About Natalie

I am a humble scribe with a serious wanderlust and love of good beer and wine. Though by no means an expert, I am pleased to share some of my North Carolina discoveries of places and libations you may enjoy.

Nash Community College: Producing brewers for Eastern NC

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patio at community collegeBig things are brewing at Nash Community College. The college, outside of Rocky Mount, boasts successful academic programs that are preparing students for the craft beer and hospitality industries.

In April, the beginning of NC Beer Month, NCC held a community workshop to showcase the skills of its culinary and brewing students. Guests enjoyed a meal of seafood paired with college-brewed beers under the lights on NCC’s patio.

Located just minutes from Rocky Mount Mills, home to an “incubator brewery” where would-be brewers can try their hand at brewing before launching their own operations.

The evening opened with guests learning to shuck their own grilled oysters, harvested from North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound. The first beer of the evening was Andes Mint Chocolate Stout, brewed with a Dutch chocolate malt, with fresh spearmint and peppermint added at the end of the brewing process.

The Seville Nights-themed dinner included two types of paella, potatoes and calamari, with two types of sauces, salsa verde and garlic aioli. In addition to the beer, the meal included a Sangria made from grapes grown at the college.

Trent Mohrbutter, NCC’s chief academic officer, said the NCC Brewing, Distillation and Fermentation program was developed to support the state’s brewing industry, and specifically to help boost the number of breweries in eastern North Carolina.

Randy and Danny

Randy Griffin and Danny Toole shared their specialty brews with guest at the NCC dinner.

The program, which leads to a two-year associates in applied science degree, is built around three tracks: the science of brewing, the industrial/mechanical and maintenance aspects of brewing, and the entrepreneurial/small business development side of starting a brewery. The college also offers certificates and a diploma of shorter duration.

Two brewing students shared the secrets of the beers they brewed for the dinner. Randy Griffin created an oyster stout by adding oysters on the half shell to a classic American stout during the last 15 minute of the brewing boil. The beer had a lightly salty flavor to it, but no overwhelming oyster taste.

Griffin said he saw a sign about the NCC brewing program while visiting Rocky Mount Mills. A long-time craft beer drinker, Griffin said he was ready to make a job change and enrolled in the brewing program. “I want to know everything possible. I want to learn the business side as well as the brewing side.”

A fan of brown ales, Griffin said that another major brewing project was a marshmallow brown ale he calls “Sta-Puff.”

Brewing student Danny Toole created a pecan porter, brewed with real roasted pecans. The pecan taste was very distinct. Toole said he would use more of the porter’s pale chocolate malt in future batches.

Toole said he found the NCC brewing program online. “I wanted a different are in the craft beer industry that is growing in North Carolina.” Eventually, he would like to own a brewery of his own.

buffet line and oven

A wood-fired grill is featured on the patio of the culinary program.

Entrance to building

Culinary arts building at NCC.

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Some Wicked Good Beer

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beer on ice

Wicked Weed beer tasting at NC State University Club.

Wicked Weed Brewing was the darling of Asheville’s craft beer market until earlier this year when they shocked their fellow brewers by selling their operation to Anheuser-Busch, makers of Budweiser. But in spite of the ownership change, the brewery has continued with business as usual, with a goal of expanding their distribution throughout the Southeast, according to Wicked Weed’s Raleigh rep Gregory Little.

Wicked Weed brews a little something for everyone, and recently, they rolled out a tasting at the NC State University Club in Raleigh that included some favorites and some brews I hadn’t tried before.

Lunatic Blonde: A Belgian blonde, lightly hopped and refreshing.

Napoleon Complex Hoppy Pale Ale: A little more hop than I care for.

Pernicious IPA: Yes, it’s hoppy, but it’s more of a citrus hop; no bitter finish.

Hop Coca Porter: More coca than hop, this porter is a great cool weather beer – brewed with coca nibs.

Brettanomyces Farmhouse Ale: The one sour – nice cider-like quality.

Any time you’re in Asheville, be sure to make a stop at Wicked Week Brewing – either the brewery or the nearby sours brewing facility, the Funkatorium. The food at the brewery is actually really good, and like many of Asheville’s dining establishments, they throw open the doors and make the whole restaurant feel like a patio in warm weather.

beers

Wicked Weed brought out the goods for the NC State University Club.

Chefs, winemakers come together in Valle Crucis

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group by porch railing

Jessie Blackburn, second from left, with friends on the porch of Over Yonder, Chef and Winemaker Summit. (Ellen Gwin Burnette photo, Appalachian State University)

Part 2 of 2

Jessie Blackburn of Appalachian State University was puzzled by the disconnect between North Carolina’s thriving farm-to-fork restaurant culture and the lack of local wines on fine restaurant menus. She found several chefs who were willing to come together with regional winemakers to share their knowledge of food and wines, seeking ways of bringing local food and local wine together.

So back in March, she organized the Chef and Winemakers Summit in Valle Crucis. Four central Appalachian chefs – Travis Milton, Ian Boden, Nate Allen, and Andy Long  – along with representatives from 11 Appalachian wineries came together to cultivate relationships. The two groups came away with a greater appreciation for the quality of the region’s wines. The gathering was at Over Yonder, a popular local restaurant.

“The chefs were able to taste these regional wines and be confident enough to recognize that these were really quality wines,” Blackburn said. “One chef said to me, ‘I had no idea this kind of wine was being made in this region.’ They told me, ‘I absolutely could sell that wine, without hesitation.’”

Blackburn is the author of an upcoming book,  Appalachian Terroir: Stylistic Approaches to New Landscapes, to be published by University of Kentucky Press.

“It was humbling to host such a great group of folks with the knowledge and the ability to drive the conversation of Appalachian wine that is beginning to take shape,” said Andy Long, owner/chef of Over Yonder. “Tasting these outstanding regional wines and meeting the folks that produce them was an eye-opening experience for me.”

“Just as chefs have a responsibility to source local and mindfully raised meats and produce, it is now clear that we must begin to do the same for the vintners of our region, and to do otherwise would be a disservice to us, them, and our customers,” Long said.

wine bottles on ice

Whites from North Carolina’s Elkin Creek Winery on ice. (Ellen Gwin Burnette photo, Appalachian State University)

Because chefs tend to talk with other chefs, Blackburn is confident that they will share what they’ve learned with their colleagues in the region.

“It was wonderful getting to spend time with the winemakers, and to speak with them under conditions that are very common and comfortable for us as chefs,” said Travis Milton, chef/owner of Shovel & Pick, Bristol, Va. “By this I mean, I think we all approached the summit for exactly what it was in its truest sense, chefs speaking to farmers, which is one of the more comfortable conversational situations I think you could put any of us in.”

Blackburn said she was impressed with the kinds of conversations she heard at the summit between chefs and winemakers and among the winemakers themselves. “I was really pleased to see the kinds of conversations that were happening,” she said. “Wineries were talking with each other, getting new ideas from each other: different ways to market, different grapes to think about growing. One winery was talking to another winery about ways to save bottling costs.”

Winemakers also appreciated the opportunity to share their products with top chefs.

“Our vineyard and winemaking practices are allowing us to produce many styles and varieties of wine that are being recognized from within the winemaking community,” said Louis Jeroslow of Elkin Creek Vineyard in the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina. “There is a strange disconnect between this natural local resource and those who create and appreciate local cuisine. I think we definitely surprised some people today and began a new awareness of what exists and is growing right here in their backyard.”

In addition to Long and Milton, chefs participating in the summit included:

  • Ian Boden, chef/owner of The Shack, Staunton, Va.
  • Nate Allen, chef/owner of Knife & Fork, Spruce Pine, N.C.

The 11 participating wine producers from American Viticultural Areas (AVA) extending from Maryland to Alabama are:

  • Banner Elk Winery, Banner Elk; Appalachian High Country AVA. Dr. David Craig, winemaker
  • Jones von Drehle Vineyards & Winery, Thurmond; Yadkin Valley Wine Trail. Dan Tallman, winemaker.
  • McRitchie Winery and Ciderworks, Thurmond; Yadkin Valley Wine Trail. Sean McRitchie, winemaker and cider maker.
  • Elkin Creek Vineyard, Elkin; Yadkin Valley. Louis Jeroslow, winemaker.
  • Blenheim Vineyards and Winery, Charlottesville, Virginia; Monticello AVA. Kirsty Harmon, winemaker.
  • King Family Vineyards, Crozet, Virginia; Monticello AVA. Matthieu Finot, winemaker.
  • James Charles Winery & Vineyard, Winchester, Virginia; Shenandoah Wine Trail. Justin Bogaty, winemaker.
  • Big Cork Vineyards, Rohrersville, Maryland; Antietam Highlands Wine Trail. Dave Collins, winemaker.
  • Wolf Mountain Vineyards and Winery, Dahlonega, Georgia; Dahlonega Wine Trail. Brandon Boegner, winemaker.
  • Ramulose Ridge Vineyards, Moneta, Virginia; Bedford Wine Trail. Sandi Ramaker, winemaker.
  • Maraella Estate Vineyard and Winery, Hokes Bluff, Alabama; North Alabama Wine Trail. Justin Miller, winemaker. Founder and winemaker for featured Cabernet was James Lee (1942- 2015).

Read Part 1, ‘Where are the local wines?’

Read more from Appalachian Magazine.

food on table

Food and wine were the stars of the summit. (Ellen Gwin Burnette photo, Appalachian State University)

‘Where are the local wines?’

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Appalachian State professor wonders why regional wines don’t appear on Appalachia wine lists

Jessie and ??

Jessie Blackburn, right, wondered why Appalachian wines lists didn’t serve local wines. (Ellen Gwin Burnette photo, Appalachian State Univesity)

Part 1 of 2
North Carolina’s wine industry continues to grow, with nearly 200 wineries and more than twice that many vineyards. But how often do you see North Carolina wines on a restaurant menu?

At their annual meeting in 2016, the North Caroline Winegrowers discussed ways to raise the profile of their industry. One strategy was to get more of the state’s top restaurants to put North Carolina wines on their menus. Despite a thriving farm-to-table restaurant culture, it is difficult to find the state’s wines being poured in fine restaurants.

Jessie Blackburn, associate professor at Appalachian State University with degrees in rhetoric and Appalachian studies, noticed the same thing. While driving from New York to North Carolina several years ago to relocate for her current position, she was surprised by the number of wineries she passed in the Appalachian Mountains, especially Virginia and North Carolina. Wineries don’t match the outdated “moonshine” stereotype that so many still have in their minds about Appalachia.

She began visiting winery tasting rooms, talking with winegrowers. She was impressed with the quality of their wines and the experience that greeted tourists. At the same time, she was aware of a “culinary renaissance” going on in Appalachia — restaurants with a strong farm-to-table ethic. Her experience will be the topic of an upcoming book, Appalachian Terroir: Stylistic Approaches to New Landscapes, to be published by University of Kentucky Press.

But where were the North Carolina wines? “I looked at chefs’ menus, and few were selling local wine,” she said. And that didn’t match the tradition that you would experience in other parts of the world, she said. In places like Italy and France, food and wine from the same region are proudly served together.

“When you eat food or wine from a region, you’re tasting terroir. Why is there a disconnect here?” she asked, pointing out that restaurants in North Carolina and Virginia seemed to have no problem putting local beer and spirits on their menus.

She had the opportunity to talk with Appalachian chefs who are committed to a sustainable, local food system. She asked them, “Why do you not have local wines on your menu?”

She believes there are many reasons why North Carolina wines may suffer from an “image problem” with chefs and consumers.

“It may be that every chef has a different reason,” Blackburn said. Some fear that their clientele’s wine literacy suggests the best wines come from other places – California, New Zealand, France or Italy. Some chefs just have an idea of what a standard wine list typically looks like.

And there are other reasons why N.C. wines may suffer from an image problem. Some North Carolina wineries are perpetuating a low-brow image of the industry by cashing in on the state’s bootlegger, moonshine stereotype, “which does us few favors,” she said.

Developing a tasting room experience “that is worth coming back to and that reflects the nuances of the terroir” is important for enhancing the wine industry’s image. “Wine is one of those things that is symbolic. Some of the wineries are still struggling to create that experience that people are willing to drive for or to come back for,” she said.

Wineries also benefit from being located close together, creating a destination for tourists, a scenario that you would certainly find in many parts of North Carolina.

People should see wine country as a destination.

“So the more wineries open up, the better our destinations become,” she said. A winery that is isolated from other wineries faces more struggles than a winery or vineyard surrounded by others, and trails and winery passports help pour dollars into local economies.

Yet Blackburn believes that getting wines on the menus of top restaurants is the best way to promote the state’s wine industry. So she decided to bring together some of the area’s finest chefs and regional winemakers to expose the chefs to regional wines that are good enough for restaurant wine lists. And the idea for the Chef and Winemakers Summit was born.

Check back Wednesday to read about the summit!

It’s NC Beer Month — Five Ways to Celebrate

Brewer during a tour

Tour a brewery to celebrate NC Beer Month.

April is NC Beer Month, and there are many ways to celebrate. So whether you’re a new or seasoned craft beer lover, here are five ideas for how to celebrate.

Tour a local brewery. Not all breweries offer tours, but many do, and some do a really great job of showcasing how their product is brewed. Most brewery websites will give the time and details of the tours. Some charge for their tours, usually with a beer reward (and a glass) at the end. Others offer free tours, but you buy your own beer. Know what a mash tun is? The four ingredients in beer? Yeah, you definitely need a tour!

Visit your local bottle shop and try some NC beer. Some grocery stores now carry a good selection of NC beer, but without the expertise you’ll find in a bottle shop. Explore the different ingredients that give beer its taste – are you more of a hoppy — bitter, citrusy — beer person, or do you prefer the caramel, coffee flavors of malt? Not sure where to start? Take this NC Beer Month quiz to find out your beer style.

Attend a beer tasting event. There are lots of them in April, from the mountains to the coast. Take the opportunity to try something you haven’t tried before. Some events offer unlimited tastings for the price of a ticket; at others, you pay as you go for what you taste.

Set out on a beer trail. Find an NC community with several breweries, maybe even some within walking distance of each other. Could be one of NC’s beer meccas, like Asheville or Raleigh. Some areas offer incentives to visit all their breweries, like the Raleigh Beer Trail. A new app from Our State Magazine helps you find breweries around North Carolina.

Experiment with beer and food pairings. Love Mexican food? Ask for something light and refreshing to offset the heaviness of the food. Chocolate dessert? Try a nice dark porter or stout. Whatever you do, make sure that your favorite restaurant serves a good selection of NC beer.

Two beer glasses

What’s your favorite beer? Try something new for NC Beer Month.

Winter wine tour in the Lake James area

front porch of winery

Lake James Cellars is located in a 1915 textile mill that also houses an antique mall.

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.

shortoff mountain

The distinctive Shortoff Mountain, seen from Lake James, is the image on the Lake James Cellars bottles, seen below.

lake james cellars bottleFrom 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.

tasting room with two people

Tasting room at Belle Nicho Winery.

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.

More photos from Lake James area wineries