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

Celebrate NC Wine Month in September


vines-smallI was visiting wineries in the Yadkin Valley just a few weeks ago, and the grapes were really heavy on the vine. September is when NC vineyards will do most of their harvesting, which makes it a great month to celebrate NC wine.

The first time I visited an NC wineries in about 2002, there were fewer than 50 wineries in the state, but even then, growth was in the air. Today, the industry has grown to 180 wineries and more than 500 grape growers, with an economic impact of $1.7 billion.

I know what you’re thinking — there are some of you out there who still haven’t tried NC wine, or visited an NC winery or vineyard. Or maybe you tried something you didn’t like, and you assume all the state’s wine is the same. But nothing could be further from the truth.

North Carolina has four American Viticulture Areas (think Napa or Sonoma): Yadkin Valley, Swan Creek, Haw River and Upper Hiwassee Highlands. Each AVA offers a unique blend of climate, soils, moisture and elevation to produce wine grapes with a uniqueness of their own.

grape bunches

Grapes are heavy on the vines in NC vineyards.

And there are many vineyards outside the AVAs. North Carolina is home to the world’s largest muscadine winery — Duplin Winery and Vineyards. Muscadines happen to be our native grape in North Carolina. Out on Roanoke Island, you can visit the “Mother Vine,” a scuppernong vine that may be the oldest cultivated vine in America.

The Yadkin Valley was the state’ first AVA and is home to the many wineries that produce mostly vinifera grapes and wines. These grapes wouldn’t grow in North Carolina’s challenging climate except for the benefit of root stocks that are resistant to the diseases and fungi that plague wine grapes.

Where ever you live in North Carolina, you can’t be far from a North Carolina vineyard or winery. This month, take the time to visit or enjoy one of the many “NC Wine Month” events on the state’s wine calendar, from music to grape stompings and more.

On Sept. 28 at 9 pm ET, you can learn more about North Carolina wines by joining the #winechat on Twitter to witness the NC Wine Guys Joe Brock and Matt Kemberling and other guests discuss #NCWine and #NCWineMonth on #winechat.

Read more about NC Wine Month

guests sitting at patio table

Guests enjoy wine on the patio at Raffaldini Winery in Ronda.

vendor with glove and clippers

This innovative glove and clippers work together to prevent grape harvesters from cutting a finger.

How to build a bright future for NC wine: Collaboration and tourism


Dessert at the winegrowers awards banquet: Riesling Poached Pear, filled with mascarpone, house-made almond brittle, and red wine and berry compote. (Almost too pretty to eat!)

To grow the wine industry in North Carolina, wineries need to work collectively, expand their markets beyond the tasting room and create an experience that will draw in tourists. At the recent NC Winegrowers Association conference, wine producers heard from experts on creating the tasting room experience, branding their products and using social media and optimized websites to bring in customers.

Winegrowers President Mark Friszolowski encouraged winegrowers to work together, across the state and including all types of wine, to promote North Carolina’s wine industry in the state and beyond.

“We represent all of North Caroline wine,” Friszolowski told the conference. “Our strength is working together.”

Though consumer wine preferences are trending more toward red than white, Friszolowski said, there is still a huge consumer preference for sweet wines, which outsell dry wines 4:1.

Enhancing the quality of NC wines is important for future of the industry, as well as gaining acceptance by getting North Carolina wines on restaurant menus and educating wait staffs about the wines the state has to offer.

In an effort to educate the public about North Carolina wine, the state’s wine industry will partner with WUNC-TV’s NC Weekend to produce a 10-show series on the history of NC wine. The series is in production now.

Enhancing the tourism experience of the state wineries was also a theme of the conference. Virginia Tech’s Tony Wolf explained how tourism had helped grow Virginia’s wine industry from, “you can’t grow wine grapes here,” to more than 250 wineries and 3,500 acres of grapes. “Tourism is and always will be integral to the growth of the Virginia wine industry,” Wolfe said.

Other conference breakout sessions focused on the tasting room experience and marketing

  • Hiring the right tasting room staff was the focus of a presentation by Thomas Salley of Raffaldini Vineyards and Erin Doby of Raylen Vineyards. Both described attributes they look for in hiring employees, including a background in retail sales and a strong commitment to customer service. They also talked about setting work expectations for employees.
  • Erick Byrd of UNC-Greensboro talked about a tasting room employee training program under development by the university’s Bryan School of Business. (Byrd presented remotely because the icy roads prevented him from making the drive to Winston.) A four-module online training program will be released later this spring. (Byrd and his colleagues received the “Member of Distinction Award” from the association Saturday evening.)
  • The NC Wine Guys, Joe Brock and Matt Kemberling, explained to winegrowers how social media and blogging can help them connect to consumers. Consistent engagement on social media, using hashtags and photos can help turn social media followers into visitors.
  • Susan Dosier of DK Communications Group shared how search engine optimization – using trending and searchable words – can help businesses to make sure visitors can find their way to their website. She talked about using tools like (WordPress plugin) and Google trends to increase traffic to your website.

At the Saturday evening awards dinner, John Ryan of Sanctuary Vineyards received the “Grower of the Year Award.” The dinner was excellent, especially paired with wines from Morgan Ridge Vineyards.

A Sunday morning “coffee discussion” on branding allowed winery owners – including several who had bought existing wineries – to explain how they rebranded their operations to strengthen their position in the marketplace. All in all, it was a very good conference.

Read more about the 2016 NC Winegrowers Association conference.


Saturday night awards banquet

Ryan accepts award

John Ryan of Sanctuary Vineyards is named Grower of the Year at NC Winegrowers Association meeting.

Snowed-in winegrowers celebrate the quality of NC Wine

wine poured into glass

Wine flowed at the winegrowers NC Grand Food and Wine Pairing.

What could be better than being snowed in for two days in Winston-Salem, with 100 or so of your favorite North Carolina winegrowers? That was the situation at the NC Winegrowers Association annual meeting, as a winter storm swept across the state in late January.

Many conferees, from wine growers to bloggers and exhibitors, came in on Thursday night ahead of the storm. Snow rained down on Winston’s downtown Marriott and Embassy Suites hotels all day Friday, but the precipitation had stopped by Saturday.

Unfortunately, the storm hurt Friday night’s signature conference event, the NC Grand Wine & Food Tasting at the Embassy Suites. Most of the wineries that signed up were there, but only a handful of chefs were able to bring their “food pairings” for the wine selections. Still, conferees enjoyed the wine and reception, while snow blew sideways down the street outside.

Saturday’s NC Showcase of Wines and awards banquet were excellent, and by then, others who could not travel on Friday had joined the group. It was a treat to share a table with Morgan Ridge Vineyards owners Tommy and Amie Baudoin, who brought many fine bottles of their red wines to share.

Despite the weather, it was a good conference. Some presenters, including NC State’s Dr. Hannah Burrack and UNCG’s Dr. Erick Byrd presented their slides remotely, and sessions went on with barely a hitch. Here are a few highlights and wisdom from the winegrowers conference.

Increasing the quality of NC wines

wine glass and food

A slice of pork loin from Graze Restaurant paired with red wine.

Producing high-quality wines in the state is important for the future of the NC wine industry, according to NC Winegrowers President Mark Friszolowski of Childress Vineyards. It was a theme that ran through a number of presentations, and several initiatives are already underway to enhance the quality of NC wines.

“High-end buyers won’t take us seriously until we produce high-quality wine at the local level,” Friszolowski said. “To increase the value of your farm and your business, we have to take this issue seriously.”

Friszolowski said he would like to see North Carolina adopt standards, like Virginia’s, requiring that North Carolina wines use a defined percentage of locally produced grapes, an issue he has raised with N.C. state Sen. Brent Jackson, head of the senate’s agriculture committee.

In addition, Friszolowski wants NC State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Science to commit its support of the industry. Viticulturist Dr. Sara Spayd will retire in September, and Frizolowski wants to make sure the college continues its support of the wine industry. At one time, the college had three positions devoted to wine – in addition to Spayd, the college at one time had an enologist and a muscadine extension position, based in Duplin County. Once Spayd retires, there will be no NC State researchers devoted to the wine industry.

Winegrowers Vice President Ken Gulaian told winegrowers about a new effort underway to ensure wine quality in the state – the Quality Alliance Program. The voluntary program provides wineries with a taste panel to detect flaws in their wine.

Launched in January 2015, the program has tested 86 wines and 71 passed the panel’s quality test.

Here’s how it works: Wineries submit two bottles of their wine to the quality program. Three trained sensory panelists taste the wine, looking for any taste flaws. If the wine fails the panel review, it is sent to a lab for analysis. Results of the analysis are provided to the winery, and those that pass, can place a quality assurance label on their wine bottles.

In addition, efforts are underway to launch the NC Fine Wines Competition a year from now. The competition’s gala will be held Feb. 18, 2017. Most of the competition categories will be for vinifera wines: red, white, rose, sparkling and dessert/port, as well as a “best hybrid” category. Award levels are double gold, gold, silver and bronze. In addition to the medals, gala and accolades, winners will be able to share with customers video vignettes about the winning wines.

Seasoned wine judge Linda King told winegrowers, “you have to have medals” and you have to put them where your customers can see them. Medals help tasting room guests to see the value of your wines.

King advised winery owners to first consider competitions close to home, like the Dixie Classic and NC State Fair competitions (though she has some reservations about the State Fair competition, which apparently won’t acknowledge who judges the wines). In choosing which competitions to enter, King advised winegrowers to consider the cost to enter, the number of bottles required and the location of the competition. East Coast wines generally don’t do well in California competitions, she said.

King is optimistic about the future of the wine industry. She told winegrowers that, “The quality of wine in this country has skyrocketed.” The same can be said for the quality of NC wines over the last 15 years.

plates of port loin

Graze Restaurant of Winston-Salem puts final touches on pork loin slices.


Winegrowers brave winter storm for annual conference

Kyle holding bottle of wine at wineryWith a winter storm bearing down on North Carolina, winegrowers from across the state will gather in Winston-Salem this weekend for education and business related to the state’s growing wine industry. And, of course, there will be North Carolina wine.

Winegrowers and wine enthusiasts were scrambling to get to Winston-Salem ahead of a winter storm, expected to bring snow and ice across the state. But if you have to be snowed in, what could be better than hanging out with a bunch of winegrowers? You know they’ll come prepared!

The conference includes breakouts on viticulture, enology, and business and marketing. Viticulture sessions will focus on issues related to wine grapes production: pest and disease management, soils, vineyard establishment and management, and vineyard canopy management.

For the wine producers, enology sessions will deal with topics like producing muscadine wines, using quality control tools, determining the cost of a bottle of wine, deciding what wine to make, aging in barrels, packaging, outsourcing and more.

On the business and marketing side, panelists will discuss the value of wine competitions, tasting room staff, social media and blogging, branding and marketing.

Really looking forward to hearing the “NC Wine Guys,” Matt Kemberline and Joe Brock, talk about social medial and blogging. And Saturday afternoon, Susan Dosier will over a two-part session on the “Marketing Circle of Life.”

The NC Grand Wine and Food Tasting on Friday, 5:30-7:30 p.m. is open to the public and will feature food and wine pairings and a chance to meet the winemakers and grape growers from across the state. Light hor d’oeuvres prepared by local restaurants will be paired with NC wines. Saturday evening will feature the NC Showcase of Wines, followed by an awards banquet.

Saturday morning’s business meeting will include presentations on how NC fits into the global wine market, grape production in a challenging environment and an update on rainfall by region in NC.

If you’re in Winston Friday night, brave the storm and come out to Grand Wine and Food Tasting – maybe get snowed in with a few of your closest wine grower friends. Tarheel Taps and Corks will be there to share it all.

NC Wine Guys see bright future ahead for North Carolina wine and beer

Joe and Matt

NC Wine Guys Joe Brock, left, and Matt Kemberling say the future is bright for both NC wine and beer industries. (Photo by Karen Parker-Binns at Parker-Binns Vineyards)

We’ve heard some good news regarding North Carolina’s beer and wine industries this summer. The economic impact of the state’s wine industry grew by 33 percent from 2009 to 2013 to $1.7 billion, according to a recent survey by the N.C. Wine and Grape Council. Wine-related tourism expenditures are up 65 percent, and the industry supports about 7,700 jobs.

At the same time, the state’s craft beer industry here has just exploded in the 10 years since the state legislature passed “Pop the Cap” legislation, lifting a cap of 5 percent alcohol by volume on beer sold in the state. Since 2010, the number of breweries in the state has grown from 45 to 130, with an impact of $790 million. The craft beer industry supports 10,000 jobs. And the proliferation of craft breweries here has brought three large West Coast brewers – Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues and New Belgium — to the Asheville area.

So is there room in this state for strong beer AND wine industries? What would it take for both beer and wine to remain be successful, and what are the challenges for each? For thoughts on the state’s wine industry, I reached out to the NC Wine Guys ( – Joe Brock and Matt Kemberling – who blog about NC wine from centrally located Mooresville. Joe and Matt believe they have visited 125 North Carolina wineries, with about 15 left to go. They share their insights on North Carolina wine and how the industry can continue to prosper.

The NC Wine Guys give a resounding, “yes,” to both a strong beer and wine industry. The experiences are so different, they say, with wineries located mostly in rural parts of the state. Wineries are not open late, and generally they attract a different clientele from breweries.

Joe thinks there are opportunities for breweries and wineries to work together. More and more NC brewers seek used wine barrels for “barrel-aged” brews, so wineries might consider sharing their barrels with brewers, in exchange for having the brewery serve the winery’s wine. “Not everyone at a brewery wants to drink beer,” he said.

Joe and Matt helped pour for Hanover Park Winery at the N.C. Wine Festival in the spring. “Everyone loved the wine,” Joe said, adding that many had never heard of Hanover Park, though it is located just outside of Winston-Salem and is one of the state’s older wineries. He believes there is a “huge opportunity” to spread the word about the quality and experience of North Carolina wine.

Like some of the state’s winemakers, the Wine Guys have been disappointed at the lack of interest in North Carolina wine by major wine media. Wine marketing experts have said the state’s wine industry needs to institute wine quality standards in order to be noticed by serious wine enthusiasts.

“I think the wines are getting better,” Joe said. “The 2015 vintage, I think we’ll be talking about for a while,” adding that the hot, dry summer has been good for wine grapes.

The NC Wine Guys admit that some winery tasting rooms in the state do a better job with the tourism experience than others. “We want to make sure than people have a good experience. Wineries need to educate consumers,” said Joe.

And getting North Carolina wine into restaurants is also key to the success of the industry. Wineries are doing more wine dinners, which helps wine-loving consumers to experience how NC wines pair with food. Joe believes there is an opportunity for farm-to-fork restaurants to open their tables to North Carolina-produced wines, along with locally produced produce, meats and dairy products.

NC Wine Guys aren’t afraid to preach. On Sept. 16, they will host a #WineChat on Twitter devoted entirely to NC wine. Join the conversation to celebrate #NCWineMonth and share your thoughts on North Carolina wine!

wine chat information