Torches flicker as twilight settles on the spacious outdoor terrace at Herrera Vineyards, the newest winery in North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley. I’m just five hours west of Tidewater, but I feel like I’m far away. The Spanish-style architecture and manicured grounds conjure up a wine estate in Northern Spain or perhaps California’s Napa Valley. As I relax and enjoy my surroundings, I sip an exotic red varietal called Tannat from Uruguay—full-bodied with spicy black pepper notes and a supple mouth feel.
This feeling of being far away from the East Coast shadows me as I explore Yadkin Valley. Here in the Appalachian foothills, Old-World traditions combine with passion to create a dream-come-true lifestyle for local residents. Let’s find out what makes this pastoral region of North Carolina so attractive.
Wineries top the list of attractions in Yadkin Valley, which became an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 2003. Its unique terroir attracts grape growers and winemakers from all over.
“Yadkin Valley is much like Old-World Europe,” says Louis Jeroslow, winemaker at Elkin Creek Vineyards. “It’s like stepping into France and Spain and Italy… The soil is very much like Tuscany, our latitude is in line with Sicily, and our climate is most of all like Bordeaux.”
Acres of vineyards blanket the landscape, and wineries are everywhere. Surry County, located in the heart of the Yadkin Valley, claims 17 of North Carolina’s 40 wineries, and more are on the way. One of the newest wineries, JOLO Winery & Vineyards, opened last year. The tasting room has a cathedral ceiling and an urban-chic vibe. JW Ray and his wife, Kristin, give us a tour of the winery and then invite us to dine at End Posts, their signature restaurant.
Our tasting menu features paired wines, of course. JOLO’s French-style Chardonnay is a perfect match for the first course: seared scallop with a sweet potato crisp. Next, the best salad ever—figs, toasted almonds, arugula, and goat cheese—pairs beautifully with Grey Ghost, a crisp Vidal Blanc. The entrée—grass-fed New York strip served with garlic mashed potatoes, squash, and a port and fig demi-glace—tastes even better with Pilot Fog, a full-bodied red made from 100 percent Norton grapes. Happy Endings, JOLO’s dessert wine, was a bit too sweet for my taste, but it did pair nicely with the meal’s final course, Triple Chocolate Temptation. Tempting indeed.
In nearby Dobson, N.C., Surry Community College offers an associate’s degree in viticulture and oenology. The next morning we tour the school and learn about the program, which produces 1000 cases of wine each year. Each new cohort of students actually makes and bottles wine during the two-year program. “Students learn by doing,” says Dave Bower, an instructor in the program, “50 percent classroom and 50 percent hands-on.”
After touring the state-of-the-art viticulture and oenology center, we head out to the five-acre vineyard, where 13 varieties of grapes are planted. Petit Verdot, Cab Franc, and Merlot grow best in the hot, wet climate, says Dave, but the school regularly experiments with different varietals, pruning techniques, and trellis systems. Local winemakers love having a steady supply of skilled employees who graduate from the program. “I would put this program up against any other in the country,” Dave says. And he means it.
We stop by Round Peak Vineyards, a 13-acre property owned since 2008 by Ken Guliain, who makes 1000-2000 cases of French and Italian estate wines per year. The pet-friendly winery invites visitors to bring their own picnics and even provides grills on summer weekends. I like the Fiddler’s Red, a light-bodied blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese. In 2012 Ken started brewing beer, and now Skull Camp Brewing is adding new faces to their fan base. Ken’s having fun mixing the two kinds of spirits—think red ale with a touch of Sangiovese. That’s amoré!
In downtown Elkin, an urban winery called Brushy Mountain offers live music in their chic, “sophisticasual” tasting room, housed in an historic building that was once the home of Elkin Cannery. Owner Jason Wiseman buys 100 percent Yadkin Valley grapes to produce his French-style wines, which range from a sparkling rosé to a classic Bordeaux blend. My fave is the 2007 Red Bud Ridge, a balanced blend that’s won numerous awards.
Who knew there were so many good wines in Yadkin Valley? And we’ve only just begun to taste.
DESSERTS WITH A TWANG
The region is also home to a surprising number of unique businesses, run by people with passion. For example, in the 1980s a family started a small leather business in State Road, N.C. Now Harris Leather & Silverworks makes world-class saddles, and their celebrity clients include movie stars and foreign dignitaries. On a tour with the owner, Phil Harris, we learn that one cowhide can make one and 1/8 saddles. We see a demonstration of leather tooling, followed by silver engraving, an art form mastered by Phil’s brother, Eddie.
“We still use Old-World methods,” Phil says. That explains why it takes six months from the time an order is received until a saddle is ready to be shipped to its new owner. Leatherwork takes up to 100 hours per saddle, and the richly detailed silverwork can take up to 300 hours. No wonder these saddles sell for a pretty penny—$10k and up!
Another unique business, Miss Angel’s Bake Shop in Mt. Airy, has become quite an institution. Miss Angel and her husband moved here from Long Island and make everything from heavenly pies to sonker, a cobbler-style dessert famous in these parts. Wearing her signature color pink and a wide smile, Miss Angel says, “We sell Southern desserts with a twang.” She lets me sample her newest creation, moonshine peach ice cream, and it definitely has a kick.
Another couple, Tom and Pauline Hylton, moved to Yadkin Valley from Florida with the notion of starting a farm. “We’d never grown anything in our lives,” Pauline says as she shows us around Peeled Poplar Farm. “I thought we’d make a lot of money, but everything is so hard.”
Pauline says having a sense of humor is key when you’re a farmer since sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned. After experimenting with different crops and ideas, the Hyltons found their niche: making salsa, pestos, and pepper jellies, which they sell on Etsy and at farmer’s markets. Her pesto tastes amazing, and I love her spicy-hot jelly.
SOUNDS OF NATURE
We take a break from eating and tasting wines for a kayak adventure down the Yadkin River, one of North Carolina’s longest rivers. After safety instructions from the owner of Yadkin River Adventures, we launch our kayaks for a self-guided two-hour paddle downstream. The river is a bit low, so instead of navigating white water rapids, we dodge big rocks and avoid shallow spots where our kayaks run aground.
But most of the time, we float peacefully past ancient trees and pastures where cows chew their cud and watch us with quizzical expressions. I practice closing my eyes while floating, holding the paddle still in my lap, trying to be centered and balanced so that my kayak stays pointed down river as the slow current carries me along. I listen to the sounds of nature, made more distinct with my eyes closed.
After the paddle, we lunch at Rockford B & B in the historic town of Rockford, once a hub of activity before the trains stopped running. Now Rockford is full of historic buildings, including the Rockford United Methodist Church, where you can view a beautiful fresco painted by Tony Griffin, a North Carolina artist who studied in Florence, Italy. There’s also Rockford General Store, where you can buy hoop cheese, side meat, homemade fudge, fried apple pies—even sweet-potato sonker.
More wine tasting awaits at Jones von Drehle Vineyards and Winery, which opened last year. Located on some of the highest elevation in Surry County, the winery is owned by two couples who found the property after getting lost in the countryside. When they spotted the land, they said, “Wouldn’t that make a beautiful vineyard?” As luck would have it, the land was for sale. Now nearly 25,000 vines are planted on 30 acres, bearing a variety of grapes, including Petit Manseng, which produces a big, bold white. Jones von Drehle wines have won 150 awards since their initial release in 2014, so we happily taste award-winning wines in their spacious tasting room.
Adagio Winery, which opened in 2014, is owned by a married couple who practice dentistry in Winston-Salem. Drs. Jan and Tim Wahl are involved with every aspect of the winery operation, and with winemaker Sean McRitchie, they produce six wines: three whites and three reds. Inside the cozy tasting room, Jan, who’s a classical violinist, plays violin as we taste the wines. Jan is also a violin maker, who studied the art of lutherie under a German master. Outside a group of friends sit around a fire pit in comfy chairs, enjoying a bottle of Adagio wine.
On our final evening we attend a Wine Showdown Dinner at Shelton Vineyard’s Harvest Grill Restaurant. Guests are offered two wines to taste with each course and then vote on which one they prefer. Two teams, comprised of staff from the winery and restaurant, have chosen the wines, so it’s a friendly competition now in its third year. I find it hard to choose which wine is better—I like them all—especially with the delicious four-course meal: seared sea scallops, goat cheese and raspberry salad, smoked pork tenderloin, and finally a blackberry and chocolate tart.
The Wine Showdown Dinner is the perfect finale to my Yadkin Valley visit because it exemplifies the passion these winemakers and entrepreneurs have for their vocations. I love the emphasis on tradition here. Folks are proud to do things the old-fashioned way, from making wine to baking sonker, to tooling leather to building a fiddle. Yadkin Valley folks are keeping the old ways alive. Unafraid of hard work, they know the fruits of their labor make it all worthwhile.
For more information on wineries and wine tourism, visit www.YadkinValleyNC.com.