Just thirty minutes from Middleburg and under an hour from D.C., The Winery at Bull Run is well worth a trip from any distance for exquisite wine in a unique setting. The gorgeous wrap-around views by day and inviting string lights by night make the winery a choice spot for weddings and celebrations. And the civil war artifacts that cover the walls, collected and curated by owner Jon Hickox, are a history buff’s dream.
However, this spectacular 225-acre site is also home to a long history and spooky secret that attracts guests from far and wide for the winery’s signature Haunted Wine Tours.
Hickox, a Fairfax County native from a military family, had an intense interest in wartime history from the time he was a boy. He says, “The history imprinting was dad, with his military background, taking me to civil war battlefields. In fact, even my sixth birthday was at Fort Sumter, which seemed normal at the time, instead of going to Chuck E. Cheese.” While other kids navigated ball pits and traded tickets for arcade treasures, Hickox was out with friends or his younger brother, scouring historical sites for civil war artifacts—many of which are now on display at the winery—and learning local lore.
During his formative years, when he wasn’t rummaging for relics, he worked on a friend’s family farm in Chantilly. His experience there helped him develop a deep respect for Virginia’s land, its people and its past. As a senior at George Mason University, he met his wife Kim, with whom he would dedicate time to exploring Virginia’s many wineries. This led to an idea. “I started to get the idea that maybe I could open up a winery closer in…that became kind of a dream of mine,” Hickox explains.
Though Hickox had never opened—much less owned—a winery before, the skills he acquired while establishing his remodeling company, Colonial Remodeling, his background in agriculture and his expansive knowledge of “Olde Virginia” history gave him the foundation he needed to tackle the project. He recalls, “When I thought about this wine business, I started to look at it just like I do with all my construction projects. What does it take?” He continues, “As I went to wineries, I began to analyze their businesses. I felt like it was something I could break down into components and understand.”
In 2008, he purchased a 21-acre farm just off route 29, nestled near neighboring Manassas National Battlefield Park, which he says, “just happened to be what I thought would be the perfect location for the winery.”
With a plot of land at the epicenter of Virginia’s Civil War history in hand, Hickox would spend the next four years learning the business and building his unique vision of a winery, one that produced outstanding wine and honored and narrated the remarkable story of the surrounding landscape.
In addition to lessons in water supply, grape growing and winemaking, Hickox began the massive undertaking of visually transforming the space, which had long been neglected. In doing so, he uncovered the remains of a wrecked house, and with it, the story of the site’s secret past. He remembers, “There was an old house that was on the property that had burned down thirty years ago. I didn’t know anything about it, but as I cleared the roof that had caved in and the walls that had caved, and gutted out all the dangerous stuff, I began to learn about the house.”
The house, he learned, stood on the Hillwood estate during the First Battle of Bull Run and served as a hospital. Also called the First Manassas, that civil war clash in 1861 happened just feet from Hillwood and resulted in nearly 5,000 casualties and countless injuries, many of which were likely attended to at the hospital. Hickox says, “Given the proximity to the battlefield, I knew something happened here.”
According to Hickox and his staff, the ruins aren’t the only reminder of what may have occurred on or near the winery’s land. Hickox remembers, “I was looking at the video camera because we had a bunch of false alarms and we couldn’t explain them…I am panning from one to the other…and I see something outside on the porch, so I snapped a couple quick pictures.” He continues, “What it appears to be is what we call ‘the gathering.’” Mr. Entwisle, the previous inhabitant of the property, confirmed Hickox’s suspicions. Hickox explains, “He told me a story that when they were kids, the one guy and his sister would fight over who would have to go to the pump house for the well because they always got freaked out by going there, because there were a million ghost stories, stories of presences and weird sounds.” When Hickox asked Entwisle to indicate on a map where this ghostly gathering would occur, he pointed to the exact spot from Hickox’s photograph.
This spooky tale is just one of the stories guests will hear as they are guided by lantern brandishing, period dressed storytellers and Winery at Bull Run staff across the eerily quiet grounds. During the Haunted Wine Tour, spirit seekers are treated to a litany of historically documented and a few more recent onsite ghost experiences, as well as award-winning wines, as they trek around the property in the dark of night. The experience can be spine-tingling, especially as grape vines rustle in the wind and a barely-visible outline approaches from the distance. While it could be an apparition, it is more likely just a winery team member ready to supply the wine. On the tour, customers can calm their nerves with bold reds and delicious whites like a 2017 Delaney, named for the owner’s daughter. It is extremely refreshing with notes of Asian pear and lemon.
The popular tour runs from September through early November but sells out quickly. In fact, the 2018 dates are already booked. To meet with demand, Hickox is considering expanding the time frame. But he also suggests guests go for the Historical Tour and Tasting, which combines a lovely property walk, visits to actual Civil War sites and a full wine tasting along the way.
The winery and its tours are clear expressions of Hickox’s personality and passions and should not be missed. By day, the winery is charming, inviting and extremely fun. Hickox and his staff pull out all the stops in the name of guest experience, serving exceptional wine in a picturesque setting. The ghost tour is undeniably well done, and will undoubtedly have you looking over your shoulder, even if only for another glass of your favorite vintage. Hickox and his team create a uniquely Virginian experience unlike any other that pays tribute to the state’s astonishing history and highlights the staff’s unrivaled hospitality. As for the ghosts that visit after nightfall, my only guess is that they were too reluctant to leave such a special place.
Story by Kaitlin Hill.
This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue.