The new ‘Taste’ sensations

For the Taste of Rappahannock this year: a new place, a new time and some new faces.

This Sept. 7, the Headwaters Foundation’s 16th annual fundraiser, for many the social charity event of the year, moves to the 95-year-old gambrel-roofed former dairy barn at Mount Vernon Farm in Sperryville. Owned by fifth-generation farmer Cliff Miller, the 830-acre Mount Vernon Farm has been a working family farm since 1827.

Cliff Miller’s recently renovated  dairy barn serves as the new headquarters for this year’s Taste of Rappahannock. Courtesy photo.
Cliff Miller’s recently renovated dairy barn serves as the new headquarters for this year’s Taste of Rappahannock. Courtesy photo.

The new venue will allow a “two-tiered” approach to the Taste: The pre-dinner wine-tasting and silent-auction cocktail hour take place in the lower part of the barn, with the dinner gala and live auction held upstairs beneath the high ceilings, their rough-wood joists offset by chandeliers.

The event starts an hour earlier than usual, at 5 p.m., and will feature the wares of many local wineries during the silent auction section. Headwaters executive director Jane Bowling-Wilson said the earlier start gives attendees a chance to “socialize longer” (and end the evening earlier), but also hopes they’ll have more time to consider making offers on the silent auction’s expanded menu of artwork, dinners, vacation stays and unique learning and social opportunities.

“There are some surprises this year,” said Bowling-Wilson, who mentioned strolling minstrels and a special performance preceding the evening’s $15,000 Challenge Grant auction.

The live auction, led again by Red Apple auctioneer Sherry Truhlar, includes some repeats from last year: a five-course tasting/wine pairing menu from Glen Gordon Manor; a stay at a beachfront penthouse in Destin, Fla.; two VIP subscriptions to next year’s Castleton Festival operas and gala dinner with Maestro Lorin and Dietlinde Maazel. Also up for grabs, along with many other items, is a week in a Cape Cod vacation home, and both an etching demonstration and a chance to roast, toast and taste coffee beans with Central Coffee Roasters’ Maggie Rogers in Sperryville.

Washington’s Sylvie Rowand of Laughing Duck Gardens and Cookery, working with Griffin Tavern chef Rachel Rowland, Glen Gordon Manor proprietor and chef Dayn Smith and Rappahannock County High School culinary-arts instructor Kurt Streu and his students, is taking on the large task of preparing the delectable delights. Bowling-Wilson is also seeking the kindness of Rappahannock County’s farms, whose donations will help the evening’s menu to come “from most if not all local growers,” a goal Rowand also says she hopes to reach.

Longtime Rappahannock chef and caterer Terri Lehman, who decided to step down after many years of heading up the Taste’s culinary operations, says she’s still participating this year — as a food-prep volunteer, and eventually (and much-deservedly) as an attendee. “It’s a fabulous event,” Lehman said, “both for Headwaters and for the children.”

While the previous Taste locale at Belle Meade Schoolhouse “is one of the prettiest places in Rappahannock,” Bowling-Wilson said, Headwaters’ board concluded this year, after other key  organizers and volunteers decided to take well-earned breaks after last year’s event, that it was time for a change.

But get your tickets early, she said, as there are fewer available this year due to the smaller venue — and reservations have already started. Ticket prices have increased to $200 (with opportunities for higher-level sponsorships), of which $165 is tax deductible for this 501c(3) nonprofit event. The Taste, she continued, is Headwaters’ annual “big fundraiser to showcase fabulous food and wine in Rappahannock.”

The spacious interior of Miller’s two-story barn allows a “two-tiered” approach to this year’s Taste of Rappahannock: the silent auction is downstairs, while the dinner gala is upstairs. Courtesy photo.
The spacious interior of Miller’s two-story barn allows a “two-tiered” approach to this year’s Taste of Rappahannock: the silent auction is downstairs, while the dinner gala is upstairs. Courtesy photo.

And the cause is a good one. “Thanks largely to The Taste, Headwaters is able to provide programs that [the county] otherwise couldn’t afford” for Rappahannock children, said school board chairman John Lesinski. The Taste also helps fill in gaps where public funds (mostly federal and state) turn up short for mandated programs.

“Headwaters’ goals are the same as public educators,” said Bowling-Wilson, a former arts and English teacher herself. “To improve the lives of children.”

Founded in 1997, how did Headwaters, with its mission of fostering educational excellence by cultivating the community’s cooperative spirit and resources for students’ benefit, get its somewhat confusing name? It has nothing to do with the environment or water, according to one the foundation’s founders, Linda Dietel of Flint Hill. The original board was trying to come up with something that “represented the beginnings of something growing, and something to do with the county and Rappahannock,” she said. “It’s really an allegorical title.”

Headwaters is comprised of four educational programs (all of which are seeking more volunteers, hint-hint) and, in coordination with local school authorities, is mostly aimed at helping to fill the “gaps in [Rappahannock] schools” in programs not otherwise funded. The majority of Headwaters’ skill- and opportunity-enhancing programs for students are in partnership with the local schools, Bowling-Wilson explains.

The Farm-to-Table program, a partnership with both Rappahannock County Public Schools and with underwriting by The Farm at Sunnyside, the Virginia Farm Bureau and others, assists classes in horticulture and agriculture, with outreach to the Senior Center in Scrabble and the Food Pantry in Washington. With hands-on experiences at local farms, students see food come to life, helping them to become good stewards of the land.

The Next Step program partners with Rappahannock County High School’s guidance department, providing children with career, vocational and college access information, landing some students in such prestigious institutions as Stanford University. It’s largely responsible for increasing the percentage of RCHS students enrolled in colleges or trade schools (of roughly equal proportions) from 55 percent in 2005 to an impressive 83 percent this year. Headwaters’ Career and College Access program recently awarded more than $26,000 to 23 Next Step Scholars to study at a variety of schools.

Jeff MacNelly's art once again graces the Taste of Rappahannock.
Jeff MacNelly’s art once again graces the Taste of Rappahannock.

Starfish Mentoring provides one-on-one support for children between the ages of 6 and 17 who are considered “at-risk,” Bowling-Wilson explained. While volunteers are sorely needed for this program, she said, it is “more of a commitment,” mentoring once a week and preferably long-term to aid in continuity for the child.

New to Starfish in 2012 is READ, a program requested by local teachers. READ trains adult volunteers in the Wilson Reading Program, allowing them to tutor/mentor at-risk readers in kindergarten and second grade, improving both the children’s reading and social skills. Currently run by 16 volunteers, READ is split between structured curriculum and “fun stuff,” Bowling-Wilson said.

The After-School Program for elementary children is aimed to improve and broaden kids’ after-school experience. Volunteers feed the program’s current 120 participants snacks, followed by homework and play periods, the latter including chess, Lego wind-energy and robotics challenges, dance, science, tennis and art.

In addition, since Headwaters’ inception, $125,000 in mini-grants have been handed out to local teachers to support innovative classroom projects programs.

For the cover of The Taste’s program, Flint Hill’s Susie MacNelly is once again donating the artwork of her late husband, Jeff MacNelly, a three-time Pulitzer winning political cartoonist and fervent Headwaters supporter.

If you’re passionate about helping students achieve, Bowling-Wilson said, “volunteers are crucial to help put on The Taste. We are not only [grateful for] the food and the volunteers but also all the folks who donate and make the auctions possible . . . It’s a fabulous event . . . a massive group effort with a great benefactor — children!”

Make your reservations for the Taste by Aug. 26 by responding to the printed invitation you’ll receive in the mail, or contact Headwaters directly at 540-987-3322 or