The state of our vino

I usually rely on a menu to guide my wine selection. But those of us living in North Carolina can now track down better-than-decent wines with the aid of a map.

North Carolina, which led the Southern march toward Prohibition by banning alcohol in 1908 (“The sun will rise tomorrow on a state redeemed from the whiskey evil!” proclaimed the Raleigh News & Observer the day of the lopsided vote in prohibition’s favor), now has 64 wineries, making it one of the nation’s top 10 states for wine and grape production. The industry has grown with a hardiness most vinters wish their vines could replicate: The number of wineries statewide has doubled since 2002.

“It’s surprised even the most optimistic people,” says Joe Mills, co-author of A Guide to North Carolina’s Wineries (John F. Blair, 2007). “I don’t think anyone knows how big it could get.”

The future of North Carolina’s wines depends largely on the whims of the weather. While global warming, which is already taxing the optimally heated wine-growing regions of northern California and southern France, may massage even greater grapes from mid-Atlantic soil, an unanticipated climactic crisis could devastate North Carolina’s wineries.

“We may end up with 300 wineries, or there could be a crash, and we’d end up with three,” says Mills.

But for now, the state’s wineries are startlingly robust, turning out sangioveses, viogniers and cabernet francs, alongside the super-sweet muscadines that first vaulted the state to wine stardom.

As Mills and his wife Danielle Tarmey tell the story in their guide, wild-scuppernong wine was a favorite beverage of North Carolina’s colonists. But it wasn’t until relentless scuppernong promoter Sidney Weller urged the crop’s cultivation on his fellow citizens—“no family of settled residence should dispense with rearing a few vines, at least,” he wrote in 1832—that farmers became interested in the grapes’ commercial potential. Weller’s vineyard, which led the U.S. in wine production, was soon joined by dozens of wineries anxious to exploit the nation’s newfound thirst for wine.

Although the Civil War quieted the industry, it was hastily rebuilt on a platform of scuppernongs, the “grape of grapes” that was so easy to grow that some farmers complained of having nothing to do. By the early 20th century, North Carolina growers again dominated the wine market, beating out French champagnes with their sparkling scuppernongs at international competitions.

The industry took a mite longer to recover from Prohibition, which squashed production and forced frustrated winemakers to traffic in nonalcoholic tonics made from beef extract and peppermint. But the latter-day successes of vineyards like Biltmore Estate, which first got serious about wine in the 1980s, persuaded a few brave entrepreneurs to put vines in the ground.

“It appeals to a lot of people,” says Mills. “It’s both rooted in the land and also very social.”

With so many wineries opening, Mills and Tarmey, who worked in the tasting room at Westbend Vineyards after the couple relocated to Winston-Salem from California, sensed a need for a comprehensive guidebook. They published the first edition of their book in 2003.

The new edition, like the last, devotes a few pages and pictures to each winemaker’s story. While it’s a diverse cast of characters, the stories are essentially the same: Seized by a sudden passion for wine, the winemaker (usually written off as loony by his friends and relatives) buys a plot of land and finds the job is harder and yet more rewarding than he’d ever imagined. Still, the writers do a nice job of conveying the winemakers’ dedication.

What’s missing from the book is any subjective description of the wines, an omission Mills defends.

“We decided not to talk about the wines because wines are made in really small batches, and they wouldn’t be available by the time the book came out,” says Mills. “And then there’s the large muscadine component in North Carolina, and a lot of people like those wines, and a lot of people don’t. Frankly, I’m more interested in stories.”

That means the reader has to no choice but to take a road trip to determine which of the profiled wines really are worth drinking (a complaint that’s likely to draw as much sympathy as the scuppernong growers’ laments that they had too much free time). Following Mills and Tarmey’s book, I recently toured six wineries in the Yadkin Valley, the epicenter of North Carolina’s thriving wine scene.

I wish the book had included a few proposed routes, but its staunchly objective stance meant I had to build my itinerary according to the book’s narrative format and my irrational biases. Would I rather spend time with a fellow who hatched the idea for his winery while watching the NIT basketball finals, or with one who came up with his plan at an after-church luncheon? Does a former wolf breeder make a better chardonnay than a former banker?

I charted my course on the road, something I’d only recommend to someone with better maps or a GPS system. Since the book’s very good directions start from major intersections, there’s much backtracking if you haven’t planned your route in advance.

Mills offers a few more words of advice to anyone setting out on an N.C. wine expedition:

“Take your time. There is a type of wine or winery out there for you. People get embarrassed about what they like. If you find a wine and you like it, enjoy it.”

(Thank you, Joe: I now feel much better about the sparkling Niagara I snagged at McRitchie Winery & Ciderworks.)

Mills continues: “You want to travel with somebody. I had to visit some of the wineries on my own, and it wasn’t nearly as much fun. Wine is very social: Whenever I picture wine glasses, I always picture two.”

Speaking of wine glasses, expect to build your collection on the wine trail. Nearly all of the tasting rooms offer the same deal: sample pours of five wines for $5, and you get to keep the glass.

It felt like a fair deal at every winery I visited. Even though I’d read and reread Mills and Tarmey’s books touting the state’s wineries, I still figured I’d see some shabby outfits run by bumbling hobbyists or encounter smug staffers unjustly proud of their winery’s too-sweet swill. Instead, I found a gorgeous landscape dotted with wineries that, while a notch humbler than their counterparts in better-known wine regions, produced some stellar wines and had smart tasting rooms befitting them. I’m looking forward to my next round; for now, here are some highlights from my first N.C. wine tour.

RayLen Vineyards & Winery

Joe Neely’s winery, one of the major players in the Yadkin Valley with an annual output of 10,000 cases, is an easy starting point for a wine country tour. The facility was purposefully located near Interstate 40 to take advantage of tourist traffic. The two-story winery was built on the site of an old dairy farm, and staffers swear the best grapes grow where the cows fertilized the soil as they stood in line waiting to be milked. Those syrah grapes join merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet francs in the Carolinius Cabernet blend that’s among the winery’s best sellers. But the real winners are the whites, including a viognier that’s rich with the flavors of lilac and perfume, and a viognier/riesling/pinot grigio blend that begs you to fire up the grill.

Westbend Vineyards

Although Westbend is one of the valley’s oldest wineries, there’s nothing ritzy about its utilitarian tasting room, where available vintages are unselfconsciously posted on a backlit menu board usually associated with pizzerias. Westbend’s wines have earned a nod from Robert Parker, who called the winery “one of the South’s best kept secrets.” Westbend’s reds are all leather chairs and pipe tobacco and musty old books: When I told our pourer I found the wines manly, he bowed his head and said, “Thank you.”

Raffaldini Vineyards

Raffaldini is the region’s beauty queen, with an eye-popping view that makes the patio near the vineyard’s rose gardens one of the valley’s top picnic spots. (The tasting room sells bite-size hunks of bread and cheese for $1, but wise winery-goers pack a lunch. The New York Times last year ran a story on pairing the area’s barbecue with its wines, and savvy winemakers have lately been playing up the pork-and-cork angle.) Raffaldini specializes in Italian varietals, some of which are rarely grown in the United States. Its vermentino, a grape associated with Sardinia, is a crisp, lime-heavy white that goes nicely with the aforementioned cheese.

McRitchie Winery & Ciderworks

When we pulled into McRitchie’s driveway, I was sure Mills and Tarmey’s directions had finally led us astray. The tasting room is housed in what looks like a fairly new home in a residential neighborhood just past Elkin. I felt like we were about to break up a Cub Scout meeting. Had there been a troop headquartered there, I probably would have joined it: McRitchie—run by Sean and Patricia McRitchie, 30-year veterans of Oregon’s Willamette Valley—is turning out some straight-up wonderful wines and the state’s only hard cider. The McRitchies have served as consultants to nearly every winery in the valley, and their expertise runs through their revelatory Chardonnay, refreshing pinot grigio and delightful sparkling Niagara, all marked with the area’s classiest label and sealed with screw caps.

Grassy Creek Vineyard & Winery

Like many of Yadkin valley’s wineries, Grassy Creek offers lodging in the form of cute log cabins. But the farm’s first residents were dairy cows, who milk, legend says, produced the best and sweetest chocolate milk anywhere. To honor the property’s history, Grassy Creek has begun bottling its sweet red table wine in milk bottles. Unfortunately, it’s none too good: Some of Grassy Creek’s wines veered toward the unpalatable. But the tasting room, housed in Klondike Farms’ old red barn with troughs intact, is a terrific place to sample just about anything.

Shelton Vineyards

When we pulled into Shelton, the security guard asked us whether we were there for “the wedding, concert or wine tasting.” Shelton has become an entertainment mega-complex, with a Hampton Inn recently opening to accommodate its visitors. The wines are fine, but Shelton’s best attribute is the on-the-hour availability of tours, which staffing shortages render infrequent at smaller, family-run establishments. It’s a great way to get a gander at an industry that just might reshape the nation’s winemaking map.


N.C. Wineries

Joe Mills and Danielle Tarmey will sign copies of A Guide to North Carolina Wineries at Malaprop’s Bookstore on Tuesday, June 19, at 7 p.m. Call 254-6734 for more information.

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