In the late 19th century, after the Civil War and before the stranglehold of Prohibition, some of the best wines on the East Coast came from the Tokay Vineyard of Fayetteville, N.C.
Former Confederate Col. W.J. Green's celebrated vineyard annually produced as much as 25,000 gallons of wine, which won praise from judges at Atlanta exhibitions and from world travelers, who declared them as good as any here or abroad. The tale of the Tokay Vineyard constitutes a short section of A History of North Carolina Wine: From Scuppernong to Syrah, a slim new volume of just more than 100 pages by Alexia Jones Helsley.
Helsley's meticulous research will likely hold oenophiles' interest because so much of what she writes is news even to those familiar with the state's wine history. However, her stilted style may wilt the casual fan. Even so, I might not have discovered this Tokay tidbit on page 54 had I not been on the lookout. I spent my youth and adolescence roaming the woods that surrounded Fayetteville's Tokay neighborhood, and I remember being told that the name came from its former prominence as a vineyard.
I grew up in the adjacent subdivision, which offered no amenities save its proximity to undeveloped land. Tokay was an older neighborhood and had a small recreation center and a couple of ball fields and tennis courts to call its own, though it wasn't exactly prestigious. The big-haired Metallica fans who frequented the rec center parking lot after dark invented another etymology for the neighborhood's name. It involved a verb associated not with grapes but with another plant prized for its mind-altering qualities. Between wandering the woods on vacation days and skipping classes at the nearby junior high, I spent plenty of time crisscrossing the pinestraw-covered hills that must have once been the Tokay vineyards, and I kept the ghost of its untold story tucked away in my mind.
Throughout her book, Helsley quotes verbatim from primary sources, including a West Point general who called Tokay's wines "equal, if not superior, to the finest Rhine wines." While I found this revelation about a patch of soil I stumbled over as a child particularly interesting, the book as a whole tells an important story. From its earliest days of European exploration, North Carolina has been viewed as prime wine country. Of course, the wine grapes that flourish most readily here are in the native muscadine family, a taste that doesn't tickle the 21st-century palate the way the European varietals do.
But how we see ourselves is defined in part by how we view our history. The French and, to some extent, the Californians nurture a vibrant wine culture in part because they connect what is on their shelves today with time-honored traditions or legends of bold reinvention. Of course, the French and the Californians are capable of producing incredible wine as well, a feat that North Carolina winemakers as a whole are still pursuing. A few individuals are already there.
Modern North Carolina grape growers and wine makers, whether they work in native or European fruit, are busy experimenting with technique and flavor, changing how we experience homemade wine. Helsley's book traces a line from the former heyday of North Carolina wine, before the twin pressures of temperance and bootlegging halted its growth, to the modern era. Whether you've found a North Carolina vineyard to swear your allegiance to or have given up on looking for one, it's empowering to understand that those shaping the state's wine culture can hark back to a lineage of greatness, however interrupted it has been. For that, we should raise a toast to Helsley's thorough research.