Central Virginia Wine Heritage, with Aretha Marshall

This film was directed and produced by Jordan Kelsey as part of the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course at the University of Virginia, Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in Spring 2012.

Virginia Heritage Wine: More Than Jefferson’s Legacy – Louisa County

by Jordan Kelsey

On a pleasant mid-March Saturday morning, two of my colleagues and I set off to the east of Charlottesville.  Our goal: Bumpass, Virginia – a “blink and you’ve missed it” settlement in Louisa County.  We were on the hunt. Our treasure: “food stories” that would add grist to the Heritage Food Project.  Our lead was Ms. Aretha Marshall, the 91-year-old matriarch of the Marshall family.  Her daughter Patricia would accompany her, and presumably there were tales of yore to be heard.  With GPS as our guide we loaded the ladies address and hopped for the best, knowing that rural nooks and crannies often thwart modern technology.  I had personally set up this interview and had only the most basic information about our subjects.  They were women, African-American, and they loved Jesus.  The rest would have to wait. It was a good start though and enough to deduce that the interview had promise for discovering a Heritage Food.

As a bicycle commuter I don’t actually drive that often, having long given up on cars for most short trips.  On this day however, driving was our only option because of the remote location.  Since one of our trip’s central themes was nostalgia I felt it was high time to blow the dust off the car and be the one behind the wheel.  It was a good call too, because rural Virginia is certainly a place where Fahrvergnügen – or the joy of driving – is still possible.  This phenomenon probably also explains why it’s so dangerous to be cyclist out there.  Meandering byways, second or third growth forest, pasture and homestead, all await would be explorers.  Of course, Shenandoah it is not, and shamefully travelers have littered the side of the roads quite heavily.  However, intrinsic beauty abounds and early spring provides all the hope of new life.

Since the topic of this story is wine one glaring reality must be laid upfront. Louisa County is not, by most people’s estimates, “wine country”.  No vineyards, if they exist, show up on the Monticello Wine Trail.  My colleagues and I were not in search of any one food in particular, but our general impression was that we were headed into “cow country”.  In fact, very few people I’ve spoken to know much of anything about Louisa.  However, the Marshalls wouldn’t be the first people from Louisa I’d met.  During the previous fall at the Virginia Heritage Harvest Festival I’d had the unique privilege of meeting two members from the Twin Oaks secular commune.  They’d told me they produced and sold tofu – of all things – and that the community had previously supported itself making hammocks, which they then sold to Pier One Imports at enormous profit, presumably allowing them to shift into the tofu sector.  The two communalists seem like real nice people and we had a fun conversation, but I doubted they were representative of the county at large or its agricultural traditions.  Time would tell.

As expected, our GPS unit took us off-road, off course, and eventually to the local appliance dump.  A quick look at a map and some thoughtful consideration and we were back on track and found the Marshall’s home minutes later.  It was a rather modern looking “mobile” home situated behind an older rustic house that we initially mistook for our destination.  Once we found the right place though our welcome was cordial and… interesting.  Aretha Marshall, you see, is very hard of hearing.  So immediately we all started in on what can simply be called a low-level shouting match as we tried to establish the interview parameters.  This was reason for concern, but I felt perhaps her daughter Patricia would be an adept translator.

And so she was.  I would shout my questions in Aretha’s face and she’d turn to Patricia for a lip-reading interpretation.  This is how the interview played out over the next 45 minutes, and… it worked.  Aretha told us all sorts of stories from her youth, some pertaining to food, some completely off topic.  What I found most interesting though was her discussion of the wild fruit that used to grow around their property.  They had – at the very least – blackberries, strawberries, and grapes.  She and her family would gather them up by the bucket load.  Bring them home.  Wash them.  Mash them up.  Then make wine out of them.  She said they made all kinds of wine – “A lot of wine” in fact.  They’d store it in the cellar under the house to consume throughout the year and rarely, if ever, go to the store.  On this last part, Aretha was very adamant.  Patricia too, recalled her childhood spent on the farm as being one where they wanted for very little.

As we slowly wound our interview down and traded hopeful thoughts, I began reflecting on the Marshall’s story in context.  Here we were, miles from Virginia “wine country”, yet at a location where homemade wine once flourished from what the forest naturally yielded.  In fact, the accurate wine story of Thomas Jefferson is one of frustration over failing to grow European grapes in Virginian soil.  It wasn’t until much later that modern agriculture’s herbicides and pesticides made Jefferson’s vision possible.  Of course, as far as we can tell his vision has come true for Central Virginia and is embodied in The Monticello Wine Trail, but there’s a greater history here.  There’s the one where simple people of modest means called upon nature’s unaltered bounty to serve up a drink of their own creation.

For more about the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course, visit http://ien.arch.virginia.edu/courses/food-systems-resources.

Virginia Heritage Wine: More Than Jefferson’s Legacy – Louisa County

by Jordan Kelsey

On a pleasant mid-March Saturday morning, two of my colleagues and I set off to the east of Charlottesville.  Our goal: Bumpass, Virginia – a “blink and you’ve missed it” settlement in Louisa County.  We were on the hunt. Our treasure: “food stories” that would add grist to the Heritage Food Project.  Our lead was Ms. Aretha Marshall, the 91-year-old matriarch of the Marshall family.  Her daughter Patricia would accompany her, and presumably there were tales of yore to be heard.  With GPS as our guide we loaded the ladies address and hopped for the best, knowing that rural nooks and crannies often thwart modern technology.  I had personally set up this interview and had only the most basic information about our subjects.  They were women, African-American, and they loved Jesus.  The rest would have to wait. It was a good start though and enough to deduce that the interview had promise for discovering a Heritage Food.

As a bicycle commuter I don’t actually drive that often, having long given up on cars for most short trips.  On this day however, driving was our only option because of the remote location.  Since one of our trip’s central themes was nostalgia I felt it was high time to blow the dust off the car and be the one behind the wheel.  It was a good call too, because rural Virginia is certainly a place where Fahrvergnügen – or the joy of driving – is still possible.  This phenomenon probably also explains why it’s so dangerous to be cyclist out there.  Meandering byways, second or third growth forest, pasture and homestead, all await would be explorers.  Of course, Shenandoah it is not, and shamefully travelers have littered the side of the roads quite heavily.  However, intrinsic beauty abounds and early spring provides all the hope of new life.

Since the topic of this story is wine one glaring reality must be laid upfront. Louisa County is not, by most people’s estimates, “wine country”.  No vineyards, if they exist, show up on the Monticello Wine Trail.  My colleagues and I were not in search of any one food in particular, but our general impression was that we were headed into “cow country”.  In fact, very few people I’ve spoken to know much of anything about Louisa.  However, the Marshalls wouldn’t be the first people from Louisa I’d met.  During the previous fall at the Virginia Heritage Harvest Festival I’d had the unique privilege of meeting two members from the Twin Oaks secular commune.  They’d told me they produced and sold tofu – of all things – and that the community had previously supported itself making hammocks, which they then sold to Pier One Imports at enormous profit, presumably allowing them to shift into the tofu sector.  The two communalists seem like real nice people and we had a fun conversation, but I doubted they were representative of the county at large or its agricultural traditions.  Time would tell.

As expected, our GPS unit took us off-road, off course, and eventually to the local appliance dump.  A quick look at a map and some thoughtful consideration and we were back on track and found the Marshall’s home minutes later.  It was a rather modern looking “mobile” home situated behind an older rustic house that we initially mistook for our destination.  Once we found the right place though our welcome was cordial and… interesting.  Aretha Marshall, you see, is very hard of hearing.  So immediately we all started in on what can simply be called a low-level shouting match as we tried to establish the interview parameters.  This was reason for concern, but I felt perhaps her daughter Patricia would be an adept translator.

And so she was.  I would shout my questions in Aretha’s face and she’d turn to Patricia for a lip-reading interpretation.  This is how the interview played out over the next 45 minutes, and… it worked.  Aretha told us all sorts of stories from her youth, some pertaining to food, some completely off topic.  What I found most interesting though was her discussion of the wild fruit that used to grow around their property.  They had – at the very least – blackberries, strawberries, and grapes.  She and her family would gather them up by the bucket load.  Bring them home.  Wash them.  Mash them up.  Then make wine out of them.  She said they made all kinds of wine – “A lot of wine” in fact.  They’d store it in the cellar under the house to consume throughout the year and rarely, if ever, go to the store.  On this last part, Aretha was very adamant.  Patricia too, recalled her childhood spent on the farm as being one where they wanted for very little.

As we slowly wound our interview down and traded hopeful thoughts, I began reflecting on the Marshall’s story in context.  Here we were, miles from Virginia “wine country”, yet at a location where homemade wine once flourished from what the forest naturally yielded.  In fact, the accurate wine story of Thomas Jefferson is one of frustration over failing to grow European grapes in Virginian soil.  It wasn’t until much later that modern agriculture’s herbicides and pesticides made Jefferson’s vision possible.  Of course, as far as we can tell his vision has come true for Central Virginia and is embodied in The Monticello Wine Trail, but there’s a greater history here.  There’s the one where simple people of modest means called upon nature’s unaltered bounty to serve up a drink of their own creation.

The Payne Family: Memories of Winemaking & Moonshining

by Lucas Lyons

Don Payne is a member of the Payne family, whose roots in Central Virginia have been traced back as far as 1845.  The Payne’s were millers, farmers, and even homemade wine makers and Don has documented much of their family history and the rural history of Central Virginia through his two books A Legacy of Rural Virginia, Part I & II.   Through his research, extensive interviews with family members and hours sifting through dusty files at local historical societies, Don has become something of a magnet for stories, anecdotes, and knowledge of Central Virginia folkways in days past.

In my interview with him, some of the most interesting stories revolved around the production and consumption of fine, fermented beverages.  Don’s grandmother, Susie Payne, was a noted winemaker in Fluvanna County and produced a well-known wine called Peach Hen.  To this day, Don has never figured out how she made this wine in the jug itself instead of in a separate crock, transferring it to a jug after filtering out the “musk.”  Her Peach Hen was well known in the area and her living was supplemented by some sells of the product to locals. 

As a youngster, Don particularly remembers snowy winter days when his Uncle Tom Payne and Ed Harlow could not perform their usual carpentry work and would come to this grandmother’s house to cut wood for her.  In his young mind, Don figured that these were just some of the best men he’d ever met to come out and cut wood for free all day for his grandmother.  As he got older, he figured out that the two men made such frequent visits to his grandmother’s smokehouse on these particular days that they were “nipping on homemade wine all day.”  Surely, this wondrous homemade beverage was consumed only to keep the cold off of the men on these snowy, frigid days.[1]

Susie Payne certainly did not have a monopoly on alcohol production in the Payne family.  In the 1920s and 1930s, Don’s Great Uncle Jack only dabbled in farming, his main income coming from foraging honey and especially selling homemade liquor.  Don remembers him as a tall, good-looking man who habitually wore a wide-brimmed fedora hat and bibbed overalls.  Supposedly, the chief of police in Charlottesville at that time was one of his biggest customers and even brought his squad car to Fluvanna County to pick up a keg of homemade whisky now and again.  Don recently searched around the branch where his Great Uncle Jack’s still once stood and found a mason jar, a pool of stream water that was still dammed, and even a metal hoop from a whisky keg.  The freezing stream water was used to cool the still after the hot evaporation process, creating the slow drip characteristic of moonshine stills as the liquor cooled and condensated.  The fire keep the moonshine still heated and operated had to be tended at nighttime by Uncle Jack’s helpers—usually a couple of young men who lived close by.  Yet, frequent encounters with ghosts in the area scared off Jack’s help regularly.  Much more detailed stories like these can be found in Don Payne’s book series, A Legacy of Rural Virginia.


[1] All information in this story is based on an interview with Donald Payne at the Jefferson Area Board for the Aging , Charlottesville, VA on 2 March, 2012.  I was assisted in this interview by Hannah Magnum & Sarah Culver, two University of Virginia students.