The last time I headed out into the countryside to buy stone-ground grits, I rounded a curve and ran up on several dozen hot air balloons floating across the sky. This time, it was a curious combination of transplanted Italians and a Southern good-old-boy that derailed the grits train. What IS it about these grits?
This being autumn in North Carolina (I know I said that a month ago as well but we have long autumns around here) I decided to turn right and wander north toward the mountains after leaving the Amish store. There are more than a few vineyards and wineries in the area, and Raffaldini was a name I had heard recently that caught my interest. Most of our wineries have names like Shelton, RayLen and Rag Apple Lassie.
Having a vague idea of the location, I began looking for a pair of stone pillars that would denote the entry to Villa Raffaldini. And sure enough, just after crossing Highway 421 and making a left turn, there were my pillars, and there was the beautiful villa - off in the distance across a pristine meadow full of grazing cattle.
"Gorgeous", I said out loud as I slowed to make the turn into the entrance. Then I slammed on the brakes. The stone pillars bore a stylized logo made from the initials "JJ".
Oops. Wrong villa. But how many villas can there BE around here? The Yadkin Valley of North Carolina is known more for bucolic charm than for an abundance of grand estates. Then it dawned on me. "JJ" is Junior Johnson, aka "The Last American Hero", as the author Tom Wolfe christened him in a 1967 Esquire magazine article about his life.
Junior is a moonshiner turned race-car-driver, automotive genius turned chicken farmer, and without question a world-famous-living-legend. When they opened the NASCAR Hall of Fame this past May, Junior was there as one of the inaugural inductees. They made a movie about his life. Jeff Bridges played the part.
And I had very nearly just thrown on the blinker and blissfully sailed up his driveway in search of a good bottle of wine. From what I know of Junior, he would graciously have tried to oblige me. But more about Junior in a minute.
Disaster averted, I did find Villa Raffaldini about five minutes later, and it didn't disappoint.
The Raffaldini family have been making wine in Italy since the 1300's. A few years ago they decided to bring their vines and their Old World techniques to America, and a spectacular hillside in North Carolina is where they landed.
I spent the rest of the day enjoying the vineyards and the vistas, finally turning toward home with a bottle of Raffaldini Pinot Grigio and some of their hand-crafted Sangiovese Marinara Sauce under my arm.
On the way back, I enjoyed the view of Junior's front yard as I remembered one of my favorite Junior Johnson stories, told by the writer Tom Higgins. There was a press conference, and an upstart reporter dismissively asked Junior, since he was in the racing business, if he was in the habit of going to the automotive engineers in Detroit for advice on building his racing engines. Junior didn't blink an eye. "No", he said, "but they come to me..."
I have never tasted any of Junior's brew. He's back in the moonshine business but I don't know why in the world. Between the racing and the chickens, he's done all right. So I can't say for sure which product is better - the hooch or the wine. But I do know that mixed with a little bit of "let's see where this road goes" and a nice dose of sunshine, they both make for a fine Saturday afternoon.
Thanksgiving is rolling our way, but this was a week for a different kind of "thank you". Yesterday was Veterans Day. I have found myself laughing and crying as my various Facebook and email friends and I have celebrated the lives of the veterans we know and love - and those that we lost too soon. One of the sweetest guys I ever knew - my friend Spencer Sigmon - never made it home from Vietnam. He only had a month left. My friend Paul Lawing never made it home from there, either. My first husband - Ronnie Williams - did make it home - with three Purple Hearts. We remembered all of these and I laughed and I cried. Laughed when I remembered the time in high school when the cheerleaders were all at the beach together, and in the middle of the night we heard someone rattling our window screen. It was Spencer. We sneaked him in through the window and he crawled into bed with ALL OF US - such a flirt. He never made a wrong move. We all hung out together until daylight - drifting in and out of sleep - until we sneaked him back out the window and on his way. The chaperones were oblivious. So I cried for Spencer, who gave us his life, and for Paul, who would probably have been elected governor, had he lived, and for Ronnie, who gave me a son, even though our lives took separate paths after that. Each in their own way, they gave me a portion of the days that I enjoy in my own life - the freedom that I have to go to the polls on Election Day and vote, the blessings of being able to lay my head down on the pillow at night without worry of danger, the freedom to complain about my packed schedule, my deadlines, the onslaught of cold weather which I do not love, the license to complain about the fleeting nature of the clock and the calendar. So silly and selfish of me. Honor is their due - and laughter and tears are my offerings of thanks to them.
Dang those deadlines. I have been under one this week, trying to finish several images for a new calendar. I've been sitting here waiting for creative inspiration to strike - that little pixie-dust-sprinkled lightning bolt that pops you in the head and causes you to see stars and hear Aretha Franklin singing at full throttle. Not happening. Then my friend Teresa Kogut posts on Facebook that she has set herself a little goal of one painting every day this week, and all of a sudden the green flag drops. I'm not exactly hearing Aretha, but I AM hearing a voice in my ear saying "green green green". (For you non-NASCAR fans, it's a racing term for GO). That was all I needed. With a quick "you're on" to Teresa on FB, I was off and running. Four days later, I have four new images (one of which is above) - and so does Teresa. You go, girl - and thanks for the kick in the pants!
Happy Countdown Friday
Today's count is 330
A year from now you will wish you had started today.