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Trail of cheers 

Swirling, sniffing, sipping and spitting through North Carolina wine country

As lovers of vino surely know by now, wineries are popping up across the United States faster than whack-a-moles. North Carolina is no exception, but this isn't surprising. After all, North Carolina was the largest wine producing state prior to Prohibition. Not one of the largest -- THE largest. It was also the first colony to cultivate grapes for wine.

click to enlarge GRAPE SCOTT: Young vines at Childress Vineyards - TRICIA CHILDRESS

But by Prohibition's repeal, only one winery remained. By 1950, there were no wineries in North Carolina.

Today every state is getting into wine production, even Alaska. Currently, of the 5,110 wineries in the United States, 1,773 are located outside of California, Oregon, Washington and New York. And visiting these local wineries has become a multibillion-dollar industry.

Wine trails, those designated routes along which consumers sample an area's wine, are typically associated with older wine regions where the land has become so valuable that wineries and their vineyards are squeezed together, spandex style -- with barely enough breathing room or travel distance between. Such is the case in Napa, Sonoma and much of the European wine growing regions. An aerial look of these agricultural regions reveals a patchwork of properties.

But North Carolina's first appellation, the Yadkin Valley, features elevations ranging from 700 to 1,300 feet and a long growing season. This valley is a 1.4 million-acre region that follows the contours of the Yadkin River through seven counties: Wilkes, Surry, Yadkin, Stokes, Forsyth, Davidson and Davie. Wineries here are not close together.

In the last 10 years, North Carolina wineries have opened with such speed that the N.C. Wine and Grape Council had to double check the number of open wineries. Currently there are 63 bonded wineries across the state. Of those, 50 are viniferous, although some of these make small quantities of Muscadine wine as well. In addition, 400 commercial grape growers across the state sell their juice to wineries.

In the 1970s, as California leapt to international attention, Jack Koustalis established the 40-acre Westbend Vineyards in Lewisville. Against the advice of agricultural authorities, he planted viniferous grapes: chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, Riesling, gamay, merlot and sauvignon blanc. But statewide recognition to Carolina wines only came after the Biltmore Estate Winery in Asheville released their first estate-grown wines in 1985.

The largest boost to the infant wine industry came in 1999 when many wineries were established in what is now the Yadkin Valley AVA. The most remarkably beautiful is Shelton Vineyards in Dobson. Shelton was established by Charlie and Ed Shelton, brothers who made their money in construction but were from the Dobson area and had witnessed the decline of tobacco farming. They saw wine as a way to diversify farming and open new industries such as tourism. They opened their 33,000-square-foot facility with a state-of-the-art gravity flow method, similar to the system used by such notable wineries as Opus One in Napa and Domaine Drouhin in Oregon.

The Sheltons are responsible for much of the development of the Carolina wine industry. They pushed to have the Yadkin Valley named an appellation. They helped change North Carolina's wine shipping laws (so North Carolinians can have wine shipped in and the Sheltons can send their wines out of state), and they provided funding for the Surry Community College's viticulture program, the only one on the East Coast to have an onsite vineyard. SCC's two-year viticulture and enology program has recently been joined with a four-year program at Appalachian State University.

At the other end of the Yadkin Valley, Richard Childress (no relation to the author), owner of Richard Childress Racing Enterprises, a 19-time championship team owner whose stable once included the legendary Dale Earnhardt, helped North Carolina wines gain regional popularity. In 2004 he opened Childress Vineyards in Lexington and soon thereafter a host of NASCAR fans, not known for swilling wine, descended on the tasting room.

Today North Carolina ranks 12th in United States in wine production with annual sales of $25 million and is 10th in grape production.

click to enlarge BARRELS OF FUN: Westbend Vinyeards - SHELTON VINEYARDS
  • Shelton Vineyards
  • BARRELS OF FUN: Westbend Vinyeards

The burgeoning wine industry is spurring other wine-related businesses. Many of the North Carolinian wineries -- Shelton, Childress, Hanover Park and Westbend -- reported using some Hungarian oak barrels as well as American and French oak. Why Hungarian? Three years ago, a native Hungarian, Balint Gaspar, and three partners formed Stave Worldwide, a wine barrel company located in Mocksville, N.C., that sells Hungarian barrels (as well as American and French oak barrels).

Gaspar says the taste profile of Hungarian oak is very similar to French since they are the same subspecies of oak. Contributing to the popularity of his barrels is the price -- Hungarian oak barrels run 20 to 30 percent less than French. Gaspar says, "A lot of the new [North Carolina] wineries have large debts to pay off and are more receptive to trying Hungarian oak. For centuries, Hungarian oak was a cost-effective alternative to French, but with Communism, Hungarian oak barrels [were] forgotten."

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