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North Carolina's expanding wine industry drives a new niche economy 

Fertile ground for vines and vintners

Click for larger image • Amidst RTP's office parks, Chatham Hill Winery has established a fan base in the Triangle since opening in 1999.

Photo by Derek Anderson

Click for larger image • Amidst RTP's office parks, Chatham Hill Winery has established a fan base in the Triangle since opening in 1999.

I think I'm in the right place. But instead of rolling hills with green vines laid out in neat rows, I'm surrounded by impeccably landscaped office buildings with parking spaces laid out in neat rows, somewhere near ... Cary? I was just in Durham, right back there ... wait, now I'm in Morrisville?

But here it is, nestled among high tech and biotech: the Triangle's only winery.

On the inside, Chatham Hill Winery looks a lot like other wineries: a large tasting bar, tables for sitting and enjoying a glass, bottles and wine-abilia for sale, such as T-shirts that read "I'm Living in Zin." The back room houses oak barrels, steel tanks and spotless equipment. Weekend tasters line up to hear about fruity noses, creamy finishes, blends and vintages.

Open since 1999, Chatham Hill now produces about 12,000 cases annually, including reds (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, zinfandel) and whites (viognier, chardonnay, Riesling, pinot grigio). It also produces a line of sweet, fruit-infused wines. It buys most of its grapes—about 70 percent—from vineyards in the Yadkin Valley, roughly a two-hour drive northwest of the Triangle, the rest from California.

Chatham Hill's success—and the story behind it—exemplifies the growth over the last decade of North Carolina's wine industry, which now ranks 10th in the nation in grapes grown and bottles produced, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

From Moonrise Bay Vineyard, at the far northern tip of the Outer Banks, to Asheville's Biltmore Estate, North Carolina soil—and its wine drinkers—now support 400 vineyards and at least 72 wineries in 30 counties. The industry employs more than 5,700 workers and pays $159 million in salaries, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce.

Some of its vines are older than the old South, but its technology is modern. It provides a livelihood for farmers, former scientists and laid-off textile workers. It draws dreamers of all stripes, from land preservationists to race car drivers.

The industry's growing so fast, like a certain other kind of vine in the South, that even insiders have a hard time tracking its size and scope. The second edition of A Guide to North Carolina's Wineries, by Joseph Mills and Danielle Tarmey, was outdated almost as soon as it was published in 2007.

Exploring N.C. wines

Wineries in or near the Triangle:

Benjamin Vineyards & Winery (Graham)
www.benjaminvineyards.com

Chatham Hill Winery (Morrisville)
www.chathamhillwine.com

Horizon Cellars (Siler City)
www.horizoncellars.com

Iron Gate Vineyards (located in Mebane, but has a booth at the South Estes Farmers Market in Chapel Hill)
www.irongatevineyards.com

Silk Hope Winery (Pittsboro)
www.silkhopewinery.com

Rock of Ages Winery (Hurdle Mills)
www.rockofageswinery.com

For general information about North Carolina wine and wineries, see www.visitncwine.com.

Now, I know what you're thinking when you hear "North Carolina wine": scuppernong wine—overly sweet, syrupy dreck, suitable only for the palates of high schoolers, available at the gas station, accessible by screw-top.

Well, yes and no. The scuppernong is one of dozens of varieties of muscadine grapes, which are only native to the Southern United States. Muscadines grow so abundantly here, Mills and Tarney wrote, that even the great explorers felt compelled to comment: "Grapes of such greatness, yet wild, as France, Spain nor Italy hath no greater," two of Sir Walter Raleigh's colleagues wrote back to the home office in 1584. So it's not surprising that someone started bottling all that bounty during colonial times.

Before Prohibition, North Carolina was the top wine-producing state. In 2005, the latest figures available, California produced the majority: close to 7 million tons of grapes. Washington, with 415,000 tons, ranks second. North Carolina produced 3,900 tons.

So yes, people still make muscadine wine because muscadines still love it here—and apparently someone is drinking it. Duplin Winery in Rose Hill, open since 1976 and specializing in muscadine wine grows grapes on 1,200 acres in four states. Muscadines contain the same antioxidants that endow red wine with its famous health benefits. And, the same sweet-loving Southern palate that appreciates sweet tea and coconut cake would probably enjoy sweet wines.

But, in addition to muscadine wine, an entire industry growing, harvesting, bottling and selling vinifera grapes has found root in North Carolina. These are European varietals. "Real" wine. That's what they're making at Chatham Hill. That's also what they make at most of the wineries in the Yadkin Valley, a 1.4 million acre federally designated American Viticultural Area northwest of Greensboro and Winston-Salem.

All of this growth has exploded in the new century—so fast that it's hard to pin down the numbers at any one point in time. So the most recent figures for the whole shebang are from a report measuring the total economic impact in 2005: $813.3 million.

Authors Mills and Tarmey note in the introduction to their guidebook that the number of wineries had almost tripled since they completed the first edition just four years earlier.

The people cultivating this new territory are vineyard owners, vintners and workers who bring newcomers' enthusiasm to an old industry.

Mills and Tarmey wrote they "tend to be stubborn, independent, strong-willed, opinionated and unafraid to take risks. They don't like the word no, and they often ignore people who tell them that they can't or shouldn't do something."

Like many of the entrepreneurs now making their living in this industry, Chatham Hill owners Marek Wojciechowski and Jill Winkler are converts from other professions. Wojciechowski, a former chemistry professor, came to North Carolina to work at a biotechnology company.

Winemaking began as a hobby for him and kept growing. Even after opening the winery and becoming its winemaker, he continued working elsewhere. He was able to concentrate full time on the wine only about two years ago. Winkler, who also had an earlier career in Research Triangle Park, handles sales, marketing and events.

Starting up in the last century makes the Chatham Hill folks old-timers, in a way. Wojciechowski calls the experience "very rewarding" and now offers advice for those following in his and Winkler's footsteps. He's thrilled about the industry's continued growth.

"We create jobs, create money, and that money stays here," he said.

In the same way that Chatham Hill provided new careers for its owners, as North Carolina's wine industry has grown, it has created economic shelter for workers deserted by changes in more traditional North Carolina industries.

Consider Brenda Remen, 64, a tour guide and tasting room host at Shelton Winery in Dobson, right outside Mount Airy. Born and raised in Mount Airy, Remen worked at a textile plant, Cross Creek Manufacturing, for 33 years. She worked her way up from payroll clerk to office services manager but lost her job when the plant was sold and closed. Though she was nearing retirement age, she was neither financially nor emotionally ready to quit working. Because of her age, she worried about getting another job.

"Nobody really wants to hire you because by the time they get you trained, you're ready to retire," she said.

Remen is thankful to brothers Charlie and Ed Shelton, who opened the winery on a 400-acre former dairy farm in 1999 and also started the viticulture program at nearby Surry County Community College.

"We already knew that we were losing our jobs, so we were thrilled that something was coming in," she said.

Remen's last day of work at Cross Creek was March 31, 2007. Though she received a severance package, she knew she needed to cut back on expenses for a while. She told her hairdresser of 30 years that she didn't think she could afford to get her hair done any more.

"The next week [my hairdresser] cut Charlie Shelton's hair, and he told her, 'You send her out there to put in an application, and I'll put her to work.'"

Remen was terrified at first. She was not a wine drinker and didn't know the first thing about it. But her supervisors told her to treat people as if they were guests in her home. Now she works part time, greeting those who arrive at the tasting room and gift shop, ringing up sales and leading tours. She's sampling the various wines, tasting and learning. "I'm gradually working my way through the wines, and so far I like just about all of them."

She likes her job, too. "They haven't fired me yet," she said, laughing. And then added, more seriously: "It means a lot that they were willing to hire someone my age because not everybody will."

Shelton is one of the larger wineries in the state. Other big names are Biltmore, of course, and Westbend, in Lewisville. There, in 1972, owner Lillian Kroustalis and her late husband Jack planted the first European varietal grapes in the Piedmont. Westbend became a licensed winery in 1988. Then there's Childress Vineyards in Lexington, owned by NASCAR team owner Richard Childress, a Winston-Salem native and a NASCAR driver for 11 years. He opened Childress Vineyards in 2004.

Those are the bigger properties and the bigger names, but there are dozens of wonderful stories that join them in this adventure. Frank Hobson, who owns RagApple Lassie Vineyards in Boonville with his wife, Lenna, is a lifelong farmer who planted acres of grapes among his corn, tobacco and soybeans. Grassy Creek Vineyard and Winery, open since 2004, was built on the land that used to be a weekend retreat for textile barons.

As North Carolina's vineyards and wineries multiply, so too does their fan base.

A major portion of wine industry income comes from tourists, whether they hail from inside or outside North Carolina: In 2005, an estimated 800,000 tourists spent $122.4 million visiting wineries. The Biltmore Estate, for example, logs 600,000 visitors annually.

On July 4, a quartet of Winston-Salem residents—Rob Bowlby, Sarah Ryan, Abby Eaton and Matt Lane—took a day trip up to the Yadkin Valley area.

Ryan says she bought Bowlby the Mills-Tarmey guide to North Carolina wineries at Christmas last year "because he drinks more wine than anyone I know." Bowlby has toured some established wineries in California and preferred the North Carolina experience.

"In California, it's so big that they herd you through them," he said.

But here, Eaton added, the groups are much smaller, and the effort is more personal. You often hear from the winemakers or winery owners themselves. "You don't get that hoity-toity feel. It doesn't matter if you don't know anything about wine—they're happy to tell you. I'm not intimidated at all here."

Home in Winston-Salem, Bowlby has taken some wine classes and recommends beginners just try wine. "You've just got to buy it and drink it and see what you like," he said.

As for Lane, he's a beer drinker, mostly. He has enjoyed the winery touring and found he likes the sweeter wines. "It's fun," he said. "They've all been interesting to try."

Jacob and Emily Brown, of Thomasville, are recent transplants from Michigan. They considered going canoeing over the July 4 weekend but decided on wine touring instead.

"You don't need to know about wine to come out and have an enjoyable day," Jacob said.

You don't have to drive too far from the Triangle, either. Four artisan wineries form the Haw River Wine Trail (www.hawriverwinetrail.com) between the Triangle and Greensboro. And in Person County, less than 30 miles north of Durham and Chapel Hill, Hurdle Mills is home to the Rock of Ages Winery, founded five years ago on a former tobacco farm. (See "Exploring N.C. wines" box above for details.)

Back near RTP, Chatham Hill's owners chose Morrisville with an eye toward offering their neighbors an off-beat corporate outing. In the current economy, they have the added value of being a "tourist" destination with a central location.

"If you're looking for fun things to do, here we are," Wojciechowski says.

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