The 2022 NC Wine Digital Media Summit gave participants a look at the range of wineries in North Carolina, from the large and established to smaller, family-owned wineries that have been open only a few years.
The pre-summit tours for about 70 participants were held July 17, with stops at Shelton Vineyards, Hidden Vineyard, Haze Gray Vineyards and dinner at Golden Road Vineyards.
Shelton is one of the long-standing wineries of North Carolina, having opened in 2000. Winemaker Ethan Brown took the group through the winemaking process, from harvesting (with some very high-tech equipment), to the fermentation and barrel rooms. The winery is built on a hillside, where harvested grapes reach the crush pad at the highest point, and the grape juice flows downhill through rest of the winemaking process.
As our group headed down the massive staircase through the winery, we saw a large tasting table laid out with wine glasses for our tasting. Ethan took us through tasting many of Shelton’s wines before we headed to a barrel room lunch of fresh-greens salads with grilled chicken or salmon, topped off with a flourless chocolate cake.
Van in Black helped us make our way between wineries.
Our next stop was at Hidden Vineyard, a family-owned winery that opened their tasting room in 2020. Lisa Sherman led the group through a wine tasting, explaining the eclectic names of their various wines. Tim Sherman took the group on a tour of the vineyard’s 1880s-era log cabin – used for small, private tastings – and a walk through the vineyard to see the various grapes they grow, most of them still green berries on the vines. Stand in the right spot at the middle of the vineyard and you can see the pinnacle of iconic Pilot Mountain.
Our final tour stop was Haze Gray Vineyards. Owners Becky and Deane Muhlenberg opened their tasting room just months before COVID shut down all wineries and restaurants in the state. Becky led the group through tasting Haze Gray wines, while Deane took everyone on a tour through the winery. On that hot afternoon, a few minutes in the partially underground barrel room provided welcome relief! The name Haze Gray honors Deane’s 30 years in the Navy – it is the color of Navy ships.
Back to the Fairfield Inn, Elkin, before heading out to dinner at Golden Road Vineyards, another family-owned winery that opened their tasting room during the first year of COVID. We were greeted with a glass of GRV’s first sparking wine, Emergency Blow, made from dry Traminette. Dinner was prepared by Charley Smith of Gunny’s Soul Food Fusion in Winston-Salem and included gazpacho or strawberry-feta salad, grilled salmon with rice and vegetables, and a homemade peach cobbler with ice cream for dessert. Many bottles of Golden Road wine were shared with dinner.
This year’s summit, held July 18 at the Surry Community College enology and viticulture building, focused on collaboration – how wine media bloggers influencers and the wine industry can support each other. Topics and speakers included
Bob Aycock (@winecarolinas), “How social media and websites work together”
Crista Gueberg (@goldenroadvineyards), “Leveraging diversity and inclusion to tell your story”
Arthur Barham (@merlot.muscadine), “Working together – Helping bloggers help you”
DeLauren Everett (@Blend&Bubbly), “Leveraging your network to grow your net worth”
Anna Pendleton (@vawine), “Vineyards and digital influencers working together in Virginia”
SCC’s David Bower took the group on a tour through the lab, classrooms and production facility of the enology and viticulture program.
After five years, the organizers @ncwineguys Matt Kemberling and Joe Brock say the summit may change its format in the future, maybe partnering with some larger wine events coming to the state. Another option would be to take the popular winery tours on the road to different parts of the state, offering participants the deep dive and up-close experience that the wine influencers enjoy.
On a beautiful spring weekend, we meet at a Jonesville diner that is closed on Sundays to hop on a Van in Black for the winding drive to the top of a nearby mountain. We are guests of Dynamis Estate Wines, a new high-end winery in the Swan Creek AVA. The winery opened to the public this month, and all tastings are by reservation only.
The 1,500-acre property where the winery and tasting room are located was once an apple orchard on the far eastern fringes of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Brushy Mountains, known for producing quality apples. The estate’s owner decided to plant wine grape to sell to nearby wineries.
Along the 10-minute drive to the tasting room at 1,650 feet elevation, we see the estate’s 30 acres of vines that intermingle with orchards. At one point on the way up, we catch a glimpse of the Winston-Salem skyline. We are heading for the highest elevation winery in Yadkin County. (Thank you, Triangle Around Town, for the invitation!)
Winemakers Matt Worrell and Katy Kidd discovered the quality of the wine grapes from this estate while making wine at nearby Raffaldini Vineyards. The winemakers attribute the grape quality to the estate’s elevation, the breezes that constantly brush the mountain and the soil’s minerality and good drainage. We enjoy the site’s cool breezes when we take a seat in chairs overlooking the vineyards. “To host a premium wine brand you need a premium site,” Worrell said.
Worrell and Kidd proposed the idea of a creating a high-end wine brand and returned in two weeks with business plan that had the landowner eager to invest. “Our owner loves to invest in passionate people, and I’m glad he does,” said Worrell.
The tasting room offers small, intimate settings for wine tasting, both inside and out, including a patio with fireplace for cooler days. The hospitality team anticipates serving groups of 6-8 or less, although there is a private event space for larger gatherings.
Our tasting is on an enclosed patio that has open windows on this beautiful day. Our hosts provide a tray of charcuterie and cheeses that includes chocolates and pickled vegetables to complement our wine tasting. Along with the winemakers, we meet Jennie Hess, hospitality director, and Cate McDowell, tasting room and social media director. Vineyard manager Joseph Geller also stops by to talk about grape production.
Dynamis is producing five wines, and four of them are reds (the white is a Sauvignon Blanc.) Though Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t always produce well in North Carolina, on this estate it has done well. The higher elevation allows the winemakers to leave the grapes on the vines a little longer.
The winery sits at a little higher elevation – 1,750 feet – than the tasting room. Here, we see the barrel room (all French oak, used only once) and fermentation tanks, including two concrete fermentation “eggs.”
The wines and tastings are more expensive than those you’ll find at most other North Carolina wineries. For $45 a person, you can sample a flight of the five wines, with written information about each wine. For $55, you can experience a guided tasting that last about 90 minutes.
Picnics are not permitted, but Dynamis offers fresh light snacks for purchase from the local Barking Coyote Kitchen in Elkin. Snacks include pimento cheese, chicken salad, and cheese and charcuterie grazing boxes.
And that bottle of wine you take home will cost more as well. Dynamis’ 2020 Sauvignon Blanc is the least expensive by the bottle, at $35, and the 2019 Merlot is $50. The other reds – a Cab Sauv and two blends – run $95-$125 a bottle. The 2019 Mountain – a blend of Cabernet and Petit Verdot, received a gold medal at this year’s North Carolina Fine Wines competition before the winery had even opened to the public.
But a trip to Dynamis is an experience reminiscent of a trip to Napa or Sonoma, and one you won’t soon forget.
They say that beer sales are good in good times and even better in bad times. And that would make sense when you look at the number of Triangle area breweries that opened second and even third taprooms during COVID.
Two years ago, North Carolina breweries, wineries and restaurants remained closed under a state emergency declaration that began with the spread of COVID 19 in the United States in March 2020. It was the end of May before breweries were able to reopen to the public.
At least 10 Triangle breweries opened additional taprooms during or right before the pandemic shut businesses down. But according to Chris Creech, owner and head brewer at Durham’s Glass Jug Beer Lab, without COVID, there might have been even more.
Before COVID, brewers understood the profitability of selling beer through taprooms, rather than distributing beer to grocery stores and other sales outlets. While a six-pack might cost $10-$12, with only a slim profit margin going to breweries, there was a higher profit margin in selling $5-$6 pints of beer in a taproom, Creech said.
Glass Jug Beer Lab Glass Jug Beer Lab’s original location on the edge of Research Triangle Park had already expanded one time in 2018 from a bottle shop with a tasting bar to a much larger space in the same shopping center, with more indoor space, as well as the bottle shop and an outdoor biergarten.
That expansion served them well during COVID, Creech said. Having the bottle shop allowed faithful Glass Jug customers to continue buying take-out beer while the taproom was shut down. Bartenders made the transition to beer delivery drivers, while that was allowed. And once Glass Jug reopened, having the outdoor space made customers feel more comfortable about getting back out.
Glass Jug began looking for taproom space in downtown Durham before COVID and didn’t want to lose the space they had identified near Durham’s Central Park. The ongoing pandemic allowed the business to get concessions to pay lower rent, in the event businesses were forced to close again.
The new taproom opened in March 2021. This was the third construction project for the owners and it went smoothly, despite skyrocketing lumber costs. And then, “we thought we were opening at the end of the pandemic, but (the variants) Delta and Omicron proved us wrong,” Creech said.
Glass Jug’s downtown location has some outdoor space, but Creech is hoping that Durham will soon open the Central Park as a “social district” where drinks from nearby businesses can be consumed. Such a measure would essentially turn Durham Central Park into a biergarten for Glass Jug customers, Creech said.
Gizmo Brew Works Across the Triangle, Raleigh’s Gizmo Brew Works was looking for a downtown Raleigh location to add a taproom, along with additional space for brewing, said Joe Walton, co-owner, chief operating officer and head brewer. But the cost to lease space in the area was too high to accommodate the production space.
One day on a visit to Chapel Hill, Walton was walking through a familiar downtown alley when he saw a “for lease” sign. He didn’t realize at the time that the space was the former home of Chapel Hill’s iconic Rathskeller Restaurant. In its heyday, customers lined up down the alley, spilling out onto Franklin Street to dine on “the Rat’s” pizza and lasagna that many remembered from days as UNC students.
The building’s owners had spent time and money to bring the space up to code, and it was ready for a new tenant. About the same time, Gizmo’s Raleigh brewery was offered a lease on nearby space for beer production, a move that kept all the brewing in one location. Problem solved.
The Chapel Hill location – much brighter than the former cave-like Rathskeller — opened to the public in December 2019, only to close again in March 2020 due to COVID. As people seek out breweries and other entertainment, traffic to the taproom has grown. And though Gizmo doesn’t serve food, the brewery partnered with two Chapel Hill restaurants to allow customers to order food that is delivered to the brewery.
But Gizmo didn’t stop there. In late March, the brewery opened a third taproom in a Durham shopping center off 15-501. It is also home to BB’s Crispy Chicken restaurant, a yoga studio, a coffee roaster and 25 outdoor murals.
Lonerider Brewing Co. Sumit Vohra, CEO of Lonerider Brewing Co., opened the brewery’s second location in Wake Forest in July 2019. Both the Raleigh and Wake Forest locations offered drive-through beer sales when the businesses were shut down in 2020, which helped Lonerider keep its staff employed. The brewery also sold hand sanitizer as a service to the community, at a time when the product was hard to find on store shelves.
Lonerider planned to open a downtown Raleigh location before the pandemic, but those plans fell apart during COVID. Vohra was a regular at Raleigh’s The Point restaurant at Five Points, and during the pandemic, the owners let him know they wanted close the business. They asked if he was interested in taking over the space.
“The Point was my Cheers bar,” Vohra said. “We asked ourselves, ‘is this the right thing to do for Lonerider and for our future?’ So we said yes, and we learned how to operate a restaurant.”
The biggest problem with opening a new space during the pandemic was the availability of cash, Vohra said. “We had to take a big risk. Because we were opening during the pandemic, we were not eligible for (federal COVID support) money. Everyone was struggling and suffering from it. Everything was inefficient, from supply chains to employees getting sick,” he said.
The new Lonerider location has lots of outdoor space, a benefit during the pandemic for diners and beer lovers. From tables on wooden decks to picnic tables in the yard with bistro lights strung above, the outdoor space attracts families and dog owners. Outdoor TV screens offer viewing opportunities for sports fans.
The food at the new location features some pub favorites like brick oven pizza and chicken wings, as well as items cooked with Lonerider beer, like Saloon Pilsner battered Atlantic cod in fish and chips or a fish sandwich and oven roasted chicken served with Shotgun Betty Hefeweizen lemon herb gravy.
This spring, Lonerider plans another expansion outside of the Triangle, to Oak Island on the North Carolina coast. If all goes well, it should be open for much of the summer beach season.
How has the pandemic changed the brewing industry? Vohra says those changes remain to be seen. Already, he knows that costs associated with brewing are rising, especially the price of grain and aluminum cans. So one change consumers will see is an increase in the price of beer, he said.
Still, pandemic business has been good enough to encourage a number of Triangle area breweries to expand. The list below includes some of the biggest expansions.
Triangle Brewery Expansions
Gizmo Brew Works of Raleigh has new taprooms in Chapel Hill (2019) and Durham (2022).
Glass Jug Beer Lab of Durham/RTP has a new taproom in Durham Central Park (2021).
Bull City Ciderworks, Durham, Greensboro and Lexington, opened a taproom in Cary in 2022.
Lonerider Brewery, Raleigh, opened a second Hideout in Wake Forest in 2019, and a taproom and restaurant in Raleigh’s Five Points in November 2020.
Bond Brothers Beer Co. of Cary opened a second Cary location in 2021 that is also a music venue.
Raleigh Brewing of Raleigh openedin Cary’s Arboretum in May 2020.
Cotton House/Triangle Beer Co. of Cary opened a new location in the former Jordan Lake Brewing site in Cary in June 2021, where they serve food.
Barrel Culture ofRTP/Durham opened a Raleigh/Wakefield taproom in spring 2020.
Fullsteam, which wasDurham’s second brewery in 2010, opened a taproom that serves food in Boxyard RTP in 2021.
Fortnight of Cary opened a second taproom, “Terminal B,” also in Cary, July 2019.
A brewery that opened just three years ago is creating a “bright spot” in downtown Mebane. Bright Penny Brewing is recognized for its hospitality, beer and food, and the brewery is making a name for itself in this Piedmont North Carolina town.
The popular local brewery – Mebane’s first — is located in the old Purina Rice Flour and Feed Mill, and the building still bears the Purina name. Owners Cristina and Jeremy Carroll and Jason Brand opened the brewery in May 2019.
The term“Bright Penny” is said to originate from the trenches of WWII. When soldiers were making homemade alcohol, they would drop a penny in the concoction, and if it cleaned up, they knew there was alcohol in it. What better way to honor that history than a nod to the tenacity of a soldier’s desire for a drink? The brewery’s Marra Forni brick pizza oven is covered in copper-colored disks that look like pennies.
There is outdoor seating, including a large patio under a tent that we didn’t see during our visit. There was a band playing inside, which is the case on most Saturday nights.
The brewery has 16 taps with a core lineup of beers, along with a house cider produced only for Bright Penny by Flat Rock Cider Company. The regulars include two light lagers, Buena Onda Cerveza and County Line Lager, along with three styles of IPA, including Fog Watch Hazy IPA. The list also includes June Bug Porter and Offended Opinion Amber. Bright Penny Pub Ale, another core beer, won a silver at NC Brewers Cup competition last year.
Seasonal beers include a popular Oktoberfest for fall and citrusy New England pale ales for summer. Smaller batch releases include stouts, like the Autumn Hayride and Mexican Hot Chocolate Stout.
We were excited to see that Bright Penny still had its Oktoberfest on tap when we were there, along with a diverse selection of other beers. The Oktoberfest was so popular this fall that they brewed a second batch and sold out of that as well as the first.
The food menu is a little unusual, including a variety of “Grandma’s deviled eggs.” Head chef and general manager Tory Williams, who is not from around here, said that deviled eggs weren’t part of his own food traditions. But Jason Brand wanted to try the eggs on the menu. Turns out they were so popular that different varieties of deviled eggs were added (now there are nine), and you can even choose a “flight” of eggs to try several different recipes.
You won’t find a burger or buffalo wings here (though they do have a buffalo chicken dip), but you will find a variety of gas-fired pizzas, small plates and salads with seasonal ingredients. Both the pizza and salad we shared that night were excellent, as was the bruschetta appetizer.
“We didn’t want to just have good beer. We wanted to be known for great beer AND great food,” Williams said.
Williams describes the brewery as family friendly, with something for everyone. There games to share and cornhole outside. And the outdoor space is also dog friendly.
The brewery’s popularity downtown prompted the team to open a second taproom – Bright Penny Brewing Outpost — at nearby Tanger Outlets off I-85 where they will offer food soon. Sounds like a great place to grab a beer at the end of a day of shopping!
From the biggest to smaller breweries, the beer is always good.
Visiting Asheville to sample beer is a little like going to a grocery store to look for food. You’re going to have more choices than you can cover in a week or even a month. So you have to be selective in where you choose to go and plan ahead.
Two things to know about Asheville and breweries: As of November, the city is still under an indoor mask mandate, which will come as a relief to some and an annoyance to others (put me in the relief category.) But most Asheville breweries, even pre-COVID, have lots of outdoor seating, and in good weather, even many indoor areas are open to fresh air.
Secondly, the brewery scene in Asheville isn’t like a typical bar scene, open every day until midnight or later. Someone in the industry explained that because most breweries are also production facilities, they seek to reduce liability for potential bad behavior by opening later and closing earlier. Makes sense.
And like most hospitality businesses, breweries are having trouble finding staff to stay open every day, so you’ll probably find that some will be closed a day or two each week.
That said, with a little planning, you can visit and enjoy Asheville breweries.
I had visited one of Asheville’s craft beer beer giants, Sierra Nevada, in 2015. But I had talked about it so much that my husband wanted to see the brewery for himself.
Like most breweries, Sierra Nevada in Mills River (outside of Asheville) isn’t open for tours yet, but the Taproom remains open for dining reservations, and if you show up without one, you can still enjoy a beer on the Back Porch area. Sunday afternoons, they offer live music.
The taproom is vast, and every other table is closed to ensure distancing. The food menu is diverse (even vegetarian selections) and a little different from your typical pub fare. So in addition to sandwiches and wings, you can choose from seasonal salads and soup. Pork belly and steak are also on the menu for those looking for a bigger meal.
Of course, you’ll want to start with a beer. Sierra Nevada is known for its vast selection of IPAs, but I chose a sour — Wild Little Thing, which was deep pink in color. My husband opted for the Celebration Fresh Hop IPA, which he described as a smoother IPA. I finished with a half pint of the Blonde Ale made with hops produced at NC State University’s nearby Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center. Unfortunately, we were a little late for the Oktoberfest.
After lunch of the Audition Greens (with roasted winter squash, dried figs, goat cheese and pistachios, with a vinaigrette) and the turkey reuben, with a side of roasted cauliflower and broccoli, we went to the Back Porch to enjoy the sunshine and beer.
It was a little warm outside for the firepits, but that didn’t stop guests from pulling up chairs while they drank their beer. And near the Back Porch, they have an impressive garden complete with herbs, seasonal vegetables (collards!) and flowers.
Because of staffing challenges, they didn’t have access to the French Broad River open, but overall, Sierra Nevada is trying to get back to normal operations, with the Taproom, gift shop and Back Porch areas open to guests, along with some live music. Maybe next time we visit, the tours will have resumed.
On the smaller brewery end of the spectrum, we met Kyle’s cousin Brent and his family at Hillman Beer in south Asheville, near Biltmore Village. Brent, who works in the brewing industry, recommended Hillman because of our preference for malted beers.
Hillman serves food and has a lot of outdoor seating in the form of wooden picnic tables. Some are covered, more for shade than for rain protection. Though the brewery is really close to the main road, there’s a fence for added protection for dogs and small children. Parking is a little bit tight, but there’s a pay lot across the street if you can’t find a space at Hillman.
The evening we visited, it was warm, and the door to the taproom was open as well, providing lots of breathing room to enjoy a beer. Food and beer can be ordered at the bar, and your food will be brought out to your table.
I had a Mommabeer Brown and Kyle had something darker. The dark beers were really pretty and the food was also good — a reuben and a Cuban sandwich.
We had our eye on visiting a few more breweries, but our schedules didn’t match up. Too bad Highland Brewing wasn’t releasing their Cold Mountain Spiced Winter Ale last week — we could have enjoyed a winter wonderland in the taproom. Maybe next year…
Sanctuary Vineyards, just minutes from the Outer Banks, grows wine grapes that can’t be grownat the coast
John Wright, owner of Sanctuary Vineyards and Winery, is used to hearing the question, “How do you grow wine grapes out here?”
“Out here” is Currituck County, just a few miles from where NC 12 crosses the sound and makes its way south past Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head and beyond. Typically, this hotter, humid environment is home to North Carolina’s native grapes: muscadines and scuppernongs. And while Sanctuary does make muscadine wine, those are not the grapes they grow.
Wright and Sanctuary’s winemaker George Butler believe that the sandy soil of the 30 acres where Sanctuary estate grapes grow, along with the constant sea breezes blowing through the vines, help keep the grapes healthy. But Butler offers an additional explanation — Wright’s attention to detail in his vineyards.
As an economics major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wright learned the ins and outs of monetary policy and economic trends. But when he graduated to a bleak job market in 2001, he decided to return home to the family farm as a seventh generation farmer. Then he turned his attention to wine grapes.
Today, Sanctuary Vineyards grows European varietals like Petit Verdot, Petit Manseng, Tannat, Syrah, Tempranillo, Albarino, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Rousanne. Some grapes, including muscadines, are purchased from other North Carolina vineyards.
When we visited the winery in early September, Wright had harvested about two thirds of the grapes from his vines. And he noted that the heat and other climate factors have compressed his annual harvest: What once took six weeks to harvest is now completed in just three weeks today, as grapes ripen earlier. By the first of September, winery workers had already harvested 40,000 pounds of grapes.
Though the sandy soil of Currituck County may drain well, it isn’t great for yields. Wright says he harvests about a third of the grapes typically produced in the Yadkin Valley, about 5-6 hours west of Sanctuary. And the climate is hard on the vines, which may only last 10 years and are expensive to replace, Wright says.
When COVID shut down North Carolina businesses in March 2020, Sanctuary shipped wine to faithful customers and even delivered it to those living near the winery. When they reopened later in the spring of 2020, they focused on keeping guests and staff safe, with plenty of protective equipment, outdoor seating and wine tasting by flights in disposable cups.
Slowly, customers have made their way back into the tasting room, though tastings are still done through flights. Sanctuary is one of the few NC wineries that still offers a free tasting of three wines. Guests can upgrade to a $5 tasting or taste seven reserve wines for $10.
Sanctuary relies on the wine sales at the tasting room and at four local Cotton Gin stores (owned by the family) for most of their income, so it was challenging when the businesses were closed, Wright says. The winery also partners with Kitty Hawk Kites in Duck to ferry about over by boat for tasting and tours.
Sanctuary Vineyards is just a short drive from the Outer Banks and just down the road from several other local destinations: Weeping Radish Brewery, Butchery and Pub (beer and house-made sausages), and Grandy Greenhouse and Farm Market (local produce and baked goods). A nice day trip to Sanctuary from the Outer Banks can include these and other nearby destinations.