Just Like the Wachau Valley Except Maybe Not So Much

Visiting the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC this week. It happens to be halfway between Charlottesville, VA, where my daughter just graduated from UVa, and my family in Nashville, TN. And it has a spa. Which certain young women who just kicked major academic butt despite a serious back injury and surgery during their final semester totally deserve!

Biltmore was the dream project of George Washington Vanderbilt, grandson of the “Commodore,” Cornelius Vanderbilt. He wasn’t much of a businessman, but seems to have been a genuinely nice person in a noblesse oblige sort of way, and an early environmentalist. The Biltmore Estate was designed to be a working farm, employing hundreds of locals and investing heavily in the local economy and community.

And, it’s a castle. With real pretty gardens.

It’s interesting visiting an estate that is designed to resemble Europe less than a week after actually being in Europe. Vanderbilt originally wanted to create a more or less exact replica of a French chateau in the North Carolina foothills. Fortunately, he ran into Frederick Law Olmstead who had a more creative take on the plan.

While the house itself is pretty much a copycat version of a Loire Valley chateau (with modern perks such as 43 indoor bathrooms and a basement swimming pool) the estate grounds represent one of the earliest efforts at forest preservation in the United States. In fact, a large portion of the estate became Pisgah National Forest after Vanderbilt’s death, according to his wishes.

The gardens near the house are clearly planned, but lushly informal and horticulturally diverse in a way that is rarely seen in Europe. And the wildlife, as always, is far more abundant than it ever is across the ocean. Walking around in the warm American sunshine, listening to the birds, I felt like I was inhaling pure oxygen for the first time in a year. And then there are the beautiful Smoky Mountains on the horizon. I don’t know if it’s in my DNA or what, but I feel like I belong in these mountains.

Biltmore itself feels kind of Disneyfied, but then you have to keep in mind that it was meant to be that way. From the beginning, it was designed to essentially be a theme park for rich people. That hasn’t really changed: the only difference is that now you don’t need a personal invitation to get in. And there’s a gift shop.

Anyway, I didn’t know that wine was a thing at the Biltmore. Granted, this is the first time I’ve been to a wine tasting that started with a very large woman shouting “Hey! How y’all doin’ today?”  But the samples were generous, and quite good. My daughter and I were both pleasantly surprised. I bought several bottles for the road.

While shopping, I told a salesperson that I lived in Austria, and that the Biltmore wines compared favorably with Austrian wines. Well, of course she was retired military and had lived in Germany and visited Austria. I’ve learned: never assume that Americans have never traveled. In any area with a large military presence, there will always be people who have lived in Europe and want to talk about it! Guess that will be me, one day 🙂


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