Wine touring 101: Tips from the Yadkin Valley

woman pouring wine

Tasting rooms are open shorter hours during winter.

Tarheel Taps & Corks recently made an overnight trip to the Yadkin Valley AVA, North Carolina’s first American Viticulture Area, for some wine tasting. And it occurred to me that the uninitiated might wonder exactly what a North Carolina wine tour would look like. So here are a few tips and pointers.

First, AVA is the designation given to a wine-producing region where wines have similar characteristics due to soil, climate, topography, type of grapes grown and more. The Yadkin Valley was NC’s first AVA in year 2003 (there are three now), and today it remains the region with the state’s largest concentration of wineries. The vineyards in these gently rolling hills along the Yadkin River produce both native muscadines and  European grape varietals.

The heart of the Yadkin Valley AVA runs along I-77, generally north of Hwy. 421 through Yadkin, Surry and Wilkes counties. This area is generally 30 minutes west of Winston-Salem, an hour east of Boone and a little more than an hour north of Charlotte. There are a few Yadkin wineries that extend southward into Davidson County, most notably Childress Winery, one of the state’s largest.

directional sign

Finding your way between wineries can be a challenge.

A winery map is helpful, and they are easy to obtain either from websites such as ncwine.org or from visitors’ centers. Vineyard signage along major highways is generally good, which is helpful given that winery addresses will only confuse a GPS, which doesn’t see the difference between Thurmond Road and Thurmond PO Road – an important distinction if you’re looking for McRitchie Winery and Ciderworks, for example. Look for the signs, use your GPS when you can and have a phone number handy, in case you get lost.

Winter is a slow time in the wine making and wine tourism business – many vineyard and winery owners take their vacations in this down season. Tasting rooms are open for shorter hours, so choose those you visit carefully – Thursdays through Sundays are the days you’ll most likely find them open. Don’t be disappointed like we were, driving miles to a remote winery that was closed that day – oops, I forgot it was Thursday, not Friday!

In the vineyards themselves, you won’t see anything green. The vines have been pruned back to the point that they look like low-hanging utility lines. But the stark, beauty of the open landscape, set against the background of the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond, is breath taking. On a trip in 2010, we experienced a dusting of snow overnight, and those vineyard photos remain some of my favorites.

Bare vineyard vines

Nothing green on the vines in winter.

Wine tasting is one of those experiences that is somewhat self-limiting – you can only drink so much wine in a day. I try to limit a day’s tasting to two-three wineries to enjoy the experience, without wondering how I will get back home. (Fortunately, my husband is an excellent driver on a wine tour, but we all have our limits!)

I’ve also learned to take along snacks that I enjoy with wine – cheeses, crackers, fruit, chocolate, olives – and plenty of water. If you nosh as you go, you’re more likely to enjoy the experience and not find yourself staggering from winery to winery. Warm weather is more conducive to a wine picnic, but I’ve found wineries very accommodating of your bringing food inside (just ask first).

Not long ago, almost every winery I visited charged $5 for a wine tasting, which included a wine glass etched with the winery’s name. Today, the tasting and price vary greatly – one winery we visited let you choose from among six red and six white wines at $1 apiece, no glass included; another charged $8 for tasting six wines and four ciders, with hands-down the nicest wine glass I’ve ever taken home from a winery (I usually leave them behind these days).

At the last of three wineries we visited, we opted to just share a glass of a particular white wine I had read about. The hostess there offered to let us share a tasting, which is an option I would certainly ask about if you don’t want to drink all the offerings alone.

winery equipment

Tour wineries to learn more about wine production.

Don’t forget there is more to the wine experience than just the tasting and purchasing a bottle or two to take home. Find out if the wineries offer tours and plan your visit accordingly. In February, there are lots of Valentines-inspired tastings and dinners. In warmer months, you’ll encounter music events or hikes through the vineyards. And most wineries don’t mind if you stroll through the vineyards – the vines change so much throughout the year.

Some vineyards even offer accommodations like small cabins that allow you to enjoy the vineyards and winery all day without ever getting in your car. This is probably more information than you ever wanted to know about touring NC wineries – just get a map and get out there!

fireplace and chair

This cabin at the Pilot Knob Inn near Pilot Mountain is an old tobacco barn.

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