By John Thomas Tuft
In the mountains and valleys of Pennsylvania wine country, a good day’s drive from Pittsburgh out into the Laurel Highlands, east on US Route 30, otherwise known as the Lincoln Highway, past Ligonier and before you get to where a hotel and restaurant shaped like a ship built into the side of a mountain used to loom on a sharp curve, startling wary travelers, turn north on a little known state road, then west on a forgotten county road, to the picturesque town of Wighville. First established in the Year of Our Lord ‘Ought One, as the sign says, freshly and proudly repainted each year by the town maintenance crews, Ol’ Joey Barton and his son Jeremy. The sign also proclaims the town’s claim to fame, the Ever Shining Big as a House Crystal Decanter of Wighville’s Finest Wine, the glass for which was made and formed at the old PPG plant in Kittanning, along the Allegheny River in Armstrong County, if you can believe that. How the big crystal decanter was made and survived the perilous journey through the Allegheny National Forest to Wighville is still shrouded in mystery and legend to this day. But this story is about the wine, not the container. Of course.
The three major, largest, most successful vineyards and wineries were the major employers in the area and kept the town thriving. Other industries included logging and tourism. Municipal services were the best, schools were the finest, and it is rumored that the children were the best behaved in the county. Now, set on each of the three hilltops of the town were the three large churches: one for the owners and management of the crucial vineyards and important political figures and town business leaders, doctors and lawyers and so forth; one for the middle level workers, their families of course, teachers, nurses, and other generally likeable people; and one for the workers in the vineyards, tour guides, truck drivers, loggers, and so forth. Each and every Sunday each congregation of perishables sang their hymns, said their prayers, listened to their sermons, passed the peace, and went back to their respective positions. The exception was the Wighville Annual Wine Festival.
Each year, after the grape harvest, the Ever Shining Big as a House Crystal Decanter was carefully and lovingly wheeled out into the picturesque town square, spit polished, and draped in black cloth. It added to the mystery and majesty of the event. Everybody pitched in, no exceptions. Each church issued a challenge to their respective members to add the most wine to the Big Deal Decanter before the festival. Each church received a bunch of ribbons: blue for the rich church, red for the middle, yellow for the…other one. In the weeks leading up to the Grand Event of the Festival, the revelation of the wine and ensuing merriment and self-congratulations, tall ladders were placed against the Big Deal Decanter, one for each church. Day or night, one could find men, women, and brave children, climbing the ladders with pitchers of wine, all the way to the top where they emptied the contents and tied a ribbon to the top rung to show they’d done their part for their church. And for all those in the town. Of course.
A close watch was kept on the colorful pieces of cloth flapping in the mountain breezes as they accumulated atop the ladders. It was quite the competition. Townspeople talked. And kept score. The ministers of each church kept score. Of course. One didn’t want to be outdone by the highers, or the middlers, or the lowers. Of course. Not.
One year, not too long ago I’m told, the festival was the biggest, grandest, and most competitive of all. All of the town gathered in the square. Tempting aromas from the multitude of food booths stirred the crowds. The high school chorus performed. Dancers danced. A magician did magic. Pony rides were available. Clowns clowned. But everyone kept an eye on the town clock. And everyone tried to see who had the most ribbons tied to the top rungs of the ladders. And everyone clutched their fancy, empty wine goblets in eager anticipation. Of course.
Finally, the breathless hour arrived. The mayor summoned the three ministers to the stage and handed them a cord tied to the cover over the Big Deal Decanter. A prayer of thanks was said. Trumpets blared. The ribbons were counted. A tie! It was a tie! A miracle? The crowd cheered. The cords were pulled by humbly proud smiling ministers. The black drape fell away. The glass of the Big Deal Decanter sparkled in the lights. Oohs and aahs went up. Then the crowd fell silent. No one said a word. Finally, a little boy spoke up. It was Jimmy Barton. Son of Jeremy, grandson of Joey Barton. “It’s just water. Hey, it’s just water! Nobody put in any wine.”
And that is why if you make the trip out the Lincoln Highway, into the Laurel Highlands, and turn off at the right state road, then onto the proper county road, and approach the town of Wighville, you will see a big sign. With a big crystal decanter, big as a house. And empty. Drained by spiritualitynessmess. Of course.
Words are magic, and writers are wizards.