Saturday, October 4, 2008

Grounds at James Madison’s Montpelier

Today Montpelier has 2,700 acres of pastures, lawns, gardens and woods at the foot of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. The estate, located just outside Orange, VA, began as a working plantation, home to three generations of Madisons. It included tobacco fields, a farm complex, slave quarters, a blacksmith shop, barns and other outbuildings – everything a self-sufficient estate would have required.

The layout changed over the years, and the latest private owners, the duPonts, added a formal garden, ornamental trees and various outbuildings, including farm houses, a laundry, a greenhouse and a bowling alley. The last major addition to the landscape was the flat racing track and steeplechase race course, built in the late 1920s.

Today, visitors can stand in the neo-classical Temple where James Madison contemplated the republic, stroll the Annie duPont formal garden, hike the old-growth James Madison Landmark Forest, visit the Madison family and slave cemeteries or walk to the Civil War trail – all within Montpelier’s grounds.

President Madison added a round neo-classical Temple on the site where his father’s blacksmith shop had stood. This new structure (circa 1810) covered an ice house below. Mary Cutts, Dolly Madison's niece: "A short walk from the house was a beautiful temple. It was built over the icehouse, which made it very cool; close to it was an immense mulberry tree. This building was intended, but never used, for the President's study."

The 200 acres of trees found in the James Madison Landmark Forest have been virtually undisturbed by man. Trees include oaks, tulip trees and hickories, and understory plants include dogwoods, redbuds, spicebush, virginia creeper, honeysuckle, and grapevines. A few of the oaks, poplars, and hickories are between 200-300 years old. The soil is Davidson, among the best hardwood forest soils in Virginia. This 15-mile wide band of soil extends from Charlottesville to Culpeper. Due to the rich soil, tulip trees at 50 years can reach a height of 120 feet, and red oaks, 95 feet (nearly twice the height attained under average conditions). This forest is open to the public during regular visitor hours, with nearly two miles of self-guided trails through the forest.

President James Madison enjoyed a garden of nearly four acres, including the site of the present two-acre Annie duPont formal garden. Following the fashion of the era, the Madison garden contained a mixture of vegetables, fruit trees, flowers, and ornamental shrubs.
The garden was designed by the Madison's French gardener, Bizet, who was paid the substantial salary of $700 a year. A number of President Madison's slaves were trained as assistant gardeners. One of the slaves eventually took over as head gardener when Bizet returned home to France.
From Mary Cutts, Dolley Madison's niece: "At some distance from the house was the garden laid off in the shape of a horseshoe by an experienced French gardener, who lived many years on the place; his name was Bizet; he and his wife came to Virginia at the time of the French Revolution and left Mr. Madison shortly before his death to return to La belle France. They were great favorites with the negroes, some of whom they taught to speak French. "

Following Montpelier's acquisition by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1984, the plantings of the Annie duPont formal garden were carefully identified and catalogued. Restoration of the garden began in October 1990, and was funded by The Garden Club of Virginia.

Montpelier Hunt Races

It has been more than two decades since the death of Marion duPont Scott, but her spirit will be honored on November 1, 2008, when the Montpelier Hunt Races celebrate the seventy-fourth running on the grounds of the Montpelier estate where she lived.

Marion duPont Scott, a horsewoman through and through, was most notably a successful breeder of race horses. One of the greatest of those is buried at Montpelier – Battleship, who was the diminutive son of Man o' War. Battleship became the first American horse to win England's Grand National Steeplechase. A month later, when Battleship returned to New York City aboard a ship, mayor LaGuardia welcomed him along with actor Randolph Scott (Marion’s husband), who interrupted filming a movie in Hollywood to join the celebration. Mrs. Scott promised if Battleship won the Grand National he would never race again, and she was true to her word. He retired to stud at Montpelier and is buried there. Guests can visit his grave, alongside two of Mrs. Scott’s other famous horses, Annapolis and Accura.

Regarded by many as America's First Lady of Racing, Marion duPont Scott generously supported the equine industry throughout her life. She donated funds to construct Virginia's leading equine medical center in Leesburg, which is named in her honor. Her legacy continues with the running of the Montpelier Races, a premier event on the national Steeplechase Association's circuit, which is always held on the first Saturday in November.

When the Noel Laing Handicap Stakes is run, some remember the Virginia-born jockey and Mrs. Scott's Trouble Maker, Laing's winning mount in the l932 Maryland Hunt Cup. In the l935 running, Trouble Maker had a fatal fall at the seventeenth fence. Laing was heartbroken and stayed at the fence until his mount was buried. When Mrs. Scott returned to Montpelier, she tore down all her timber fences and ordered that no horse of hers would ever race over timber again.

Mrs. Scott, who had started The Montpelier Hunt Races in 1924, thus developed a hurdle course featuring the only live brush jumps in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Friday, October 3, 2008

October: Virginia Wine Month

For twenty years our state has designated October as "Virginia Wine Month." Bruce Schoenfeld, wine editor of Travel & Leisure magazine and contributor to Wine Spectator magazine, includes Virginia among five destinations he recommends for those passionate about wine, food and unique travel experiences. His article, titled Wine-Lover’s Guide: Five Wine Regions to Visit Now, features Chile, Virginia, Spain, Italy and New Zealand. Virginia is home to 130 wineries, ranking it fifth in the nation for the number of wine producers.

Prince Michel Vineyard and Winery, home to the internationally acclaimed Prince Michel and Rapidan River wines, was established in 1982. Although one of the east coast’s largest wineries, their commitment to hospitality and great wine make a visit welcoming and memorable. Beautifully situated among acres of vineyards in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the winery offers wine tastings and tours of the production area with visual and auditory aids.

Prince Michel wines have obtained internationally acclaimed status due to the efforts of renowned winemaker Brad Hansen, who joined the winery in 1999. Under his direction Prince Michel wines have won more than 400 awards. Hanson is sought after as a judge for international wine competitions and as a consultant for winery design and production (photo below).