Asheville may be Beer City, but that’s not the only libation local residents enjoy. Consider the continuing success of the Asheville Wine & Food Festival. Now in its sixth year, the annual celebration of the region’s winemakers, wine shop owners, chefs and restaurants is expanding its focus on local wines, adding a competition for commercial wineries to the usual competition for amateur winemakers.
“We just had such an outpouring of interest from the commercial wineries both in North Carolina and the surrounding states,” explains festival founder Bob Bowles. “We have over 60 entries from 15 commercial wineries.”
As in past years, a panel of judges from the French Broad Vignerons will evaluate the wines. Bowles, who’s been a member of the group since its inception, says, “It has really grown to not just encompass a lot of winemakers across the western part of the state but also helps to introduce wines that will grow and sustain themselves in the colder climates we have here.”
Founded by Chuck Blethen of Jewel of the Blue Ridge Vineyard — an educational Madison County winery that teaches potential vintners how to farm their own vines — the Vignerons have been around for more than four years now. “Along the way, we do a lot of teaching and sharing,” says group President Peter Fland. “We have classes on pruning; we have classes on how to blend wine; we’ve had groups learn how to graft grapes. We’re a social organization committed to fostering the growth of products from local vineyards and orchards.”
In 2012, Bowles asked the Vignerons to host a local amateur wine competition for the festival. “Many of the people who are competing at the amateur level have visions of moving into the commercial level,” Fland explains, “so by judging them this way, it gives them feedback and serves as a way of encouraging them and their growth.”
The judges, he says, use “the modified version of the judging cards from UC-Davis.” A matrix evaluates the wines’ appearance, aroma and bouquet, taste, finish and overall quality. “This yields a score, and then we have a matrix that determines whether the wine would be worthy of a gold, silver or bronze award.”
“We want people to understand what terroir is,” says Bowles, “and what the different characteristics of wines that are grown in certain areas will be. We’re not just growing merlot or cabernet here; we’re growing a lot of different unique and interesting grapes. Many were just used as blending grapes in the past, but now they’ve come into their own.” He cites Addison Farms Vineyard’s petit verdot and the traminette from Baker Buffalo Creek as great regional wines made from lesser-known varieties. “A lot of farmers have moved away from growing traditional grapes in order to find out what grows best in this soil. They’re doing a good job at not forcing a grape to grow but rather seeing what takes off in the area.”
Ironically, notes Bowles, they’re having to relearn how to do what the early settlers did so well. “This was one of the oldest areas for growing grapes in the country, and now it’s all new, thanks to Prohibition!” he jokes.
No less a luminary than Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have predicted that someday, North Carolina wines would be considered among the world’s best. We’re not there yet, but with the help of folks like the French Broad Vignerons and the Asheville Food & Wine Festival, we may be inching ever closer.
This year’s festival runs Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 21-23, in downtown Asheville. For more information, go to ashevillewineandfood.com.