I love the little wine shops that have sprouted up across the Triangle in the past few years.
I love the smell of cork and freshly opened cardboard that permeates the air inside. I love the tidy rows of bottles, the sleek tasting bars, the oenophiles dispensing pours by the ounce and knowledge by the metric ton.
Walk into just about any of these locally owned shops and you'll find an array of choices from Spain, France, Argentina, Australia, California, Oregon, Washington—anywhere but here in North Carolina.
"We just haven't found any that rise to our standards for quality," comes the refrain from the oenophiles.
But occasionally I wonder: Can that still be true?
Don't get me wrong—I've had more than a mouthful of lousy North Carolina wine. In fact, I am sure North Carolina makes more bad wine than good, even accounting for a range of tastes.
I'm generally not a fan of muscadines, our native grape, so I have a limited appetite for the scuppernong wines that make up the bulk of the state's output. Growers of vinifera grapes in the western portion of North Carolina are still playing catch-up, decades or centuries behind the master growers in other parts of the world. Few of the state's vinifera vineyards can boast the heritage it takes to produce spectacular bottles of wine.
Even so, today's North Carolina winemakers—more than 100 wineries and counting—are making more wine than they have since Prohibition. And more of those grape growers and winemakers have logged years, in some cases decades, of experience. It's possible, perhaps even likely, that North Carolina wines, in general, are improving.
I understand your position, though, oenophiles. Every inch of inventory space is valuable. Distributors sell wines with track records of success or persuasive marketing campaigns, something most North Carolina winemakers cannot afford. Many of the state's wineries produce on such small scales that there's no way to distribute their products beyond their tasting rooms anyway. And you're running a business, not a charity. Your job is to find and sell good wine.
But, come on, you can't find one—not even one—North Carolina wine worthy of space on your racks?
All of this came into focus during a trek across the western Piedmont a couple of sunny Saturdays ago. We found ourselves at a cozy wine bar in Winston-Salem, 6th & Vine (209 W. Sixth St., 336-725-5577, 6thandvine.com), where the bartenders poured about a dozen or so wines by the glass. One of them happened to be a 2009 viognier from Junius Lindsay, a vineyard near Lexington that I had heard good things about. It seemed steep at $9 per glass, but when would I get the chance to taste it again outside the winery grounds?
The funky nose put me off at first. Musty notes of cellar made me wonder if the bottle had been open in the fridge for too long. I decided to hold off and give it some air. A few minutes of swirling, and the funk lifted to reveal bright flavors of green apple and melon, and a light, soft finish that seemed to disappear like pixie dust from the palate.
Viognier is one of the state's vinifera success stories, a grape from France's Rhone Valley that has taken to the soil and climate here. At $18 per bottle, the Junius Lindsay wasn't a steal, but I brought one home for comparison against others in the $15–$20 range. It came in a solid second against a French viognier, a 2010 Domaine Massiac, and an Australian, a 2009 Hugh Hamilton McLaren Vale. The French fared best—straw in the nose, flavors of stone fruits, smooth—but the Junius Lindsay edged out the Hugh Hamilton, which had good citrus flavors but an almost clunky mouthfeel.
Why do I even care that I can't find much North Carolina wine when I'm living in a place awash with great, and affordable, wine from around the world? I want our locavore fervor to extend to wine. Cheese, salami, ice cream, beer, vegetables, country ham: I can get all of these fairly easily from local sources. I like keeping my money in the local economy, and just a handful of Triangle shops give me that chance when it comes to wine.
So, oenophiles, hear my plea. I love what you do. I love what you stock. I love soaking up the wine knowledge you dispense by the metric ton. But please make room for one, just one, North Carolina wine in your inventory.