Rappahannock County: A Foodie Haven

A Spot Where Home Buyers Are Swayed By the Stomach

New York Times | September 12, 2003

‘WE see it happen three or four times every night,” said Patrick O’Connell, the chef and a co-owner of the ultra-luxurious Inn at Little Washington in tiny Washington, Va. ”They come, they eat dinner, they ask us where the nearest local Realtor is.”

This, apparently, is how a trend gets its start. Vacationers come to a place that occupies a rarefied spot in the culinary pantheon — in this case, the inn, located in Rappahannock County, in the gently rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, less than an hour and a half from Washington, D.C. They wallow in a fixed-price dinner (up to $148 a person) that features the bounty of a historically rich agricultural area — local hams, local cheeses, local rabbit, local fruits and vegetables, local wines. They look around, maybe explore the hiking trails in nearby Shenandoah National Park, or, in the fall, do some leaf-peeping on Skyline Drive. And then they say to themselves, ”Hey, I could live here.”

Thus has Rappahannock County started to emerge as a second-home paradise for foodies. Drawn by organic farms, artisan cheesemakers, abundant produce stands and the presence of Mr. O’Connell, culinary-minded home buyers have started to snap up weekend properties in the area, doubling real estate prices in the last five years.

”A house that might have cost $425,000 earlier this summer is now up to $525,000,” said Mitzie Young, of Real Estate III. ”Land is now getting up to $10,000 an acre — it’s the highest I’ve ever seen it.” (Five years ago, property in the most desirable locations was selling for about $5,000 an acre.) Recent sales, Ms. Young said, have included ”a great old Victorian” with a pool, set on 40 acres in the town of Washington, that sold for $1.5 million.

Kent Brownridge, general manager of Wenner Media, is a refugee from the New York country house scene. He gets on the Acela high-speed train nearly every Friday night from New York to head for the Rappahannock County farm he bought two years ago in Sperryville. ”I looked in Greene, Ulster, Columbia and Dutchess Counties,” he said. ”I came close a couple of times, but I never quite found the piece of property that was right. Now I have this wonderful farm with seven horses and four dogs.”

This part of Virginia has always been popular for homeowners, many of whom came for the tranquillity, the views, or the proximity to Civil War sites. But now everyone in the county — old-timer or newcomer — seems to have a gastronomic tidbit they just can’t wait to share: a favorite orchard, a pet cheesemaker, a guy over the mountain who has incredible rabbit, the place to pick asparagus or jostaberries. And tomorrow, the fifth annual Taste of Rappahannock, featuring locally produced wines, meats and vegetables, will be held in Sperryville, with tickets going for $125. But anyone planning a last-minute drop-by should forget it; the event is already sold out.

John Fox Sullivan, the publisher of The Atlantic Monthly and The National Journal, and his wife, Beverly Sullivan, have had a farm in Flint Hill, north of Washington, for 18 years, and they recently bought a second place — two small cabins joined together — in Washington itself. ”The county has been getting more attention in the last three or four years,” Mr. Sullivan said. ”Rappahannock is becoming chic. It’s a little bit like Sonoma County in California.”

Mr. Sullivan, like others in the area, gives much of the credit for the county’s heightened image to the Inn at Little Washington. The inn, during its 25 years of operation, has struck up relationships with farmers and purveyors, encouraging them to raise or produce items, from shiitakes to candied grapefruit rind, that they might have never dreamed of or made only for family tables.

”The people — the farmers and growers — were here before Patrick, but he was the only one who tapped into them,” said Carol Joynt, owner of the Georgetown restaurant Nathan’s, who recently bought and restored a tiny house in Washington. ”Patrick gave fuel to that culture. Some critics of the inn would say that its impact on the county has been overwhelming, but to me, it’s always had perfect pitch.”

The old-timers who were supplying the inn were joined in the 1970’s and 80’s by back-to-the-landers and organic farmers like John Burns, who has been raising organic produce at his Goat Hill Farm in Washington since 1988. In recent years, Mr. Burns has been joined by a steady trickle of idealistic confreres eager to eke out a pesticide-free living on a few acres.

Eric Plaksin and Rachel Bynum of Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville currently cultivate only 10 of the 25 acres they rent from a longtime Rappahannock landowner. They run a community-supported agriculture farm, whereby people sign up — and prepay — to receive a weekly allotment of produce.

A very different kind of operation is run by Heidi Eastham, of Rucker Farm in Flint Hill. Mrs. Eastham married into a family that had farmed in the county for generations. While her husband handled the cattle and hay operations, Mrs. Eastham decided to raise goats and produce cheese from their milk. Her delicate, subtly flavored chèvres are served at the inn and sell out at Rucker Farm.

THE watershed event for the county’s farming resurgence came in 1996, when the former America Online executive David Cole took his tech millions and decided to invest them in 600 acres devoted to sustainable agriculture, whose goal is the preservation of natural resources. Mr. Cole and his team spent several years revitalizing rundown Sunnyside Farm in Washington, which now produces everything from apples, once the county’s premier crop, to Kobe beef. In 2001, Mr. Cole opened the Sunnyside Farm Market, whose shining wood shelves offer a range of products, from wine and olive oil to scones and pasta. Yet to come in October is a combination market-showplace in the center of Sperryville, which Mr. Cole hopes to use to spread the sustainable philosophy to the hikers and travelers headed to Shenandoah National Park.

The fervor around food in Rappahannock may approach the religious, but there is a down-home quality the come-heres (the local term for newcomers) seem to catch from the longtime residents that keeps things from becoming over-the-top precious.

”We love to be able to have a $130 meal at the inn, and then, right across the street, a $2.30 cheeseburger at the Country Cafe, with the best homemade cobblers and pies,” said Lynda Webster, who along with her husband, William H. Webster, the former head of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., has spent weekends on 75 acres just outside the town of Washington for the last four years. In the same breath, she speaks of the nursery she loves, the orchard she favors, the farmer whose herbs she cannot do without — and Burgers ‘n’ Things in Sperryville, a roadside stand whose menu highlights include a vinegary barbecue and excellent soft-serve ice cream cones. ”That’s what’s nice about Rappahannock,” Ms. Webster said.

The Websters had tried different getaways before finding Rappahannock — spending time on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and house-searching in the hunt-country town of Middleburg, Va. ”In Middleburg, people dress up every night,” said Ms. Webster, who runs a special events and fund-raising firm. ”We do that every night in Washington. Why do we want to do that in the country?”

A lack of property is a major issue in Rappahannock. In 1986, the county had the foresight to enact a strict zoning policy requiring a minimum lot size of 25 acres. The environmentally conscious county also encourages residents to put land into scenic easements, thus preventing any further development. Currently, 11 percent of county land is protected by easements. Properties under 25 acres are rarities that were grandfathered at the time the new zoning regulations went into effect. ”At any one time,” said Rick Kohler of Real Estate III in Washington, ”I might have only 30 houses to show, from the lowest priced to several million.” (The lower price being a couple of hundred thousand dollars.)

Although the number of property transfers in the county has risen 40 percent in the last 10 years — to 590 in 2002 from 465 in 1997 and 420 in 1992 — the actual number of annual sales remains relatively low compared with other popular second-home destinations in the Northeast. Beverly Atkins, the county’s commissioner of revenue, said that a turning point was reached a few months ago when a tract of 170 acres with a 1970’s house sold for $2.2 million, after going on the market for $1.9 million. ”We all said, ‘That just can’t be.’ It was a well-built house, but nothing special, not elaborate. But several offers came in on it. I guess the bidding wars have filtered down to us.”


WHERE — Washington, Va.
WHAT — 7-bedroom house
HOW MUCH — $1,895,000

This 50-acre estate with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains is known as Eagles Nest. The house is 10,000 square feet and was built in 1969. The main living area has a two-story ceiling, an open kitchen, a freestanding stone fireplace and is overlooked by a balcony. There are an indoor lap pool, six full and four half bathrooms, two other fireplaces, central air-conditioning and a second kitchen that is part of a small apartment within the house. The grounds include a tennis court and an outdoor swimming pool. Broker: Sam Snead, Sam Snead Realty, (540) 987-9243; www.samsneadrealty.com.

WHERE — Woodville, Va.
WHAT — 3-bedroom house
HOW MUCH — $850,000

This one-story Prairie-style house is on 50 acres of rolling land and fenced pastures. The house, 3,500 square feet, was built in 1968. There are a wood-burning stove, nine-foot ceilings, three and a half bathrooms and a galley-style kitchen. The landscaped grounds have scattered stands of trees, slate patios and terraces, an eight-stall stable and an 8,640-square-foot riding arena with a one-bedroom apartment suitable for a caretaker. The property is on the Thornton River and has views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Broker: Joe Allen, Allen Real Estate, (540) 347-3838; www.allenrealestate.com.

WHERE — Sperryville, Va.
WHAT — 4-bedroom house
HOW MUCH — $675,000

This 16-acre property includes several small farm buildings as well as three residences. The main house, built in 1930, is 2,600 square feet and has been partially restored, with new wiring and windows. It has a family room, a separate dining room, an unfinished attic and two bathrooms. The other two houses, one with one bedroom, the other with two, could become guest quarters or could be rented. Two streams run through the property, which has views of Old Rag Mountain. Agent: Bud Kreh; Montague, Miller & Company; (540) 948-6655; www.montaguemiller.com.