illegal unpasteurized goat's milk; quilt shops with signs that read "Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free puppy."

Getaways for Good

Who are all these people transforming the Piedmont?

There's no lack of them, according to James H. Wiley, who owns the office of Frank Hardy Inc. Realtors in Little Washington. His practice requires him to maintain an overview from Middleburg to Charlottesville. He sniffs at mere half-million-dollar homes on two acres for long-haul commuters who some locals maintain are "ruining" Culpeper.

A fox hunter who rides in Albemarle, Orange, Madison and Louisa counties, Wiley says his area of interest is larger plots, especially ones on which he can advise the new owners on the complexities of conservation easements that block conventional development.

In 2000, he reports, 50 acres of raw land -- with no road, water or sanitation, much less house or barn or proper fencing -- might have fetched $150,000 to $200,000. Even that was by no means rural pricing; a cattle farmer could not possibly pay that and hope to turn a profit.

Today, however, that land might go for $500,000 to $600,000 in Madison and similar "way out" locations; $750,000 in Rappahannock; close to a million in western Fauquier near Hume or Orlean; more than a million near The Plains, closer to D.C.; and in choice portions of western Loudoun and Albemarle, $1.5 to $1.75 million, with $2 million not out of the question.

His firm alone sold $225 million worth of property last year. He doesn't expect prices to continue their torrid advance, but he doubts he'll see them collapse. The people who buy the properties he sells are not interest-rate-sensitive, he says.

This is not suburbanization. Quite the opposite. A lack of development increases these property values. "The PEC is my friend," Wiley says.

The Piedmont Environmental Council is the preservationist juggernaut that legendary megadeveloper John T. "Til" Hazel Jr. once described as the best-organized political force in the state of Virginia.

It used to be unthinkable to hear a broker embrace the PEC. Developers cursed its steadfast resistance to the onslaughts of the 20th century, the cloverleaf interchanges and cul-de-sacs. Now, it turns out that in doing so, the PEC set the stage for the 21st century's new Piedmont, building the nest in which an entirely unexpected bird has hatched. Its tradition of preservation set the legal and philosophical groundwork, resulting in hundreds of thousands of acres in permanent conservation easement and 10-, 20- and 50-acre zoning per house not uncommon, that awaited the current technological transformation.

For endless history, whenever people have visited someplace nice they've sighed, "Why are we going back?"

Now, however, they have a new question:

"Why are we going back?"

PEC head Chris Miller says that in the rural areas, weekend-getaway places account for as much as 30 to 40 percent of all homes. These weekenders soon discover they can start leaving the office a day early, staying in touch via e-mail. Then they begin staying away a day later. Pretty soon, although their legal addresses may be in the District, their bodies are increasingly in the Piedmont.

The rise of an urbane Piedmont does not yet even show up in some counties' census numbers. Far more houses are being built than are reflected in population increase, and still there are housing shortages.

The reason, says Stephen Fuller, is that a lot of the people who are driving this Santa Fe-ing are being counted somewhere else -- at least for now. Fuller is the director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University's School of Public Policy, the premier analysts of the Washington area's economic, housing and employment trends.

"It's a new world. They have to be able to do the work that is tech-intensive -- which is only about 11 1/2 percent in the Washington area. Workers in the retail section can't do it unless they're the chief financial officer. But a lot of professions can -- lawyers, financial analysts. They only need to be in the office once a week."

Eventually, GMU's Fuller expects these Piedmont part-timers to sell their homes in the metropolis and retire entirely to their Piedmont places. "This kind of lifestyle does not appeal to everybody," Fuller cautions. "It's a long way to the shopping center, a long way to their children. But the people who move out to the mountaintop are a more footloose group, more individualistic. They are often self-employed."

The Culpeper Lifestyle

Of all the counties in the Piedmont, Culpeper has historically been seen as one of the least prepossessing. The main drag leading to the county seat still looks like the kind of place Britney Spears grew up in. Landmarks include the Atomik 3 Auction and Flea Market, the feed mill that looks like an obsolete oil refinery, and the Outlaw Truck and Performance Center.

Nonetheless, on Davis Street you can now find a three-star restaurant, Foti's, created by veterans of Rappahannock County's Inn at Little Washington, the most celebrated country beanery in America. Paella is available at Foti's for $33.95.

This is the neighborhood of Elena and James Clements and their infant son, Max. Until two years ago, they lived in a 600-square-foot apartment in Rosslyn. Now they live in the historic district in a 99-year-old place that used to be the Baptist parsonage.

Elena, 30, is an event planner for Inc., an organization that produces elaborate meetings for legal associations, in venues from Munich to Maui. "My bosses and I correspond through e-mail, instant messaging," she says. "The organizations that we work with, as well as the hotels and other businesses, everything is done via e-mail. We could not have done this 10 years ago."

James, 31, manages the Web sites for the Democratic Leadership Council and the Progressive Policy Institute. He could do this from anywhere, but he chooses to go in to Capitol Hill a couple of days a week. "I don't know that we are at a point in society where we've gotten beyond the idea that if you don't see people every day, they're not working." But, he says, this gives him "the Culpeper lifestyle five days a week. I have a very good life."

This is not to say that you can't find some sharp divides in this new Piedmont. Monroe Baisden, owner of a wine and gourmet shop called Chateau du Reaux, describes the divides as "rednecks versus sophisticates. I don't know any other way to put it." He remembers some non-sophisticates who came into the shop. "Some people won a gift certificate for $50 worth of stuff -- they came in and had no idea what to do with it. You forget that there are those folks out there."

Nonetheless, there is a lot that the newcomers share with those who go back generations. At Food for Thought, a shop in Culpeper that features chevon -- goat meat -- the proprietor, Julie Simpson, says, "Here people are friendlier, more patient. If you go to the store and discover you've forgotten your wallet, they'll say, 'Take your groceries home and come back and pay us.' Try that in Fairfax."

The Down-Home Net

When you start investigating the highly developed tastes of the newly urbane Piedmont and start asking people like the Clementses, the Duvalls and the D'Albenzios about the paths they're taking in shaping this new world, you start seeing a pattern.

Kim Pinello, who started the Galloping Grape?

She used to work in Tysons for MicroStrategy, the data-mining software company that makes it possible to find crucial needles in haystacks of information. "I was a numbers nerd," she says.

And Mike Riley, who helped start up the Madison Inn Restaurant? He still works full time from Madison as a Web site developer for Advanced Solutions International in Alexandria. "I still get in once every six weeks or so," he says.

There is no question in Riley's mind that the popularity of the Madison Inn among people in the county has something to do with the Internet. He can see it in his parking lot.

When he and his wife started the restaurant, for their own convenience they made sure that the place had broadband and a WiFi connection.

Now they see the word has gotten out.

In the evening, they can look out their window and see people gathering in their cars, not even coming into the restaurant.

Their faces are bathed in an eerie blue light.

Their laptops are propped on their steering wheels.

They're using the restaurant's WiFi hot spot to check their e-mail.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company