Grape expectations: Governor signs laws at new Kluge shop

Kluge Estate Farm Shop uncorks 'grape' expectations.

"I'm honored to be here at this humble wine shop." These introductory words by Governor Mark Warner sparked laughter at the opening of the Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard Farm Shop Tuesday, March 18.

Emerging from the woods off Carter's Mountain Road like a magnificent mirage, the luminous, country-contemporary structure designed by David Easton is anything but humble. Especially when you consider that filling the airy, cedar, slate and glass-defined space, are shelves stocked with clementine marmalade and pear preserves, cases filled with exquisite French pastries, imported cheeses, and picnic-ready prepared dishes such as wild mushroom and goat cheese tartes, and wood-grilled organic chicken with oven roasted tomatoes. Oh, and did we mention the constantly expanding collection of fine wines and wine accessories? The espresso bar?

The Virginia countryside has never seemed sowell– civilized. Owner and chairwoman Patricia Kluge, who hopes her shop will both show us how to drink her wines– accompanied by savories and sweets– and provide us with "a place of comfort, solace and enjoyment," is playing more than a supporting role in the transformation of Albemarle County into a gourmet destination. And that's no modest makeover.

Besides the chance to taste the new Cru (a sweet aperitif or dessert "wine" made from chardonnay grapes and cognac) and hors d'oeuvres like truffled polenta cakes and oxtail empanadas, Governor Warner was present to demonstrate his support for Virginia winemakers like Kluge and her team of experts. After cutting the purple ribbon, Warner sat down to sign three acts of legislation– Senate Bills 1200, 1201, 1202– intended to nurture and protect the state's relatively young, yet clearly thriving, wine industry.

In case you thought grapes contributed little more than a pleasant buzz to the state's economy, just consider the facts: In the last 10 years, the number of Virginia wineries has doubled (from 40 to 80), and in 2001 Virginia wines tallied an impressive $41.2 million in sales.

Guests at the opening were the first to taste the artful creations of pastry chef Serge Torres. Last Tuesday also marked the début of Executive Chef Dan Shannon, who just a month ago left his job as head chef at Charlie Palmer's Los Angeles catering division, Astra, to join the Kluge team. Serving canapés to the stars might sound like a dream job, but for Shannon– a serious chef who wants his food to be appreciated and, well, eaten– it left lots to be desired.

"L.A.'s very impersonal and superficial," he told Dish during a quick kitchen break. "People at the parties are more interested in Brad Pitt's whereabouts than in the food. When you offer them an hors d'oeuvre, it's like, 'No thanks. I weigh 80 pounds, and I want to stay that way.'"

Judging from the way guests gobbled up his food at last week's party, Shannon won't go unnoticed around here, local celebrities or not.

So what type of cuisine fuels this young chef and his new kitchen? "Melting pot American" is the best way to describe it­ humble American dishes beautified by French and Italian influences. Perfectly in-tune with the Kluge aesthetic­ not to mention with the predominantly American and European staff, which includes famed winemakers Gabriele Rausse, Michel Rolland, and Emmanuel Fourny. With an herb garden just outside the kitchen and an orchard a short walk away, Shannon's Farm Shop offerings will also reflect the colors, flavors, and textures of the seasons.

With the Farm Shop off to a sparkling start, the Kluge team can now focus on their downtown Charlottesville venue: Fuel. Still no word on an opening date, but (re)construction is moving along at the Market and Ninth Street spot, which will house a gourmet gas station and restaurant serving Shannon's innovative American cuisine in an edgy, industrial setting. Because in Kluge's view, even the humblest gas station has star potential.