When you think of domestic wines and domestic wine producers, you automatically think California, right? Well, to quote Ira Gershwin, “it ain’t necessarily so.” A lot of people are beginning to think North Carolina.
There are nearly a hundred wineries and vineyards in the Old North State, a number that has almost quadrupled in the last decade. The state ranks seventh for wine production and tenth for grape production in the United States. But there was a time when that number was much higher. Forgotten by many is the fact that at the turn of the last century – before Prohibition – North Carolina was the leading wine-producing region in the United States.
Of course, Prohibition indirectly led to the rise of another notable North Carolina trademark, NASCAR. (Think “liquor cars,” “runners,” and “Thunder Road.” Yeah, I know “Thunder Road” was actually in Tennessee, but you get the idea.)
I am not much of an oenophile, but my wife is. I’m also not much of a NASCAR fan, but, again, my wife is. So when the opportunity came to combine the two on a recent visit to North Carolina, we took advantage of it.
Around 2002, former NASCAR driver, racing team owner, and North Carolina native Richard Childress decided to diversify, sinking a chunk of his winnings into planting grapes in a vineyard near Lexington, located in the Yadkin Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), one of three such designated areas in the state. (The others are Swan Creek and the Haw River Valley.) And so in October of 2004, Childress Vineyards was born.
Now, Richard Childress never thundered down a treacherous mountain road in his native state behind the wheel of an overpowered car loaded down with cases of illicit wine, but he does display his roots in the iconic checkered flag displayed on the labels of many of his winery’s products. This alone, I think, makes him something of a stand-out among vintners worldwide, most of whom tend to put stuffy, pretentious things on their labels.
In fact, Childress’ whole operation is pretty outstanding. Having done tours and tastings at Biltmore and other North Carolina wineries as well as at wineries in other parts of the country, we found the facilities at Childress Vineyards to be quite impressive.
You can’t miss the vineyard as you motor down US 52 toward exit 89; there are informational and directional signs along the highway and besides, the place is huge! On the long drive up Childress Vineyards Road off Hwy 64W you pass through acres of neatly planted fields, each bearing signs indicating what variety of grape is sown there. There is a walking trail in evidence, as free tours are offered daily.
The road ends at a beautiful and imposing 35,000 square foot edifice constructed in the style of a Tuscan villa of the Italian Renaissance period. Upon passing through massive doors, you find yourself in an opulent grand entry hall. To the right are banquet facilities and The Bistro at Childress Vineyards, featuring daily lunches and three-course tasting flights prepared under the direction of Executive Chef David Thomas. Lunch is served until 3pm and we, of course, arrived at 3:01.
No matter. To the left is a delightful gift shop and a tasting room that Wine Enthusiast Magazine includes among its Top 25 in America. My wife is an inveterate taster and I’m an inveterate shopper, so it was the perfect place for us to spend the hour before the next available winery tour.
As I said, I am not an oenophile, but I know enough about wine to hold my own in conversations and at tastings. I know something about color and clarity and nose and finish. I know buttery and oakey and grassy and I know about breathing and decanting. And I know the “Five Ss” of wine tasting: see, swirl, sniff, sip, and savor. I guess that’s how I fooled the wine steward into thinking I knew what I was talking about as I watched my wife proceed through a “classic tasting,” one of three currently offered in the tasting room.
For a $10 ticket, she sampled five sweet wines; a classic white, a classic blush, and a classic red, as well as a 2009 Riesling varietal and a Polar dessert wine. The $12 “barrel select” tasting includes five varietals, and the $15 “signature tasting” offers a selection of five premium wines. Each tasting also includes a crystal souvenir glass.
I was most impressed with the steward or sommelier who conducted our tasting. Unlike other wineries we’ve toured, the tastings at Childress are individual affairs rather than big group outings where everybody swirls and sips in unison. Olga, the young woman who guided us through our “classic tasting,” was easily the most knowledgeable and personable example of her trade I’ve ever encountered, and I don’t say that just because she was a pretty Russian girl who spoke a little Italian. She really was a joy as well as being a marvelous professional who knew her stuff. She was a font of information both general and arcane and was very thorough in the presentation of her product.
Another pleasant young woman named Courtney took a small group of us on a tour of the winery itself. It was cold, rainy, and generally nasty outside, so we contented ourselves with a look at the bottling and storage facilities contained within the lower levels of the building. Even there, the Italian Renaissance theme was carried through, especially in the wonderful “barrel room” that included a waterfall that was both decorative and functional, its purpose being to maintain a level of humidity for the French-made oak barrels stored within.
Childress produces good stuff. Their wines have garnered more than 650 medals in the relatively short time the winery has been around, including over 60 golds and double golds and four Best of Show honors. They currently have 77 acres under vine with twelve varietals planted.
One of the grape varieties cultivated at Childress is the muscadine or vitis rotundifolia . Known locally as “scuppernongs,” the grape is native to North Carolina, and is, in fact the official state fruit. The first grape cultivated in the United States, a 400-year-old “Mother Vine” on Roanoke Island is said to be the oldest known grapevine in the country.
My wife has had several unpleasant experiences with Muscadine wine over the years. Many of them can have a very tart or sour flavor. Not so with the wines she sampled at Childress, which she found to be very light bodied and sweet. She also found room for a bottle of American Muscadine Sweet White Wine in our luggage. Actually, the inventory at Childress was depleted by several bottles when we departed, and we definitely plan on returning for more.
The winery is seeking to be more of an overall destination and to that end they have incorporated a number of special events, including live music in the vineyards throughout the summer months. See their website at http://www.childressvineyards.com/home.asp for complete details of these events as well as for scheduled hours, directions and much more.
Whether you’re a casual connoisseur or an established aficionado, there’s something for you at Childress Vineyards. I’ll see you there sometime soon.
1000 Childress Vineyards Road
Lexington, NC 27295