Brandywine Valley Sojourn
Whenever we're arranging a trip, I always ask for gay-owned or gay-friendly lodging and restaurants. Traveling as a couple, my partner and I were amazed how accepting and accommodating everyone was in the Brandywine Valley area of Pennsylvania. I was assured that it was so gay-friendly that we'd think everyone was gay. (We did!) Maybe it is the proximity to Philadelphia (the City of Brotherly Love) but, whatever it is, it was a pleasure traveling through this picturesque section of Southeast Pennsylvania.
What better way to start a vacation than with a wine tasting? Especially when it turns out to be with an old neighbor from the Hudson Valley? Host and vineyard founder Eric Miller moved with his family to Chadds Ford 25 years ago from the Benmarl Winery in Marlboro, New York. They started the first winery in not only Chadds Ford, but in all of Pennsylvania. Today they are one of 113 wineries in the whole state. These visionary pioneers create great wines in what they believe is the best wine growing region of the US. Eric's son will graduate next year from UC Davis where he is studying oenology and viticulture. Upon his return to Chaddsford Winery he'll be one of the rare third generation winemakers on the East coast.
In their handsome tasting room, Eric poured us glasses of Naked Chardonnay, which he described as "no oak - just the bare essentials of the Chardonnay grape." It was clean, lively and full of fruit, not the traditional buttery Chardonnay aged in barrels. In keeping with the "bare essentials" theme, Eric appears nude on the label, maintaining some little dignity behind an enormous and much needed grape cluster. He gets a lot of good-natured kidding about that! His sense of humor and brilliant marketing are evident everywhere in the winery, and are behind the growing critical acclaim Chaddsford wine enjoys.
We also tasted a dry red Due Rossi (translates as two reds) which is a master blend in the Italian style described as bursting "in the mouth with sweet vanillans, a big bouquet of flowers, ripe jammy fruit and licorice." It is a full-bodied and very satisfying red. We took the open bottle with us when we left (Pennsylvania is so civilized about that) and enjoyed the complex flavors again later when it had more time to breathe. No wonder Chaddsford Wines consistently medal in national and international wine competitions. They know how to make wine!
The beauty of spending two days in the Chadds Ford section of the Brandywine Valley is that our destinations were all within fifteen miles of each other, with a great hotel and restaurant in the middle of the whole bunch. The Brandywine River Hotel is on the corner of Routes 1 and 100, within sight of the Brandywine River Museum, Studio Tour and Kuerner Farm tour that is the whole Andrew Wyeth experience, and just behind the parking lot for Brandywine Prime. It was easy to roll out of bed the next morning, enjoy the complimentary buffet breakfast this charming hotel provides, and walk across the street in time for the Brandywine River Museum's 9:30am studio tour.
We visited there the week after Andrew Wyeth's 90th birthday. The Museum celebrated the event by hanging his newest painting, a rare self portrait of him painting an old water mill in a snow storm. The story goes that he left his coat on the chair to step back and look at the whole composition, and realized that the blue of his coat completed it. On a whim he painted himself in his blue coat painting the mill. The result is truly spectacular! The Museum itself is an architectural marvel, filled with magnificent works of art. It enjoys a pastoral setting on a bend of the Brandywine River with a courtyard and a wildflower garden. A life-size bronze cow lying on the riverbank invited us to linger by the shore, as a flotilla of young boys in tubes floated past. I could have stayed all day.
From there we took a bus to Andrew Wyeth's studio, and also one to Kuerner Farm, both nearby. Wyeth had an unusual relationship with the Kuerners. He had a key and complete access to the house and barn, and would be there for hours a day quietly painting. Sometimes they would be posing for him, sometimes not. I took a photograph of the milk pail in the milk room, the same one used for the cover of his book "Kuerner Farm". He painted the Helga series there too. It was an incredible experience to be standing where he stood, seeing a virtually unchanged still life or landscape looking just like the famous paintings I grew up enjoying. Definitely make a point to take the whole tour the next time you are in the area.
We retrieved our car from the hotel parking lot and drove to Longwood Gardens,Longwood Gardens, about eight miles down the road. It is the premier horticulture destination of Pennsylvania. They have over 350 acres of formal rose gardens, topiary gardens, colorful annual and perennial gardens, natural lake settings (one with a massive waterfall) surrounded by wild gardens, urban gardens, and a wonderful collection of trees, many arranged in formal allees, which help to define the former DuPont property's garden structure.
There are also two fountain pools. One is an intimate destination below the largest lake, and the other is a huge football-field-sized formal Versailles style where the shows sometimes include symphonic music, colored lights and even fireworks accompaniment.The place is a huge over-the-top extravaganza of gardening.They have a very nice restaurant too. We even had a great lunch there.
Instead of touring the hundreds of acres of magnificently cultivated grounds, I pulled some strings to get a close-up and personal adventure. You see, besides all of the above, Longwood Gardens has thousands of plants, (especially orchids) formal gardens and water features, all under acres of 'Crystal Palace' style glass houses. These surround a huge outdoor square with geometrically arranged aquatic plant pools which prominently feature an incredible selection of flowering water lilies and foliage plants, many of them edible. With the kind and long suffering help of their staff, we assisted Timothy Jennings, a Senior Gardener at Longwood, as he pruned and cultivated the water plants. While he was at it he gave us a lesson in propagating Victoria Platters.
Dinner that evening was at Brandywine Prime Seafood & Chops. Brandywine Prime Seafood & Chops. I'd picked up a menu when we walked past after the museum, admired the beautiful natural gas lighting and then made reservations. Good thing I did. Brandywine Prime is a busy restaurant on the site of the old Chadds Ford Inn. Inside and out, this restaurant is beautifully appointed. Speaking of beauty, someone there has a good eye for more than design. Besides knowing what they were doing, the waiters, in jeans and a white chef's tunic, all looked like models! If Keith Rudolf, the Chef de Cuisine, hadn't prepared such a fantastic meal for us, I would never have taken my eyes off them to eat my food.
We shared an appetizer, a tapas plate of Sorrento ham, chorizo, and a cheese and vegetable balls with bread, whole-seed mustard and the largest capers I've ever seen. After all my meals in Spain, it was a real pleasure to relive those experiences here. It was a sumptuous plate of memories and good food.
For the next course I ran into a problem with the menu and almost had several appetizers instead of an entree. Then this drop-dead gorgeous hunk of a waiter told me about the specials, which included breast of duck. Now, I love duck, but my friend doesn't, so I never cook it. To keep this vision of a waiter in sight longer, I asked him how the chef was going to prepare the duck. His answer: "However you would like it" with a smile that lit up the room way better than the flickering gaslight. The true measure of a chef, the waitstaff, and - really - the restaurant as a whole is how they reacted to what I said next. I told the waiter I wanted my duck cooked to 128 degrees. There was no waiver, no pause, no fading smile. My duck was cooked to perfection, served with a simple oak leaf lettuce and orange salad. I was in heaven! My friend's steak with french fries looked fine, but, as far as I was concerned, lacked imagination. He liked it, but what can I say of someone who doesn't eat duck?
Where the Brandywine Prime really excelled was with dessert. My friend had a simple, but elegant stemmed glass of ice cream. Once I faced the reality that we weren't taking one of those waiters back to the hotel, I settled on a three-way of a different kind - a dessert sampler. Appetites must be satisfied, after all. The apple cobbler topped with ice cream, peach upside-down cake and a chocolate dipped baked apple with the cutest pink crystallized sugar decoration on top, all fit the bill nicely.
There are more restaurants, Museums and Historic sites to see, but these are enough to get you started. Once you arrive in the Brandywine Valley you'll want to add extra days to your visit to enjoy all it has to offer.
632 Baltimore Pike, Chadds Ford, PA 19317
(610) 388-6221 Fax: (610) 388-0360
Brandywine Prime Seafood & Chops
Corner Rtes 1 & 100 - Chadds Ford, PA 19317
BRANDYWINE RIVER HOTEL
ROUTES 1 AND 100 P.O. BOX 1058 CHADDS FORD,
PA 19317 Guest rooms: 40 Phone: 610-388-1200
US Route 1 South, P.O. Box 501, Kennett Square, PA 19348
Phone: 610-388-1000, Fax: 610-388-2227
Brandywine River Museum
U.S. Route 1, Chadds Ford, PA 19317
Tel: (610) 388-2700, Fax: (610) 388-1197