Too often, we approach our vacations with the same mind-set we apply to our working life. We pack the car with great efficiency and hit the road, intent on staying on schedule as we incessantly worry, "Are we making good time?"
Sure, it's the fastest way to get to Grandma's house, but it doesn't leave much time for looking around. As Memorial Day weekend arrives to kick off road-trip season, I suggest we toss the travel schedules out the window this summer and slow down, stop for a drink even, along the way. You'll need a designated driver, of course. But if you're traveling with a friend, you can take turns tasting at the many North Carolina wineries and breweries that dot the landscape so many of us will be traversing this summer.
Here are a few suggestions for places to explore that are right on the way.
If you've driven Interstate 40 west to Greensboro, you've no doubt passed the shiny, square glass building that is the Red Oak Brewery (6901 Konica Drive, Whitsett; 336-447-2055; www.redoakbrewery.com). It's just inside Guilford County at Exit 138 in Whitsett. There's no pub, but on Friday afternoons at 3 p.m., its small tasting room gets pretty popular. The brewery offers a weekly tour followed by a tasting. On the tour, visitors learn about the brewery's devotion to Bavarian-style lagers and the 1516 Law of Purity, which allows for malted barley, hops, water and yeast and no other ingredients. At the tasting afterward, you can sample the Hummingbird Helles, a pilsner that's 4.5 percent alcohol; Red Oak, a red-tinged lager with 5 percent alcohol; and Battlefield Bock, a dark coffee-and-cocoa-flavored lager that's 7 percent alcohol. Some weeks they bring in ice cream from Homeland Creamery in Julian to make floats with the Battlefield Bock. The Friday afternoon crowd is lively and friendly, and the tour is a great way to start the weekend if you find yourself in Whitsett at that hour. Bring cash, because the brewery doesn't take debit or credit cards. The tour is $5, and bottled beer and growlers are for sale.
About 60 miles west, just off I-40, RayLen Vineyards and Winery (3577 U.S. 158, Mocksville; 336-998-3100; www.raylenvineyards.com) awaits. These are the vines you have seen from the interstate as you sped past so many times, just outside of Winston-Salem. Why not stop? A glass of wine or a few sips from several bottles in their tasting room offers a much more pleasant break from your drive than the average truck stop. And the detour takes hardly more than 10 minutes. The tasting room is a simple two-story building with plenty of room for folks to gather around the bar. RayLen makes 16 wines, from pinot grigio to Riesling to the award-winning Category Five, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, Shiraz, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot. You can taste them all for $10 or concentrate on either whites or reds for $6. The front porch has plenty of rockers where you can sit and sip and watch the grapes grow before hitting the highway again. The winery is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. There is music on some Friday evenings. This Saturday, RayLen will host an open house from 1 to 5 p.m., featuring a free glass of wine for each visitor and musical entertainment. Food will be for sale as well. Not sure what's on the menu, but I'm guessing it will be better than whatever is at the drive-through.
If Interstate 95 figures into your route and you're a muscadine grape lover, a stop at Hinnant Family Vineyards (826 Pine Level-Micro Road, Pine Level; 919-965-3350; www.hinnantvineyards.com) should be on your list. It's about three miles off I-95 near Selma, just north of Smithfield. The vineyard has been in business since 2002. It makes 15 varieties of wine, most using native muscadine grapes, which fare better in the sandy soil and high humidity of eastern North Carolina than do the European vinifera grapes. Hinnant also makes fruit wines, including pomegranate and strawberry, and also sells blueberries and peaches and scuppernong jellies. If ever there is a season for fruit wine, then summer is certainly it. Visitors can tour the winery or just hit the tasting room. The vineyard is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.
These stops will slow you down more than running into a rest stop or spinning through a drive-through, but shouldn't "Slow Down and Taste the Wine—or Beer" be high on your summer to-do list anyway?