By Paul Vigna
Blame it on the scuppernong. A variety of the Muscadine, it’s not only the official fruit of North Carolina but the first grape cultivated in the United States. Indeed, the Mothervine in Manteo on Roanoke Island, a nearly 500-year-old scuppernong vine, is the oldest-known cultivated grapevine in the nation. No state makes more Muscadine, a unique and often sweet wine.
But the flip side of those facts is a false perception that possesses deep roots for a state that ranks 11th in the country in wine production.
“I often hear that North Carolina only makes sweet wines, but these consumers only know half of the story,” says Thomas “Whit” Winslow, executive director of the state’s Wine & Grape Council. “I always tell these consumers that we are very proud of this heritage and suggest they taste a Muscadine wine if they never have. Then I tell them about all the wines and styles being created in the Yadkin Valley, Swan Creek, and further west, into the mountains, and some of the wines coming out of those regions.”
Those include the European-style vinifera so prominent across the country, grown on 525 individually owned vineyards on 2,300 acres that stretch from the Outer Banks to the mountains around Asheville, home of the United States’ most-visited winery (Biltmore Estate). Some of those vines grow on portions of five American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) located in North Carolina.
All told, there are 186 wineries making over 1.1 million cases annually in a state where many know the history of NASCAR and auto racing is tied to the early distribution of booze, but fewer realize how far the state has come in making quality wine.
“We’re still trying to figure out what grows well and what our identity is and how to best tell the story to consumers that may not know much about N.C. wines,” admits Patricia and Sean McRitchie, a husband and wife who run McRitchie Winery & Ciderworks in Thurmond, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Patricia and Sean McRitchie
Sean’s father was a winemaker in California and Oregon, and that drew his interest at an early age, spring-boarding him to work at premier wine regions around the world. Almost 20 years ago he brought that experience to North Carolina, where he would establish a large vineyard and winery in the Yadkin Valley and later found a winery and vineyard consulting business with his wife, a former criminal attorney and judge. Their winery and cidery opened in 2008, where their whites include a Traminette and reds feature a reserve blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Based on their history, they were asked about drawing parallels between the West Coast of their past and the East Coast of their present.
“We were in Oregon and Washington in the very early days of their wine industries when they were still trying to figure out what varieties were best suited for the different growing regions,” they say. “We saw how long it took before people really started to pay attention to wines coming out of Oregon and Washington and before those states really developed any meaningful wine tourism.
“The Yadkin Valley has done a decent job of promoting itself as an area with wine tourism, but North Carolina wines are still far from the first choice of most North Carolina consumers and retailers. Since winemaking is procedural, North Carolina will evolve, through trial and error, planting and replanting, and time.”
Diana and Chuck Jones and Ronnie and Raymond von Drehle share the same post office as the McRitchies, having purchased a farm in 2007 and opened Jones von Drehle Winery seven years later. Diana and Ronnie are sisters, making this a family-owned operation.
They, too, represent the emerging North Carolina wine industry, producing their wines exclusively from the 30 acres of vines they planted all at once, more than 24,000 vines in all. Among the grapes they’ll harvest over the next couple of months are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Viognier, and Chardonnay.
Excellence, they say, is the experience they create for their guests and the quality they put in their wines, helping to account for the more than 20,000 guests they have welcomes since opening, a growing wine club and a distribution network that includes more than 325 restaurant and wine shops across the state. Achieving it has meant surmounting hurdles; one East Coast wineries in general have had to cross.
“Wine is a discretionary commodity. We compete with wines from around the world,” they say. “North Carolina enjoys a robust alcohol industry, from beer to cider to spirits to mead to wine. Yet we are faced with a unique challenge in wine [because of the Muscadine]. Our fine wine industry lives in the shadow of North Carolina wines that are predominantly sweet or fruity. Through tireless travel and demonstration, we endeavor to move this perception to a center point where customers recognize the region produces both sweet and dry wines of high quality.”
No one winery will advance the region alone. Winslow notes that marketing is important, but so is raising the overall quality of the product. “It’s not enough to tell people how good our wines are, we have to back it up, and we are,” he says. Even if the entire industry – one estimated to have an economic impact on the state of $1.97 billion – isn’t in agreement on the direction, it’s important that a majority speak with one voice. “That is something that we definitely have here in North Carolina. Our wineries are proud to be in this state and work hard to show the world that we are producing some great wines here,” he says.
Raffaldini Vineyards is a former winner of the Winegrowers’ Cup, which recognizes the best wine made in the state every year, and current holder of a Best in Show award at the 2017 state Fine Wines Society competition. That both accolades went to a Montepulciano shouldn’t surprise those familiar with the collection of largely southern Italian varietals that the winery grows in the hilly Swan Creek region of western North Carolina. With a lineage that dates to the 14th century in Italy, the winery sits on a piece of land that, according to its website, closely resembles the winemaking regions of central and southern Italy.
But Jay Raffaldini, owner and winemaker, admits that a few things were lost in the translation when he planted the grapes for his “Chianti in the Carolinas” more than 15 years ago. He began with largely northern Italian grapes, but with each passing year it became obvious that the climate there supported fruit used to more heat and humidity.
So he has replanted his vineyards several times, an expensive endeavor but one less costly, he says, “than having crappy wines.”
He also has adopted a post-harvest process called Appassimento, which helps him make what he calls “big, dark-structured reds” by allowing the grapes to dehydrate. It’s a style that has worked for other East Coast wineries including Bordeleaux Vineyards & Winery in Eden, Md., which won that state’s Governor’s Cup a few years back with its 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Amarone, produced in a similar style.
Combine these decisions with a business philosophy to make eight wines a year – from Vermentino and Pinot Grigio to Montepulciano, Sagrantino and Sangiovese – and Raffaldini says he feels like his “less is more” philosophy that parallels Va La Vineyards in Pennsylvania’s Chester County has been the more direct route to excellence.
“Too many people want to be all things to everyone. ‘I have five sweet wines, I have nine whites. I have hybrids.’ So if you have 20 or 30 wines, what are you known for?” he asks. “What I’m trying to say is, identify your niche and stay on it.”
He adds, “A lot of pushing the boundary is ‘this is what I need to do to get to that style of wine.’ Some people might say, ‘It’s too cost-prohibitive, I’m going to deviate from my style.’ But if that’s the style you want, you’ve got to be rigid and pursue that.”
Additional wineries to consider for a taste of quality North Carolina wines, in alphabetical order:
- Biltmore Estate Winery, 1 Approach Road, Asheville, NC
- Childress Vineyards, 1000 Childress Vineyards Road, Lexington, NC
- JOLO Winery & Vineyards, 219 Jolo Winery Ln, Pilot Mountain, NC
- RayLen Vineyards, 3577 US-158, Mocksville, NC
- Sanctuary Vineyards, 7005 Caratoke Highway, Jarvisburg, NC
- Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards, 588 Chestnut Gap Road, Hendersonville, NC
This article is just one of our exclusive “In Pursuit of Excellence” series that highlights the champions of wine quality in Eastern U.S. wine industry who are impacting the reputation of the entire region. In Pursuit of Excellence is also the theme for the 2018 U.S. Wine & Beverage Exposition & Conference scheduled for February 21st & 22nd in Washington, D.C.