A Spicy Virginia Wine Story

by Tamra Bolton

Everyone loves stories.  Whether they are epic tales of adventure and heroism or just family legends passed down through the generations, we all are drawn to the human drama played out in our lives and the lives of others.  Our family has many sagas of the bravery and high jinks of past generations simply because we took time to listen and pass those stories along.  That is one of the reasons why I think it’s important to share stories with you in my blog…especially those like the Danny and Nancy Johnson family of Bedford, Virginia.  Our national fabric is so much richer because of hard-working and dedicated people like those I found in this little valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Since the 1750’s this picturesque little corner of Virginia has been the home of the Johnson family.  In 1919, Danny Johnson’s father planted the first apple trees on his farm and now, this same farm has seen the 5th generation of Johnson family members working and tending the orchards.  With acres and acres of apple, peach and pear trees, and other fruit-bearing vines and bushes, the farm supplies most of the fruit the Johnsons use to make their extensive list of wines. If you go to the farm for a wine-tasting, you are in for an unusual treat. The normal wine-tasting etiquette goes out the window at the Johnsons Peaks of Otter winery.   The day I was there, I tried several of their most popular concoctions.   The “Chili Dawg”, requires a dollop of that cheese in a can stuff on the back of your hand…take a sip of the Chili Dawg wine and mix it with the cheese, you’d swear you were eating a real chili dog!  They also have a Margarita wine that you taste with the customary sprinkling of salt.  I loved the Blackberry Cobbler wine even though I don’t usually like sweet wines.  It tasted surprisingly like my Mother’s homemade cobbler.  One of the biggest surprises was a wine that combined my two favorite drinks, wine and coffee.  Danny’s Café Vino is a marvelously smooth blend which tastes like a latte with a kick.  He uses blonde coffee beans and takes the wine through numerous steps to get just the right balance of coffee flavor infused into the fruit based wine.   I was impressed.  Danny and Nancy’s most unusual flavor however, is their “Kiss the Devil Chili” wine.  Made with over thirty varieties of peppers, including the ghost pepper, this wine will literally take your breath away.  When I asked Danny about making this unusual wine, he admitted, “The fumes are dangerous when we are grinding and when it’s fermenting.  We have to keep the utensils we use separate, so the oil from the peppers doesn’t get into the other wines.  We have to constantly rack the pepper wine to remove the oil.  It’s quite a process.”  The end results are amazingly hot, but I have to admit…delicious!  That day, only two of us were brave enough to try “Kiss the Devil”.  My friend Rob and I downed a swig, no sipping with this one.  Talk about a burn!  Whew!  But, we did it and I’ve got the sticker to prove that I ‘kissed the devil’.  (I don’t know what my Mother would say about that.)

The inventiveness and playfulness that the Johnsons bring to their wine-making is contagious.  You can’t help but smile as they share their passion for their wines, their farm and their family.  They Johnson family mission statement says it all:  “To be good stewards of the land, the fruit, the community and the consumer.  To produce wines that are pleasant and fun to make, to taste, sell and drink.  To make all who come feel special, valued, appreciated and a part of this family farm.”

The Johnson Orchards also sponsor one of the most unusual wine festivals on the East Coast, the “Horse and Hound”.  Held on July 11 this year, this wine-tasting event features eight local wineries, beautiful gaited horse demonstrations, over fifty vendors, real country music, and events for your favorite hunting dog, like ‘muskrat racing’.  I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of muskrat and wine-tasting being used in the same sentence until now…no worries, no actual muskrats are harmed in this event.  If you’re looking for a fun place to spend some time and try some crazy wines, the Peaks of Otter Winery is the place to go.  The Johnsons even have an old time farmhouse that you can rent, if you want to stay a spell.  Sitting and rocking on a front porch with the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop sounds like my idea of a vacation!

By the time I left the farm that day, after wandering through the bountiful orchards and visiting with other family members as they went about their daily chores, I was convinced that the Johnson family truly lives by their mission.  They love their place in the world and love what they do.  What a wonderful legacy.

So the next time you’re sitting around a campfire or in a relative’s kitchen and someone says “have you heard the story about your grandfather and the day he ran his tractor into the pond? “, be sure to take the time to listen and say, “No, please tell me!”  You won’t be sorry you did…and neither will your kids.

Share part of your story this week.  Cheers!