It was ten years ago at least. Maybe close to fifteen. I was vacationing with my wife then and we decided to do something Virginia-beautiful. Something that would take us on a scenic drive, along winding mountainside roads that might offer up a spontaneous stop-n-bite meal someplace that serves tasty southern roadkill sandwiches or critter fries.
Or a winery?
Yeah. A winery. We were given an incredible place to stay through a family connection-a place with ceiling-high windows, a “cabin” that was much more than just that, surrounded by nature. A bottle or three of wine would certainly allow one to be left unopened as a thank-you gift. Right?
So off we went in search of, with some loose awareness of where a winery might be found and one of those old Garmin GPS things to guide us along the way. Are they still around? It’s one of those devices that need to be actively updated (or at least it did back then) otherwise new roads, roads that no longer existed, current construction blocking roads you expected to be there… all of that waited as potential confounding variables in your point A to point B plan.
This on top of the fact that I am pretty hopeless when it comes to navigation, with or without GPS.
After some time we came to realize that the roads Mr. Garmin was pointing us towards, and the winery that supposedly awaited, were not where we were being told they were.
I say Mr. Garmin because I’m pretty certain Mrs. Garmin would have known what the hell she was talking about. Mr. Garmin clearly did not. So we were left to our own devices to drive on beautiful Virginia roads on a beautiful, sunny, Virginia day, looking for things to see and wine to drink. Isn’t there a John Denver song about some of that stuff? Not so much the bottles of wine-maybe that’s Rocky Mountain High I’m thinking, not Virginia Mountain Drunk.
Okay, I’m rambling. Let’s get to it.
Some winding roads and a gradual climb, and all of the sudden the trees parted. The sky opened, and out of nowhere, we were plunked in the middle of what looked like a suburban pod community. A few perfectly neat little homes, with perfectly paved driveways in front of perfect little attached garages. Perfectly mowed lawns with nothing out on them except a few perfectly pruned trees and shrubs. No toys, no lawn furniture, no trash bins by the roadside for pickup… No cars in the driveway. And we hadn’t seen another vehicle on the road for quite some time.
It almost looked like a developer’s life-sized model of a planned community. No Real estate signs, though, to indicate that these were model homes for viewing. It seemed these were homes that belonged to actual people, but there were just no signs of people.
Driving just a little bit past these homes brought us to the tippy top of this hill. The homes were gone and there were only a couple of things to see here.
On the left:
A cemetery of sorts. Or, a graveyard? I’m not sure which name should be given to a blank, sterile gathering of bodies and grave markers into columns and rows on a rectangular piece of earth. This was no “final resting place” that would be sold to folks who actually worry about the view their corpse will have from initial occupancy until a future developer buys the property and evicts the residents.
No trees. No meandering paths or drives to take. Little variation in headstones. A four-foot high chain link fence surrounded it with a gate at the entrance, a dirt road that went straight in at the gate and then split in perpendicular branches, for efficient delivery, maintenance, and no-frills visitation, I assumed. From the entrance to the back row, it was about the width of an Olympic size swimming pool.
On the right:
A small stone building that looked like one of those figurines you buy in an artsy gift shop when you’re on vacation. You know the ones I mean. Sometimes the pieces are cute cottages, sometimes lighthouses. There’s that little boy and girl that are holding hands or touching noses all “in love” and stuff. Well, this building was a cobblestone type, maybe leaning a bit towards fieldstone or a collection of stone shapes that varied a little in size. The colors were reds, and purple-ish, the type of stone you see a lot of down south.
It looked like it could be a cute home even, but here’s the thing: the windows facing the road were too small, dark, and high off the ground to be really functional as windows that would let any light inside. I think they were stained glass, but I don’t remember for sure, and if they were?
They were still small, up off the ground a bit, and dark.
On the ends of this building were small, round stained glass windows way up high where the roof came to a pointed peak. The land it was on sank away steeply from the front to the back so that a small, basement-level entrance door could be put in on either side. I can remember thinking “No way that’s a house. But man, it’s kind of a fancy little mausoleum. I guess if you aren’t spending for landscaping around the graves, givem a nice waiting room, right?”
Then I saw the sign.
Church of the Brethren.
I’m not going to spend too much time on this because religious faith is precious to those who have it. Let’s just say I had never heard of this particular religion, category, sect, or classification… And let’s be honest, “brethren” has a spooky-movie sound to it.
So imagine this eerily abandoned Virginia community, because I had pretty much written the story that way in my mind right then when it happened, and this mausoleum so-called-church that blocks out all the sunlight, which sits right across the road from collected and dutifully arranged graves and bodies…
Okay, let’s just get off that.
We kept driving while I thought “Can vampires sleep their day away in an actual church?”
Eventually, we came to a “T”. The road ended.
Yet Mr. Garmin was saying there was a road in front of us.
There was not.
It was a coin-toss decision. A shared “I don’t know, which way do you think, right or left?”
The decision was for a left turn, and off we went, believing there was a winery somewhere nearby and figuring we’d see vineyards, buildings…a sign of some sort? You know, some blatantly obvious clue telling us a winery was somewhere close by.
There was none of that, and in fact, the road began to climb again and entered into a thickly wooded area. No way there were any vineyards around here and I expected to see posted signs or markers identifying state land, but you know there I was thinking like a Yankee.
Then suddenly through the trees on the left, I could see a clearing set back a little, maybe around fifty feet in, and as we got closer we could see it was a dirt parking lot around a pretty nondescript white building. The building looked something like a small town’s village barn, the sort of place where a plow, dump truck, and other small equipment might be stored.
There was no great big garage door. Nothing around it that gave it that town lot feel. No big bucket loader, piles of gravel, stone, or sand. No sign identifying it as the town of something-or-other property. There was none of that. The appearance of this building was like the “church” in that it was sort of an odd building in this secluded location and one with a purpose that was difficult to determine.
Still, as weird and secluded as it seemed, as we neared the entrance to this lot we saw that there were about eight cars parked around the building. Not abandoned junkers, or cars waiting for repairs, but decent cars that appear to have been driven and parked there for something that was going on. Then we saw a sign. It was a winery, and the sign said there was a tasting that day!
It sure didn’t seem to be the winery that Mr. Garmin was pretending to try and help us find, but after the strange church and cemetery across the road, it was a welcome and kinda quirky pitstop. There may have been that warped storytelling voice in my head that whispered this is where the vampires keep the bodies hung for “milking”, but I ignored that voice.
It says lots of silly stuff.
So in we went, and I was quietly hoping it wasn’t me that would get “tasted” that day.
The entrance was a simple, windowless door, and inside was an unfinished barn-like interior. Overhead there were exposed beams and around there were support posts and small areas that looked like this building might have served its purpose for a small farm. You know, a smaller boxed-in space where a calf could be kept on a bed of straw, another to keep wheelbarrows and some rakes, shovels, and whatnots out of the way, a larger one where bales of hay might have been kept. No fresh folks hung by their ankle for any vampires to drain at their leisure.
The vampires’ leisure, I mean.
There were about a dozen people meandering about that looked to be customers, and a few that looked to be owner-employee types. A couple makeshift serving bar/sales counters were set up, one near the entrance and another across this space on the opposite side. There were plates with some typical “pairing” snacks and some tasting, actual wine tasting, was happening. So it looked like a legit wine-making operation. Small, but legit.
As my wife and I mingled and spoke to a couple of the folks that appeared to be attached to this winery, we discovered that they only open up for tastings like this two days out of the year, and we just happened to come across it on one of those days! An incredible coincidence, right? Moving around we met a few people, took a few sips, and nibbled a cracker or two to “cleanse the palette” or whatever the wine folks do.
While we’re doing this, I notice a thin, white-haired old dude relaxing in a simple wooden chair in an area off to the side, watching.
A couple of the younger employees stayed close, and they spoke a little to the little old man in the little wooden chair and he to them. While I know the resemblence was not a close one, the paintbrush that is my memory has created a charater that looked like William Hickey. He had played some wonderfully creepy roles in his time but I most remember him as Don Prizzi in Prizzi’s Honor and Uncle Lewis in National Lampoon’s Christmas.
During a conversation with a woman working at this winery, when we shared our “where we’re from stories”, my wife shared that she was originally from Sodus Point, N.Y. Pleasantly surprised, the woman said:
“Why (so-and-so) right over there is from Sodus! She’s been with us for several years!”
Near 500 miles away. Little old Sodus, NY. On the shores of lake Ontario. And here in this open only twice-a-year winery that we found accidentally.
Now how could we not talk to this person.
So, we did. It didn’t take long for my wife to get through the when did you graduate, and who do you know stuff, but most interesting was the where did you live question. My wife grew up in a white house that sat in front of a couple hundred acres of Girl Scout Camp called Camp Beechwood. Her father worked as caretaker of the camp and the house for he and his family to live in was part of the compensation, and of course it was right there close to the job.
Turns out that this woman had grown up in that same house before ending up at this winery.
Her father was the caretaker of Camp Beechwood before my wife’s father had become the caretaker.
It was at this moment my mind replayed that scene from The Shining where Delbert Grady is helping to dab a stain off of Mr. Torrence’s (played by Jack Nicholson) jacket. Torrence confront’s Grady about having been the caretaker previously, having “chopped your wife and daughter up into little bits, and then you blew your brains out,” but Torrence is a little drunk on ghost booze and just starting to realize that the secluded hotel he is in holds a lot of deep dark secrets and restless spirits.
Torrence tells Grady that he WAS the caretaker after Grady claims to not know anything about what Torrence is saying, insistently, in an I know this is true tone.
Grady responds: “I am sorry to differ with you sir. But YOU are the caretaker. You have always been the caretaker.”
It is just then that the little old man in the little wooden chair stands and announces that it’s time to go to the basement for a tasting.