So, is North Carolina wine any good? The Independent set out to answer that question with a blind taste testing by five experts.
Some had deep knowledge about the North Carolina wine industry; some had none. All are North Carolinians and champions of local food. They didn't want to be seen as doubters, but they couldn't argue with their trained palates, either.
They were led by Peg Todloski, the wine coordinator for Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, who chose the wines for the tasting. Todloski began investigating North Carolina wines while working at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill about seven years ago. Since beginning her current job in 2003, she has regularly visited North Carolina wineries and vineyards. Her bottom-line message: You need to try them yourself.
"Because I've seen the improvement over the years, the generous side of me ... [thinks] they're great, twice as great as they were," she said. "Every [winery] I've visited is making at least one, if not two, really great wines. But some people are making 10 wines, so it's kind of hit or miss."
That's her "wine shop" point of view, she said.
"But, as a wine tourist, when I'm out there and visiting for a day, I find a lot more that I like ... because I'm just out there being a tourist," she said. "Things just taste better when they're in the environment that they're made [in]." That's true for even the world's storied winemaking regions, she added. People tell her stories of visiting somewhere, having a fabulous time, having a case of wine shipped home and being let down in their own kitchen. Such is the romance of travel.
We gave Todloski a $200 budget and asked her to choose wines that were emblematic of North Carolina, with some impostors thrown in for comparison.
Tasters were Indy wine columnist Arturo Ciompi; Gene Salerno, owner of Great Grapes wine store in Cary; Scott Luetgenau, director of operations for Urban Food Group in Raleigh, which owns Frazier's, Porter's City Tavern and Vivace; Hailey Rose, the former sommelier at Il Palio Ristorante in Chapel Hill; and Kelly Skaggs, a Durham foodie who writes the Delicious Durham blog.
Todloski organized 12 wines into five flights, so the tasters could compare bottles of the same wine, the same grape or the same blend simultaneously. Below is a partial transcript of a 90-minute session that encompasses the panelists' main thoughts about each wine.
First flight: Sauvignon Blanc
1. Benjamin Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc (Graham) $11
Ciompi: "Not very pleased ... almost no nose. The entry was smooth enough, but it was very sharp and acidic on the finish, and I thought it was a bit bitter, which really was a put-off to me."
Salerno: "Strong mineral floral qualities, the fruit wasn't there. ... A little high on the alcohol level ... from a value, I saw it somewhere between seven and 10 dollars on the shelf."
Luetgenau: Agreed with Salerno's guess that the three wines in this flight were different varietals and agreed with Salerno's price estimate. "It might not be something I would buy at all. ... It was just a little bit of a clumsy wine, I thought."
Skaggs: Noticed it was the palest in color: "And I actually think that kind of carried through. I thought it was boring, although I did pick up a hint of the mineral. ... I don't think I would buy this."
Rose: "I would not buy this for the restaurant. ... I couldn't tell if there was oak or not. ... For me, the real reason I'm not crazy about it is the finish. There was something really funky on the finish to me."
2. Iron Gate Sauvignon Blanc (Mebane) $15
Luetgenau: "It's not half bad. I think with a chill, it would actually be a nice summer wine. On the shelf, it's probably eight or nine bucks. I wouldn't mind it at all."
Rose: "More expressive [than No. 1], more fruit forward ... citrusy, light, fresh ... a really good balance. I do not think it's a really high-end, expensive wine. I think it's a light, fresh style."
Salerno: "A little watery." Preferred No. 1 over No. 2. "I wanted something with ... more guts, a little more depth than I got."
Ciompi: Preferred this one over No. 1. "It's rather easy to enjoy; I would put it more in the range of maybe 10 to 12 dollars."
Skaggs: "I thought this was awful. ... Barnyard-ey ... a little bit too much hay and manure for me. I would never buy this; I would never subject anyone to it, and it's probably one of the worst wines I've tasted in a long time."
3. Giesen Sauvignon Blanc (impostor: New Zealand) $14
Rose: "Of the three wines, I thought, was the most expressive ... definitely had the most flavor extract ... grassy, tropical notes ... a lot of Sauvignon blanc-type aromas ... a longer finish. Good wine."
Ciompi: "I somewhat agree with that. It was the most open wine, clearly." Unfavorable quality: "vegetal."
Skaggs: "Nice golden color ... green ... I wouldn't rush out and buy this one either. I didn't think any of these three were tremendous."
Luetgenau: "I wouldn't buy that wine, but if somebody was serving it at a barbecue ... I've had much worse wines at barbecues."
Salerno: Would pair it with goat cheese or anything that had an "herbal quality to it." "I wouldn't be afraid to sell it. ... Most people who like Sauvignon blancs would enjoy this wine."
Second flight: Pinot Gris
1. A to Z Pinot Gris (impostor: Oregon) $14
Luetgenau: "Favorite of this flight"
Salerno: Favorite of these three. "Had some good, lively fruit, very easy drinking," would buy it, would recommend it as a "great summertime wine."
Skaggs: Favorite of the three as well. "Very easy to drink ... very enjoyable, easy, accessible wine."
Ciompi: "Really liked the nose, thought it was very fresh. Sweet on the entry ... [but] pasty ... Didn't enjoy it as much as the others ... quite drinkable ... wouldn't find it all offensive at 10 or 12 dollars."
Rose: "Of the three ... even though it's the lightest, it's the most balanced ... dry. ... Nice balanced acidity ... nice fresh finish."
2. McRitchie Pinot Gris (Thurmond) $15
Skaggs: "I don't have much to say about this one. I think it's kind of boring. ... I couldn't really taste this, and I think it's because it doesn't have much character to it."
Ciompi: "I actually found this one rather interesting. ... A nice tropical note, almost Riesling-like ... like an Alsace wine ... probably would pay up to 15 dollars."
Rose: "Terrible ... had a lot going on and nothing I wanted anything to do with. ... Wacky, unbalanced, weird nose. I would not buy it."
Salerno: Of two minds about it. Like Rose, he wouldn't buy it. But like Ciompi, his inner "wine geek" enjoyed trying to dissect it and picked up the "mineral-y, petrol qualities."
Luetgenau: "Extremely bizarre nose, smelled a little bit like cheese ... something was flawed ... clumsy."
3. RagApple Lassie Pinot Gris (Boonville) $17
Rose: "This wine was a little toasty, a little buttery. ... Soft nose, not a lot of fruit aroma ... medium-bodied ... balanced ... I'm kind of thinking maybe it's a chardonnay. ... I wasn't crazy about it."
Salerno: "Two words: tart and light. ... There was nothing there. ... It didn't seem to have anything going on. ... It smells like water, actually."
Skaggs: "Thin ... not a lot of substance there ... just a hint of floral towards the end ... I don't think it's balanced."
Luetgenau: "Aromas were absent on the nose. ... All the elements were out of balance, I thought."
Ciompi: "I didn't mind it initially. ... A decent depth and a touch of sweetness on the nose ... I didn't like it at all. I would not buy this wine."
Third flight: Merlot
1. Native Vines Merlot (Lexington) $14
Salerno: "The nose really just threw me for a loop, not to mention the color. ... Reasonable fruit on the palate."
Skaggs: "The color is not very attractive. It looks like it needs to be filtered. ... Smells kind of plasticky ... I would never buy this."
Luetgenau: "It's so easy to bash these wines, and it's unfortunate. ... I feel bad. ... I'd be interested in what they're doing, in what makes it smell and taste that way. ... Perhaps, like a lot of wines around the world, if you have them in the right setting, with the right food, with the right people, maybe it would change my perception on things."
Skaggs: "I wouldn't drink it even drunk off my ass. ... Yes, it's easy to bash these things, but ... people need to know, and people need ... true, honest opinion. That's a crap wine, and I think people need to know honest feedback."
Rose: "The thing that really put me off on the wine is ... the whole wine ... no discernible grape."
Ciompi: "There's no question, it's a strange wine. ... Sharp, tannic and thin. It's not a wine I would recommend."
2. Red Diamond Merlot (impostor: Washington state) $10
Salerno: "Very well balanced, good fruit, easy drinking wine."
Rose: "Residual sugar, round, clean finish; I would not buy it."
Skaggs: "Nice garnet color ... a hint of cherry flavor."
Ciompi: "Dark cherry, interesting, penetrating nose ... nice. It reminded me of cabernet franc. I liked it."
Luetgenau: "A little sweet for my taste ... what the mass market likes ... a little more of a cocktail wine, something you drink ... I might serve that at Porter's City Tavern; it fits into the American concept. ... Good entry-level wine."
Fourth flight: Red blends
1. Grassy Creek Red Barn Blend (Elkin) $16
Skaggs: "Looks kind of muddy ... the nose, it smells like hay, and I don't ... like the way it comes together in my mouth. ... It just tastes off to me. I don't think I would buy this wine at all."
Ciompi: "I got some sweet oak. ... Somewhat pleasurable and grapey. The smell ... seems like ... a work in progress."
Luetgenau: "Warm, candied fruit on the nose ... a little bit over-oaked ... don't think it was that bad of a wine."
Rose: "I liked it. ... I thought it was a perfect barbecue wine. ... Very nice."
Salerno: "Fun, juicy wine ... seven to 10 dollars would be a great price for it."
2. Old North State Restless Soul (Mount Airy) $11
Luetgenau: "Very strange nose ... sweet, smoky fruit on the palate." Made him wonder about artificial yeast vs. indigenous yeast.
Ciompi: "It was pretty well made."
Salerno: "Fun ... not complex ... works well," but he would not want it in his store.
Skaggs: "Nice dark, dark color ... a bit of a coffee smell to me. I would drink it. ... It's very drinkable."
Rose: "Having a hard time getting over the aroma ... funky ... medium-bodied ... nice acidity ... not awful ... again, I thought it was a good barbecue wine."
Fifth flight: Syrah/ Shiraz
1. RayLen Shiraz (Mocksville) $13-$14
Salerno: "Light, good balanced, good acid, a little bit of Italian quality to it. Very well made, would be a good value at seven to 10 dollars."
Rose: "Medium-bodied, a little out of balance." She couldn't pick out the grape.
Skaggs: "Bright and citrusy, maybe a little bit sharp, enjoyable to drink. I don't think it's a difficult wine to appreciate."
Luetgenau: "On the nose, there's a lot of eucalyptus and menthol. ... If somebody served to me with the right food, I wouldn't be upset. ... There's so many great wines. ... This is OK."
Ciompi: "It tastes young; it tastes like it could use more bottle age."
2. RagApple Lassie Syrah (Boonville) $18
Ciompi: "Broad and generous ... nice mouthfeel, medium-bodied . . . enjoyed it."
Salerno: "Thought these two were very similar ... enjoyable ... would pay more for this one. ... This one had some guts to it."
Rose: "More complexity on the nose and on the palate ... liked this one better."
Skaggs: "Liked it better [than the RayLen Shiraz]."
Luetgenau: "Favorite of all the ones from North Carolina, perfect with a Porterhouse, I liked it. ... Would pay 18 dollars for it."
Todloski: "I'm a little more forgiving because I'm comparing them to other North Carolina wines. ... I'm not sure the value is there yet. ... We have to support it now while they're starting up. ... The value part is obviously because the startup costs of brand new wineries are ridiculous. ... It's what I say to consumers; it sounds a little like a defense ... every wine tastes better where it's made. ... There's a lot of enjoyment in these wines. ... In the scale of North Carolina wines, I think this is a pretty good showing."
Luetgenau: "I agree with everybody else. ... I haven't tasted a lot of North Carolina wines. ... I thought a lot of them were all across the board. ... For me, it's all about value. ... I'm looking for the best ratio. ... The Syrah that we tasted ... that was a very good, solid wine."
Skaggs: "It depends on why you're buying a wine. ... If you want to buy a wine to support local businesses and be able to enjoy the wine ... if you're looking for a really consistently fantastic wine, then maybe not North Carolina wines. ... Who knows, in 10 years' time though, or 50 years' time, who knows? And I think it's exciting that people are trying this."
Salerno: "If somebody's out to support the local economy, I think there's some things there. ... If you go out to these places ... wine is more than just what we did, a sterile thing. ... There is that sort of adventurousness. ... In a sterile environment, yeah, I'm going to be pretty critical, like we were today."
Ciompi: "Everybody said a lot of the things I would say. ... The good wines are the ones that get you excited in the first place."