South Park Magazine

Sip into spring

Courtesy of Shelton Vineyards

Who needs Napa? Take advantage of North Carolina’s 100-plus wineries over a weekend (or several!). At a winery you can take a tour, buy wine and related goodies, dine on local fare or enjoy a picnic, listen to a concert and celebrate holidays, the harvest or even a personal party. Whether or not you seek that next great wine trend or admire the stainless steel vats and oak barrels, you’ll enjoy the leisure, charm and sociability of the tasting rooms. That’s where you can sample a variety of wines including reserve or estate selections. Sip wines by the glass (5 ounces), by the flight (1-2 ounces of three to five different varieties) or in a vertical tasting (different vintages of the same wine).

North Carolina – with its strong agricultural heritage, rolling land, mild winters and moderate summers – was the leading wine-producing region in the nation until Prohibition. The resurgence of the wine industry began in 1970, when Westbend Vineyards in Lewisville planted 60 acres with Old World, European-style, vinifera grapes. Today, North Carolina boasts over 100 entrepreneurial vineyard ventures, five times more than in 2001. They decorate the countryside from the western part of the state to the sandy-soiled coastal region where muscadine grapes grow. Two of the state’s three major American Viticultural Areas – Yadkin Valley AVA and Swan Creek AVA (which is, geographically, within the Yadkin Valley) – are within easy driving distance from Charlotte and even nearer to Winston-Salem, known as the gateway to Yadkin Valley.

This close-to-home wine region is worthy of repeated weekend getaways because the wines and wineries vary so widely and because the scenic drives along winding rural roads delight, passing horse farms and tobacco barns, cabbage plants and gardenias. Here’s a suggested itinerary which you can adapt to suit your personal plans.

Depart from Charlotte en route to Winston-Salem at mid-afternoon on Friday. Drive 35 miles north (past Lake Norman) for a tasting at Davesté Vineyards before it closes at 6 p.m. Davesté Vineyards, the first winery in Iredell County, opened in September 2008 on a pastoral 52-acre parcel with vines, a pond and picnic area. The timber frame style tasting room is also an art gallery which displays work by local artists. Sip traditional favorites such as merlot and chardonnay, or try the 2009 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon, which won the gold medal at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition . The 2010 Traminette won the gold medal at the Indianapolis International Wine Competition.

Winston-Salem is a comfortable and convenient base for a winery weekend because of its fine hotels, restaurants, galleries and sightseeing venues as well as its proximity to about twenty vineyards. The Winston Salem Marriott Hotel features a club level, a concierge lounge, a health club and WS Prime Café. The gallery hop in the arts district (on the first Friday evening of the month) is within walking distance, as are several eateries;Downtown Thai and Sushi Restaurant serves Asian fare, and 6th & Vine Wine Bar & Cafe offers an eclectic menu plus a North Carolina wine list. It’s also worth the short drive to Bernardin’s Restaurant at the Zevely House .

For a unique hotel experience, choose Graylyn International Conference CenterPlanning Articles on the “Reynolda Mile.” It’s a one-of-a-kind, former industrialist’s mansion, located just a short drive from downtown on a scenic 55-acre estate. There’s a sense of style here with a fine dining restaurant and about 100 accommodations, some in the 1930s Manor House and others within cottages, mews and bungalows. Nearby, The Village Taven in Reynolda Village is notable for its wine list, its date-night ambiance and best brunch.

If one of the country’s largest private art collections interests you, plan a Saturday morning visit to the Reynolda House Museum of American Art the former home and gardens of R.J. and Katharine Reynolds. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has glorious gardens and a greenhouse (note: the greenhouse is closed on Sundays).

On Saturday afternoon, drive to any or all of these three wineries which are within easy distance of Winston-Salem and each other. Chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, riesling, merlot and sauvignon blanc grapes thrive at Westbend Vineyards, even though agricultural experts once advised against planting the vinifera grapevines. Along with awards from the North Carolina State Fair, the American Wine Society, Beaufort Wine Competition and Mid-Atlantic Wine Competition, Westbend Vineyards has received impressive media attention from oenophile Robert Parker who wrote in “The Wine Advocate”: Westbend “produces two excellent Chardonnay cuvées; a tasty, rich Seyval, a good Sauvignon, and a surprisingly spicy, herbal, cassis and chocolate scented and flavored Cabernet Sauvignon. As fine as these wines are, I am surprised they are not better known outside of North Carolina.”

Childress Vineyards, on the Southern Gateway Trail of Yadkin Valley, is one of the state’s best producers with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc and enjoys a reputation as one of the most highly regarded vinifera wineries in the state. Childress wines have won North Carolina wine competitions four times in the past six years. Owner Richard Childress’ NASCAR celebrity status lures visitors to his red roofed villa in Lexington. (Some rooms at the adjacent Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites – where there’s an indoor pool and fitness center – overlook the vineyard.)

RayLen Vineyards & Winery in Mocksville produces 16 wines. Sample wines in a complete flight tasting. The Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 won best in show for the 2011 North Carolina State Fair, and their popular and powerful Bordeaux blend, Category 5, was just featured on the “Today” show. RayLen became an eco-friendly vineyard by installing the largest field of solar panels at any winery in North Carolina. Since then, the solar panels have prevented over 14,000 pounds of CO2 from being emitted into the air and have offset RayLen’s energy costs by half. RayLen is closed on Sunday. Hampton Inn at Bermuda Run Hampton Inn at Bermuda Run offers a special rate to RayLen clients.

On Sunday, head out for a late lunch at Shelton Vineyards in Dobson, where along with award-winning vintages, there’s a fine, farm-to-table restaurant, Harvest Grill (On Sunday, it closes at 5 p.m.). Chef Paul Lange incorporates the best locally sourced ingredients (beef, chicken and rabbit) and grows seasonal produce in a kitchen garden that you can see from a patio table. You can also purchase a picnic from the bistro with freshly baked bread and artisanal cheeses, walk a winding path and eat in a picnic area. Tour the 33,000-square-foot winery and choose either a reserve tasting or one served with hors d’oeuvres in the gazebo. (From here, visit an old grist mill with a waterfall in Kapps Mill or an old tobacco factory in The Village of Rockford, a historic community 10 miles away with the Rockford Inn Bed & Breakfast .)

Raffalidini Vineyards & Winery is the most grand among the family-owned vineyards along the scenic Swan Creek Wine Trail. A lavender and rosebush-filled garden flanks the Italian Renaissance stone villa with its 6000-square-foot tasting room. Take the last scheduled tour on Sunday at 4 p.m., then sip wine, listen to jazz and take in the breathtaking Blue Ridge and Brushy Mountains from the patio. If you’re a fan of Chianti, consider Carolina’s answer to it, Montepulciano and Vermentino. In 2009, President Obama purchased gift baskets for foreign dignitaries from this award-winning winery whose owner is both a New York City day trader and North Carolina vintner. It looks and feels like Tuscany, yet it’s just an hour outside Charlotte.

For more, check out our comprehensive list of all North Carolina vineyards.

To plan your own itinerary to N.C. Wine Country, try these helpful websites:

Wine Festivals

Wine festivals can be the first – or the favorite – way to sip, sample, savor and shop for a variety of wines from dozens of wineries. These three local wine festivals take place this spring:

May 19, 2012: The 11th Annual Yadkin Valley Wine FestivalThe first of the season’s wine festivals happens in Elkin, about 60 miles from Charlotte. May 26, 2012: The North Carolina Wine FestivalTanglewood Park (Clemmons) is located about 10 miles from downtown Winston-Salem. June 2, 2012: Salute!This 7th-annual wine celebration is a statewide favorite held in downtown Winston-Salem.