Apple of My Eye
Naturalists, artists and food lovers converge in Sperryville, a quaint town that was once home to a bountiful apple trade.
Seekers of rural pleasures will find that the placid farm village of Sperryville, Va., owes much of its appeal to a man and a mountain. In 1972, in a well-weathered farmhouse just south of town, a budding chef opened a catering business, relying on a wood-burning stove and an electric fry pan as his principal kitchen equipment. Directly across the road from the chef’s fledgling operation lay the trailhead for one of the most popular uphill climbs in the mid-Atlantic region.
That would be Old Rag Mountain Trail, a strenuous, rock-hopping and often crowded, nine-mile circuit hike with exceptional vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park, which draws more than 50,000 hikers each year. And the chef? He is none other than Patrick O’Connell, proprietor of The Inn at Little Washington, located six miles from Sperryville in the precious town of Washington, which is now an internationally acclaimed, farm-to-table dining destination with luxury accommodations.
But there is more to the area than foie gras and blistered heels. When the hungry hikers finish their treks, and O’Connell’s pampered diners seek more affordable (or available) rooms for the night—and perhaps a little antiques shopping, or a farm or winery tour—humble Sperryville is the perfect base for further exploration. On the banks of the Thornton River, there is every reason to rusticate.
It was the town’s proximity to the park; the open space; the quirky mix of artists, farmers and escapist urban professionals; and yes, O’Connell’s famed Inn, which lured me to Sperryville more than 25 years ago. I found the perfect property in a deep, forested hollow near town and have been driving down on weekends ever since.
The bucolic lifestyle is a welcome change of pace from the hustle and bustle of D.C. Locals take pride in the fact that Rappahannock County hasn’t a single stoplight or fast-food franchise. To keep it that way, a growing number of landowners are embracing conservation easements and preserving the area’s farming heritage.
There’s an endearing character to the place, which whispers of days past. On a walk into the hills, I find the occasional stone chimney or farm implement marking a homestead where generations of mountain men and their families once lived, many relying on income from the nuts and bark of American chestnut trees prior to the killing blight of the 1930s. Sealing the locals’ fate, the federal government in 1939 relocated 465 families beyond the boundaries of today’s Shenandoah National Park. Many of their kin now call Sperryville home.
Originally founded in 1820 as a stagecoach crossroads and pit stop, Sperryville provided access to the cross-mountain road through nearby Thornton Gap, cementing the area’s importance for travelers. Nearly 200 years later, the town’s businesses still rely on visitors for their livelihood. Spring and fall are the busiest times, but regardless of the season, this little hamlet packs some worthy diversions.
In every direction, there are repurposed remnants of what was once a booming apple industry—one that prompted the town to be nicknamed the “Little Apple.” In the newly named River District, a former cold-storage warehouse, spanning 30,000 square feet, is now home to Copper Fox Antiques, a purveyor of all things vintage, from ornate mirrors and Craftsman-style furniture to antique cash registers and cutlery sets made from stag antlers.
You’ll find the studios and work of more than a dozen local artists in a 1930s post-and-beam apple packinghouse (an artists’ collective now known as River District Arts). And a onetime apple juice factory has since been resurrected as Copper Fox Distillery, the maker of fine-sipping Wasmund’s single-malt whiskey.
Whether or not you touch the stuff, be sure to make your way to the distillery’s massive double doors. Owner Rick Wasmund, with an eye for unusual antique furnishings and art, has transformed his warehouse into a woodsy retreat. On a typical summer Saturday, 200 to 300 people take the on-the-hour tour, which starts in the barley aging room, moves to the chamber for apple and cherry wood smoking of the grains, and then continues on to fermentation, aging and bottling. The aromas throughout are, well…intoxicating.
Wasmund keeps the tour lively, with hands-on knowledge of spirit distillery and his own brand of humor. He’s ever ready to answer the inevitable “How did you get into this business?” question—at which point, out comes the deadpan tale of his recruitment by aliens, who were threatened with the destruction of their planet, Maltos. His salvation, he explains, is that he was able to provide the perfect place for pot-stilling the greatest whiskey in the universe. Up next is his current project in motion: Wasmund’s gin.
Out on the two-lane highway, which passes through town, funky (and mostly derelict) roadside stands, some still selling local fruit and the occasional velveteen wall-hangings of “The King,” give Route 211 the look of an apple-centric Appalachian souk. With no nod to consistency, in between the hovels, you will find a terrific coffee roaster with free tastings of select bean brews; and a relatively arcane gluten-free bakery, stocked with exceptional carrot cupcakes. I pop into both after picking up the morning newspaper at the more than 150-year-old Corner Store—a pivot point in the center of town for the latest local gossip.
Much of the credit for the renewal of Sperryville’s two-block-long Main Street goes to the Thompson family, who bought the Corner Store in 2001. With both visitors and locals in mind, the new owners gently restored and expanded the original store, leaving shelf space for Spam while making way for cases of imported and local cheeses, above-average grab-and-go sandwiches and more than 180 craft beers. Then up went two additions, bringing to the mix a tiny pizza parlor and a stellar, full-service restaurant.
The Thompsons’ cozy Thornton River Grille is now a favorite spot, where I occasionally join neighbors for, say, an exchange on the growing menace of stinkbugs, followed by my account of recurring visits from black bears, who are destroying my evergreen landscaping. For lunch, I recommend the bargain-priced garlicky mussels, hand-cut french fries and a crisp Caesar salad.
When evening comes, Chef Tom Nash’s fresh seafood specials never disappoint. (I often question the freshness of fish in small inland towns, but not at the Grille in Sperryville. The same fish purveyor delivers pristine goods to Patrick O’Connell’s five-star Inn down the road.)
Headed for an Old Rag morning hike? My advice: spend the night before in a local bed-and-breakfast. I could comfortably kick off my boots at Hopkins Ordinary in the center of town. Built in the 1820s as a tavern and inn for travelers, it provides wraparound porches on two levels that give every guest an outside space for a morning cup of coffee or a glass of wine as the sun sets over the Blue Ridge.
Or, for a truly agrarian experience, make a reservation at the nearby Inn at Mount Vernon Farm. Built in 1827 and still owned by the Miller family, the brick, Victorian-style inn stands as the centerpiece of the family’s holistically managed, 840-acre working farm. There, you can take a tour and learn about the advantages of rotating pastures for cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens—and later take home grass-fed beef, lamb, pork and free-range eggs, all of which are available in the farm store.
Each room in The Inn at Mount Vernon Farm has its own personality, with fine heirloom furnishings, natural stone baths, Italian linens and commanding portraits of ancestors presiding over fireplace mantels. My favorite is the very masculine “Brief Room.” It’s named in honor of the owner’s great-great-grandfather, the undergarment manufacturer Pleasant Henderson Hanes. (After all, “Gentlemen prefer Hanes.”)
Rested and ready, without the stress of a long morning drive, you can hit the Old Rag trail by 7 a.m. At that hour, you are sure to grab a coveted spot in the trailhead parking lot before the crowds find their way to Sperryville.
IF YOU GO
Sperryville is about 90 minutes from Arlington. Take I-66 west to Exit 43A at Gainesville. Merge onto U.S. 29 south to Warrenton. Then take U.S. 211 west into town.
Where to Stay
Hopkins Ordinary (47 Main St., Sperryville, 540-987-3383, www.hopkinsordinary.com). Built as a tavern and inn for travelers in the early 1820s, this casual and comfortable bed-and-breakfast in the center of town has five rooms with private baths, as well as a two-bedroom cottage, each with an outdoor porch. Most rooms have working fireplaces and all are furnished with antique beds and bureaus. Rates: $149-$259; includes full breakfast. Garden Cottage is $289 for the first night; $489 for two nights; $689 for three nights; and so on. There is free Internet access but no television. Dining is steps away at the Thornton River Grille.
The Inn at Mount Vernon Farm (147 Mount Vernon Lane, Sperryville, 800-765-0604, www.theinnatmountvernonfarm.com). Located on a hilltop above town and offering a spectacular panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this impeccably restored, five-bedroom Victorian-style brick farmhouse, the centerpiece of an 840-acre working farm, has been owned and maintained by the Miller family since 1827. Rooms have modern marble baths, flatscreen TVs, family heirloom furnishings and fine Italian bed linens. Rates: $249 to $379; includes full breakfast. A separate one-bedroom log cabin with kitchenette is available for $319-$379 per night (rates depend on the day of week). The property has a rustic barn for special events, a bocce court, hiking trails and a farm store stocked with Mount Vernon’s own grass-fed beef, lamb and pork.
Check the Rappahannock Bed & Breakfast Guild (www.bnb-n-va.com) for additional lodging options.
Where to Eat
High on the Hog (15 Main St., Sperryville, 540-987-8113). Barbecue master J.D. Hartman cherry-wood-smokes terrific pork, beef and chicken to perfection at his small, self-service café. Best on the menu is the succulent pulled pork, served as a sandwich ($8.25) or sold by the pound ($11.75, with four buns) for off-premise picnics. Tender meat falls from the bones of the smoky pork ribs ($25 per rack). Don’t overlook the lump crab cake sandwich ($11). Lucky weekend diners will find a table on the rear patio overlooking the Thornton River. Open Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The Inn at Little Washington (309 Middle St., Washington, 540-675-3800, www.theinnatlittlewashington.com). Visitors to Patrick O’Connell’s famed culinary mecca are in for a fantasy experience, from the entryway, decked with exquisite floral displays, to the behind-the-scenes after-dinner tour of one of the most stunning restaurant kitchens anywhere. Noted for its locally-sourced foods and 35 years of relationship building with area farmers, the Inn also offers the finest foie gras, caviar and truffles. Accolades for service, fine wines and creative American cuisine have brought O’Connell every culinary award. This is the mid-Atlantic’s top special occasion dining destination, and most patrons dress accordingly. The four-course dinner menu is $158 to $188 per person, depending on night of the week. Open for dinner Wednesday-Monday, by reservation.
Rudy’s Pizza (3710 Sperryville Pike, Sperryville, 540-987-9494, www.thorntonrivergrille.com). Situated at the crossroads of the town’s commerce district, little five-table Rudy’s produces enjoyable thin-crust New York-style pies from scratch with house-made dough and sauce, and fresh, select toppings. Prices range from $10 for a 14-inch small cheese pie to $21 for an 18-inch large pizza. Try the popular Hiker’s Special, with pepperoni, sausage, mushroom, red onion and green bell pepper. For groups, there is additional seating on the covered roof deck. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 3 to 9 p.m.
Thornton River Grille (3710 Sperryville Pike, Sperryville, 540-987-8790, www.thorntonrivergrille.com).The town’s main dining destination serves a great mix of locals and visitors in a laid-back, pine-paneled country bistro setting. Chef Tom Nash’s offerings include beautifully presented eggs Benedict and crisp salads of local greens at lunch, and refined entrées of steak and seafood ($11 to $30) each evening. If garlicky mussels ($10) are on the menu, have them. Reservations are recommended on weekends. Additional tables available Friday-Sunday on the roof deck. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 7:30 to 10 a.m. (breakfast); 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (lunch); and 5 to 9 p.m. (dinner). Sundays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (brunch) and 5 to 8 p.m. (dinner).
Corner Store (3710 Sperryville Pike, Sperryville, 540-987-8185, www.thorntonrivergrille.com). For more than 150 years, locals have relied on Corner for grocery shopping and the latest small-town news. Hikers and travelers will find quality grab-and-go sandwiches (look for Terri’s chicken salad) as well as fresh-baked bread and imported and local cheeses. Always on hand: a stellar selection of micro-brews. There are picnic tables in the herb garden behind the store.
Central Coffee Roasters (11836 Lee Highway, Sperryville, 540-987-1006, www.centralcoffeeroasters.com). Owner Maggie Rogers sources fair-trade, organic and cleanly produced coffee beans and roasts small batches on site. Sample six different coffees from the world’s coffee-growing belt at the free tasting bar. Select a 12-ounce bag of the beans of your choice in the shop, or take home several for a custom blend. (The Inn at Little Washington’s special blend is a combination of Sumatra and Peru.) Also available: Rogers’ own not-too-sweet granola and trail mix. Open Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Triple Oak Bakery (11692 Lee Highway, 540-987-9122, www.tripleoakbakery.com). Artisan pastry chef Brooke Parkhurst creates exceptional baked goods in her dedicated gluten-free bakery. Best-sellers are the light, two-bite vanilla bean cream puffs ($10 per dozen) and the moist chocolate mocha cake with coffee buttercream frosting ($5 per slice). Our favorites: the rich carrot cupcakes ($2 each) and flaky mixed-nut baklava ($2 per slice). Open Wednesday-Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Where to Shop
Copper Fox Antiques (7 River Lane, Sperryville, 540-987-8800, www.copperfoxantiques.com). An anchor of the town’s River District, this sprawling, 30,000-square-foot consignment emporium has an ever-changing stock of estate furniture, architectural salvage, Asian relics and books. Mid-century modern fans have their own area of the complex to explore for furnishings and accessories. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Haley Fine Art (42 Main St., Sperryville, 540-987-1000, haleyfineart.com). Whether you are in the market for fine art or not, Haley is worth a stop for the atmosphere alone. Gallery director Andrew Haley brings together the best contemporary regional artists in a broad range of styles in a mellow farmhouse setting. Open Thursday-Monday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Take a Hike
Shenandoah National Park (Headquartered at 3655 U.S. 211 East, Luray, 540-999-3500, www.nps.gov/shen). With more than 200,000 acres of protected parkland and 500 miles of trails, Shenandoah offers a lifetime of trekking possibilities. The park’s Thornton Gap entrance and access to the scenic, 105-mile Skyline Drive is seven miles from town. A vehicle pass (good for up to seven days) is $15. The trailhead for the park’s most popular hike, Old Rag Mountain, is 11 miles south of town. From the parking lot, the nine-mile circuit hike takes approximately seven hours (including time for lunch). Also popular is the six-mile Cedar Run loop to the six waterfalls of White Oak Canyon, which begins approximately 20 miles from town. The entrance fee at both trailheads is $8 per person. Check the independent resource www.hikingupward.com for up-to-date information on regional hiking attractions and conditions.
Distilleries, Vineyards, and Breweries
Copper Fox Distillery (9 River Lane, Sperryville, 540-987-8554, www.copperfox.biz).Spirit artist Rick Wasmund produces award-winning, hand-malted and apple-wood-aged single-malt and rye whisky, pot-stilled in small batches, one barrel at a time. Even teetotalers will enjoy the sights and aromas of the distillery, which is housed in a former apple juice plant. By law, tastings are not permitted, although there are on-site sales in the distillery store. Tours are offered Monday-Thursday at noon, 2 and 4 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday on the hour. Open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
MTO Kombucha (11763 Lee Highway, Sperryville, 540-860-4353, www.mtokombucha.com). Brothers and brewers Ryder and Trey Williams make naturally flavored kombucha—a fermented, tea-based beverage, which has purported health benefits. The top-selling four flavors are apple/cinnamon, ginger, mint and vanilla. Visitors can see the production process, try samples and purchase the finished product ($4 for a 16-ounce jar). Open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Gadino Cellars (92 School House Road, Washington, 540-987-9292, www.gadinocellars.com). Italian-inspired Gadino is a 15-acre small-production, family-run winery, best known for producing an earthy and mixed berry-influenced Cabernet Franc. A flight tasting of seven or eight of the house varietals is $5 per person and includes a souvenir glass. Relax on the large front deck overlooking the pretty vineyards and mountains beyond. The property also features two, no-fee, regulation-size bocce courts. Open Friday, Sunday and Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Wine lovers will also find a trio of fine wineries just north of Flint Hill, 11 miles from Sperryville. Worth a visit are: Chester Gap Cellars (www.chestergapcellars.com), Rappahannock Cellars (www.rcellars.com) and Linden Vineyards (www.lindenvineyards.com). Check www.visitrappahannockva.com for other options.
Walter Nicholls is the restaurant critic and Home Plate columnist for Arlington Magazine.