This farm-based brewery in Blacksburg, VA, offers a fine selection of brews in a fun outdoorsy location
Fall just doesn’t seem the same without a trip to view the changing leaves in the mountains. Recently, Tarheel Taps & Corks spent a weekend near Blacksburg, VA, at the cabins of Mountain Lake Lodge. The mountain-top lodge was the location for much of the 1980s hit film, Dirty Dancing.
In addition to enjoying mountaintop scenery, we traveled down to Blacksburg to visit the campus of Virginia Tech, walk on the Huckleberry Trail and enjoy a beer at Rising Silo Brewery.
Rising Silo is just a short drive from town, but because it’s located on a working farm, it feels a lot farther away. And though we hiked on the Huckleberry Trail from downtown Blacksburg, we could have picked it up right across the road from the brewery, an ideal stop for a post-ride or walk beer.
To keep guests safe during COVID, the brewery provides plenty of outdoor seating – including a large fire ring — and indoor seating with plenty of ventilation from open windows and doors. Masks are required when ordering in the taproom.
Plan to bundle up though – it gets cold in Blacksburg this time of year.
We came prepared with tailgate tents, chairs and picnic coolers, but rain showers passing through when we arrived led us to reconsider and set up on the winery’s wide front porch, overlooking the vineyards. There was plenty of room and seating for six – bloggers and spouses. As the first guests to arrive that afternoon, we had our choice of seating inside or out.
Most of us started with flight-style tastings to determine what we liked best – I tasted a White Blend, Chardonel, Chambourcin Rosé and a dry Chambourcin. Based on the tasting, we decided to buy bottles of the Chardonel and the Chambourcin. Everything paired well with the cheese, meats, crackers, fruits, olives and nuts we had brought with us.
We really got the royal treatment from owners Andrei and Sue Mitran, who started FireClay Cellars with their son Erik and another couple, Steve and Bonnie Thiedke. Andrei let us sample a Red Reserve (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Tannat) that had been aged 12 months and an oaked Chardonel. Both wines were very good, though our group recommended aging the reserve a few more months.
Andrei Mitran shows the bloggers the winemaking facility. Dave Nershi and Art Barham are to the right.
Andrei also took us into the wine cellar and offered samples of some of their newest wines direct from the fermentation tanks.
As the rain moved off, other guests came in, most for the plentiful outdoor seating. And eventually, we had to say goodbye to the winery and vineyards.
FireClay Cellars offers outdoor and indoor seating, and they require guests and staff to wear masks insideThere is also plenty of space on the grounds and vineyards to bring your chairs and enjoy your own wine party. Only a short drive from both the Triangle and Triad, FireClay Cellars is a great destination to spend an afternoon at a rural winery.
Keeping winery workers and guests safe was the subject of a webinar, What Works for NC Wineries, hosted in July by Tarheel Taps & Corks, UNCG’S Bryan School of Business & Economics and the N.C. Wine and Grape Council.
Since wineries in North Carolina were permitted to reopen on Memorial Day weekend, their primary goal has been keeping customers and employees safe. An outbreak of employees testing positive for COVID-19 could shut those businesses down again.
David Bower, enology instructor and winemaker at Surry Community College, talked with winery operators about how to keep customers and employees safe at wineries in the age of COVID. His presentation was based on guidance from the CDC, the Food Safety Modernization Act and local health departments.
Much of the advice that Bower gave for keeping winery workers safe is similar to what public health experts have been saying for months: Wear a face covering, wash hands frequently and stay at least 6 feet apart.
Bower urged wineries to set a positive example for winery guests by making sure that all employees are wearing face covering. In fact, he encouraged wineries to brand their employees’ mask to make them a part of their uniforms. Cloth face masks need to be washed at night, he said.
Washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds kills the virus, even more effectively than hand sanitizers, Bower said.
He also urged wineries to adopt standard operating procedures for cleaning and sanitizing public spaces and surfaces in wineries. While cleaning is for removing soil, sanitizing removes microbes, he said. Procedures should be consistent and easy to follow. Bathrooms, for instance, should be cleaned when opening the winery, mid-way through a shift and when the winery closes.
Since deliveries are an important part of winery business, procedures should be established and shared regarding how deliveries are made. Should delivery drivers call when they arrive? Do they need to wear a mask?
Employee wellness checks are recommended for wineries, including temperature checks and questioning employees about any illness symptoms. Sick employees should quarantine themselves for 14 days, although North Carolina doesn’t require their business to shut down.
Tasting rooms should follow the same guidance for protecting staff and guests, Bower said. Some tips for wineries that want to conduct wine tastings are:
Do as much as possible outside because outside spaces are safer than enclosed spaces. Where this isn’t possible, try to improve indoor ventilation to allow more fresh air into the space. Allow at least 200 square feet of space for each guest indoors.
Glasses can be used for tastings, as long as they are washed in water heated to at least 160 degrees F.
Use signage to alert guests about safety procedures.
Establish a culture of safety on a wine trail by having all wineries follow the same procedures regarding masks and tasting protocols.
Limit group size at a tasting to no more than six.
Assign employees to specific tasks and areas: Someone to greet guests and explain procedures, someone to oversee tastings, someone to ring up customer sales, and someone to fulfill orders.
Consider taking reservations for tastings, especially when space is limited.
Limit the length of time for a wine tasting.
Don’t allow customers to spit wine.
Don’t provide shared snacks; only pre-packaged foods.
Use a chalk board rather than handing out shared tasting sheets.
Employees should wear a face shield in close quarters.
If a winery is conducting tours, exposed surfaces must sanitized more often.
Best practices at this time are to avoid activities that can lead to lingering, such as concerts or performances. For any events, crowds are limited to no more than 25 people outside.
After four months in the house, we finally decided to get back out there July 4th weekend, to visit a brewery and winery about an hour from Raleigh. Both experiences were good, felt safe, and we learned a few things we can share to help other wine and beer lovers figure out how to navigate the new world of wine and beer in the time of COVID-19.
Our first stop was at Grove Winery and Vineyards in Gibsonville, just northwest of Greensboro. This is a rural winery, and it felt good to get out of the city for a while. First, we checked their website and learned that, yes, they were open, expecting tasting room guests to wear masks and limiting the guests in the tasting room to no more than 10 at a time.
We had already decided to buy wine by the glass or bottle, but no tasting. We even brought our own wine glasses, knowing that some wineries were not providing glasses at this time. Grove was providing glasses, but we used our own, and we brought along some food to eat with our wine.
Inside the tasting room, there were only people (including the server) when we arrived, so we quickly brought the number to 8. But we weren’t planning to stay inside.
After purchasing to glasses of wine, we went back outside to Grove’s vast open space and found a table under a tree in the shade. At the time, there was only one other couple, at a table on the stage also seeking shade in the afternoon heat. But others arrived later in the afternoon; one family even brought their own tailgate tent to provide some shade.
We started with glasses of Viognier and the dry Rose that was released that day. Later, we bought a bottle of Grove’s Traminette, a crisp light summer white.
Shade was in the greatest demand that day, with temperatures in the low 90s. I heard one customer say that Grove had taken down a tent or shelter, which I can’t be sure of since it was our first visit. Providing shade in outdoor spaces can help encourage customer distancing in warmer weather.
Grove is also hosting music events on their Grove Lake Stage. Reservations are required to maintain social distancing.
Here’s what Grove did right to help customers know what to expect:
Posted instructions on their website alerting customers to wear masks and limit the capacity in the tasting room. The website also provided information about ordering wine online for those not quite ready to venture out.
Provided the same information on signs leading up to the winery, for those who did not check the website first.
Had tasting room server wearing a mask.
Encouraged customers to bring food/picnics if desired.
After a couple of hours at Grove, we decided to head over to nearby Red Oak Lager Haus and BierGarten in nearby Whitsett, which opened at 4 p.m. We also felt comfortable coming here because the website and signage coming into the brewery required customers to wear masks. I don’t think I saw anyone arrive without one, though of course they don’t expect you to wear one while drinking or eating.
The staff inside and out were all wearing masks, and there was a sneeze guard at the bar where you ordered beer. They also had 6-feet markers on the floor by the bar to keep waiting customers separated. Of course, there was really no need to stand in line for beer – the wait staff will come to your table, and they are very attentive.
We went back outside again, feeling safer unmasked in an open space. The biergarten is surprisingly shady and cool, even in summer. Tables are long, so we felt comfortable sitting at the end of a table, with two other people at the end. When they left, our seats were getting more sunlight, so we decided to move down. We managed to keep the table to ourselves while we were there.
Red Oak has onsite food trucks and a Wurst Haus of its own for German food to go with Bavarian beer. We opted for food from Durham’s Succatash food truck. Our food “buzzer” didn’t work, so someone from the truck had to bring us our food, but it was delicious. After dinner and a beer, we were ready to go.
What Red Oak did right:
Required guests to wear masks and clearly stated the policy on the website and signage leading up to the lagerhaus. Red Oak also has a policy of not admitting anyone under the age of 21, so no babies and children. During times when distancing is so important, such a policy seems really appropriate.
Protected workers at the bar with sneeze guards.
Encouraged social distancing with floor markers.
Had all staff wearing masks.
Provided plenty of shady outdoor space for social distancing, even in warm weather. Indoors, there are longer tables too, so groups could maintain distance while sitting inside as well.
Thinking you would want to venture out to a brewery or winery? Here are some tips to make the best of your experienc:
Check the website first to see how the brewery or winery is protecting customers during the pandemic. Don’t see anything? That’s not a good sign – this information should be front and center on websites and signage coming into the venue.
Call ahead. If you don’t see all the answers to your questions, call. Are staff wearing masks? Customers? Is there an outdoor space? Can you do tastings? Do you need your own glass?
Need more assurance? Check the list of establishments following the best practices recommended by Count on Me NC.
Look for places that are providing comfortable outdoor space, where you can socially distance from other customers. Shade is really helpful right now, so ask about that.
Make sure you know the venue’s policies on outside food. Grove allows it, but Red Oak does not. We left our cooler in the car on that one.
Wear your mask when you are not eating or drinking, especially when you are inside.
Try to visit at “off times,” not a peak time for that venue. Ask about busy times if you’re not sure. And if you see a larger crowd than you are comfortable with when you arrive, leave and come back another time.
Late Friday afternoon, the day before Memorial Day weekend, North Carolina wineries learned they would be allowed to open to the public, after hearing earlier in the week that they would not be included in the state’s Phase 2 reopening.
Since that weekend, winery owners and staffs have navigated new ways of operating in a COVID-19 world. On June 16, a webinar for the wine industry focused on what wineries are doing to help keep customers safe while ensuring relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere.
Chuck Johnson, Windsor Run Cellars and Shadow Springs Vineyard
Tina Smith, Cypress Bend Vineyards
John Wright, Sanctuary Vineyards
Whit Winslow, N.C. Wine and Grape Council
Lynne Minges, N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association
The webinar was moderated by Tarheel Taps & Corks and hosted by UNC-Greensboro’s Bryan School of Business, thanks to Erick Byrd and Sam Troy. Here is what it looks like out there from the wineries’ perspective.
What happened between Wednesday, 5/20, and Friday, 5/22, that allowed wineries to reopen in Phase 2, when originally they were not going to be allowed to open?
Whit Winslow says that “a whole lot went down in 48 hours.” Representatives of wineries, breweries and distilleries presented Gov. Roy Cooper with a memo explaining that those businesses are not bars, but in fact, have more in common with restaurants, which were allowed to reopen dining rooms at half capacity in Phase 2. “Most wineries jumped at the chance to reopen, with modified tastings, bottle and glass sales,” Winslow said. “Everyone is excited to get back to business.”
What does the tasting room experience look like today?
When wineries got word on May 22 that they could reopen, most scrambled to revamp their tasting room arrangements, spreading tables apart and moving much of their operations outside. Some have put up tents over patios and reoriented their entrances to bring visitors into the open space.
Other changes to protect customers and staff: Signage about social distancing, sneeze guards at the bar where customers order wine, hand sanitizer readily available, and gloves and masks for employees. Sanitizing and regular cleaning is the new norm. No one reported asking customers to wear masks, but of course you can’t drink wine while wearing a mask.
Tastings, if offered, are done by flights. Guests can order a flight of wines that comes with a tasting sheet. Some wineries are using disposable or compostable cups for the flights. Gone are the crowds huddled around the bar, with a host pouring and explaining wines as they go through tasting sheets.
“Customers have been really pleased with this,” said Amy Helton of Hanover Park. “They feel safe, and for most of our customers, that’s the most important thing.”
Overall, customers who come out to the wineries are in a good mood, grateful for the opportunity to get out of their houses.
How are you handling events?
Tina Smith of Cypress Bend said that initially the winery had planned to continue their popular Friday night music series, which draws 400-500 people. But when they started spreading out the bar, stage and tables under their event tent, they realized could not accommodate a crowd large enough to make the events sustainable. They are still planning the winery’s 15-year celebration this summer.
Helton said that Hanover Park is planning an anniversary dinner in early July, but it will look much different than in the past. Appetizers on the tables, instead of self-service; less socializing and more social distancing.
What about weddings?
Most participating wineries said the weddings booked pre-COVID had been canceled or postponed until at least fall, some until next year. In most cases, the wedding size would make the events impossible until current restrictions on gatherings.
Lynne Minges said that the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association has been talking with the governor’s office about allowing weddings to go forward as events, rather than mass gatherings.
What marketing strategies did you use during the time you were closed to the public that worked well for you?
Some wineries with a local following were able to take pre-orders that they would fulfill at curbside pickup on Saturday afternoons, when they were open for that purpose. On the Outer Banks, John Wright of Sanctuary Vineyards offered drop-off service for sales of three bottles or more. Some offered free shipping for three bottles, and others offered quantity discounts. Johnson said his distillery pivoted to producing hand sanitizer that sold out every week.
Wine club members were very supportive with online and curbside sales. But in spite of a 200-300% increase in online orders, overall winery sales were down about 70%, owners said.
Lynn Minges shared information about the Count on Me NC accountability program that allows hospitality businesses to participate in online training on how to operate safely during the global pandemic. Once businesses have completed the training, they can add their names to a list of participating businesses and print out credentials to share with their customers. At the time of the webinar, more than 40,000 individuals representing 10,000 business had participated, including some wineries. A Spanish-language version was expected to be out soon.
There are some North Carolina wineries you should visit just to see the scope of the state’s wine industry, and Childress Vineyards is certainly one of them. As the largest winery in the Yadkin Valley with a history dating back to 2002, Childress offers amenities and an experience you might expect from wineries on the West Coast.
The winery is located just outside of Lexington, just off of Highways 52 and 62. It is about a half-hour drive from Winston-Salem and less than an hour from Charlotte. When I visited recently on a January weekend, both the tasting room and the Bistro were filled with tourists, and even the winery staff seemed surprised by the crowds.
Childress Vineyards opened its doors in 2004, after establishing vineyards on site and at the estate of owner Richard Childress. A NASCAR team owner, Childress had a personal interest in wine making and wanted to develop his own winery. To help him achieve his goal, he hired award-winning winemaker Mark Friszolowski.
Wine tasting at Childress Vineyards.
The vineyards produce a wide variety of European varietal grapes, and all wines are made from estate grapes, except for the muscadine wines. Muscadine grapes are for Childress wines are purchased from vineyards in Eastern North Carolina, where they are better adapted to the drier soils and temperatures.
In January and February, Children Vineyards is offering “Winter Weekends,” with music on Saturdays and games (trivia and bingo) on Sunday in the pavilion.
Front entrance of Childress Vineyards.
The popular Bistro is open for lunch and brunch, but a few menu selections can be ordered in the pavilion with a glass of wine, beer or mimosas. In the interest of time, I grabbed a quiche with fresh fruit, which made for a delicious brunch. There is a beautiful patio overlooking the vineyards, which would be great on a warm day. But don’t bring your picnic — no outside food or beverages are allowed.
On weekends, tours of the winery are offered every 30 minutes. Weather permitting, you’ll walk through the outdoor areas, including 41 acres of vineyards that can be seen from the hilltop winery. You’ll also see the crush pad where grapes are brought in to be processed, the winemaking room, barrel rooms and special events spaces.
After your tour, stop by the tasting room for informal tastings ($15 for eight wines) or get a more private tasting in the Victory Lounge ($30 for nine wines). You can choose from a list of dry or sweet wines.
The wide variety of wine choices is one reason that Childress is so popular. Not a big fan of dry wines? Turn to the muscadines and Reisling. Don’t love sweet wines? Choose the dry tasting for Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. Then choose a bottle of your favorite to purchase before you leave.
The events patio overlooking vineyards.
So if you’re looking for a quick getaway that will leave you feeling as if you’ve just dropped into a West Coast winery, make the drive — winter or any season — to Childress Vineyards.
North Carolina wineries, along with breweries and distilleries, got the go-ahead to reopen on May 22, the first evening of Memorial Day weekend, after believing that they would not be included in North Carolina’s phase 2 reopening.
From what we’ve heard from the field, wineries are reopening with different levels of service. Some are doing limited events, some are serving bottles and glasses in an outdoor seating, and some are doing tastings as flights. But whatever the experience, it certainly looks different than it did in February, before wineries and other businesses had to shut down due to the global pandemic.
On Tuesday, June 16, we will host a webinar with wineries and other representatives of the hospitality industry to find out how things are going out there with North Carolina wineries reopening — what’s working, what’s challenging. How have wineries adapted to welcoming tourists back and keeping everyone safe during the global pandemic? How have tourists responded to the reopening? The webinar will be co-hosted by the N.C. Wine and Grape Council and UNC-Greensboro’s Bryan School of Business.
Also, a representative of the N.C. Lodging and Restaurants Association will share information about the program, Count on Me NC, a hospitality industry training program developed in North Carolina that will be more widely available soon. Advance registration is required, and a recording of the webinar will be available afterward.