It’s NC Beer Month — Five Ways to Celebrate

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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.

Wine touring 101: Tips from the Yadkin Valley

woman pouring wine

Tasting rooms are open shorter hours during winter.

Tarheel Taps & Corks recently made an overnight trip to the Yadkin Valley AVA, North Carolina’s first American Viticulture Area, for some wine tasting. And it occurred to me that the uninitiated might wonder exactly what a North Carolina wine tour would look like. So here are a few tips and pointers.

First, AVA is the designation given to a wine-producing region where wines have similar characteristics due to soil, climate, topography, type of grapes grown and more. The Yadkin Valley was NC’s first AVA in year 2003 (there are three now), and today it remains the region with the state’s largest concentration of wineries. The vineyards in these gently rolling hills along the Yadkin River produce both native muscadines and  European grape varietals.

The heart of the Yadkin Valley AVA runs along I-77, generally north of Hwy. 421 through Yadkin, Surry and Wilkes counties. This area is generally 30 minutes west of Winston-Salem, an hour east of Boone and a little more than an hour north of Charlotte. There are a few Yadkin wineries that extend southward into Davidson County, most notably Childress Winery, one of the state’s largest.

directional sign

Finding your way between wineries can be a challenge.

A winery map is helpful, and they are easy to obtain either from websites such as ncwine.org or from visitors’ centers. Vineyard signage along major highways is generally good, which is helpful given that winery addresses will only confuse a GPS, which doesn’t see the difference between Thurmond Road and Thurmond PO Road – an important distinction if you’re looking for McRitchie Winery and Ciderworks, for example. Look for the signs, use your GPS when you can and have a phone number handy, in case you get lost.

Winter is a slow time in the wine making and wine tourism business – many vineyard and winery owners take their vacations in this down season. Tasting rooms are open for shorter hours, so choose those you visit carefully – Thursdays through Sundays are the days you’ll most likely find them open. Don’t be disappointed like we were, driving miles to a remote winery that was closed that day – oops, I forgot it was Thursday, not Friday!

In the vineyards themselves, you won’t see anything green. The vines have been pruned back to the point that they look like low-hanging utility lines. But the stark, beauty of the open landscape, set against the background of the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond, is breath taking. On a trip in 2010, we experienced a dusting of snow overnight, and those vineyard photos remain some of my favorites.

Bare vineyard vines

Nothing green on the vines in winter.

Wine tasting is one of those experiences that is somewhat self-limiting – you can only drink so much wine in a day. I try to limit a day’s tasting to two-three wineries to enjoy the experience, without wondering how I will get back home. (Fortunately, my husband is an excellent driver on a wine tour, but we all have our limits!)

I’ve also learned to take along snacks that I enjoy with wine – cheeses, crackers, fruit, chocolate, olives – and plenty of water. If you nosh as you go, you’re more likely to enjoy the experience and not find yourself staggering from winery to winery. Warm weather is more conducive to a wine picnic, but I’ve found wineries very accommodating of your bringing food inside (just ask first).

Not long ago, almost every winery I visited charged $5 for a wine tasting, which included a wine glass etched with the winery’s name. Today, the tasting and price vary greatly – one winery we visited let you choose from among six red and six white wines at $1 apiece, no glass included; another charged $8 for tasting six wines and four ciders, with hands-down the nicest wine glass I’ve ever taken home from a winery (I usually leave them behind these days).

At the last of three wineries we visited, we opted to just share a glass of a particular white wine I had read about. The hostess there offered to let us share a tasting, which is an option I would certainly ask about if you don’t want to drink all the offerings alone.

winery equipment

Tour wineries to learn more about wine production.

Don’t forget there is more to the wine experience than just the tasting and purchasing a bottle or two to take home. Find out if the wineries offer tours and plan your visit accordingly. In February, there are lots of Valentines-inspired tastings and dinners. In warmer months, you’ll encounter music events or hikes through the vineyards. And most wineries don’t mind if you stroll through the vineyards – the vines change so much throughout the year.

Some vineyards even offer accommodations like small cabins that allow you to enjoy the vineyards and winery all day without ever getting in your car. This is probably more information than you ever wanted to know about touring NC wineries – just get a map and get out there!

fireplace and chair

This cabin at the Pilot Knob Inn near Pilot Mountain is an old tobacco barn.

Iron Gate Winery: A short drive, but a world away

Enjoy a bottle of wine in the courtyard, and music too, beginning in May.

Enjoy a bottle of wine in the courtyard, and music too, beginning in May.

After a hectic day shopping at Tanger Outlets in Mebane, think about stopping by Iron Gate Winery for glass of wine on the outdoor patio or step inside to sample some of their North Carolina wines.

Just three miles outside of Mebane, the winery feels like light years away from the interstate and all the outlet shopping. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the tasting room was filled with guests, including a Chapel Hill family celebrating the dad’s birthday and a couple from Dallas visiting Raleigh for a family wedding.

The Dallas couple caught my attention. A recent study showed that the majority of visitors to NC wineries are from around here, not out of state. This couple said they didn’t know NC had a wine industry until they saw a card in their hotel about the Haw River Valley Wine Trail.

Before arriving at Iron Gate, this couple had visited GlenMarie and Grove wineries nearby. The trio of wineries are part of the Haw River Valley Wine Trail, which also includes Benjamin Vineyards and Winery near Saxapahaw. Both Iron Gate and Benjamin wineries are featured on the Piedmont Farm Tour, April 27-28.

Iron Gate hosts events that you’ll find on the website, including a free Music in the Courtyard series — Sundays 2-4 p.m., May through October. You can find the May schedule online now.

The dry reds were good, and I bought a bottle of Iron Gate’s Chambourcin, one of the grapes that seems to do well in North Carolina. There was a sweeter version, Sweet N’ Sassy Cherry, a Chambourcin sweetened with cherries. For a sweeter wine, it wasn’t bad, and would be great with dark chocolate, I’ll bet.

Mebane is a quaint little town – green lawns, mill houses, a Kingsdown factory, downtown shops across from the railroad tracks. Reminded me of so many other small North Carolina towns, maybe with a new lease on life, thanks to the nearby wineries.

The Winery at Iron Gate Farm
2540 Lynch Store Road
Mebane, NC
919.304.9463

A Chapel Hill family enjoys wine tasting for a birthday celebration.

A Chapel Hill family enjoys wine tasting for a birthday celebration.

Iron Gate's prize winning wines on the shop mantle.

Iron Gate’s prize winning wines on the shop mantle.

A Georgia perspective on Elkin and Yadkin wineries…

Kayak on river

Paddling on the Yadkin River. (BanksNews TODAY)

Sometimes you get a better perspective on your own backyard looking through the eyes of someone less familiar with it. Banks County, Georgia, reporter Angela Gary shares some fun things to do in and around Elkin, including wineries.

Read more from BanksNewsTODAY

Haw River Valley AVA Trip: Part 2

Read about two more wineries in my winter tour of the southern Haw River Valley AVA in North Carolina’s Piedmont: Wolfe Winery and SilkHope Winery. For more information on the AVA, visit: www.hawriverwinetrail.com.

Wolfe Winery, Snow Camp

wolfe wines

Wolfe Wines tasting room

Set the GPS for Wolfe Winery, the second stop on my tour. Wolfe is truly a sweet wine lover’s paradise. They serve a variety of fruit wines – blackberry, raspberry, cherry, apple, strawberry, blueberry and kiwi – along with several muscadine and vinifera grape wines. Fruit wines are made from berries and apples mainly from other states, such as Michigan, where the seasonal fruits are plentiful. One exception is the Wild Blackberry, made from blackberries “harvested here in Snow Camp along the Old Plank Road.”

The other wines include Niagara, a Vitas lambrusca grape native to America and grown in the Haw River Valley; Sweetheart’s Ride, from the Cynthia Norton grapes, America’s native vinifera, as well as Merlot and Chambourcin.  There is also Simon’s Gold, a wine made from bronze muscadines, and another simply called Muscadine, from fruit harvested in the Yadkin Valley. Many of these wines come in dry, semi-sweet and even sweet.

Being partial to dry wines, and taking this tour on my own, I declined to try every wine that was available, although the generous winery owners certainly encouraged me. I tried to steer toward the more traditional vinifera wines. The sweets and semi-sweets were a little too sweet for me. I bought a bottle of the Niagara because it was new to me, and I wanted to take home something produced from locally grown grapes.

I sampled the wild blackberry and raspberry fruit wines. Both were full-bodied and paired well with a piece of dark chocolate.

The tasting room is comfortable and the winery owners very generous. A nice stop on the southern portion of the Haw River AVA. I recommend a summer visit, when the local Snow Camp Outdoor Theater, featuring historical dramas, is open.

http://www.wolfewines.com

SilkHope Winery, Pittsboro

SilkHope Vineyard

SilkHope Vineyard in winter

A few more rural miles of cattle and pastures bring me to SilkHope Winery.  A winding, gravel driveway leads to the top, where the winery and vineyard include a panoramic view of the countryside.  From the vineyard at 700 feet elevation, you might think you were somewhere in the foothills of North Carolina.

The winery is certainly the most humble I visited today. A concrete structure, with no windows, it looks more like an industrial building than a tasting room (actually, it is both). A sign outside the building reads, “Open, Come on In – Just HONK for wine; We may be in the vineyard.” But don’t judge a book, or a winery, by its cover.

Inside, the winery I found wine making equipment in one corner, boxes and displays everywhere and three tables for tasting.  I chose to taste the seven reds, and found each one to be more satisfying than the previous. Red wines produced include Cabarnet Franc, Norton and Chamborcin, as well as a blend.

The owner says he used to age his wine in oak barrels, but now he adds pieces of French oak to stainless fermenting tanks instead. The reds are robust, tannic, yet very smooth. I was especially drawn to Grand Vista, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin and a double gold medal winner at the N.C. State Fair. In the end, I couldn’t resist the ‘10 Chambourcin, also a gold medal fair winner, described as “our best yet.”

I would like to visit again to sample the long list of SilkHope’s white wines: Traminette, a grape new to North Carolina; White Merlot, Seyval Blanc; Vidal Blanc; American- and French-style Chambourcin, and Sisters of Satisfaction, a blend. Sounds like a good summer/fall opportunity.
www.silkhopewinery.com/home

View photos from Haw River Valley AVA tour and Starrlight Mead

Read Part 1, Benjamin Vineyards and Winery
Read Park 3, Starrlight Mead

Visiting Haw River Valley AVA

Haw River

The Haw River, seen here in Saxapahaw, gives this Piedmont American Viticulture Area it's name.

Winter has to be one of my favorite times to visit wineries. There’s not much to see in the vineyards – the vines are being pruned and there’s nothing green in sight. But even the most humble winery is inviting and warm in the winter and offers a sanctuary from the cold.

Recently, I spent a crisp Sunday afternoon exploring the wineries of the southern Haw River Valley AVA, which includes a half dozen  wineries in three Piedmont North Carolina counties – Orange, Alamance and Chatham. Amongst the dairy farms, rediscovered small towns like historic Hillsborough and Saxapahaw, these rural wineries offer some surprising experiences in wines.

All the wineries I visited offer the standard $5 tasting with a souvenir glass. At some wineries, the tasting fee will allow you to sample all the wines available, while others give you a choice of five or allow you to choose between reds and whites. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a fan of reds, especially in winter. So my goal was to find a few good ones, which I did.

Benjamin Vineyards and Winery

Benjamin Winery

Benjamin Vineyard and Winery

Benjamin Vineyards and Winery offers a pleasant tasting room, only minutes from Alamance County’s Saxapahaw, a quaint, former textile mill town on the Haw River. The inside space is small, but the winery offers patio seating as well as several shaded picnic tables for warm weather visitors.

The five-acre winery opened in 2003, a year after planting vines. Today, Benjamin Winery produces wines from 16 grape varieties, including native grapes such as muscadines, a native American vinifera grape known as Norton, European viniferas and Chambourcin, which is becoming a signature wine of the Haw River Valley.

In the mood for tasting wines, I tried the ’10 Norton, ’09 Merlot, ’09 Chambourcin, ’07 Cabernet Sauvignon and a winter spice wine, served warm. I enjoyed all the reds I tasted, especially the Norton, which I tasted for the first time, and the Chambourcin, which may just be my favorite North Carolina wine.

The Norton (also called Cynthiana) has a rich, earthy taste, with a surprising hint of spice. The winery describes it as offering, “a hint elderberries balanced with a crisp tartness and soft tannins.”

Just a short drive from the Haw River, Benjamin Winery appears to have forged relations with the local paddling industry. A women’s paddle and paddle dinner are on the schedule for March.

Unfortunately, I was a day late for a big event in the Haw River Valley Wine Trail Tidbit event. For the price of $18, guests could sample a different course paired with a wine from each winery. Benjamin offered the entre – a pork, veggie and fig tart. I will have to pay closer attention to events next year.

I decided to bring home a nice bottle of the ’10 Norton, and I’m glad I did. A little spicy, but smooth as velvet, it is everything I love in a good red wine. We can’t seem to stop pouring.
www.benjaminvineyards.com/index.html

View photos from Haw River Valley AVA tour and Starrlight Mead

Read Part 2, Wolfe Wines and SilkHope Winery
Read Park 3, Starrlight Mead