Years ago I was attending Warren Wilson College in Swananoa, North Carolina. Very near the college is the historic Biltmore Estate. One summer I decided I wanted to take the tour, though none of my friends at school were interested. I went anyway, all on my own. I had to pay an entry fee, and I’m sure all my wealthy buddies from school expected an invitation from the Vanderbilt family eventually. Who knows? Anyway, I wanted to write about my visit, and tell the lessons I learned from it.
Small aside here. I have missed two days of blogging which I certainly never intended to do. Here’s why. I did not, and do not, really want to write anymore about our current situation. I have already, and it’s certainly on my mind, but I’m more interested in writing about other things. Besides, I figure PLENTY of very smart (and very dumb) people are writing about this situation, and my thoughts are not all that interesting about it. Are my thoughts interesting? They are to me, I suppose. I especially like the idea of reflecting on days that feel plenty strange all on their own. We’ll see how this goes. Aside finished, back to the Biltmore.
This mansion, or more accurately castle, is built on a huge estate. The main building was actually inspired by European castles. It has much of what an American might expect in the way of “fancy family castle.” I didn’t really dig the building all that much. There comes a point at which a place no longer suggests anything like a home to me. It’s more the flavor of a fancy hotel or spa. There is simply too much, too many rooms, too much space, to many animal heads on the walls. The only room I really liked was the library. It felt like a real library, like a municipal library but with more beautiful paneling. It also had chairs with red upholstery. Yech. And a balcony. Nice. I got through the house quickly and then I headed to the gardens and grounds. That was really fun.
I also had the weird experience I have had before. People kept asking me for directions, like I worked there. I didn’t know then what it was about me that suggested I could answer such questions. I have my theories now. First, I was not young but I was not old, and that made me approachable. I wore khaki skirts and white cotton shirts, and that is the universal uniform of summer tour guides, and I was walking happily by myself and with confidence. I have always liked to walk like I know where I’m going, even if I don’t. That combination signals to people that I know where I am, and I would not mind helping them find their way. It’s not a bad vibe to have, actually. When I can, I really do like to help others find their way.
The gardens at the Biltmore are spectacular, gorgeous, intricate, multileveled and a sweat-fest in summer. But, that’s not all. Once I was done with the gardens, I toured the farm and especially the vineyard.
After the tour of the vineyard, included in the price I paid for admission, was a wine tasting. The tasting room was clean, spacious, and very welcoming. The marble on the bar was cool under my forearms. The glasses were stamped with the Biltmore logo, and there were these puffy slightly sweet crackers to munch between each wine offered. I don’t’ know how many wines I tasted, but I know I got tipsy mighty quickly. It was SO FUN.
Here’s the genius part. To leave the estate and the winery I had to go through the gift shop, and I found myself with a little shopping cart in which I was loading bottle after bottle of wine. It was madness. I had no way of getting all these wines home. What was I thinking? I wasn’t. I was enjoying. I wanted the pleasure to go on and on. The people at the Biltmore really knew their clientele. They knew their strongest hand (really good but inexpensive wine), and daffy middle-aged women who felt entitled and tempted by such products. I only bought two bottles of wine after all, but if I had been driving my own car all the way home, I would have bought two cases. I was in that much bliss.
What did I learn from this? First, know your customer. Second, offer a good product at a reasonable price, and you’ll make money. Third, alcohol will make money. Fourth, money makes money. Fifth, (most surprising) I can be alone and still have a delightful time. It helps if there is wine, but even without it, I can still enjoy myself.
Anyone going to Asheville, North Carolina should consider going to the Biltmore. As much fun as I had going through it alone, I would love to take my whole family there. I would love to hear one of my brothers say, “So, here we go. We’re going to pay money to look at a bunch of rich people’s old furniture.”