Welcome to the likely earliest vestiges of the brunch. It’s was a brilliant October day in 1772 in Northumberland England. Mounted riders cantered across a high meadow surrounded by a pack of eager hounds. All at once the master of hounds cried out, “Tally-ho!”. Eighteen riders and 23 foxhounds rose as one and surged toward a nearby forest.
The hunt was underway. Within two hours spent riders, horses and hounds slowly ambled homeward. With or without a fox.
But the assembled upper-class Brits did gather for a decadent late morning repast of meats, eggs, cheeses, and breads. Oh, and adult beverages.
More than a hundred years later, in 1895, a publication called “Hunter’s Weekly” first published the unique word that represented a dining experience positioned between breakfast and lunch. The following year the popular British periodical “Punch” reprinted the article and the tasty concept spread, reaching America by the late 1920s.
Stateside the first brunches weren’t offered in trendy New York or Los Angeles but Chicago. Movie stars who worked on both coasts and traveling by rail would stopover in the Windy City.
Cinema greats such as John Barrymore, Helen Hayes, and Clark Gable dropped by for brunch at the legendary Pump Room in the Ambassador Hotel. Word spread, and the mid-morning repast grew in popularity.
The concept was so well-conceived it spread worldwide. Today travelers can experience Ackee & Saltfish in Jamaica, Bubur Ayam in Indonesia, Huevos Divorciados in Mexico, Dim sum in Hong Kong, Pets de Soeurs in Canada, Pongal in India, Tortilla Espanola in Spain and much more.
Many of the strange-sounding dishes are unfamiliar to Americans but are the go-to brunch victuals in their native countries. All thanks to yesteryear’s Brits.
Here in the U.S. brunch has evolved into a somewhat standard repast of scrambled eggs, omelets, hash brown potatoes, bacon, sausage, toast, and Bloody Mary’s.
Perhaps it’s time to scramble things up a bit more. Fortunately, there’s is a unique destination spot that accommodates that goal.
Upper Shirley Vineyards
There are over 300 wineries in the Old Dominion today. An impressive leap in numbers since the first one opened in 1978. Moreover, the quality of the wine has garnered Virginia vinous respect and catapulted it up to the fifth-largest wine-producing state in the Nation.
Yet its quality far exceeds its quantity. National distribution has been held in check because there is simply not enough of the exceptional wines to go around. The rascally Virginians drink most of it.
But as rare as finding a bottle of Virginia Viognier in New York City is, try locating a winery in the Commonwealth that has a restaurant. Much less one offering an exceptional dining experience.
The reason? Wineries and restaurants are two completely different businesses. Creating such a twofer takes smarts, skill and the rare trait of embracing risk. The owners of Upper Shirley Vineyards qualify on all three counts.
Suzy and Tayloe Dameron are the proprietors. They built the winery in 2013 on their 100-acre property that also showcases their historic private home and equestrian operation. It is located on rural Shirley Plantation Road, or Route 5, situated between Richmond and Williamsburg.
Asked if he had always had a dream of owning a winery, Tayloe Dameron’s response is disarmingly frank.
“The romantic answer would be yes, but it’s not true. We brought this historic property 20 years ago to raise our two kids. It was a beautiful, historic home but it wasn’t relevant and self-sustaining.
“So, we decided to plant a vineyard and make the highest premium wine we could,” said Dameron.
And where did the hubris arise to think he could accomplish that goal? Pedigree.
His family dates to the early 1700s in Virginia. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute and served in the Army’s 8th Infantry Division in Germany. He went on to obtain a University of Virginia Darden School of Business MBA and subsequently launched a successful 22-year career in finance, mostly in Manhattan.
Early word on the street was to keep an eye on the guy.
Along the way, he purchased and moved into the private home on the winery’s property. Built-in 1867 from bricks salvaged from a circa 1660 house that once flanked the manor house at nearby Shirley Plantation, the property came with built-in bona fides.
When you visit the winery, you can also call on one of the most historic homes in Virginia that are located nearby, Shirley Plantation. Its construction began in 1723. Tours are available year-round and if your visit to the winery is a first-time experience be sure to carve out time to see the mansion, or “Great House.”
Shirley Plantation is largely in its original condition and owned, operated and lived in by the direct descendants of Edward Hill I who lived there in the late 1600s.
Focusing on brunch, the winery’s restaurant is opened from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. six days a week with its midday menu in play. From 3 p.m. until 5 p.m. the menu is trimmed to shared plate offerings. Dinners focus on a series of special events, not nightly service.
The food is prepared by two chefs with burnished reputations: Partner & Executive Chef Carlisle Bannister and Chef de Cuisine, Ernie LaBrecque.
“We are all about sourcing food locally, rooted in a Southern-style using fresh ingredients,” said Dameron. “Carlisle has a great twist on our menu items, and he’s not going to let anybody go hungry. His burger is the best on the East Coast, and his shrimp and grits are to die for.”
A quick perusal of a late winter menu includes truffle frites, crispy fried oysters, warm brie, caramelized mushroom flatbread, San Marzanto tomato bisque, house-cured salmon, eastern shore crab bisque, and a host of salads with or without protein.
Focusing on a bit heavier fare will reveal specialties such as chargrilled chicken wraps, high- end burgers, cast iron quiche, southern fried chicken and more.
Accompanying the food are wines of exceptional quality. The Dameron’s work in collaboration with Michel Shaps who produces all of winery’s 3,800 annual case production.
The 22-acre vineyard is planted in popular varietals such as Chardonnay, Viognier, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Tannat, and others. Shaps is one of the preeminent winemakers in Virginia. This year his wines won one-third of the gold medals awarded in the Governor’s Cup competition.
Shaps has been lauded by numerous publications, including Saveur, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, Washingtonian, Washington Post and more. He holds a degree in Enology and Viniculture from Lycée Viticole de Beaune, France.
“Upper Shirley is a marathon, not a sprint,” explains Dameron. “We do not serve large tour bus groups, bachelor and bachelorette parties, and other noisy and distracting groups. We are not going to allow ‘disruptors’ to ruin our guests’ visits.”
Sitting on the winery’s covered back deck with an exceptional brunch and glass of wine arrayed before you and gazing at the expansive lawn and James River beyond, one is grateful for a hospitality strategy that is centered on individuals, not crowds.
Embrace the “new brunch” and one of the most unique and wineries and restaurants in Virginia. Guaranteed future visits are triggered by the first one.
For a cornucopia of beautiful photography, delicious menu and wine selections and impressive staff profiles, climb the virtual stairs of Upper Shirley Vineyards and take the full tour at http://www.uppershirley.com/
If you are in Coastal Virginia’s Northern Neck, you might enjoy a trip over to the Chesapeake Wine Trail.