For Michael and Patricia West, Divine Llama Vineyards
represents a beautiful marriage of wine and design
By Jim Dodson • Photographs by Amy Freeman
“Everything here,” says Michael West, “ is connected – the llamas to the land, the land to the grapes, the grapes to the wine. By design, it’s almost impossible to separate one from the other, a life that evolved out of our love for special animals and the pleasure of making good wine and a passion for creating an architectural overlay to enhance it.”
West, the versatile owner with wife Patricia of Divine Llama Vineyards in East Bend, knows a great deal about effective design. A native West Virginian who began his career in architecture at Virginia Tech and Philadelphia before relocating to Winston-Salem in the 1980s and joining the respected firm of Calloway, Johnson and Moore, West worked his way up to senior partner and president in the firm that had fingerprints on projects across the nation and internationally.
From his sketch board came notable structures like SciWorks of Winston-Salem (Kaleideum), BB&T Ballpark (recently named Truist Stadium), the Virginia Museum of Natural History and the spectacular U.S. Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville. West’s more recent designs include Forsyth Humane Society, Samaritan Ministries and a new office building rising above the first base line of First National Bank Field in Greensboro, home of the Hoppers.
In time, however, West realized something was missing. “After years of growing the firm to 120 employees in five offices, getting on and off airplanes and constantly traveling, I was only designing at night and on weekends. I was worn out and needed a major life change at 50,” he says.
In 2006, he sold CJMW to the firm’s junior partners and formed a boutique firm called West & Stem and Architects based out of an 1898 restored mill in Bethania, which allowed him “to get back in touch with the art of design and “something,” as he puts it, “that changed all our lives.”
That something was a deep – if unexpected – love for llamas, the domesticated South American camelid widely used as pack animal and fiber source in Andean culture. Recently, according to Smithsonian Magazine, researchers have discovered antibodies present in certain kinds of llamas that may even result in effective treatments against Covid-19. More important to the Family West, these docile and highly social creatures, which work well in a herd and produce incredibly soft lanolin wool, became almost as beloved as family members.
Their part of the family story dates from 2003 when the Wests and their three daughters resided on 15 rolling acres in a dream house Michael designed west of downtown Winston-Salem. “As the girls got older, I had this idea that we could start a small farm. They loved the idea, particularly the possibility of getting horses.”
West had other ideas, though. Family friends raved about owning pet llamas. “I knew absolutely nothing about them,” he explains, “but I started researching them and discovered that they’re about the coolest animals and would probably work out very well for us. But I wasn’t sure the girls would agree,”
He remembers the night around the supper table he presented the idea to his female brain trust, using a clever ploy. “I proposed that we start raising buffalo. You should have seen their faces. They were stunned, basically thought the idea was nuts. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘I have a second idea. How about raising llamas?’ They quickly warmed to the idea of llamas but they still wanted horses. So I proposed a compromise – mini horses for them and llamas for me. And that’s where all of this really began.”
West relates this amusing tale of familial compromise while seated on the deck of thriving Divine Llama Vineyards with a glass of his Mustang Sally wine in hand, a delicious white made from traminette grapes and named after one of their llamas. The sun is setting below the horizon of the 91 hilltop acres that provide an almost mythic view of Pilot Mountain a dozen miles to the north, tumbling hillsides that produce a dozen different varietals of grapes resulting in 8,000 bottles of Divine Llama brand wine each year.
West acquired the property for growing grapes and a llama herd in a bend of the Yadkin River in 2006 with the intent of designing a new house and farm. The property that included a new log home and a ramshackle farmhouse he didn’t quite know what to do with until he, Patricia and the friends who purchased the log house decided to grow grapes and maybe make a little wine.
“It started as a casual conversation,” he recalls. “We shared a love of drinking good wine and thought it might be fun to make some wine. Having become a serious student of wines in college, I knew absolutely nothing about growing grapes and making it. I’m an architect because I am good at math and art. Winemaking is about biology and chemistry overlaid with creativity.”
Their first step was to sign up for classes at the Center for Viticulture & Enology at Surry Community College, studying on Thursday nights and weekends for a year. In April of 2007, the Wests planted their first vines, 10 acres of cabernet franc, traminette, chardonnay and merlot grapes.
Two years later, in May of 2009, West and his partner offered six wines for sale to the public, with labels they designed featuring — what else? — llamas.
By then, the architect had transformed the ramshackle farmhouse — which Patricia originally invited the East Bend Volunteer Fire Department to use for a controlled burn — into a beautiful rustic tasting room, welcoming his first customers strictly by word of mouth. “In the beginning this was not a business venture. It was about a love of wine and, increasingly, the llamas,” he insists. “It couldn’t have worked out better. They eventually took over our lives.”
Today, the Wests boast a growing herd of 90 llamas — including five national champions — that they breed and show in competitions that rival the Westminster Dog Show in terms of style and sophistication, making them the largest llama breeders in the Southeast. A “silky” llama named Versailles even served as groomsman at daughter Addison’s wedding in 2012.
“They’re such remarkable creature, incredibly calm but fierce guardians against dogs and coyotes. They’re also gorgeous to look at. We found them to be the perfect complement to what we were doing with the wine – a natural magnet for people.”
As West points out, llamas led to the land, the land led to the wine, and the llamas brought the customers, who show up for picnics, proposals, wine tastings with pals, for weddings and special events, even to take two-hour guided treks with their own personal llamas.
“You can see how it all flows together.”
To this day, West has never spent a dime on advertising – or needed to. Divine Llama’s social media following is second in the state.
“Once people heard about the llamas, they began showing up in droves to see for themselves and found out how good our wines are in the process.” On any given weekend, even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, the vineyard’s parking lots are full of cars and food trucks while visitors stroll the property to take in the long views of Pilot Mountain and commune with llamas. There are also seven miniature horses and one miniature donkey in residence.
With growth has come changes, however. In 2019, best friends Leslie Messick and Paul Baumbach purchased the original partner’s ownership in the vineyards. Together, the partners have expanded the business with the addition of a superb outdoor tasting room, a line of related products (including skeins of llama wool) and the planting of more than 3,300 new vines in early 2020.
For six years in a row, the Wests hosted a cycling event that raised $40,000 in 2019 for Samaritan Ministries and serves the homeless population of Winston-Salem. Owing to Coronavirus this year, the event has been postponed. As of this writing, the vineyard’s popular annual Crafty Llama Art Craft and Vintage Show that features 60 local artist and crafters is still scheduled for the first Saturday of November.
Like others across North Carolina’s vibrant homegrown wine industry, Divine Llama has carved out its own special niche by blending exotic animal appeal with a dozen reds and whites that have claimed half a tasting room wall of impressive competition medals but don’t come close to explaining the charm of a few hours spent sampling fine wine in the company of llamas.
“There’s a little bit of architecture in everything we do,” insists West, who remains an active designer at a youthful age of 62, but spends long days doing chores around the busy property even as he’s thinking about newly planted vines and different blends of European grapes he’s eager to create. “Some work quite well, others we try for a while and wait for the customers to give us the verdict. Every year I do a new wine, and if it works – great. If not, we let it go.”
A fairly recent surprise, he says, was a blend of traminette grapes with peach concentrate called Versailles (“Si” for short) that became a runaway hit, especially with millennial women. “About 60 percent of our visitors are Millennial women,” he points out with a laugh. “If you are a single twenty-something male looking to find a date for the weekend, this may be the place to do it.”
Another wine called Merlina – 95 percent merlot and five percent blackberry essence — was also a surprise hit. Not long ago, West introduced a refreshing sparkling white wine made from traminette grapes that has quickly found a following. All of their wine blends are named after their llamas, like national champion “Mandarb,” a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot.
“If you would have told me 30 years ago that we would live in the midst of all of this, I probably would have laughed at you. But I can’t imagine any other life and neither can our daughters and and their husbands — all of whom have close connections to the wine and the llamas.”
For their part, the Wests literally reside in the midst of their Divine acres in a unique house he designed with an attached barn and a novel breezeway running east to west through it, a beautiful 2,800-square-foot, post-and-beam house with northern views of Pilot Mountain, surrounded by lush vineyards and pastures full of llamas. “Literally, Mandarb lives in part of the house – just through the doorway into his part of the barn,” West says. “That comes in handy when the babies start to arrive in the fall.” This fall, 21 births are due.
“It all connects and flows together,” the architect of Divine Llama repeats like a mantra as a trio of his happy customers — two smiling millennial women with their mother drift past, relaxed and smiling, wine-glasses in hand — “almost by design.”
Want to visit? Divine Llama Vineyards is at 4126 Divine Llama Lane, East Bend, NC, 27018. (336)699-2525. Wine priced $19 to $36 per bottle