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Wine In The Fast Lane 

NC growers include NASCAR success story

Richard Childress, owner of Richard Childress Racing Enterprises, is one of the great success stories in NASCAR racing with six Winston Cup Series championships, and whose stable once included the legendary Dale Earnhardt. Yet I had no clue who Richard Childress was when I first moved to NASCAR country. Am I related to Richard Childress, as people frequently ask? Well, when the locals asked that question after my car broke down while driving through Flintville, Tennessee, a town as big as it sounds, on a late Sunday afternoon, indeed I was. After all, somewhere back in that dusty DNA link, we just may be. Heck, probably are.

Now it appears "RC," as he is known among friends and family, and I have more in common than I had previously thought. This October, he will celebrate the opening of Childress Vineyards in Lexington, NC, which will become one of the largest vineyards in the state.

Childress became interested in wine in the early 1970s: "Back before wine was cool," he said. When he raced in California he took every opportunity to visit local wineries around Riverside and Ontario, California. Soon Napa and Sonoma emerged as a premiere vinicultural area with wineries he enjoyed visiting and wines he enjoyed tasting.

Today Childress prefers Bordeaux and blends. "Owning a winery was something I had always wanted to do," he said. Childress had plans drawn up for his winery in the early 1990s This year, construction on the estate will be completed and as of this spring he had 60 acres planted.

What a stunning contrast: slow wine and fast cars, wine and NASCAR, agriculture and automobiles, barbecue and barbarossa. This sure ain't Kansas anymore.

Currently North Carolina, which was the first American colony to produce wine, is giving rebirth to a wine industry. Historically the industry took an economic hit, to put it mildly, during the Civil War, and then became incapacitated during Prohibition. All wineries in North Carolina had closed by 1950. Today, however, with the ever increasing popularity of wine and the replanting of tobacco fields, North Carolina has almost three dozen wineries just in the Yadkin Valley, and the list is growing.

Mark Friszolowski is the winemaker and general manager at Childress Vineyards. Friszolowski has been making wine since 1986 in New York. He first talked to Childress in May 2003. "I didn't know who he was. I didn't follow racing," Friszolowski recalled. At that time Friszolowski oversaw winemaking and vineyard operations with Pindar Vineyards and its sister winery, Duck Walk Vineyards. Pindar is located in Peconic, New York, and has a 100,000-case facility with 550 acres of vineyards growing 16 different vinifera varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Viognier, and Syrah. Pindar is Long Island's largest winery.

Childress poured on the charm and talked Friszolowski to coming down to taste the wines at RayLen Vineyards and Winery in Mocksville, NC. "Those wines showed promise," Friszolowski said. Both mindful and energized by the challenge, Friszolowski packed his bags and moved south. Today he considers himself a pioneer.

Most of the large wineries in North Carolina have the luxury of planting a variety of varitals. The challenge for Friszolowski will be to find the right grapes for the soil, and ones that can be grown in weather which can be hot and humid in the summer. Excessive green growth is challenging since grapes are Type A personality -- they need to be stressed in order to produce good wine.

"I know what is going to work," Friszolowski said. "You know, grapes will grow anywhere." Thus far Friszolowski has Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Viognier, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdon (Bordeaux's classic black grape) in the ground.

The Childress vineyard acreage is not contiguous. Although the estate, with the 34,000-square-foot wine-making facility, has 350 areas, another other smaller parcel is located catty corner from Lexington #1 Barbecue. You have got to love that concept: vinifera grapes growing across the street from Carolina's best 'cue.

"You have to find the right clone with the right root stock. If you get the formula, it will work, but this isn't a game for the faint hearted. There are challenges here. This part of Yadkin Valley is a bit warmer in the fall and then this year we had a late spring frost. We have fungal diseases and viral diseases."

Other difficulties lie in state licensing and the construction. Friszolowski continued, "There are a lot of obstacles here and government regulations. I have never seen anything remotely close to this. In New York there are tax benefits and a lot of advantage. Wineries are taxed as a factory. Here we are food processing."

As Friszolowski overcomes each hurdle, he looks forward to this October when Childress Vineyards will release the first wine bottled in their facilities with juice from both their acreage and other vineyards in North Carolina. Anticipated price points are $8 to $17.

I'm looking forward to this as well. A friend of mine who shares a last name with a famous French Champagne house, uses that link to his advantage when requesting a table in New York restaurants: "Of course I am related to those Krugs." Something to remember next time my car breaks down in front of a Carolina winery.

Opening in October, Childress Vineyards, One Childress Vineyards Drive, Lexington, NC. Tasting room. 336-236-9463. Driving directions: intersection of US 52 and US 64 in Lexington, NC.

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