The historic inn in a bucolic setting outside Charlottesville provides guests with a bevy of beverage options.
By Kelly A. Magyarics
Craving a glass of lavender lemonade delivered poolside? No problem. How about a flute of some Virginia bubbly from local Kluge Estate or Thibaut-Janisson on the gazebo while curling up with a can’t-put-down read? They’ve got that covered too. And if you want to end the evening in the quiet of your room sipping a nightcap that’s chock full of American history, reach no further than the decanter on the desk.
The Clifton Inn’s (1296 Clifton Inn Drive, Charlottesville, 434.971.7098) one hundred acres of rolling Virginia countryside once belonged to Thomas Jefferson’s father. It was then deeded to his daughter Martha after her marriage to Thomas Mann Randolph, who was a governor of the Commonwealth and a member of both the House of Delegates and the U.S. Congress. Today the inn is Charlottesville’s only Relais & Châteaux property, with eighteen distinctly furnished rooms and suites, all featuring Wi-Fi, Bose sound systems and Mascioni linens. There are plenty of places on the grounds to while away the time doing something—or nothing at all, including sitting rooms, lakeside trails, Adirondack chairs, an infinity pool and hot tub, croquet and clay tennis. And Chef Dean Maupin’s inspired American cuisine features a bounty of local ingredients—including a decent selection of Virginia bottles to sip alongside.
I recently stayed at the Clifton Inn for an anniversary getaway. We checked in mid-afternoon on a Sunday, just in time for the daily afternoon tea served 3-5 PM that’s included in the room rate (a full breakfast—off the menu, not buffet—is included as well.) Since it was a hot and sunny day, we opted to head to the pool and have it delivered there. A short stroll from the main house, the striking infinity pool has pillow decked lounge chairs, outdoor sofas and several cabanas surrounded by crisp white curtains. Walking through the gate to the pool, we were overcome with the aroma of the lavender plants that lined the stone walk.
That fragrant lavender finds a perfect use in the ultra refreshing lavender lemonade (afternoon tea in July calls for something icy cold, after all…) Even my husband, who loves the aroma of the herb but doesn’t always enjoy eating or drinking it, really liked it, too. (Note to the bartender: mixing it with Hendrick’s Gin and a splash of club soda would make for a fab summer cocktail.) Scones, lemon curd and fresh berries accompanied the lemonade.
If you get hungry or thirsty after a dip in the pool or soak in the hot tub,you can use the convenient intercom to call your drink or small plate order back to the lobby. We took two glasses of well-chilled Kim Crawford New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with us to the pool, which the staff poured into shatterproof plastic tumblers. Later in the afternoon while reading in the shade of a cabana, we ordered local Blue Mountain Lagers, which were promptly delivered. Such a fantastically lazy way to spend an afternoon before dinner.
Speaking of dinner, the restaurant at the Clifton Inn also offers a super amount of sippers. Fourteen wines by the glass, eight half bottles and about 125 bottles pair with Chef Maupin’s creative cuisine. Since a handful of stellar wineries are literally right up the road from the inn, the fourteen Virginia bottle offerings (plus two by the glass) are an affirmative nod to the kitchen’s focus on using local ingredients. We dined on the patio, which is open all year round, weather depending. A verandah offers additional tables and a view of the countryside, and there is also a more formal room towards the front of the inn (the sight of a small wedding reception that evening.)
We loved the way the choices on the prix fixe menu are arranged. Diners can select three, four or five courses (for $58, $74 or $89, respectively,) and what’s really intriguing is the ability to mix and match dishes as you wish. If you want to skip the salad, soup and pasta sections, and select two seafood and two meat dishes, you are welcome to do so. If you would rather order a pasta, meat and two desserts, that’s fine too. This “build it yourself” approach to dinner is a refreshing change from the traditional prix fixe dining option. Beyond several desserts, the menu also boasts the option of a six selection cheese course—we had sixteen options from which to choose, which would have even been impressive for a larger restaurant. Our server told us there were even a few additional ones available not on the menu that were being used in other dishes.
The affable and knowledgeable Beverage Manager Deniz Dikmen inquired about ordering a bottle of wine for our table. I always find it more fun and interesting to pair different glasses with each course, so we left the pours in his capable hands. My favorite pairing was the Duck Breast and Seared Foie Gras served with Huckleberry Sauce and Celery Root Potato Rosti with both a 2008 Hayman Hill Pinot Noir from Santa Lucia Highlands, as well as a bit of Sauternes for the foie. Delish.
(By the way, the inn also features five sparking wine cocktails and eleven Martinis, which are $11 each. But a peek of the included ingredients on the menu show that these drinks mainly appeal to guests who prefer sweet drinks. The only exception seemed to be a Green Olive and Citrus Martini. With so many great wines on the list, you’re better off sticking with the grape, in my opinion, or maybe a glass of bubbly or a classic Martini to start the evening.)
The already-mentioned decanter of Madeira in every room is a neat touch at the end of the night. Included with it and two glasses is note explaining why Madeira is “America’s Wine.” Made on the island of the same name 400 miles off the coast of Morocco, this fortified wine has a staggeringly long shelf life due to the estufagem process—which in essence “cooks” it. Basic quality wines are placed in concrete tanks and heated for several months by a heating coil, or aged in casks in a room adjacent to the heating element. The highest quality offerings bask in the sun in casks called canteiros for a year or longer. Though much Madeira is sweet or semi-sweet, dry and off-dry styles also exist. All Madeira shares a searing acidity that gives it a touch of brightness and keeps it from becoming cloying.
During the eighteenth century, the American colonies were the largest market for Madeira. It was actually used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and Thomas Jefferson had more than 4400 bottles of Madeira in his cellar during his presidency.
“At Clifton, we pride ourselves on offering best selections of fine, fortified wines like our unique, flavorful Madeira,” explains Dikmen. “Not only is it great as an aperitif for refined palates, or as a smooth brandy-like dessert wine before bed; it is also known to possess health benefits for the human digestive system.” Only several producers of Madeira are still in existence, and Dikmen favors Broadbent. Their 5-Year Reserve is available in the restaurant and bar in addition to the room. He likes to pair it with cheese plates and desserts that contain chocolate, caramel, hazelnut and almond (we thought it went especially well with the Blue Paradise and Buttermilk Blue slivers on our cheese plate.) It’s also available for purchase (along with robes, linens, toiletries, etc.) in the inn’s lobby.
Thirsty yet for a charming respite in the country? The Clifton Inn is running a summer special right now with reduced rates, and a few days stay is easily combined with local touring and wine tasting. We visited James Monroe’s residence Ashlawn Highland, which is only a few miles away, as is Monticello. And Kluge Estate, Jefferson Vineyards, Barboursville and Keswick Vineyards are equally close by, making for a well-spent beverage-based getaway.