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


Ponysaurus brings fun and good beer to Durham

server pouring from tap

Many beers on tap at Ponysaurus.

Despite our best efforts, bloggers can sort of let the breweries get away from us. Because, you know, the fun part is really visiting the breweries – trying the beer, hanging out with friends, playing giant Jenga. But the photos and the unposted reviews start to back up… Yikes! So Tarheel Taps &Corks is at least making an effort to go back through the last few months brewery and winery visits share some places that were great to visit in winter. Just imagine how much more fun they will be this summer!

Ponysaurus Brewing Co., Durham

When I grew up in Durham, but there were just some part of town that, well, we never actually saw. And the Ponysaurus Brewing Co. at Ramseur St. and Fayetteville St. was one of those places – industrial, near the tracks, off the beaten path. But today, beer lovers are beating a path to the Ponysaurus in this neighborhood that is experiencing new life.

We visited back in March during the ACC tournament, and the night was warm enough to sit outside at one of the large community tables. There were so many beers to try that we ordered two flights.

The outdoor experience at Ponysaurus Brewing Co. is what it’s all about. In fact, there’s really not that much seating indoors, so I can’t really imagine what it would be like there in winter. But when the large garage doors are open, there are lawn tables, two upper deck seating areas and covered tables with screens right outside the taproom. Seems to be kid-friendly and dog-friendly (and even Duke-student friendly, but what can you do?) There are food trucks on the grounds also.

And here’s a fun summertime thing to do – you can reserve a grill at Ponysaurus, choose your meats and sides, arrive to have your picnic waiting for you. Grill and enjoy your dinner, throw your trash away and head home when you’re done. What a great idea!

Ponysaurus Brewing Co. Taproom
Corner of Ramseur and Fayetteville Streets, Durham

flight of four beers

Get a flight to try as many beers as possible.

Oskar Blues: Craft beer in a can in the heart of Pisgah

two glasses of beer

Cinnamon Coffee Chub at Oskar Blues

The drive from Asheville to Brevard, home of Oskar Blues Brewery, isn’t that far. But even better when you take the free trolley that takes you from Asheville on Saturdays to the craft brewery that opened an East Coast operation here a year ago.

Oskar Blues is known for its craft beer in a can, and at the Brevard brewery, you’ll see beer cans stacked to the ceiling. If you opt to drive yourself to the brewery, you’ll need to know where you’re going. It’s not that far from town, but once you leave the main road, you may wonder where you’re really headed.

The brewery tasting room is open til 10 p.m. on Saturdays, but closes early on weeknights – last call is about 7:45 p.m. Check the schedule to see if there’s live music the night you attend.  Back in the fall, we enjoyed the Cinnamon Coffee Chub.

Brevard is a great little down, gateway to the Pisgah National Forest with a lively downtown and good local restaurants. The brewery just adds another attraction to the mix.

people sitting at the bar

Weeknight at the brewery

man walking through brewery waving

Happy brewer at Oskar Blues

‘Rhythm and Brews’ this weekend in Galax, VA

Two glasses of beer.

Fuller’s London Pride Premium Beer was offered for tasting.

So every now and then, Tarheel Taps & Corks gets out of good, old North Carolina to see what other states have to offer in the way of wine and beer. We really enjoy visiting the Galax, VA area, and were we delighted to see Creek Bottom Brews along the truck route that bypasses downtown.

Creek Bottom Brews is a bottle shop that has been open less than a year and offers an impressive array of draft beers. On Saturdays, they offer free tastings in the shop. Right now, they serve samples from bottles, but hope to add taps. The day we were there, they were pouring Kostritzer black lager and Fuller’s London Pride premium beer.

Virginia’s restrictive alcohol laws may keep the state from being a contender in the craft beer market. Apparently, even a bottle store or taproom has to make a certain amount of income from food. Creek Bottom Brews sells breads, cheeses and several other locally produced foods to meet this requirement. The owners would like to begin brewing one day their own beers one day.

This weekend, Creek Bottom is hosting Galax’s first “Rhythm and Brews” Fest with music and beer from six brewers, including Winston-Salem’s Foothills Brewing just about an hour away. The festival is in Creek Bottom’s parking lot from 1-8 p.m. Good times!

Creek Bottom Brews
307 N. Meadow St.Galax, VA


WordPress stats; 2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog. See how we did in our first year: Not bad!

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,500 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, and why 6 million Germans and visitors will pack beer gardens this month to celebrate Oktoberfest, you must read David Ivey’s Black Bucket Brew most recent issue. There’s even a recipe for beer brats!