We recently spent a little post-holiday time in the foothills of North Carolina near Lake James and visited a few of the small wineries that run along both Hwy. 70 and Interstate 40, roughly between Morganton and Marion.
Like all winter winery tours, you have to pay attention to the days and hours the wineries are open, and it varies quite a bit, especially right after the holidays. Some wineries will just shut down their tasting rooms during the winter, so it’s a good idea to call ahead.
The first winery we visited was Lake James Cellars in Glen Alpine, just a few miles west of Morganton. You’ll recognize the names of these small communities from the names on the Interstate 40 exit signs you pass on the way to Asheville. Lake James Cellars was open regular hours the week after the holidays.
The winery tasting room is located in a 1915 textile mill and has something for everyone, including an antique mall that takes up a sizable portion of the building. The wine making facility is in the level below the tasting room, and tours are available by appointment. There is also a nice covered porch for a picnic in warmer weather.
There is no vineyard here – the winemakers buy most of their grapes from nearby Yadkin Valley. There are 525 vineyards in North Carolina – more than double the 186 wineries — so there are many opportunities for winemakers to buy others’ grapes.
The bottles from Lake James Cellars include an image of local landmark Shortoff Mountain in the Linville Gorge wilderness area. We got a glimpse of the mountain and rock face leading to the gorge from an overlook at Lake James State Park, just a short drive from the winery. Shortoff Mountain is one of five “winter hikes” that the town of Morganton is using to entice winter travelers into the foothills during the colder months.
From Lake James Cellars, we chose a Syrah and Cabernet Franc. Of the other wines we tried, I also enjoyed the Brown Mountain White, an N.C. Viognier and Turkey Tail Red, a White Merlot with a light salmon color.
The other nearby wineries are Silver Fork Winery in Morganton, South Creek Winery and Belle Nicho Winery in Nebo. Silver Fork was closed, South Creek opened later in the day, but we found that Belle Nicho, a small winery, was actually open at 11 a.m. on a Thursday.
Like so many winery trips, we had to wander around a bit to find our way to Belle Nicho. The tasting room is small, but has nice outdoor space for a glass of wine and picnic in nicer weather. There is a small one-acre vineyard, and the winemakers here also buy some grapes from other vineyards. We were lucky to get there when we did — after New Year’s, the winery is closed through mid-February.
The tasting include a nice selection of Chambourcin, Seyval Blanc, Traminette, Rose made from Cabernet Franc, and Sweet Dog Red, a blend of Chambourcin and Cab Franc. We chose a bottle of the Seyval Blanc that we’ll hold for lighter summer drinking.
The bookend towns of the Lake James region are Marion to the west and Morganton to the east. We stayed at a little Airbnb house – Backyard Bunkies – in Marion. We did some hiking in the area as well – Lake James State Parks and Catawba Falls near Old Fort.
Morganton is probably the more happenin’ town, with a wealth of downtown restaurants and coffee shops, art studios, a brewery and a seven-screen movie theater. We had dinner one night at Wisteria Southern Gastropub, a nice farm-to-table restaurant that was really hopping even on a weeknight. We really enjoyed the food there.
With a little more time, there are other wineries only a short drive north or south of the interstate. Overall, the Lake James area provides a nice wine tour and outdoor destination.