For those of you that follow our blog, it should come as no surprise to you that I’m an unabashed nerd when it comes to Civil War history and artifacts. As such, I would like to dedicate this article to a delightful “nerd moment” that I recently experienced at The Winery at Bull Run.
Not just “another wedding”
The typical wedding usually involves some combination of a DJ (i.e. a grown man with a laptop awkwardly reliving his glory days in a very public way), men wearing tuxes that shouldn’t be wearing tuxes, a photographer that believes they are from an elite paparazzi hit squad, and a wedding planner that is obviously related to the Soup Nazi; all roaming about a gimmicky event space. So, when my wife and I were summoned to a wedding in Centerville, Virginia, I wasn’t overly excited.
When traveling, I always make it a point to visit historical sites – especially those of Civil War significance. This trip was no different. On the day of the wedding, I subjected my favorite in-laws to hiking and touring the Manassas National Battlefield Park. History-fix complete, I was content heading into the evening’s wedding festivities. After stuffing myself into my wedding/funeral/church/business suit, we were on our way.
As we drove up the long gravel driveway that led to The Winery at Bull Run, the ruins of an old stone house appeared in the distance. Several neat rows of white folding chairs were positioned in front of the ruins, indicating where the wedding ceremony was going to take place. Beyond the ruins, rows-and-rows of grape vines stretched across the rolling hills of the property. The vineyard was flanked by a building dressed with old barn wood, painted red.
As we made our way up the hill to the barn-wood paneled tasting room, we passed by the ruins. I immediately noticed several placards positioned in front of the stone foundation of where the house once stood. The signs were identical to those that you would expect to see at a national park or museum.
Curiosity peaked, we headed into the tasting room. When the doors opened, it was if “The Orgy” from Conan the Barbarian was playing in the background. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Situated throughout the tasting room were countless displays of Civil War relics and other historical artifacts. As I meandered throughout the room (with delicious wine in-hand), I noticed that all of the artifacts were either found on the property or in the areas surrounding the vineyard. Each artifact was displayed alongside impeccable descriptions of provenance. This attention to detail told me that the proprietor was a serious collector and a good steward of American history. To learn more about this collector would have to wait for another time, as there was a wedding to attend.
Once I returned home the following day, I decided to do some digging into the owner of The Winery at Bull Run. I wanted to know more about the vineyard, the artifact displays, and the reasoning for combining the two. After a few pleasant email exchanges, Jon Hickox and I connected to discuss those questions, and more. Here’s what we uncovered.
Mentorship and the remodeling business pave the road to a winery
As a youngster, Jon worked as a carpenter under the tutelage of a tough World War 2 veteran. Like many others from The Greatest Generation, he came home from the war barely able to rub two pennies together. In addition to showing Jon how to build just about anything, he also mentored the young man. He taught Jon the value of hard work, taking care of every nickel earned, and how to invest wisely.
As Jon pursued his college education, he went to work for a remodeling company as an estimator. This experience helped him hone his sales and marketing skills. Combined with his personal experiences as a builder, he found that he connected with homeowners better than the guys that were just “salespeople.”
With those newfound skills, experiences, and confidence, Jon solicited the help from a friend and started his own remodeling business. Nearing graduation, Jon was faced with a decision: (1) join the Marines, (2) get a job, or (3) take a leap of faith and continue building his own business. After consulting with his Father, he decided to move forward with his remodeling business. Soon thereafter, he bought-out his partner and dedicated his future to the growth of his business, Colonial Remodeling.
As Jon found success in the remodeling market, he was always mindful of the lessons learned through his childhood mentor. When business was good, his mentor always invested in land. Having seen the fruits of this approach firsthand, Jon began reinvesting his profits back into his business and into land purchases.
One such purchase came in 2008 when he bought 225 acres of land adjacent to Manassas National Battlefield Park. The location was perfect – it was close to Washington D.C., directly accessible from a major state highway, and next to a National Battlefield Park.
His original vision for the land was to create a cozy bed and breakfast that would provide a convenient escape for the city dwellers of D.C. He also considered the idea of planting a small vineyard and opening an adjoining winery. He decided to take-on the project himself, clearing land on weekends and researching vineyards, grapes, winemaking, and the wine business at night.
The Norton grape, born in Virginia
In 2010, Jon made the leap of faith and planted his first vines on the property, starting with the true American grape, the Norton. In addition to the 8 acres of Norton vines onsite, Jon also purchased a 115-acre property in Rappahannock County, and planted the Rock Mill Vineyard. There, in the more accommodating altitudes, 8 additional varietals are grown. The Rock Mill Vineyard is home to 42 acres of vines including Chardonnay, Petit Verdot, Chambourcin, Traminette, Merlot, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Norton Story
Jon chose the Norton grape for the vineyards located at The Winery at Bull Run for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s truly “America’s Grape” – with its origins deeply rooted in Virginia history.
The creation of the Norton vine was spurred-on by one of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson spent an enormous amount of time and effort in his quest to find a grape that could produce a wine to rival those of the Old World. He wasn’t alone. Toward the end of his life, a man by the name of Dr. Daniel Norton was immersed in crossbreeding experiments in his Richmond, VA lab. Through his experiments, Dr. Norton discovered that one vine was perfectly suited for the tough Virginia soil.
In the years that followed, the Norton grape (named after Dr. Norton) became commercially available; and during the 1830’s, the vine found a home in America’s wine capital, Missouri! Thanks in large part to the German immigrants who founded Missouri, the Norton was selected as the dominant varietal due to its hardiness. Able to thrive in harsh conditions and nearly impervious to disease, the Norton took off.
Norton wine soon spread across the United States and Europe. In fact, in 1873, Norton wine won the gold medal in the international exhibition in Vienna! Imagine that, a bunch of Old World wine snobs awarded a gold medal to a Virginia-born grape and a Missouri-bred wine!
When Prohibition hit in 1920, the Norton and other wine grapes were pulled up and replaced with the Concord grape and other commercially viable crops. With the exception of a few small vineyards in Missouri and Virginia, the Norton had seemingly vanished from the wine market when Prohibition ended in 1933.
With such a rich American and “Ole Virginny” story, Jon knew what grape he wanted to anchor his vineyard and winery.
A unique blend of history, nature, and wine
The Winery at Bull Run is only a stone’s throw away from the “Stone Bridge”, famously associated with the Battle(s) of Bull Run (the name used by Union forces) or Manassas (the name used by Confederate forces). In the development of the property, Jon paid close attention to preserving the 1800s character of the site.
The old stone and chimney of a former estate house (Entwisle Estate) were salvaged. The remnants of the house and chimney provide a breathtaking venue for scenic pictures, and the reason for my trip, a wedding. The tasting room was built with hand-hewn beams and paneled with worn, vintage barn wood. Outside the tasting room lies a stone patio that was carefully constructed with the salvaged stone from the estate house.
Civil War artifacts with immaculate provenance
Once inside the tasting room, visitors are greeted by numerous displays featuring Civil War artifacts, many of which were recovered from the property and unquestionably associated with the Battle(s) of Bull Run. Nearly every artifact on display was personally recovered by Jon, while others were purchased from friends and other local artifact hunters.
The fact that Jon has personally recovered the artifacts or acquired them directly from locals, each item comes with immaculate provenance. This fact was not lost on me. Jon has made it a priority to document everything he finds and only purchases artifacts from those from whom he knows well. All of this was proudly displayed for visitors to enjoy.
When asked about his attention to detail, Jon stated that
“It’s my responsibility to preserve our history for others to enjoy, but more importantly, learn from. This is true not only for the people of today, but for future generations. So many artifact collectors think because they know what something is; or where it was found, that such knowledge will somehow transfer to the next owner. Sadly, this just isn’t true.”
Once visitors make their way beyond the old estate ruins, walk past the stone patio, and stroll through the Civil War artifact displays, they arrive at the serving area of the tasting room. There, the wine begins to flow!
On my visit, the wedding organizers generously furnished all the wine we could drink…. and then some! I gravitated to the reds and really enjoyed the Cabernet Sauvignon, Meritage, and of course, the Norton!
With Norton’s unique history, and the fact that the wine it produces is delicious, “The Norton” is The Winery at Bull Run’s second strongest seller. The first? Well, as Jon quickly explained, “sugar sells!” The best-selling wine is “Delaney” – a sweet white wine named after Jon’s oldest daughter.
So what is Jon’s favorite wine? The fact that he’s a sucker for a good story and a Virginia history enthusiast, makes the answer to that question a no-brainer – the Norton!
Jon has been recognized for his wines and his stewardship of Virginia history, especially that of the Civil War. Most folks would stop, bask in the accolades, and drink more wine; but not Jon. His work is not done.
Still a history loving kid at heart, Jon envisions an historical play land for grownups. On the drawing board is the addition of a historically accurate Virginia plantation built with wood and fixtures dating to the 1800’s. Located inside the plantation house will be a Civil War museum filled with artifacts associated with the nearby battle and surrounding battles, skirmishes, and troop movements. There’s also strong consideration for the addition of a micro-brewery as well.
Make the trip
My wife and I plan to visit again the next time we’re in the area; not only for the wine and history, but also to say hello to a new friend. If you would like to visit the winery, they provide many different tasting and tour experiences. Visit their website to learn more and to buy a bottle (or two) of Virginia wine! And when you do visit, tell Jon we said hello!