A return to the Banner Elk Winery for a weekend where wine flows like water and bacon grows on trees.
When we stumbled upon the Banner Elk Winery and Villa last May, we felt like we had discovered some incredible secret. Who knew that such amazing mountain bliss was hidden so close to home? While we were there watching spring breathe life into the mountain air, we couldn't help but wonder what this mountain oasis must look like in the fall.
I love Fall. When the mornings start to turn crisp and cool and the smell of burning leaves and overripe pears is bursting heavy on the air and the leaves start to dazzle against the brilliant blue sky, I launch into some kind of major cozy nesting mode.
For me autumn ushers in a delicious time filled with perfect orange pumpkins and bright purple mums. I buy decorating magazines and bring stems of yellow leaves inside and watch them curl at the edges as I whip up hot cocoa and roast marshmallows for s’mores by the outdoor fireplace. I bake pies, I string orange slices with cranberries and cinnamon sticks, I make spiced pear rum. My inner Martha Stewart takes over for about two months.
Except that, unlike Martha, I am much nicer and I see nothing wrong with using a microwave or eating cold pizza out of a delivery box.
That's why, only days after returning home last spring, we knew we had to return in fall. I could only imagine what such a cozy and satisfying retreat would become under the early frosty fingertips of autumn. So, on June 1st, we booked a weekend in October.
We have been eagerly awaiting it ever since.
While Western North Carolina isn't exactly known internationally for its wines, it is known for the beauty of its mountains, especially in the fall.
It was the absolute peak of leaf season when we made the winding drive back up to Banner Elk, jaws dropping as every turn of the road carried us higher into more brilliant color. We were back and it couldn’t have been more beautiful.
When we drove past this field of pumpkins, I had to jump out and touch one. Having grown up in the city, I am still smitten with glee whenever I see an untended pumpkin patch. In my mind, pumpkins are birthed at the grocery store, just before I pick them up and put them in my buggy. (It's very similar to my belief that the meat I eat has never actually been a part of a living thing, but is somehow produced in that styrofoam tray, complete with the plastic wrap and price sticker. To think otherwise would probably result in my never eating meat again.)
Undomesticated pumpkins. Who knew?
Okay, other than farmers and people who live near farmers.
Having worked up an appetite romping through the pumpkin patch, we headed to the Mast Farm Inn in Valle Crucis. There we found Simplicity, the inn's intimate, award winning restaurant.
Simplicity strives to create a slower, more authentic dining experience, using local ingredients or farm fresh items from their very own garden whenever possible.
I love what the restaurant has to say about itself, "We want to make the home made food your Grandmother used to make if you lived on a farm in North Carolina when you were 6 years old, and when she won all the blue ribbons at state fairs, and every day you got to sample the new things. Once in twenty times she may have dropped the ball. But 19 times it was somewhere between “very good” and “Heavenly Choirs at Mull Of Kintyre” because it was a simple expression of respect, caring and culinary craftsmanship also known in these parts as 'real good cookin.'"
Simplicity was very much like dining at my grandmothers, except that my grandmother favored Jim Beam and Wild Turkey. Apparently, Simplicity's grandmother favors moonshine.
Yes, in addition to all that wholesome down home real good cookin', there was moonshine.
Now, we aren't talking your backwoods moonshine made by a toothless Uncle Innis with his overalls and dirty hands, unconcerned about the occasional squirrel falling into the mix. Legal moonshine is becoming quite chic in the south and you can drink it with no fear of ingesting manure, embalming fluid, bleach, rubbing alcohol or paint thinner and you have little to no chance of going blind or passing out and waking up to find yourself naked (or as they say in these parts, nekkid) in a tree.
Although to some people, that would describe a successful Saturday night.
I decided to try the Carriage House strawberry infusion. It came out all sophisticated and lovely, with a little 'shine soaked strawberry delicately draped across the top. Girl, this was sissy moonshine. Fancy pants stuff. Nothing like the clear liquid that I’d previously had poured out of a jar that came from the trunk of a car in Newport, TN. In my mind this was going to taste a lot like strawberry jam, maybe with a little oomph.
Pretty it may have been, but it went down exactly like moonshine. You can dress up a pig, but you still can't take it to a tea party. No matter how gussied up it was, it tasted like strawberry infused lighter fluid. I felt like I had just swallowed a mason jar full of bees and gasoline and they were both now stinging their way down my esophagus. I am also about 99% certain that a flame blew out of my nose.
Oh my dear sweet lord, I can't even imagine what this stuff would taste like with a little embalming fluid and squirrel crap added into the mix to give it an extra “kick.”
I tried to cool the fire that was now burning in my belly by immediately consuming large quantities of Simplicity's crab, artichoke, and brie gratin. It came with crispy shredded kale and crispy slices of a fresh baguette. That did the trick quite nicely.
That was followed with the PBLT, the Mast Farm Inn cured pork belly, fried green tomato, peanut collard slaw, smoked Gouda cheese, and an over-easy organic egg served on a sourdough baguette with farm fries and mustard seed aioli. It came with a side of fingerling potatoes.
We took some time to wander around Valle Crucis before heading back up the mountain to the winery.
When we arrived at the Banner Elk Winery, she was decked out in all her autumn finery. We made our way through the pumpkins and fall flowers to do our complimentary tasting at the winery and snag a bottle to take back to our room.
Our room was AH-Mazing with a capital Ahhhhhhhh.
We went for a fireplace suite this time and we were not disappointed. The room was huge, with two sitting areas, the world's most comfortable bed, a super cozy fireplace, and a stellar view of the mountains as they put on their finest display of color. The Villa was just as spectacular as we remembered it, with amazing attention to detail and lavish room appointments. We had a separate entrance that took us to a small porch outside, but we could also walk out our room door and were located just off the warm common rooms and the kitchen.
The Villa at the winery does not have an "inn" or "hotel" feel to it to me. When I am there, and I step out of my room to walk to the kitchen in my socks and sweats to grab a cup of coffee, I feel more like I am at a really good friend's house. A really rich, good friend who has lots of wine and great taste in decorating.
The atmosphere at the Villa is comfortable and inviting and spending time there is absolutely delightful.
Because this weekend was pretty much about good food and wine (with the occasional shot of moonshine), we had made reservations at Artisanal Restaurant. It blew us away the last time and we wanted to see if it could do it again.
Artisanal is small and only has an open season that is a few months long, so you are required to make a reservation using your credit card and you will be charged $35 per person for canceling without at least 48 hours notice. So imagine the quandary that was created when we found a handwritten note from Chef Jackie in our room saying that the owners of the inn wanted to give us a free private dinner in our room that night.
The only thing I love more than food is free food.
But it's not exactly free if you have to pay $70 to cancel a reservation.
What to do? What to do?
There wasn't even anyone around to talk to, as the inn isn't always staffed with an innkeeper. There was no phone number on the note, so we had no way to contact Chef Jackie.
I wandered out into the common area and got lucky. I saw Jackie coming out of the kitchen. Whew! Turns out that she had a conflict that night and preferred that we do the dinner the next night anyway, so we were able to salvage our originally planned evening and still take advantage of the dinner she was going to make for us. She was able to go home and have dinner with her boyfriend for his birthday.
Everyone was happy!
Well…almost everyone. But more on that later.
Artisanal was just as warm and beautiful as we remembered...and we were thrilled to see that they still served the cute little mini cornbread while we were waiting, although this time it also came with some little scones.
I started off with a small plate that had fresh milk mozzarella, tomato, prosciutto, and a small arugula salad. Matt decided to try their highly acclaimed flash fried calamari with a sweet soy glaze and Asian slaw. The owner of Artisanal has said that "people eat with their eyes first," and each plate at Artisanal is a work of art.
When I saw the words "Lobster Bolognese" on the menu, I needed to look no further. I love lobster. I love pasta bolognese. I couldn't wait to see how they combined the two. It was incredible. Light on the noodles and heavy on the huge chunks of tender, sweet lobster. Matt had the grouper, which looked almost good enough to convince me to let him have a bite of my lobster, but not quite. I don't give up lobster that easily.
Everything had been delicious and beautifully presented, so of course we had to go for dessert. One of the things I love about Artisanal are the portion sizes. They are substantial enough to leave you satisfied, but not so large that you can’t sample several courses.
Matt had a pear tart with caramel and vanilla bean ice cream.
I ordered the house donuts with powdered sugar and chocolate sauce....and while it was yummy to my tummy.....it looked a little…….. odd.
If people eat with their eyes first, my eyes just got violated. This dessert gave a whole new meaning to "food porn."
What was the pastry chef thinking? Seriously....where was he going with all that chocolate sauce and all those balls and that.....that......that trajectory of cream. Lord love a duck.
It was just wrong.
Of course I ate it anyway, but the deliciousness of it in no way made up for the wrongness of it.
The Banner Elk Winery and Villa is one place where you literally can't wait to go to bed. Even if you haven't just eaten a plate of balls and shooting cream. The beds are crazy comfortable. The mattress, the sheets, the down comforter, the plush pillows....all of it is perfectly engineered to create a white cloud of bliss for guests to sleep in.
It was hard to pull ourselves out of that cozy cloud the next day, but we could smell breakfast wafting in and no one can resist the smell of bacon forever.
It was over an outstanding breakfast of cinnamon rolls, fried potatoes, an endless bowl of bacon, and eggs inside a buttery slice of toasted french bread that Chef Jackie told us what happened the night before.
Apparently there was a mix-up. Our free dinner was supposed to be a gift card to the delicious local Italian restaurant, Sorrento’s. The private in-room dinner was intended for a couple in another room for their anniversary. Someone had gotten the names mixed up.
Yes. I had inadvertently cancelled their anniversary dinner and sent their chef home.
Jackie felt bad. I felt bad. The couple that was now on their way home without their dinner no doubt felt bad.
I consoled myself by eating more bacon.
The day was cool and we had a warm fire, so we spent the entire morning lounging inside.
Remember the birthday picnic in May? It was so perfect, that Matt insisted we do a repeat, despite the fact that it was a good 20 degrees cooler and the wind was blowing hard enough that the birds were going backwards.
We bundled up and headed to the upper vineyard.
There had been a wedding and the ground was littered with rose petals. There were delicate wreaths of dried flowers on the rustic arbor. The view stretched forever and mother nature put on her best show with a blue sky dotted with white puffy clouds and hills draped in every shade of red, orange, and burning gold that the eye could register. We had sandwiches and wine and a cozy blanket.
As we pulled up and parked, I envisioned us curled up on a blanket dotted with rose petals, sipping red wine and feeding each other strawberries as we marveled at the majesty of the sunshine and the beauty of the leaves.
Instead, I stepped out of the car and blew about 2 feet to the left. Undaunted and refusing to give up on my romantic outing, I set up our picnic the best I could. I thought about tying myself to the arbor so that I didn’t blow away with the napkins. We poured the wine and I am pretty sure it was white capping inside my wine glass.
And it was cold.
You know how…. when you have plans or an idea and it doesn’t quite go like you wanted….. it takes a long time for you to admit that it’s a bust and throw in the towel? I’m not sure how long Matt and I sat up there in the windy cold, trying to eat, each of us pretending it was magical, when it was just plain awful.
My hair kept blowing in my mouth and as I sat trying to pick out some chewed up bread that got mixed in with it, Matt looked at me and said, “Have we had enough?”
You can pack a pretty picnic, but you can’t control the weather.
We practically raced back to the car.
It was pretty easy because we had a good tailwind.
One of the things I like best about staying at the Banner Elk Winery and Villa – it’s not only okay to sit around mid-day and drink a bottle of wine, it’s practically expected.
After some wine and warming up by the fire, we decided to get out for a bit. We made the scenic drive to Linville, home of the Old Hampton Store. The Old Hampton Store was built in 1921 as a stopping place on the old Eastern Tennessee Western North Carolina railroad. Mountain folk from the area came to the general store to buy their food, clothing, farm tools, hardware, and general necessities. Today, it retains its quaint, old fashioned charm and is a good place to stock up on grits and flour ground in their grist mill, if you need any.
We bought some honey, candy-by-the-pound, and sweet potato butter. I have plenty of grits.
Because we now had a Sorrento’s gift card, we decided to pay the cozy Italian eatery a visit. When we stepped inside, it was warm and lit with the soft glow of candles. The kitchen was open and as we sipped cocktails at the bar while waiting for our table, we were able to watch the pizza chef toss the dough as he made one of their house made pies. I knew right then that we’d be having a pizza.
In Vicki’s World, there is absolutely nothing wrong with pizza as an appetizer.
We followed the pizza with pasta.
Matt had the spaghettini with meatballs and I opted for the rigatoni Bolognese. I told you I love Bolognese.
We followed the pizza and pasta with a healthy slice of NY Cheesecake. In Vicki-Speak, that was a Trifecta of Italian Dinner Perfection.
With a belly full of carbohydrates and cheese, I could not have gone to bed happier.
I love a place that doesn’t scrimp on the bacon, and when we awoke the second morning to the delightful smell of frying bacon AGAIN, I was ecstatic. Everything is better with bacon. The only thing that could make bacon better is if you topped it with bacon.
Chef Jackie made us pancakes and eggs with cinnamon rolls, potatoes, and more BACON.
I dig the pig.
We didn’t want to leave the cozy fall oasis of the winery, so we stayed until check-out before saying our final good-byes.
On our previous trip, one of the guest chefs had told us about a restaurant he was sure we would love. It was called “Knife and Fork” and was a short drive from Banner Elk in nearby Spruce Pine. We decided we’d have lunch there before heading home. This gave us a chance to drive a portion of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and check out nearby Grandfather Mountain before leaving.
The drive was perfect. It was a weekday, so there was no traffic along the Parkway and the leaves were at their best. It was literally an explosion of color and blue sky, and tiny leaves fell along the road as we cruised like golden rain.
How many of you are old enough to remember Legend, that really bad 1985 fantasy movie starring Tom Cruise as a half naked hero trying to save the last unicorn in a world full of goblins and fairies? Yes, I am on a tangent here, but there is a point. Hang with me. We’ll get there.
If you have not seen it, go out and get it right now. Yes, it was an epic movie fail in serious Dune fashion, but no one’s life is complete without seeing Tom Cruise battle the Lord of Darkness in a pair of hot pants and chainmail.
Anyway, there is a scene in the movie where they see the unicorns and the light is golden and illuminated bits are dancing about in the air and everything has a soft, quiet glow that seems magical and perfect. That’s how the drive was.
Wow. It sure took me a long time to get there, didn’t it?
I really just wanted to talk about Tom Cruise in hot pants.
Now back to the leaves. They put on quite the show.
We could have driven that way forever, or at least until the parkway ended and we found ourselves in someplace like Oconaluftee buying a pair of moccasins.
Instead we pulled into the quaint little town of Spruce Pine, NC and wandered into the Knife and Fork. Knife and Fork takes pride in the fact that it sources nearly all of its ingredients and products from local suppliers. The menu changes frequently so that they can make use of the freshest ingredients and always have seasonal offerings.
Numerous scientific studies (way too numerous to mention here) conducted by major ivy-league universities, as well as other highly respected scientific research institutions and generally smart people, have demonstrated that wine is good for your health in many ways.
So I had the wine.
I also had the butternut squash soup with an arugula side salad and their version of grilled cheese. This sandwich put the Sunbeam bread and pasteurized processed cheese food slices of my childhood to shame. To call that grilled cheese is inadequate. It was a warm, chewy, crispy, buttery, cheesy party for my tastebuds.
Matt had the K+F burger, and while it looked pretty amazing, the show stopper were those crispy potatoes. I am not even sure what they had done to them, but they were crazy crispy and maddeningly good.
We couldn’t end the trip without dessert, so we decided to share a piece of pumpkin pie with ice cream.
I thought about all those little pumpkins in the field the other day and wondered if I had just made someone an orphan.
Alas, our weekend of leafy bliss was over and it was time to head back to the world where we get up at 6:00 a.m. , where bacon doesn’t show up like magic every morning, and where a glass of wine at lunch on a weekday is a good way to get an Employee Assistance Program brochure.
Until next time….