North Carolina vintages have ascended to a new level
There was a time in the decades that followed Prohibition when pairing the words “North Carolina” and “wine” was unthinkable. And in the minds of sophisticated palates, who eschewed the state’s sweet, muscadine-based wines, undrinkable. European varietals? Fuggeddaboudit. Conventional wisdom declared N.C.’s soil and humid climate too unforgiving to grow vinifera grapes.
But bucking convention in 1972, Jack and Lillian Kroustalis planted their first European varietals in Westbend Vineyards in Lewisville and the North Carolina wine industry literally took root.
Bolstered by a study out of Virginia Tech that deemed the loamy soil and microclimates of the Yadkin Valley conducive to growing vinifera, the fledgling winery was successful and forged the way for others: The Neely family who established RayLen in Mocksville; Richard Childress; Ed and Charlie Shelton, Lenna and Frank Hobson of RagApple Lassie. With skilled winemakers such as RayLen’s Steve Shepard, a.k.a. “the godfather” who lured fellow “cellar rat” Mark Friszolowski from New York to Childress Vineyards and mentored Hanover Park’s Michael and Amy Helton, North Carolina’s viticultural reputation was on the rise.
Vintners such as Jay Raffaldini and Sean McRitchie added their know-how to the equation. Younger generations, savvier about food, travel and wine have increased demand for local wines. Today the industry is in full flower, ranking 11th in U.S. wine production with 1.1 million cases produced in 2017.
The state’s five viticultural areas contain some 500 acres of vineyards and nearly 200 wineries (up from around 50-some 15 years ago). Garnerning kudos, awards and recognition for their efforts, some echo the ambiance of Italy and France, while others combine various aesthetics — all with a Tar Heel twist. As hosts to festivals, wine trails, dinners, concerts, art exhibits, wine clubs and weddings, they’re fusing the agricultural with hospitality, and were recreating a pre-pandemic impact of $1.97 billion. It’s a natural evolution from Westbend’s fledgling vines back in the early ’70s, though some might credit the hand of providence. For a sampling of wine by design, we present a handful of wineries in the Piedmont that strike our fancy. There are far too many to include among these pages, so we suggest consulting Visit Winston-Salem (visitwinstonsalem.com ) or the North Carolina Wine and Grape Council (ncwine.org) to, er, uncork more information. And enjoy. Santé, y’all! — Nancy Oakley
Illustration by Harry blair