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)

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‘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!

Winter wine tour in the Lake James area

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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

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 Yoast.com (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.

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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.