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Alas, the fair remains a wine-free zone, with the winning bottles on display behind puritanical lock and key. So we looked elsewhere...

Sampling winners of the N.C. State Fair wine competition 

It boosted my spirits to see some new names with the perennial favorites on the winners list of the North Carolina State Fair wine competition. The state's winemaking scene seems to be deepening its roots while sending out hopeful new shoots.

I was equally as excited to discover how many of these wines I may actually be able to taste without leaving the Triangle. It would have been ideal, of course, if I could have scooted over to the state fair and ponied up a few bucks for a cross-section of one of the state's fastest-growing agricultural divisions. Alas, the fair remains a wine-free zone, with the winning bottles on display behind puritanical lock and key. While this farm product, which generates an estimated $813 million annually in the state, is worthy of much consideration, it has yet to earn its rightful place alongside corn and barbecue at tasting booths at the state fair, North Carolina's premiere agriculture event.

I left a message with a press rep for state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, hoping he would explain why we remain so devoted to the 19th-century idea of state-sponsored prohibition, but he hasn't called back yet. In fairness, it was the week of the fair. He's got a lot of pigs to look at.

Undeterred, I took the list of the 11 wines that received "highest honors for commercial winners" to the closest wine superstore.

First on that list was Childress Vineyards Barrel Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, winner of the 2010 N.C. Winegrowers Cup and Best of Show title. A familiar name to North Carolina wine lovers, Childress is in Lexington, between Greensboro and Charlotte. It's one of the most established and productive of the state's vineyards, producing more than 25,000 cases annually. The black-and-white checkered flag, heralding founder Richard Childress' NASCAR roots, may have caught your eye in the wine aisle of the grocery store. But I sought the "barrel select," a pricier line than the flag-emblazoned house wines. While I found a dozen or so varieties of Childress at the Total Wine at Brier Creek, including the Barrel Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, I struck out on the '07.

Frustrated, I called the winery. Childress winemaker Mark Friszolowski tells me the vineyard made 1,100 cases of the '07 cabernet sauvignon, and distributors will start moving it into stores as soon as the batches of '06 that are on shelves now are gone. He reminded me that 2007 was a dry year, with a spring freeze that killed much of the state's white wine grapes. The year yielded a fairly decent sized crop of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, though.

"It was a bigger, more intense grape that year—so some people think," he said.

I think I'll buy a bottle of the '06 and hang on to it to try alongside the '07, once it gets here. If you can't wait, the Barrel Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 is available via the winery for $24.95 per bottle, plus shipping, but I find it hard to get excited enough to spend that kind of money on a wine I've yet to sip.

Then I called April Schlanger at Sip ... A Wine Store (1059 Darrington Drive, 467-7880, www.sipawinestore.com) in Cary. The store's focus on eco-friendly wines means the stock includes varieties made close to home, as well as those produced using organic production methods. Schlanger has been working with a small distributor, Carolina Booty Distributing (www.carolinabooty.com), to get more wines from small in-state producers on her shelves. She didn't have the Childress '07 but said she would look into getting it.

She offered hope for securing several of the other top-medal winners as well. In stock was the Sanders Ridge Vineyard & Winery Muscat Canelli '08, and she's anticipating the arrival of the '09. She can easily get Divine Llama Vineyards' Traminette Gold 2009. It's from one of the newest names on the list, a Yadkin Valley winery that just opened its tasting room last year. Sip also carries wines from Owl's Eye Vineyard, which scored big with its chambourcin this year. Check Carolina Booty's website for a list of other Triangle wine purveyors that stock their wines.

Not on Schlanger's list were the wines of Cypress Bend, a lovely little vineyard near Laurinburg in southeastern North Carolina on the banks of the Lumber River. Turns out that was the one top-medal winner I found on the shelf at Total Wine. The store had plenty of Cypress Bend's Campbell ($8.99), which won top honors in the Red Native American category this year, as well as several other varietals. Campbell is a muscadine wine, so it has a lot of fruity sweetness, but it renders the round, clean notes of the grape with none of the cloying syrup that characterizes inferior versions. Campbell finishes with subtle notes of cinnamon and clove, making it a wonderful accompaniment to the roasted meats and vegetables we're craving as the weather turns cool. If you've had muscadine and have been disappointed, give this one a try. It could change your mind.

If you're a fan of North Carolina's wine scene, buying the Campbell is worth the price for the sheer thrill of walking into a store and grabbing an award-winning North Carolina wine right off the shelf. Let's hope it's the taste of things to come.

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