IT HAPPENS every time. The raspberries hang heavy on the vine and I act like a bear just out of hibernation. Despite the firmest intentions to simply do a decorous "sampling" prior to picking for the pail, there's always an unseemly stretch before a berry plunks into the bucket.
Well, what do you expect? After all those weeks of being tantalized by teeny-tiny containers of raspberries sold at outrageous prices from produce trucks, it's impossible not to glut when surrounded by acres of huge, sweet, bargain fruit.
Where is this berryland of which I speak? In Virginia's Westmoreland County, just a two- hour drive from Washington. Close by, there's also a dazzling historic home and a prize- winning winery. The three together make a wonderful day's outing.
Start at Stratford Hall, birthplace of Robert E. Lee. An 18th-century plantation that has never been vacant, Stratford Hall is still a working farm of 1,600 acres. The main house backs onto the Potomac River, offering an idyllic view of the grounds or water from every window.
Though Robert E. Lee was Stratford Hall's most famous resident, he wasn't the only one to play a part in American history. As explained in an excellent, 15-minute slide show, several of his ancestors left their mark during the hundred years that Lees occupied Stratford Hall. Other notable kin included Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, the only brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence, and "Light-Horse" Harry Lee, one of eight men to be decorated by Congress for Revolutionary War service.
The home of the Lees, like the people who lived there, is remarkable. The 18-room, two- story house has two-foot-thick walls and four chimneys at each end of a stretched, "H" floorplan. Downstairs are the living and working areas, which include a boys' bedroom, counting room (office), and winter kitchen, among others. The entire house is furnished with period pieces, polished to a glow. The myriad household items give a lively picture of 18th-century life and provide some delightfully unexpected connections with our own.
For instance, the counting room has a swamp reed lamp. The reed was dipped in kitchen fat and lit at each extremity, giving rise to the saying, "burning your candle at both ends." In the housekeeper's room is a spinning wheel (usually being used), beside which hangs a "tow" (small bundle) of flax, about the same color as all the tow-heads you've met.
A "weasel" is the wooden peg that pops up on a yarn winder when it is holding enough wool for dyeing. It's the very one the monkey chases around the mulberry bush in the nursery song. It helped young girls know when to stop winding the yarn even before they could count the lengths.
The eight-foot ceilings downstairs soar to 13 and 17 feet upstairs, where the rooms were used for entertaining. The center great hall is a tour-de-force of pearl gray walls, rose- colored upholstery and large windows.
For those who like more intimate settings, the mother's bedroom contains Robert E. Lee's crib and elegant Chippendale and Federalist furniture.
After a tour of the grand house, you're on your own to visit the nearby gardens and the four dependencies -- the school house, lumber house, museum building and kitchen. In the kitchen you can sip apple cider and munch ginger cookies while marveling at the cavernous fireplace in which whole, spitted animals could be roasted to a turn, thanks to a wall- mounted pulley.
To keep in the mood of the Old South, stop at the Stratford Hall dining room, within walking distance, for a plantation luncheon. Entrees run about $6, and a children's menu is available. Or picnic on the grounds. The water-powered, 200-year-old mill is an ideal spot. Saturdays are particularly nice, because the mill is in operation then.
Enjoy lunch, by all means, but don't eat dessert. Wait and pick your own at the Westmoreland Berry Farm. Anne and Chuck Geyer, who manage the farm, are simply too nice to forbid tasting. Besides, they're used to seeing the trance-like frenzy of cityfolk loosed in paradise, and know that "no eating" rules would never work.
All pickers, including toddlers, are given free, five-quart buckets and directed to rows where the fruit is heaviest. Vines are spaced and tied to make picking a breeze -- except for the constant dilemma of choosing between cleaning a spot thoroughly or answering the call of those big ones down the row.
Before too long, Anne Geyer usually comes by to make sure you're having fun and know about the shady picnic tables overlooking the Rappahannock River. She'll gladly tell you about the farm, started in 1983 when she and Chuck planted 27 acres.
This year, with 60 acres under cultivation, they've already reaped 148,000 pounds of strawberries, thornless blackberries, red and black raspberries, and tay berries, a delicious hybrid. Six thousand pounds of red raspberries will have ripened by the end of September. At $1.75 per pound, picking your own is a bargain that inspires gluttony and makes affordable the ultimate status symbol -- a peanut butter and raspberry sandwich.
Just down the road is another new venture, Ingleside Winery. It boasts 60 awards from state, national and international competitions gained in just five years of production. Most of the 28,000 gallons bottled yearly are sold in the vicinity, but owner Carl Flemmer is understandably proud to have his wines offered in a San Francisco hotel.
Visitors are invited on a free tour that explains the basic process of making champagne and red, white and ros,e wines, along with solving such wine-making mysteries as: How can white wine be made from red grapes? A tasting of eight wines follows the tour, and wines priced from $4.50 to $8 per bottle are sold.
STRATFORD HALL -- To reach the plantation, take I-95 south to the Route 3 east exit at Fredericksburg. Follow Rte. 3 east to State Road 214 and the plantation entrance. Or, take U.S. 301 to Route 3 east. Stratford Hall is approximately 90 miles from D.C. It's open every day from 9 to 4:30, except Christmas. Admission is $3 for adults, $1 for children aged six to 16. The dining room is open April 1 to November 1, 11:30 to 3. Private tours and furniture tours can be arranged by calling 804/493-8039.
WESTMORELAND BERRY FARM -- To reach the farm, 12 miles from Stratford Hall, turn right onto State Road 214 as you leave the plantation, then right on Route 3 and left on Route 634 at the farm sign. Hours are 8 to 6, seven days a week. The picking should be at its peak through this weekend, then taper off over the next few weeks. Call 804/224-9171.
INGLESIDE WINERY -- Is 3 miles from the berry farm, where you can get "back road" directions. Ingleside is open Monday to Saturday 10 to 5 and Sunday 1 to 5.Appointments are appreciated. Call 804/224-7111.