A fine wine time in the Yadkin Valley
Still think the South’s beverage of choice is sweet tea chugged from a Mason jar? Times have changed. In North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley you can sip a local chardonnay or cabernet made from vinifera grapes like those harvested in Europe and California. It’s a growth industry, thanks to rich, clay loam soil and a vine-friendly elevation and climate. And there’s a bonus – a dash of Southern hospitality in every glassful.
My husband, Bob, and I usually fulfill our wine needs with a box from Piggly Wiggly, but we’ve heard about a scenic stretch of vineyards in North Carolina northeast of the Blue Ridge Mountains. When an early autumn forecast promises spectacular weather, we pack up our Class B Sprinter and head out.
We stop to get our bearings at Yadkinville, North Carolina, named for the river that forms the northern and eastern boundaries of rustic Yadkin County, and park on East Main Street to visit Allison Oaks Vineyards’ tasting room. Owner Gene Renegar lines up wine bottles on a glass-topped farm bin repurposed as a bar and pours samples for us to taste.
Like most winemakers in the region, Renegar welcomes drop-in visitors on specified days and hours, charges a modest tasting fee (in his case, $5 per person), accepts credit cards and imposes no obligation or pressure to buy. His vineyard is just over a mile east, where he first planted vines in 2000 on a grass runway that once served the local airport.
Genial Gene provides us with a handy map of additional wineries nearby, and points out the Yadkin Cultural Arts Center across the street. The building, originally an auto dealership, now houses an art gallery, theater, studios, classrooms, shop and cafÃ©. After strolling around its attractive plaza, we drive 10 miles north to check into our RV park.
“Wine a little, you’ll feel better!” is spelled out in sparkles on owner Debbie Cooper’s shirt when she greets us at the Holly Ridge Family Campground. “We get a lot of wine-tasting folks in big motorhomes here,” she says as she directs us to one of 42 full-hookup sites. Her bucolic location, about 15 minutes east from Interstate 77 in Boonville, North Carolina, will make a great central base for our rambles, and the day is far from over.
Merlot in Mayberry-land
We’ve decided to limit our samplings to one or two per day, and have called ahead to book a “Reserve Tasting” up the road from our campground. We pass rows of grapevines and arrive at what could be mistaken for a country club with a decorative pond, creek and landscaped grounds. It’s actually Shelton Vineyards, the largest family-owned estate winery in North Carolina.
Retail Manager Angela Hooker welcomes us to the tasting room and tells us all about Charlie and Ed Shelton, brothers who founded this “upscale vineyard in a down-home setting” in 1999. They’re natives of nearby Mount Airy, known by its nickname, “Mayberry,” where TV’s Andy Griffith also grew up.
The Sheltons are an impressive pair, world travelers who succeeded in construction and real estate before launching a winery. They helped put North Carolina on the winemaking map by successfully petitioning the federal government to recognize the Yadkin Valley as the state’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 2003.
Angela pours six delectable samples into elegant crystal glasses, ours to keep, and we decide to buy bottles of Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine and Family Reserve Claret to take home. When we mention that our motorhome has plenty of storage space, Angela says snowbirds traveling on I-77 often drop in. “We get a lot of Ohio people,” she says. “They tell us this is their halfway stop.” Local folks drop in too for special events like Shelton’s concert series on summer Saturdays.
To tour the 33,000-square-foot winery, we follow Angela up a staircase since this is a gravity-flow facility where the processed wine flows from the top down. Outdoors, on a concrete crush pad, we see the auger, crusher/de-stemmer and other equipment that processes hand-picked grapes. Back inside, we view barrel and fermentation rooms, and are impressed that Shelton can bottle more than 2,000 cases of wine per day.
We’ve learned new things on our first day in the valley. Rose bushes in the vineyards are not just decorative; they’re like canaries in mine shafts. Sensitive to diseases and insects, roses show symptoms of problems earlier than the vines. Driving back to the campground, we notice only a few fields still planted in tobacco, once North Carolina’s prized cash crop. These days, acres of vineyards contribute more than 7,000 jobs and $1 billion to the state’s economy.
Chianti in the Carolinas
Saturday dawns crisp and sunny. Our GPS leads us down a remote gravel road where today’s Festa Italiana promises a celebration of Italian culture and a taste of “Chianti in the Carolinas,” Raffaldini Vineyards’ slogan. We park and amble past rosemary bushes and fig trees toward what looks like a centuries-old, tile-roofed Tuscan farmhouse. It’s a winery building of more recent vintage owned by the Raffaldini winemaking family, which traces its heritage back to 1348 and a farm in Mantua, Italy.
We leave our camp chairs at a shady spot on the lawn and head for the upstairs tasting room to sample wonderful pinot grigio, sangiovese and Montepulciano wines poured into take-home decorative glasses. Looking down upon colorful umbrellas, vineyards and the distant Blue Ridge Mountains, we drink in both our wine and the sublime Yadkin Valley setting. It’s not surprising many of these wineries are popular venues for weddings.
Relaxing in our chairs with Chianti and food sold on the grounds, we listen to a large combo performing Italian music and chat with a Harley club that rode in on motorcycles. Other folks show up via limousine, which strikes me as a fine idea for a wine festival. Then I remember that arriving in a motorhome is even a better idea. We could have a nap by the vineyard before driving back to the campground.
Sunday Fun in the Valley
Our third day’s agenda begins with Elkin Creek Vineyard and a charming stone-and-wood winery hidden down a grapevine-lined country road. Since we’re early for lunch, we walk to the creek behind the building to see an 1896 gristmill that once served the county.
Partner Jennifer White welcomes us, takes our order for pizza made in a wood-fired brick oven, and provides a list of wines we can order after 12 noon. Bob chooses a glass of Classico 2012, a Super-Tuscan blend, and I go for the Remembrances Reserve 2010, a smooth combo of merlot and sangiovese. Jennifer tells us they’ve been thinking of adding a couple of RV pads near their creekside rental cabins.
Elkin Creek’s pizza and wines are highly satisfying, and we’ll be looking for the label when we get home. Jennifer easily tempts us to split a slice of chocolate cake with a cabernet reduction drizzle for dessert. A warm breeze wafts past on the outdoor covered porch and we could sit here forever. But it’s time to move on to our afternoon plans 30 miles to the east.
There’s a “Crush Party” at Medaloni Cellars, one of the valley’s newest wineries, built on 22 acres in Lewisville and that old clip from “I Love Lucy” is flashing through my mind. We park in a field, pay our fee, and pick up souvenir T-shirts and tasting glasses. A youthful crowd has gathered around an industrial-chic bar made of pine planks and galvanized roofing in an open-air tasting pavilion. Bob joins the throng while I locate a couple of Adirondack-style chairs on the deck; each has a nifty design of a wine bottle and two glasses cut from the top of the backrest, and armrests slotted to hold stemware. After Bob prevails with a few samples, we listen to a guitarist and take in the trendy scene.
I notice a woman embracing her inner Lucille Ball, wearing a peasant blouse, dangling earrings and headscarf, which reminds me that the crush pad awaits down the hill. Alas, there’s no gigantic wooden barrel – today’s stompers must make do with square plastic containers. As we watch, a few women with manicured toenails climb in, raise their skirts and give the grapes a few dainty stomps.
Fine Swine Wines
I’ve made a great discovery since we left home. There’s a winery nearby linked to Bob’s favorite sport, NASCAR, and it’s open on Mondays. Team owner and former driver Richard Childress became a vintner 10 years ago. So instead of starting for home Sunday afternoon, we pull into the county-owned Tanglewood Park near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for the night. About half of the 44 paved sites are not level, but each has full hookups and even cable TV.
Monday morning we drive to Lexington, North Carolina, famous for its 20 barbecue restaurants, to visit Childress Vineyards. The Tuscan-style hilltop winery reminds me of a world-class luxury hotel surrounded by acres of vines and by emerald-green manicured grounds, flowers and fountains.
Through carved oak doors, we enter a two-level lobby complete with a reception desk, bistro and banquet hall. After we sample dry and full-bodied wines, the tasting room assistant manager, Donna Groce, leads us to the Barrel Cave and Barrel Room, where we can see wine fermenting through clear S-bubble airlocks.
Donna shows us the crush pad and a high-ceilinged room filled with enormous stainless tanks; perhaps some hold the “Fine Swine Wine,” created by award-winning winemaker Mark Friszolowski each October at Childress Vineyards. That’s when 200,000 people pile into town to feast on the local delicacy, vinegar-seasoned chopped pork, dished up at the Lexington Barbecue Festival (Oct. 24). Impressed by our surroundings and the excellent wines we tasted, we tote a half-case of favorites back to the motorhome.
Six Wineries Down, 134 To Go
Our long weekend has been an eye-opener; we’ve learned that North Carolina now has 140 wineries spread across the state, a number that doubled over the past six years. In addition to the Yadkin Valley, two other AVAs – Swan Creek and Haw River Valley – have been recognized by the federal government, and America’s most-visited winery is in Asheville at the Biltmore Estate Winery.
We’re looking forward to sharing our discoveries, and our case of superb wines, with friends and relatives. And who knows? When box-wine drinkers have sampled the good stuff, they may never go back to their old ways. We’ll have 134 more chances to find out, starting with our next spirited RV weekend.
Holly Ridge Campground
Elkin Creek Vineyard