It was a long, hot summer, as her father once wrote, and this made for top-flight wine 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 whose resemblance to her 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," 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 of course it's no longer any good."
Though, like French children, she was given her own small glasses of watered 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 never went down there. 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 a West Point graduate and former paratrooper named Paul D. Summers and the couple moved to Charlottesville while he attended University of Virginia Law School. 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 Chevy Rockville, Md., 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. Burke Summers was a member of the Chevaliers du Tastevin and considered himself the real connoisseur. 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 purchases from out-of-state.
The solution, says the author's daughter, was memorable. Her father, her husband, his father and Massie obtained a bright 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."
Faulkner and his friends, she says, were so pleased with their equine deception that they almost hoped to be stopped by the Virginia State Police so they could use it. But they never were, and wine, horse, van and conspirators made it merrily to Charlottesville.
Faulkner died in Mississippi in 1962. During his extended stays in Virginia, nobody in the state was seriously growing wine grapes. But the state's now-flourishing wine industry began to take root in the 1970s, and within a decade more and more farmers were beginning to look on wine grapes as a potential money crop -- an economic and environmental weapon against the cancerous spread of suburban subdivisions onto Virginia farmland.
By that time Paul and Jill Summers had put down their own roots on an Albemarle County farm. They had children and horses -- Jill is now both a horse breeder and master of hounds for the Farmington Hunt -- and by the 1980s were noticing more and more vineyards beginning to prosper around them.
"We talked for years about possibly growing grapes," she says, "but the real impetus came from my son, Paul III. He worked for four years as assistant winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards," one of the more ambitious of Virginia's wine operations.
Three years ago, drawing on the expertise of a wine-growing neighbor, the Summerses fenced off a five-acre, southwest-sloping section of their 400-acre farm and planted it with 5,100 vines: pinot grigio, cabernet Franc, merlot and petit verdot. Nobody was certain just what quality the soil would yield, but the recent 14-ton harvest "tested very well," Jill says. They were able to sell the grapes to local winemakers at prices "at least high enough to break even."
Her son, she says, would love eventually to bottle his own wine from the Summers grapes, but the start-up costs of actually making wine as opposed to growing grapes have left that comfortably in the future for now.
What her father would make of all this she can't really say, but she knows he'd be intrigued. For all that's been written about William Faulkner, she says, few know of the part wine played in his life, in part because he never wrote about it.
In carving out his mythical kingdom of Yoknapatawpha County, Miss., and chronicling the decline of the Southern aristocracy and the rise of the acquisitive, wily and amoral Snopes clan, "he wasn't writing about people sitting down to dinner. He was writing about other things."
But on reflection, she concedes that in "The Mansion," the last book of his three-volume Snopes trilogy, Faulkner's redneck protagonists are beginning to stake out somewhat twisted notions of gentility. Had the saga continued, she agrees, Flem Snopes's grandson eventually would have been drinking white zinfandel.
Ken Ringle is a former Style writer who last wrote for Food about the silly wines of summer.