It's time to raise a glass to the Biltmore Winery, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
The official celebration is Wednesday-Sunday and the weekend will be packed with special events and the debut of a new visitor area.
The Biltmore Winery, on the grounds of the Biltmore estate in Asheville, is a state treasure. It's the most-visited winery in the United States, even topping the Napa Valley. The Biltmore folks estimate 1 million visitors come to the estate every year. Upward of 600,000 guests stop in the winery and sample the wines.
The Biltmore, built in 1895, was the vision of George W. Vanderbilt. It's an incredible place. The 250-room home is meticulously maintained, and still houses many of the Vanderbilt family's original furnishings and artwork.
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The grounds are spectacular, totaling 8,000 acres. They include 75 acres of gardens designed by the influential Frederick Law Olmsted, whose vision of melding the external beauty of the land with the internal beauty of the home still inspires landscape architects.
Although the vision of a winery was always part of the plan for the estate, the winery itself is relatively recent. The first grapes were planted in 1971. It was a bold move at the time. The N.C. wine industry as we know it today didn't exist yet.
The challenge of growing vinifera grapes in the cool mountain climate was huge. The winery began with experimental vineyards, trying hybrid varieties, and eventually began a dedicated push to grow quality grapes and produce fine wine.
The first bottle of Biltmore wine wasn't sold until 1979. One important move was hiring an experienced French winemaker, Philippe Jourdain, who shepherded the winery until he retired in 1995.
Today, the winery produces 50 different wines, and sells 2million bottles a year. Lots of grapes are grown on the 94 acres of vineyards, and the estate boasts a state-of-the-art, 90,000-square-foot winery.
The winery tasting experience is well-organized. It's quite a feat to guide so many people through a tasting room, but the Biltmore Winery accommodates guests of all experience levels and taste preferences with ease and a sense of Southern hospitality. On a recent visit with friends, we were impressed by the seamless service and general sense of friendliness, even though the tasting room was swamped.
The wines also are beginning to achieve national notice. Biltmore wines aren't just sold to visiting guests, they're in wine shops in 20 states.
Biltmore Winery has done quite a bit to advance wine appreciation. Several years ago, I began an informal poll of students taking wine certification classes, asking about their first experience with wine. I have heard over and over that a tasting experience at the Biltmore was the beginning of a lifetime interest.
So thank you, Biltmore Winery, for all you have done to spur the N.C. wine industry, and for helping so many people become wine lovers.