Arthur Barham of Merlot2Muscadine media is known for his wine tastings, pairing foods with wines he wants to share with fellow wine lovers. In honor of NC Wine Month in May, Arthur hosted two tastings to allow his wine friends to taste and compare North Carolina wines with wines from other producers. The result? So much fun and a new appreciation among the tasters for sparkling wines and Tannat.
A newly minted Sommelier I, Arthur enjoys the planning and pairings that go into his wine tastings. “I love conducting wine tastings especially when I get to expand a person’s knowledge of wine or promote their curiosity about learning more,” he said.
Arthur’s tasting event for sparkling wines drew a some stormy response. We had barely started the tasting, and Arthur was explaining various methods for creating sparkling wine, when suddenly the wind picked up, rain started to pour, and the lights went out. No more slides!
But that didn’t stop the fun. With light from the windows, candles and cell phone flashlights, we started pouring and tasting four NC sparkling wines and rating them. It was clear that our group had a diverse palate and preferences in sparkling wines. In the end, the group’s favorites were sparkling wines the 2022 Raffaldini Augurirom and 2019 Piccione Vino di Lusso.
The sparkling wines were paired with some yummy, salty rich foods, including French fries, horseradish potato chips, candied bacon strips and prosciutto-wrapped dates. We finished it all off with cheesecake and strawberries with whipped cream.
Tasting 2: Tannat
If you are a lover of red wines, you’ve surely tasted Tannat, which is produced in Europe, South America and North America. As we learned from our tasting, North Carolina is making some pretty good Tannats.
Arthur rented a community center in Fuquay-Varina to host this tasting. The foods he served up included barbecued pork and smoked turkey, with “drunken beans” and a chocolate brownie for dessert. Participants in the tasting included Matt Kemberling and Joe Brock, the NC Wine Guys; Brianna Burns of the NC Wine and Grape Council, Dave Nershi of Vino Sphere, and Dathan Kazsuk and Jen Primrose of Triangle Around Town and Local 919 wine and beer shop.
We took an hour to taste and rank seven Tannats, including three from North Carolina, two from Virginia, one from Texas, and one from both France and Uruguay.
The third-place winner was the 2008 Kerrville Hills Tannat from Texas; second place went to a 2019 Surry Cellars Tannat from NC; and the top pick was the 2019 Shelton “259” Tannat, also from NC.
Arthur wonders if the strong showing of NC wines in this tasting shows that wine lovers, particularly in this state, are developing a taste for the local terroir and winemaking styles. Definitely a possibility!
Just west of the line where Forsyth, Guilford, Rockingham and Stokes counties meet, there are three rural wineries that represent the best in North Carolina wine. We recently visited two of them on a rainy Friday afternoon when we nearly had both tasting rooms to ourselves.
Stonefield Cellars’ owners Natalie and Robert Wurz met in the corporate world, but with Robert’s PhD in enology and their connections through the NC Winegrower’s Association, their dream of opening a winery became a reality in 2006. The name Stonefield Cellars came from their love of landscaping with stone.
The initial vineyard on the property was planted with 11 wine grape varietals to determine what would grow well, but only one varietal, Niagara, remains. Robert has always sourced from contract growers in North Carolina, but now also supplements with varietals that grow well in his native state of California.
The winery’s tasting room is open Thursday through Sunday. Guests are welcome bring in outside food or purchase snacks at the winery (cheese and cracker plates, or charcuterie trays). The winery schedules food trucks periodically and every Friday night during the outdoor concert season. Outside food is not allowed on Friday nights to support the food truck. Indoor and outdoor seating is available year-round, and outside the tasting room, guests can enjoy a visit from their friendly cats.
Wine tastings are by self-guided flights that include seven wines and a souvenir glass. There are currently 18 wines to choose from. We were impressed with all the wines we chose – the whites are especially good. We brought home a Gewurztraminer and Mountain Mama Madness Red, a blend of Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Petite Syrah.
It’s clear that Stonefield Cellars through its 17-year history has become a gathering place for the community. Many of the events held at the winery reflect Robert and Natalie’s personal interests. Music events are held year-round; outside in warm weather and in the production room during cooler weather. The winery hosts a monthly bluegrass jam for High Lonesome Strings and has its own Sippin’ and Readin’ Book Club.
On Earth Day earlier this month, Natalie planned a hike at a nearby nature preserve, followed by a winery visit. Robert enjoys sharing his winemaking knowledge with others, and when we were there, small-batch wines from a Winemaking 101 class were just beginning to ferment.
The rain surprised everyone that day – Natalie had to set aside her yardwork plans, and we didn’t get to spend time enjoying the outside space at the winery. That just gives us a reason to go back again soon.
We drove north about 30 minutes to Gioia dell’Amore Cellars (pronounced joy-a del a-mor-ay), at Autumn Creek Vineyards. The winery’s owners, David and Laura Comer came from Texas to purchase the winery in 2021. They had already taken winemaking classes at Texas Tech University and wanted to open a winery of their own.
In Texas, they began looking at wineries, but David really wanted to move where he could experience changing seasons. The couple began looking in the Carolinas and found Autumn Creek Vineyards in North Carolina was for sale, and it turned out to be their perfect new wine home.
They had already chosen a winery name and had their branding board completed prior to finding the property. The name Gioia dell’Amore is Italian for “the joy of love” – and they also kept the name “at Autumn Creek Vineyards” as a nod to the winery’s original name.
The tastings are five wines for $10 or 10 wines for $15. Gioia dell’Amore is still selling wines with the Autumn Creek label, they but have begun introducing their own wine labels, including a blush and sparking blush made from Chambourcin and Merlot. To extend the diversity of their tastings, they include an Italian Montepulciano on their wine list, as well as a couple of muscadine wines made from North Carolina Carlos and Noble grapes.
We were really impressed with the sparkling wine, First Kiss, and purchased a bottle to bring home.
The tasting room was warm and bright on a cool rainy afternoon, with a fire in the fireplace. From the tasting bar, you can look out into the vineyards. In addition, there are several event spaces on the grounds for weddings and more. There are overnight accommodations onsite, including two free-standing cabins and several lodging suites. The winery will host a luau at the end of April as a benefit to the Barry L. Joyce Local Cancer Fund.
Normally, those coming to the winery from the south or east could take Hwy 220 to 770, but construction on the 770 overpass requires you to exit south of there and wind your way to 770. However, you can still exit back onto 220 from 770.
About 20 minutes from Gioia dell’Amore is Dragon Glass Vineyards with a Madison address. Dragon Glass specializes in muscadine wines, but also serves beer. We didn’t make it there on this recent trip, but will have to make that a stop on a future visit.
COVID has wreaked havoc on conferences since 2020, but this year’s conference of the NC Winegrower’s Association, held in Winston-Salem Feb. 2-4, felt like a return to normal for the state’s wine industry. One grower described it as high-energy, adding, “it felt more like a reunion than a conference.”
From the sessions that Tarheel Taps & Corks attended, there were three takeaways about the state of North Carolina wine.
More North Carolinians are visiting our state wineries
Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, tourists have tended to stay closer to home. That may be why a survey of winery guests found an increase in the number of North Carolina residents visiting state wineries last year.
UNCG faculty Erick Byrd and Sam Troy, with help from their students, are working on results of a 2022 tasting room survey. Students collected nearly 600 surveys of guests at 22 wineries across North Carolina last summer. The when the study is complete, it will include recommendations for winery tasting rooms.
The survey included questions about where guests came from and who they traveled with, what attracted them to a winery, what their wine-consumption habits were and what they planned to purchase while visiting.
Since the last tasting room survey conducted in 2012, the percentage of winery guests from North Carolina has increased, likely due to the pandemic. But another possible reason for the increase is that local consumers have a greater awareness of North Carolina wine than in the past.
The survey also found:
On average, guests visited 1-2 number of wineries per trip
Nearly 70% of guests planned to buy one or more bottles of wine during their visit
Guests’ preference for red wines increased dramatically from 2012 to 2022, while their preference for white wines remained about the same
Word of mouth recommendations were the most important factor driving guests’ choice of which wineries to visit
Access to food at the winery or close by or the chance to bring food in were all important features to winery guests
Once the survey results are finalized, the researchers will make recommendations on strategies wineries can take to attract more guests and improve their guests’ winery experience.
The wine glass you use makes a difference
Of course I have known about Riedel’s fine crystal wine glasses, but had never experienced how the same wine can taste differently depending on the glass you drink it from. The 265-year-old crystal company based in Austria made it their business to create the right glass for the right wine.
Riedel representative Susan Dubrow guided us through tasting four different wines in five different glasses: Extreme Restaurant Rose, Riedel Restaurant (designed for Sauvignon Blanc), Riedel Performance Restaurant (designed for Pinot Noir and Chambourcin), Degustazione Red, and stemless Riedel O Restaurant for Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab Franc.
We “played with” our wine, pouring small amounts into different glasses, then tasting the wine to discover the result. To me, the greatest taste difference was for the Jolo Vineyards Rose, which we tasted from three different glasses.
From the Extreme Rose (Glass 1), the Rose filled the whole pallet – the acid and sweetness of the fruit were both , strong. From the Restaurant (Glass 2), the wine was less acid. And from the Degustazione (Glass 4), the wine was more tart. Finally, we tasted the wine from the plastic cup it was poured in, and it fell flat, screaming of acid. (Never drink wine in a plastic cup again!)
We continued to experiment with the glasses, pouring a Shelton Sauvignon Blanc, a Hanover Park Chambourcin and a Shadow Springs Cab Franc. The taste of each wine varied with the glass we drank it from.
As a bonus, we got to bring home our tasting glasses in a big black Riedel bag, each wrapped in red tissue paper. Can’t wait to try my own tastings with these glasses.
Sparkling wine production is growing in North Carolina
A few years ago, it was hard to find a sparkling wine produced in North Carolina, let alone a good one. But today, quite a few wineries are producing their own sparkling wine, using different methods.
At the final session of the conference, Ed Williams of the Greensboro News & Record introduced three of the sparkling wines produced here and gave winemakers a chance to share their production processes. By show of hands, a number of the wineries represented in the room indicated that they produce a sparkling wine.
Two of the sparkling wines – Childress Blanc de Blancs Brut and Biltmore Chateau Reserve – are made by the traditional method. The Shelton Sparkling Riesling is made using the tank method, with added carbonation.
Making a sparkling wine by any method is challenging. Biltmore winemaker Sharon Fenchak told the group that sparkling season is, “the most stressful time of the year.” And Childress winemaker Mark Friszolowski said, “you can’t make a mistake with sparkling.”
And we are so glad that they are taking a chance on sparkling.
New officers elected For the first time, the Winegrower’s Association will be led by two women, Hailey Klepcyk of Piccione Vineyards, president; and Becky Muhlenburg of Haze Gray Vineyards, vice president. Justin Johnson of Shadow Springs Vineyard will be treasurer, and Chuck Johnson, also of Shadow Springs Vineyard, will be secretary.
Awards were presented in the following categories:
Bunch grapes wine, Shadow Springs Vineyard, 2019 Petit Verdot
Muscadine grapes wine, Cypress Bend, Autumn
Meade, Honey Girl Meadery, Strawberry Honey
Grower of the Year (selected by NC State University’s Mark Hoffman), Philip Oglesby, Biltmore Vineyard Supervisor
Member of Distinction, Julia Kiger, Childress Vineyards
The food and wine pairings known as “Taste of NC” continued in Winston-Salem, as part of the conference. There were so many pairings I didn’t get around to trying them all. The good news is that these events will continue across the state this year, in Wilmington, the Triangle area and Charlotte.
The speakers for the individual sessions were all very good, with most representing North Carolina wineries or some other area of the wine industry.
Winegrowers can dance! The closing dinner on Saturday night wrapped up with a DJ and dancing, a real experience.
On a trip to Asheville in 2016, we headed out to visit Highland Brewing, a 40-acre site on the east edge of town. Though it was still early – before 9 pm – the brewery’s taproom was already closed, and we missed our chance to have a beer and hang out for a while. (Lesson 1 about Asheville breweries: Pay attention to the hours!)
We were back in Asheville recently and planned a little more carefully for a visit to the brewery that included a tour and tasting (tours are offered Fridays through Sundays). We gathered in the taproom with our tour guide Douglas, who took us through the ins and outs of the brewery.
Highland holds a key place in the history of this Beer City USA as the first craft brewery in town, opening in 1994. Today, the Asheville Brewers Guild has 40 member breweries, accounting for about 10% of all breweries in the state of North Carolina.
On our tour, we tasted as we strolled through the facility. First up, Highland’s signature Gaelic Ale, then a dark seasonal beer. We got a look at different shades of malt and learned how the variations from dark to light can influence the flavor profile of beer. We finished our tour in the Annex (merch store), where we tasted AVL IPA, Pilsner and Oatmeal Stout.
We toured the brewing facilities, saw the lab where Highland monitors beer quality, and finally visited the packaging area, with both canning and bottling lines for distribution. In the brewery, pallets of pre-labeled aluminum cans were piled to the ceiling, ready for the canning line.
Highland’s founder Oscar Wong opened the first brewery location in downtown Asheville, but when Highland outgrew that facility, they moved to the current location, once home to Blue Ridge Motion Pictures, a sprawling film studio. It’s history also includes stints in manufacturing (veneer flooring and ball bearings) and as a railroad depot.
In recent years, Wong handed over the leadership of the brewery to his daughter, Leah Wong Ashburn. As CEO, she has expanded the events space at the brewery, which is now booked through the end of this year. She also rebranded the beer and doubled production in 2017-18 and again 2018-19. The brewery also decided to limit distribution of its signature beers to just four states, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.
The site doesn’t serve food, but there are usually food trucks onsite to tame your hunger. And you should always be able to find a seat in the spacious taproom. The next time you visit Asheville, make the trek to East Asheville, or visit Highland’s newest taproom in downtown’s historic S&W Market.
Highland Brewing 12 Old Charlotte Highway, Suite 200 Asheville, North Carolina 28803
The Taste of NC portion of the annual NC Winegrowers Association conference is famous – great North Carolina wines paired with food from some of the state’s finest restaurants. And the only Taste of NC I had experienced took place when a snowstorm made it impossible for many restaurants and wineries to make it to the Winston-Salem conference center in 2016.
So I was excited to have the chance earlier this month to attend the Taste of NC event in Asheville at the downtown Masonic Lodge. Restaurants brought samples of their finest cuisine to pair with wine from Western NC wineries.
Despite rain that held Asheville captive for several days, the event was very well attended. In fact, just making our way around the room with our event wine glass and tasting plate was a bit of a challenge. But it was well worth the effort.
We tasted lots of good wines, paired with oysters, pork belly, mini-tacos, tomato and mozzarella skewers, chocolate cake and chocolates. The quality of the wines we tasted shows why the Hendersonville and Tryon areas are drawing lots of wine lovers.
Participating wineries: Parker-Binns Vineyard, Marked Tree Vineyard, Biltmore, Stone Ashe Vineyards, Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards, Mountain Brook Vineyards, Souther Williams Vineyard, pleb Urban Winery, My Sweet Love Vineyard, Botanist & Barrel Tasting Bar, Silver Fork Winery, Overmountain Vineyards, Shadowline Vineyards, FernCrest Winery and Point Lookout Vineyards
Participating restaurants: The Rural Seed, Ivory Road Café & Kitchen, Toasted Cuban, The Lobster Trap, Braised & Confit Catering, Relish Food Truck, Urban Graze, Geraldine’s Bakery, Tequio Foods, Ob-Skewered, Jargon Restaurant, RAD Kitchen, Asheville Chocolates, Cielo Catering, Bears Smokehouse and AB Tech Culinary.
Wine tasting at Durham’s Melanated Wine isn’t going to be your typical wine experience – and that’s by design. When Melanated opened last fall, owner Lashonda Fort-Modest wanted to create an urban winery experience that catered to Black wine consumers.
As the county’s first African-American winery owner and female winery owner (and one of only a few in the state), Fort-Modest found that most wines and wineries she visited didn’t really provide the experience she was looking for – telling the stories of the people behind the labels. And she wants to make sure that her customers know her story and learn something about wine during their tasting experience.
For many customers, the learning begins when they arrive at the winery expecting to see a vineyard with grapes hanging from vines. What they find instead is a tasting room tucked into an industrial complex off Durham’s Martin Luther King Jr. Pkwy.
“Guests are super-excited to come and visit and see what we have to offer,” she said. “They hear about this winery and feel confused when they find us in an industrial area. Then they come in and realize we are the winery tasting room.”
The winery staff explain that Melanated doesn’t grow its own grapes, but buys them from vineyards in the state’s Yadkin Valley. The wine is custom-made for Melanated by Childress Vineyards in Davidson.
We could choose from several levels of wine tastings – the basic tasting is all five of Melanated’s wines. Level up to add a wine glass and a charcuterie box with meat, cheese, nuts, crackers and chocolate, all of which pair well with the wines. Come on the weekends and you can choose a tasting that includes all of the above plus cupcakes from a local bakery.
Servers explain the wines and the grapes they are made from to the guests. As you leave, you can take a wine trivia quiz to test your knowledge. (I didn’t get my score, but all my answers were just guesses!)
Another feature of this urban winery that caught my attention was the fact that it is open later that traditional tasting rooms – til 9 pm Wednesday through Saturday. Melanated is closed the rest of the week, due to low traffic on those days and staffing issues. But in time, Fort-Modest would like to add more days and perhaps an extra hour to her closing time.
“We know that our target market, they work 9 to 5 and can’t get here before 6. That’s when things pick up! So 9 o’clock is a comfortable time to close,” she said.
Fort-Modest was a researcher before she got involved in the wine industry. So doing the research necessary to learn about wine making was second nature to her. She turned to Phil Long of California, winemaker and president of the Association of African American Vitners. She also found people in North Carolina’s wine industry to be both welcoming and supportive.
“Being in North Carolina, all the wineries and vineyards have been so supportive and helpful. My first partnership was with Childress Vineyard – (Childress winemaker Mark Friszolowski), I learned so much from him. Chuck Johnson at Windsor Run Cellars (and Shadow Spring Vineyards), he held my hand and helped me so much. I owe them a lot just for their hand holding and support,” she said.
Not only did her research background help her get started, but her entrepreneurial spirit and love of wine also motivated her, Fort-Modest said. When the winery opened in fall of 2021, the U.S. was in the midst of the COVID delta variant outbreak. They limited the tasting room seating to 10 people. As the situation improved, she was able to expand to seating for 32. Judging by the crowd there that evening, Melanated Wine will require a larger space sooner rather than later.
The night of our tasting, there was a large group of women there for a birthday. And the winery was hosting a kick-off for Blacktoberfest, which celebrates Black brewers, winemakers and distillers. Briana Brake of Spaceway Brewing in Rocky Mount brought a couple of her beers for tasting. There was a DJ and food truck on hand as well.
I chose the level-up tasting, and enjoyed each of the wines we tasted. The atmosphere was lively and fun.
At this time, Melanated produces three white wines, with Riesling being the primary grape. Vibe, the white Sangria, is a refreshing blend of white grapes and mango. The white blend, Privilege, combines Chardonnay and Riesling. The straight-up Riesling is called Manifest. All are nice, crisp wines that pair well with summer foods.
The red blend called Lust, a combination of Cabernet Franc and Syrah, is aged in bourbon oak barrels, which creates a smooth taste profile. And we also tasted the newest wine, a sweet blackberry wine called Dream.
Lashonda had left the winery around 5 pm to check on her family, and was kind enough to return at 7 pm to introduce us to her wine. Our server also did a great job of explaining the wines to us.
Reservations are suggested, and we were glad to have one the night we visited. Ours was the last available table in the room.
So if you’re looking for a not-so-traditional wine experience at a lively, urban tasting room, stop by Durham’s Melanated Wine.