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Here We Come A-Wassailing
On a Loop Through Virginia Wine Country, Mother Knows Best

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007

Just a few minutes out of Charlottesville on the eastern leg of the Monticello Wine Trail, the roads are barren and twisty, the landscapes are pastoral and serene, and Mom is once more trying to cause trouble.

"Are we wassailing yet?"

She laughs a little at her own joke, but the rest of us sit blank-faced in the car hoping we won't have to go through this again. As it happens, tension has been mounting ever since a family spat over "Here We Come A-Wassailing" -- pivotal question: what's the stuff made from, wine or cider? -- had somehow metastasized into a larger discussion of aging parents and familial responsibilities. And so the period of quiet had been welcome. That period was now over.

"I've got a joke," Mom says to her young grandson. "Why did the little moron bring a ladder to school?"

Mom, I immediately interrupt, people don't tell jokes like that anymore. "Oh, people don't know how to have fun anymore," she responds. "What's a moron?" asks the grandson.

"He wanted to go to high school."

Not a moment too soon, we swerve off Route 20 and onto a lane leading to Burnley Vineyards. There atop a low hill sits an unassuming tasting room in a taupe-colored ranch house, where we are welcomed by an elderly woman who methodically begins setting out glasses at the bar for Mom and me. The rest of the crowd stares at us in silence. It's all very Gary Cooper in "High Noon."

"Do you have wassail?" asks Mom.

What?

"Wassail."

What she has, the woman explains gently, is something called Spicy Rivanna, a red wine served warm and suffused with the flavors of clove, orange peel, nutmeg and more. Mom shoots me an I-told-ya-so, having been a proponent of wine and not cider during the previous debate.

It's Spicy Rivanna we've come for, but Spicy Rivanna is No. 6 on the tasting list, which means that the two of us will already be buzzing by 11:30 a.m. We sample a stately cab, a fruity zin and others, our session climaxing with the S.R., an ambrosial dessert wine whose heat penetrated to our bones and made for an appropriate send-off into the cold.

The gnawing question remains, however: Are we wassailing yet? Sure, the carol asks explicitly that wassailers go door to door begging for booze, moldy cheese and spare change, and we've vowed to solicit at least two of those, but will we then be able to confidently assert that we've authentically wassailed? More to the point, could we have devised a pretext any flimsier for drinking in the country and avoiding the barbarity of the shopping malls?

Our next stop, Barboursville Vineyards, eschews the down-home approach in favor of a vast and elegant tasting room laden with multiple stations and dominated by a blazing double-sided fireplace. There was no requirement that we try five whites, eight reds and a ros¿ before staggering over to the dessert wines, but . . .

"Do you have waffle?" asks Mom when we reach the end of the line.

What?

"Waffle. Wassail."

Our sommelier, a precise, bespectacled man who had surprised us by being a heavy pour, pleads ignorance.

"It's one of those British things like figgy pudding," he says. "Don't ask me what's in it."

I venture: But it's made from apple cider, right?

"Like I said, don't ask me."

Mom chuckles faintly before trying the Rosato, a sweet ros¿ with a hint of strawberries. A fine thing, we agree, but definitely no wassail.

A raucous atmosphere greets us at Horton Cellars, a stone's throw away in Gordonsville. Later, still more tasting behind us, neither Mom nor I could remember what the place had looked like, and so I have relied on our designated driver for the following description:

It was a turreted Tudor castle with white wines on the first floor, reds on the second. Big crowd. You went on a tour of the wine barrels in the basement and drank new chardonnay from a siphon.

Who knew? Still, I do recall one thing: another exchange about wassail, this time with a Horton cashier.

What?

"Wassail," Mom says. "You know, 'We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door,' " she sings (the third verse, inexplicably). From behind the counter the woman has a flash of recognition and whisks us over to a table hawking wine paraphernalia. There we see a sachet of allspice, cinnamon sticks, et al., made by a company called Spring Creek Industries in the Napa Valley. Drop this in a pot of boiling wine, the woman tells us, and you'll never go begging for wassail again.

Keswick Vineyards, the final stop on the trail, was just 12 miles east on U.S. 33. That it took us more than an hour to arrive is testament to the havoc wreaked by a long day of wine-tasting. In fact, we might still be wassailing were it not for a lonely convenience store in the middle of nowhere, empty except for a stray Jell-O box and a chain-smoking cashier who had never heard of Keswick but seemed to remember there was a vineyard (pronounced "VINE-yahrd") a few miles up the road.

Our sundown arrival at Keswick was announced by the clinking of souvenir glasses on the car floorboard, our booty so far. Picnic tables and wicker chairs led the way to a cozy tasting room and a bubbly young blonde who proffered a peppery Syrah, a red that reminded us of blackberry jam and, best of all, the wassailing wisdom I'd been waiting for all day.

"It's spiked apple cider, I think."

I could have kissed her. Sure, it was a long ride home in near-total silence with the worst headache I've ever had before cocktail hour. Still, I felt like singing.

Love and joy come to you

And to you your wassail too . . .

"Did you hear the one," interrupts Mom, "about the little moron who believed the girl who thought wassail was made from cider?"

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