Harvest time for local wines

“The wine is made in the grapes.”

– Lee Griffin, Rockhouse Vineyards

At least a dozen cars and trucks of various vintages are parked on the grassy edge of a country road in Polk County. Several more are strung along the dirt tractor row that crests a knoll covered with perfectly strung vines. It’s quiet … a magnificent, fall-tinged day with a dry, western breeze. On both sides of the road, as far as the eye can see, are grapevines. To the west, blue mountains rise up from these rolling foothills.

Silvano Chavez, the hard-working foreman of the harvest crew, steps from behind a row of heavily laden grapevines. He and the workers are harvesting viognier grapes, quietly dropping the clipped bunches of small, round fruit into bright-yellow bins. Behind the next row of green leaves, I hear a woman chatting softly in Spanish. The day before, Biltmore Estate Winemaster Bernard DeLille was here to check the grapes’ sugar content. It was a go — and today marks the start of the 2003 wine-crop harvest, note Tryon Vineyards owners Jeanne and Joe Mize.

The Mizes have 35 acres in grapes at their foothills farm. They depend heavily on Chavez, who knows how to carefully harvest grapes so that DeLille and other vintners will be happy to buy them.

“The wine is made in the grapes,” intones Lee Griffin of Rockhouse Vineyards, six or seven miles up the road near U.S. 74. Griffin has 10 acres in vines, but he also buys grapes from the Mizes. Harvesting the grapes at the optimum moment in terms of sugar content, total acid, pH and seed color makes the winemaker’s job easier.

Rockhouse Vineyards has won awards at wine events around the country, including the International Eastern Wine Competition in New York, the San Diego National Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition. Rockhouse’s 2002 Hadley’s Field viognier won a silver medal at this year’s Atlanta International Wine Summit. Rockhouse was recently represented at the Great Grapes Wine and Music Festival in Charlotte, which featured 15 North Carolina wineries. Griffin and Assistant Winemaker Jay Adams (a noted beermaker with a doctorate in human genetics) make a point of attending such gatherings.

The consensus among winemakers is that while it’s possible to make a bad wine from good grapes, you can’t produce an excellent wine using poor grapes. Still, a key part of the art of winemaking involves using various techniques to adjust the body and flavor. After processing, aging and bottling, the wine is announced. And of course, the winemaker hopes the result will be excellent, redeeming the countless hours of worry and toil.

A good place to grow grapes

September and October are harvest time for Western North Carolina’s growing numbers of vintners and grape producers. It’s been a tough year, what with this summer’s rain and high humidity. Earlier, hail threatened some areas.

“Give me a drought any day,” Griffin exclaims. “My vines are suffering from mold, rot and mildew. Yet I hope we’ll make some good wine this year.”

And notwithstanding this year’s challenging conditions for most agricultural crops, Henderson County Cooperative Extension Agent Marvin Owings doesn’t hesitate to declare this area a “good location to grow wine grapes.” He encourages both established local farmers thinking about transitioning from other crops and eager newcomers who dream of starting a vineyard. “It has potential,” says Owings, cautioning, “If you want to be a supplier, you need to talk to local winemasters to grow what they want.”

Some of the younger wineries are still experimenting, while others have settled on what they feel are their best lines. The decisions are based on a mix of factors, including climate, soil type and marketability. The good news is that with a good deal of work, the grapes wine shoppers are more likely to be familiar with — cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, pinot gris, shiraz (or syrah), merlot, viognier and chardonnay — tend to do well here. Some growers also produce “blending” grapes such as chambourcin or mourvedre, commonly used in combination with other grape types.

Buying local

The granddaddy of today’s WNC wine business is Biltmore Estate Winery, which planted its first vines in 1971 in an area below Biltmore House. Today, the working estate has 100 acres planted in vines. Biltmore also buys grapes and juice from California, South Carolina and Georgia, as well as from nearby growers. The winery produces 120,000 cases each year, and the wines are available throughout the Southeast.

DeLille, the French-born winemaster, is assisted by Sharon Fenchak and 10 winery staffers. A crew is hired at harvest time, and even visitors to the estate can help gather the grapes. DeLille and Fenchak, who came on board in 1999, say they’re now ready to reintroduce local wine buyers to Biltmore’s offerings, which feature fuller, richer flavors in the reds and perky, bright whites.

Appropriately, Biltmore’s wines reveal a strong French influence (compliments of DeLille and his predecessor, Philippe Jourdain, the winery’s first winemaster), balanced by the contributions of Fenchak, who was born and raised in Georgia. The sparkling wines are produced using the traditional French “methode champenoise,” and the chardonnay sur lies is a favorite French style that’s rarely made in the U.S. Fenchak, meanwhile, is using in-house research and development to help Biltmore lead the way in employing new grape-growing technology and testing grape-production methods. Both Fenchak and DeLille believe these efforts are already paying off.

“I want our wine enthusiasts in Asheville and the mountain area to revisit our Biltmore wines,” proclaims Fenchak. “We are a local producer and want to satisfy our neighborhood customers. We are working to win the support of more local customers, since we really like the idea of “buying local” and folks being proud of their local wines.”

Eberhard Heide, proprietor of the Asheville Wine Market on Biltmore Avenue, supports those sentiments. His business recently presented an in-store tasting of Biltmore Estate wines, and a tour of the Biltmore Estate Winery, complete with tasting and dinner, is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 10 (at press time, the event — a benefit Habitat for Humanity — was already sold out).

Other North Carolina wines and brews are also included in the Wine Market’s selection of wines, ports, sherries and beers from around the world. You can buy Rockhouse and Biltmore vintages there, as well as varietal wines from the Yadkin Valley and Eastern North Carolina wines made from native grapes.

Small is beautiful

Among the newest mountain wineries is Ritler Ridge — a 5-acre property perched at 2,600 feet on the side of Piney Mountain in southwestern Buncombe County. Proprietor Tim Ritz is just getting a good start with seven different types of grapes. Some of them are blended to create his red and white table wines; he also produces limited quantities of varietals: cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, pinot gris and shiraz.

Ritz and his wife bought their land in 1993, built their house, and planted just enough grapes to indulge his hobby. Four years later, he found he was dependably harvesting enough grapes to produce more wine than the legal limit for personal use (200 gallons) and decided to go commercial. Ritz cultivates his vineyard by hand … and during the first two years, he toted water and materials on his back up the steep road from his house to the vineyard. The difficult access finally induced him to buy an ATV to help with his chores.

Ritz produces 400 to 700 gallons per year. You can usually find his wines at Purple Sage and Laughter Mercantile in Hendersonville, The Classic Wineseller in Waynesville, and at Westville Pub and The Wine Guy in Asheville.

Smaller still is the aptly named Teensy Winery in rural Rutherford County; proprietor Bob Howard plans to keep annual production below 300 gallons. It takes an adventurous spirit just to find the little vineyard, which sits on a knoll behind Howard’s house on Painter’s Gap Road in Union Mills, N.C.; the winery and tasting room are in his basement. When he launched the vineyard in 1984, Howard says he aimed to make a nice, quality cabernet. “That’s what I’m always shooting for,” he confesses, “but really, the goal is to have a good time.”

Sometimes even that modest goal proves a challenge, however. That’s been the case the past couple of years, when the vineyard has been plagued by black rot. This season will bring the first good harvest in awhile, he predicts.

During harvest time, Howard invites friends, neighbors and family to pitch in. “We work hard and then share a bottle of wine,” he explains. Like other smaller vintners, Howard wears several hats. He’s a commercial pilot, flight instructor, insurance agent, the president of two Internet service providers — and president of a new telephone company. But the constant, steady work of the vineyard provides a contemplative contrast to the rest of his busy life, he reports. You’ll find chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot at Chateau A’Coeur Ouvert, home of The Teensy Winery. Visits are by appointment only (828-287-7763).

Fermenting dreams

In the mid-19th century, North Carolina was the nation’s leading wine producer, with 25 or more wineries. Today, the state is gradually regaining some of its status as a wine-producing region, which was lost during the Civil War and, later, Prohibition. According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture, the state is now once again home to more than two dozen wineries (two-thirds of them established since 1996). About a dozen are clustered in the Yadkin Valley (north of Charlotte near Winston-Salem), which recently received federal designation as an official American Viticultural Area, or grape-growing region. Meanwhile, new vineyards and wineries keep cropping up across the state — including here in Western North Carolina.

Dillingham Vineyards, for example, a new operation in north Buncombe County, recently conducted a field day to show how this farm is transitioning from burley tobacco to vinifera grapes grown for Biltmore Estate. Asked about the fear of a glut in the wine-producing market, Gary Gumz, director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if soon the market won’t be able to absorb the amount of wine being produced, but such oversupply happens in cycles in most agricultural markets.”

Meanwhile, growers and producers in WNC and across the state are busily pursuing their oenological dreams, undeterred by such predictions. And to help celebrate this year’s harvest, several local wineries are inviting visitors in to take a peek at the region’s “new” agricultural product (see story “Harvest Events at Local Wineries”).

Harvest Events At Local Wineries

Biltmore Estate celebrates the coming of autumn with Michaelmas: An English Harvest Fair, running Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 26, 2003 (includes guided vineyard and wine-production tours, grape stomps, educational wine programs, plus jazz and blues music). Free with $36 admission to Biltmore Estate. For details, call 274-6333, or visit the Web site (www.biltmore.com). The winery is on the grounds of Biltmore Estate in Asheville.

Ritler Ridge Open House happens Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 16-19, 2003, with wine and food tastings. No charge. Phone 280-0690 for details. In general, the tasting room is open Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and 1-5 p.m. on Sundays. Directions: From Interstate 40, take exit 44 (U.S. 19/23 South). Turn right on U.S. 19 South. After about 3.5 miles, turn right on Piney Mountain Church Road. Go about a half-mile and turn onto Little Piney Mountain Road (unpaved). The winery is up the hill at the end of the road. Limited parking.

Rockhouse Vineyards accepts bookings for events at the winery. The tasting room is open Thursday-Sunday, 1-5 p.m. or by appointment (828-863-2784, or visit www.rockhousevineyards.com). Directions: From U.S. 74, take exit 167 (N.C. 9, Mill Spring/New Prospect). Drive south 2.2 miles to Turner Road; turn left, and drive 1.5 miles to the vineyard entrance (closed January, February and major holidays).

• Ask at your favorite wine store or restaurant about sales, tastings and celebrations featuring local wines.

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