I confess that I’ve always been a little bit wary of The South.
Dan Dunn is taking an extensive road trip across America to research his forthcoming book, American Wino: A Story of Reds, Whites and One Writer’s Blues on the Winey Road to Redemption (Dey Street Books/HarperCollins). This is the ninth in a series of weekly dispatches chronicling his journey.
Day 66: RayLen Vineyards & Winery (Mocksville, NC)
I confess that I’ve always been a little bit wary of The South. Being a Philadelphia native, in The South I am what's called a Yankee. When I visit, I don't always wear my Philly roots on my sleeve, because why stir up trouble?
So the first thing I say upon meeting Erin Doby of RayLen Vineyards & Winery in northwestern North Carolina is “How y’all doin’, darlin’?” I’m also chewing on a piece of straw for added effect. And apparently the ruse works, because Erin says “how y’all doin’ ” right back and proceeds to pour me a sample of every wine in the tasting room — nearly 20 in all — free of charge.
For almost a century, the site where RayLen is located was home to a productive dairy farm. Then, in 1989, a merciless hurricane by the name of Hugo paid a visit, and the dairy farm was no more. The land sat vacant for a decade until Joe and Joyce Neely bought the place and planted some vines. In 2001, RayLen became the fifth bonded winery in the Yadkin Valley AVA. Today, there are more than four times that many in the area.
RayLen has 45 acres planted with a variety of grapes such as Viognier, Cabernet and Vidal Blanc. They produce about eight thousand to ten thousand cases a year, depending on the weather. Erin informs me that virtually everything related to the North Carolina wine industry depends upon the weather.
RayLen’s most popular wine is a $19 Bordeaux-style blend called “Category 5,” a nod to the intensity of the storm that literally cleared the way for the vineyards. And while I appreciate the twisted homage, my personal favorite bottle is the 2013 Carolinius, a medium-bodied Cabernet blend with bright fruit and unobtrusive tannins. As for the whites, the crisp Pinot Grigio ($13) and the elegant Viognier ($15) are standouts.
Raylen is about a 45-minute drive from downtown Winston-Salem, where a heck of a meal can be had at Meridian Restaurant, a fine dining establishment adjacent to the historic Brookstown Inn.
Day 67: Divine Llama Vineyards (East Bend, NC); Sanders Ridge Vineyard & Winery (Boonville, NC); McRitchie Winery & Ciderworks (Thurmond, NC); Raffaldini Vineyards and Winery (Ronda, NC)
Divine Llama is owned and operated by a couple of old college buddies, Michael West and Thomas Hughes. They’re both architects with a mutual appreciation of fermented grape juice. In 2006, they purchased 77 acres in East Bend and planted 5 acres of vines that yield about 1,200 cases a year. The rest of the property is reserved for the llamas. Yes, llamas. Because, you know, we are talking about North Carolina. That’s llama country.
“In a Heartbeat” is a semi-dry red blend named after an Appaloosa llama that recently took third place overall in a national competition, according to tasting room manager Dana Dalton.
“Wow, that’s impressive,” I say. “How many other wines were in the competition?”
“Oh, I’m not talking about the wine,” she replies, “I’m talking about the llama.”
And if that’s not already a punchline to a Jeff Foxworthy joke, it should be.
Next up on my loaded wine-tasting itinerary is Sanders Ridge, which has been in the Shore family for nearly 170 years. Neil Shore, who’s been farming the land all his life, started planting vines back in 2000 — mostly French varietals that today produce around 2,500 cases a year.
Neil tells me that Sanders Ridge is the only winery to win “Best in Show” in two categories in the same year at the North Carolina State Fair — in 2009, their Muscat Canelli bested all white wines and their Muscadine was picked as the best native grape. In a related story, I was once named valedictorian and Homecoming King at summer school.
Neil built the tasting room and restaurant himself, everything from the structure to the tables and chairs. The place is filled with old photos chronicling the Shore family’s rich history. Neil is especially fond of Aunt Beatrice, who was born in 1898 and lived to be 106 years old.
“She lived in three different centuries,” Neil says, shaking his head. “Not many folks can say that.”
“Including Aunt Beatrice,” I resist the urge to say. But in all seriousness, staying alive106 years is pretty remarkable. Pretty sure she’s got the llama beat.
Since 2006, some of the very best wine in North Carolina has been produced at McRitchie Winery & Ciderworks in western Surry County, where the grapes are as plentiful as Baptist churches and chewing tobacco. Winemaker Sean McRitchie honed his skills at renowned wineries in many of the world’s premier wine regions, including France’s Alsace-Lorraine, Napa Valley, Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Australia.
Hell, if I weren’t so fat and out of shape, I might have literally flipped over the 2012 Arcturus. This magnificent blend of 90 percent Sangiovese and 10 percent Merlot is named after the fourth-brightest star in our galaxy and is, in my estimation, the first-brightest wine in the Tar Heel State.
Also seriously impressed with what winemaker Casey Matthews is doing with Italian varietals at Raffaldini Vineyards in Ronda. And also by the fact that I was actually able to locate Ronda, a tiny hamlet with a population of 417 at last count.
Day 67: Childress Vineyards (Lexington, NC)
“Drinking Muscadine wine owned by a NASCAR legend” may also sound like part of Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck” routine, but it’s not. I’m really doing this. Although, if you’re reading this, Jeff, you can have it. The punchline, that is, not the Childress Muscadine. I actually like that wine. No joke.
Childress Vineyards has the added advantage of being located just two miles away from one of this country’s culinary institutions, Lexington BBQ. Here, over a plate of pork shoulder that was slow-cooked to perfection, I realized what I liked best about the North Carolina leg of my nationwide trek: the place is full of down-home flavor.
Next week...in a part of the country where second cousins are acceptable members of the dating pool, I learn that if you want to have a good time, it is crucial that you modulate your behavior appropriately.
For more on Dan’s journey, follow him on Twitter @TheImbiber