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Rosé on the porch overlooking the river (Photo by Alexis Courtney)
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Tasting room (Photo by Alexis Courtney)
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Route 5 burger (Photo by Alexis Courtney)
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Deviled eggs (Photo by Alexis Courtney)
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The vines (Photo by Alexis Courtney)
It’s a clear, Indian-summer morning; sunburnt leaves crunch underfoot on the walk to the car. The humid, dog day’s balm of cut grass has cooled to dry scents of forest floor, and a moderate forecast suggests an excursion to Upper Shirley Vineyards: a Charles City winery and restaurant that offers clear views of Virginia’s tobacco past, and an upmarket, agritourism present.
A humming drive down Route 5, roughly 30 minutes from downtown Richmond, waits the manicured entrance to Upper Shirley Vineyards akimbo to, but not part of, historic Shirley Plantation, which has been in the Carter Hill family for 11 generations. Show horses wave their necks in hello as you drive through the winery gate.
Inside the au courant tasting room, you’ll find few nods to the old days — Oriental carpeting and equestrian prints — but, by and large, the high ceilings, beaucoup windows and covered back porch pierced by eagle screeches from Turkey Island suggest Hilton Head, not Tara. If one of my last supper invites, Pat Conroy, were here, I imagine we’d look over the bluff to the James River, eat pickled shrimp and toast with Upper Shirley’s sauvignon blanc. The setting would inspire a low-country yarn.
My first visit to the restaurant was a Thursday evening prix fixe with wine. A succession of courses began with crostini and arugula with savory tomato jam and concluded with chocolate torte. Chilled, mustard-laced shrimp on tender field greens and pan-roasted pheasant were courses two and three. Salt and pepper accentuated the bird’s flavor, but the flesh was taut, not juicy, its skin rubbery, as if it had been warmed instead of cooked start to finish and allowed to rest. In each course, with the exception of dessert, Shirley’s fruity, dry wines made the food better and vice versa — skilled pairings at which Executive Chef Carlisle Bannister excels.
It was an exceptional banquet for a rehearsal dinner. But for $70 a head, pre-tip, a wine dinner that repeats salad greens in back-to-back courses instead of building upon and creating anticipation for the next component and presentation made for an unmemorable meal, solely because I can think of a half-dozen places in town with more creative chef’s tastings for the money.
But back to Bannister. He’s adroit at selecting the freshest foods and salting them to their edge, coaxing out flavors maximus. He weaves heat and texture into what could be bland Southern favorites. And — I can’t say this enough — he’s damn good at writing a menu that compliments the vintages overseen by Michael Shaps, one of the state’s top winemakers. Professionally led wine tastings here are a steal at $10.
At lunch, brined fried chicken encased in piquant, golden breading stings your kisser, so cool your lips with milky slaw jeweled with diced pickles. Mousse-like deviled egg yolks topped with cubes of andouille hold interest when garnished with pearly mustard and fried onions. I’d love to know the brand of feta used in the Mediterranean chicken salad — it tastes like creamed buttermilk — though the cold white-meat strips signal that they weren’t grilled to order. Now, Upper Shirley’s burger: That’s a patty that could launch a thousand-mile bike ride just to burn off another.
My advice on visiting Upper Shirley is much like my advice on how to enjoy Virginia wine: Try it often, and appreciate its uniqueness. Both are precocious upstarts in an established industry. European wines may be less expensive, but France has been tinkering with their vines for centuries. We’re just learning, and that comes with a price tag. Every year, Upper Shirley’s wines will mature, and every year, we’ll probably lose a little more of the local riverfront to development. So go for sparkling wine and snacks one afternoon. Have the kicky, elephantine pork rinds with Richmond’s favorite mayo or a cheese plate with local honey. Sip chardonnay poured by Upper Shirley’s owner, Tayloe Dameron, whose poet-length hair and Richmond-proper accent would’ve inspired Conroy, and raise your glass to him, this place and Virginia wine.
3 out of 4 forks
600 Shirley Plantation Road, 829-9463
Hours: Wednesday through Monday: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wine-paired dinners by reservation every Thursday.
Prices: $5 to $21