WORK TRAVEL LAST FALL TOOK ME for the first time to Asheville, North Carolina, the city in the craggy, western band of the state that runs between Tennessee and South Carolina. On a cool weekday morning, I drove for 90 minutes up Highway 74 out of sprawling Charlotte, encountering the famous, smoky-blue mountain vistas as the road climbed to Asheville—weird for a native Angeleno accustomed to gazing upon the smoggy-brown San Gabriels—and arrived at my friends Virginia and Richard’s home in Arden, a woodsy suburb on the south side of town. I briefly caught up my hosts on the latest from Napa Valley, where they’d lived for years before deciding to return to their native Southeast. Then I headed out for the day to play California wine ambassador.
The agenda my friend and colleague, Gwen, had arranged for our two days together included stops at several of the more unique bars, restaurants, and retail shops I visited during all of last year. I knew before I got on the plane in Oakland that Asheville had a reputation as “Beer City, USA.” By extension, I figured there would be opportunities to sample some North Carolina chopped pig and a brown liquor concoction or two, and maybe listen to some live music (I wouldn’t be disappointed). But the level of wine appreciation I witnessed was something of a surprise, though maybe it shouldn’t have been.
Asheville is a picturesque, postcard-ready city of a little over 80,000 with a UNC campus, a minor league baseball team, and a tree-lined downtown that reminds me of the neighborhood around Shattuck and University Avenues in Berkeley. It’s perhaps most notable for its connection to the Vanderbilt family, whose scion, the imperial-sounding George II, built a chateau in the 1880s on a huge swath of land at the south end of town. He named it Biltmore Estate, an original Dutch-English moniker to honor his patrician heritage. To call Biltmore House “big” is almost comic understatement; it’s the largest single-family home in the United States, with a wide-angle façade worthy of any Loire Valley castle. Near the entrance to the estate, George 2 had a village laid out to house the workers he employed to build his mansion. Today, Biltmore Village is a section of Asheville and a charming little town-within-a-town. But before the city grew to absorb it in the early 1900s, it was a true village—a Craftsman shire, if you will, filled with Vanderbilt’s craftsmen and surrounded by misty mountains. Continue reading