"If they could just make wine from tobacco," goes the running joke about our state's winemaking capabilities. But change is in the bottle. Since 1997, the roster of North Carolina wineries has grown from 8 to 25. On Oct. 13, I was one of 10 judges to taste and evaluate local professional wines (there also was an amateur competition) at the N.C. State Fair. I am here today, not to make jokes, but as a witness for the defense of Carolina's finest.
Some results were splendid and the prognosis seems ever brighter. No fewer than 20 new estates are set to open their doors within a year. Not all are mom-and-pop operations. One gentleman, whose Childress Vineyards will open next year, spoke of the millions of dollars invested in carving out a new vineyard from the hillsides, replete with a visitor's center, swimming pool, baby-sitters and elegant accommodations.
We have become the 12th largest producer of wines in these United States. One large parcel of our landscape has been designated by the government as an "American Viticultural Area," or AVA. This is a seldom-given honor, rarely found outside the boundaries of California, Oregon and Washington State. It's comparable to Napa Valley. It recognizes a unique combination of climate and soil that leads to the production of recognizable, unique wines. Our AVA is called the Yadkin Valley, which includes Yadkin, Surrey and Wilkes counties, with smidgens of Stokes, Davies, Davidson and Forsyth. Yes, a wine grows in Forsyth, but don't go looking for the property in downtown Winston-Salem.
The $30 million worth of wines produced here each year speaks to productivity, new jobs, experimentation by high-rollers and a growing flow of tourists--which reached over a million last year. Recent state legislation, which allows an adult to buy up to 24 bottles of out-of-state wine each month, also permits our wineries to do the same over the border in Tennessee. Tourists can now buy from the convenience of their sofa as well as at a winery's tasting room. Thus, "goodness grows in North Carolina" and the sales opportunities of our "mother lode" grow in spectacular ways. Free enterprise is alive and wine is part of the equation.
We 10 judges were divided into two groups. Each tasted 50 wines and awarded medals to worthy examples. At the end of the day, we pooled our gold medal winners (there were 17) and tasted these as a final group to decide "best in show." We drank wines that were grouped by grape variety. Thus our first "sitting" was made up of nine chardonnays. We knew what we were tasting, the percentage of grape varieties in each wine and the residual sugar content (if any). Boy, was there more than some in various examples! After tasting silently, we explained our scores, or lack thereof, to each other and came up with a consensus grade. Herein lies the problem with all group tastings, including group tastings published in highly visible newspapers and magazines. Two participants can truly hate a wine, and yet if the other three think it is worthy of gold, it might well get a gold, or at least a silver, medal. This scenario does not happen often, but it can, and some huge discrepancies do occur.
In my group, there were three tasters, two in the retail business and yours truly, a dispassionate wine writer. Of the other two, one was a winemaking consultant and the other a professional taster (with portfolio) seemingly as interested in promoting the wines from his state as tasting the wines before us. One taster was into varietal quality. If the wine had decent merlot characteristics, then it won an award--often a high one. I too want my merlot to taste like merlot--not like syrah. But what if it's a bad merlot? It looks like merlot, it smells like merlot--but it stubbornly refuses to be a merlot! A gold medal wine must smell and taste great, and have enough personality and imaginative elements to be so loftily rewarded.
The other taster (with portfolio) took about three minutes to finish each flight; an average of 10 minutes was taken by the others. I don't have a problem with a speedy judge, and we were often in relative agreement. Yet, there were some wines that smelled so bad along the way that I really had no interest in placing them near my mouth. I'll bet you've all experienced some of these. Here, he'd often give a confusingly good grade, whereas any positive score would have been too high for me. Was he really trying? I could have used more logic and just plain reasons for some of his scores. What I got instead was more material on the superiority of his state's wines.
So, what about the results? I expected a lot of awful wines, but found precious few. Modern science has helped mother nature in eliminating unpalatable wines, but there are still no guarantees. It was "refreshing" to taste some bad wines that clearly needed help in the future. Yet in every category, I found wines that I could easily have recommended, in my retail days, as worth the try. As a writer, I'm even more excited to point out wines that are good by any standard; a cabernet franc that can easily replace your Bordeaux tonight with no excuses necessary.
Of the gold medal winners, my favorites were:
2002 Chardonnay, RagApple Lassie
An oaky fruit bomb brimming with lusciousness, balance and complexity. Compares very favorably to the old styled California chards.
2001 Merlot, Shelton Vineyards
Deep, direct and dark. Great depth and attraction. A winner.
Scuppernong, Hinnant Family Vineyard
A mouthful of grapes, yet nicely balanced and understated. Medium bodied, well done.
2002 Cabernet Franc, Raylen Vineyards
Very warm and soft fruit on the nose. Exquisite. Flavors carry through on a medium bodied frame. Special. This was my personal "best in show".
The official "Best in Show" was a dessert wine, 2002 Muscat Canelli from Westbend Vineyards. I gave this a gold medal, and it was superb in varietal and balance. Other wines simply struck me as more original and, especially, memorable.
There was also an award for the "Best Muscadine in Show," a tribute to the vine that has flourished in North Carolina for centuries and is our official state grape. The "Best" was a Muscadine Blush from Hinnant Family Vineyards. Interestingly, their scuppernong bottling was my overall favorite "native son" wine. As for this "winner," I said: "Terrible! Cotton candy, soda pop, tart and raspy. No!"
Well, never look to me for your scuppernong needs. You can imagine the laughs at my expense, and the ribbing I got when this was announced.
Other wines listed here were either personal golds, or wines that are really good, which I'd be pleased for you to try sometime. They include:
2002 Chardonnay, Raylen, South Mountain Vineyards
Nice, even flavors and pleasant, perfumed bouquet. A touch of tightness promises more. Very good.
2001 Chardonnay, Chatham Hill Winery
A great "learners" chard. Very even tempered, smooth and nicely made. Goes down easily. Lacks flair but is well made.
2002 Merlot, Round Peak Vineyards
Very attractive, varietal and well done. A lighter, crisp style that tastes great and would be a perfect "food" wine.
2002 Merlot, Raylen Vineyards
Another real winner. Elegance, stylishly brought off, very attractive. A terrific entry.
Non-vintage "Rockford Red", RagApple Lassie
I liked this as a perfectly styled, beginners red wine. Dark, warm ripe fruit. Smooth with a good bit of sweetness to help turn people on to red wines in place of Pepsi. Well done.
Almost all the wines noted are within the $10-$20 range. None too expensive to give a try.
Fruit wines: Never pooh pooh a well made fruit wine. To sip after supper or all alone, fruit wines can be delicious, and they're hard to make well. These were all gold medal winners:
Sweet Carolina Peach, Chatham Hill Winery.
Remarkably balanced bouquet and rich sweetness. Could have been a muscat.
Blueberry, Dennis Vineyards.
Subtle, lean, clean and fairly dry. Intriguing
Sweet Carolina Blackberry, Chatham Hill Winery.
Concentrated, round; pour over vanilla ice cream.
Prices are all around $ 12.
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A Thanksgiving reminder: Everything goes well with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner except cabernet and chardonnay. This is on the level. Try a pinot grigio, a MullerThurgau or a viognier. Try a pinot noir, a baco noir or a Rioja. Try it and see what I mean. Just sit back, eat, drink, relax and enjoy the company of truly loved ones.