Burgundy in the Foothills
“Nobody goes to the Louvre and comes back and says, ‘Did you see the frame around the Mona Lisa? It’s unbelievable!’ So my painting is the grapes — it’s what God gave us, and the weather. It’s history in a bottle.” Such is the philosophy of winemaking — terroir taking precedence over barrel-aging — according to J.W. Ray, co-owner, along with his wife, Kristen, who serves as the winemaker and vineyard manager of JOLO Winery & Vineyards. Though perched quite literally at the base of a beloved North Carolina icon, Pilot Mountain, whose distinctive rounded dome looms over the slopes of 80 acres of vines and Cox Lake, the winery produces vintages reflecting Ray’s love of wines much more distant: French burgundies.
Having grown up in the restaurant business in his native Boston and running his own restaurant for a time, Ray became a self-taught oenophile. After 20-odd years working in the software industry in Florida, he and Kristen bought the property around Pilot Mountain about 10 years ago and moved just as their sons Joey and Logan — the winery’s namesakes — were entering fifth and sixth grade. It was a giant leap of faith, considering Ray “didn’t know a soul” in the area. But he soon found an “instant friend” in Sean McRitchie, who had a wealth of experience making wines in Oregon, California, and Alsace-Lorraine, before establishing his own concern, McRitchie Winery & Ciderworks, just north of Elkin.
“He let me shadow him for a couple of years,” Ray explains. Meantime, his own vines were growing, and construction had started in converting a nearby house to the restaurant to be named End Posts, plus a tasting room. In 2013 Ray had his first harvest and produced 864 cases of wine. By 2018, that number had jumped to 8,200, as JOLO “caught fire.”
And all because Ray stayed true to his commitment to terroir. He doesn’t let the grapes languish in their skins, a point he makes when discussing petit verdot, which he presses after just three days, retaining the fruit’s dark color while removing “all that bitter junk.” Nor does he allow any whole cluster pressing, meaning that he removes all the stems — a seemingly slight gesture but one particularly evident in the clean, crisp finish of his whites, such as the vidal blanc/traminette-based Golden Hallows imbued with hints of peach and melon. Perhaps most important, especially for the reds, Ray ages his grapes for a scant seven months or less — and in brand-new barrels made of Italian, French or American oak. Unlike Napa’s winemakers, who require about 18 months to “tame” their bold, jammy grapes, Ray trusts the flavors from his terroir, creating complex, balanced wines teeming with mineral notes and flavors of the earth.
The ever-popular Crimson Creek made from chambourcin with its velvety texture, contains notes of violet and cherry, while, Jolotage, a bolder blend, explodes with echoes of berries, prompting some patrons to refer to the wine as “Joltage.”
JOLO’s fans flock to the winery — even during the covid-restricted era, thanks in large part to devoted members of a wine club, not to mention top-rated food and service from a staff of locals Ray trained himself. And of course, the numerous awards heaped on the wines in recent years have helped spread the word.
For two consecutive years JOLO’s pièce de résistance, Pilot Fog, has won the prestigious Jefferson Cup in the category for red non-vinifera wine. Made from the cynthiana or norton grape (which Ray likens to a syrah), its flavors of blackberry and cherry subtly unfold on the palate into an elegant elixir. This is not just history in a bottle but art . . . as enigmatic and enchanting as the Mona Lisa’s smile. h— Nancy Oakley
JOLO Winery & Vineyards, 219 JOLO Winery Lane, Pilot Mountain. Reservations are required for tastings and lunch. For information on events, such as vertical food pairings, call (336) 614-0030 or visit jolovineyards.com.