Driving down Interstate-40, near the Raleigh-Durham Airport, there's a little green sign featuring a bunch of purple grapes, and the name of Chatham Hill Winery. Wine's becoming big business: Our State Department of Transportation has gotten into the business of promoting wine tourism, and the fruits of the 26 wineries located throughout North Carolina. Over a million visitors trekked out last year in order to taste these fascinating and qualitatively improving products; from Martin Vineyards, planted on a sand dune and resembling Portuguese vines near seaside Lisbon, to Shelton Vineyards in the Yadkin river valley, similar to Austria's Wachau district. Interestingly, until recently, wine sales were forbidden in Yadkinville. (Theirs was a dry county!) Now, a celebratory wine festival can finally be held--change is in the air everywhere. The explosion of new wineries is impressive. When I left my job in retail wine sales in 1997, there were eight established vineyards in the state. Eighteen wineries have emerged in the intervening six years. With euphonious names like "Rag Apple Lassie" and "Silk Hope," the charm of these places matches the growing seriousness of the enterprise. My "old" memories of local producers include a trip to The Biltmore Estate in the 1980's to assist then winemaker, Phillipe Jourdain, in creating a champagne blend to be sold at the gourmet store, A Southern Season. I recall indefatigable Steve Shepard, then of Westbend Vineyards, bringing his latest releases, practically begging me to give them a chance. His persistence paid off, as his versions of seyval blanc and cabernet were surprisingly tasty. North Carolina wine sales now blossom throughout the state, while then, they seemed predominantly localized. Biltmore wines sold to mountain tourists; same for Waldensien wines for the residents and visitors of Valdese. Duplin Wine Cellars' bottlings were consumed down east, although their long history carried some familiarity throughout the state.
North Carolina Wineries begins by encapsulating our centuries long grape growing tradition; from 18th century Moravian plantings, the supremacy of scuppernong, "the grape of grapes," in the 19th century, through to today's energetic renaissance. Before the Civil War and again in the early 1900's, North Carolina was a leader in America's wine industry. The state's Virginia Dare brand was a national favorite 100 years ago. The voluminous market was destroyed by Prohibition, and even a small resurgence in the 1970's took real guts due to the reactionary politics surrounding the "evils of wine consumption." That veil is now lifted. Recent legislation that allows our wines to be purchased in and shipped to other states, via mail or the Internet, will really open the U.S. to the "goodness grows" motto of our state.
Published this year, the book is naturally, very current, although it contains a mixed bag of good and not-so-good information. There are listings of statewide wine festivals, along with a separate entry for each winery that includes name, address, phone and fax numbers, e-mail addresses, visiting hours and directions. Each estate entry includes stories about location, terrain, local lore and legends, alongside information on the owners themselves, who, very often, are also the winemakers. Tasty recipes provided by the wineries are a bonus. However, the photographs are very grainy and only mildly informative, and there is at least one factually inaccurate statement: "A thinning of a vine-grape bunch can lead the remaining ones to produce more plentiful fruit." Plus, there's a great deal of repetitiveness. However, this is a guidebook, and not meant to be a continuous page turner. I think its major sales will take place at travel bureaus, at the wineries themselves, and with people unblessed by computer access. Frankly, a quick Google search, or logging onto www.ncwine.org will turn up all the same factual information and a convenient state map with vineyard locations to boot. (The book could use one.) But for long range vacation planning, plus stories that turn bunches of vines into a winery and a home, this book should prove engaging.