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On the Appalachian Wine Trail: AVA Touts Blue Ridge Mountain Wine

Editor’s Note: The following article was published in High Country Magazine’s August/September edition. High Country Press is running the article in light of the AVA being officially established today! See news article here on this announcement.

By Jesse Wood

Not long ago, a farmer was considered crazy to think about growing wine grapes in the High Country. After all, this is a land of moonshine, and so-called experts said it was too damn cold anyway. Also, grape growing and winemaking are endeavors that require substantial investment. But the naysaying didn’t stop folks from experimenting with grapes of the cold-hardy kind on terraced, test vineyards. Those trials started just less than 15 years ago. Today, the curiosity, foresight and hard work of these grape-growing pioneers is paying off with the pending establishment of the Appalachian High Country as a legitimate grape-growing region, one that is capable of producing great Blue Ridge Mountain wine.

When brothers, Ed and Charlie, started Shelton Vineyards in Dobson in 1994, the formation of the Yadkin Valley American Viticultural Area – the first AVA established in the state of North Carolina – was still a decade away. Aside from The Andy Griffith Show connection, tourism in the region was lacking and the visitors that did were mostly daytrippers. “About the only tourism in this area were people visiting Mount Airy – or Mayberry, so to speak,” he said. “Now, I see one, two, three, four hotels built and several restaurants have opened up.”

Since Ed and Charlie established the Yadkin Valley AVA in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, two other AVAs, which are federally recognized wine grape-growing regions, have been established in the state: Haw River Valley and Swan Creek. But it’s the pending Appalachian High Country AVA that particularly excites wine connoisseurs, vintners and grape growers in the mountains of Western North Carolina, Eastern Tennessee and Southwestern Virginia.

The pursuit of the AVA classification was spearheaded by the High Country Wine Growers Association (HCWGA), and after a two-year vetting process, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is only a formality or two away from signing off on the petition. Come fall, the Appalachian High Country will be an official AVA.

This classification essentially puts a “stamp of approval,” as Shelton said, on a particular region’s ability to grow wine grapes with distinguishing features and characteristics to make unique wine. In his neck of the woods, Shelton attributed the growth of the wine industry to the AVA designation. When the Shelton’s planted 200 acres of grape vines in the ‘90s and opened up their winery a few years later, only one other winery existed in the Yadkin Valley. Today, dozens of wineries are in operation there. “Oh yeah. It was very important to the development of the wine region in this area,” Shelton said.   

Unlike the Yadkin Valley, where the wine industry spurred tourism and drew in motorists from interstates and highways like I-77 and U.S. 421, the High Country is already a tourist draw. The AVA will compliment the skiing at the resorts, the Saturday football games at App State, the four seasons of outdoor excursions on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the shopping and dining in the historic downtown districts and other area attractions like Grandfather Mountain or Tweetsie Railroad. But aside from all the potential economic benefits, the AVA will tell the world that great wine is made in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Jack Wiseman of Linville Falls Winery

“Oh man, I think it’s going to be something else,” said Jack Wiseman, owner of Linville Falls Winery and a member of the HCWGA. “No place is going to have the same flavors we are going to have because of our particular soil, elevation and microclimates. We were called the Shrubbery Capital of the World. Who knows? One day we might be called the White Wine Capital of the World.”

Moonshine to Appalachian Wine

If you grew up within the boundary of the eight-county Appalachian High Country AVA – Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell and Watauga in North Carolina; Carter and Johnson in Tennessee; and Grayson in Virginia – in the old days, you’re likely more familiar with corn liquor than wine, kind of like Wiseman, who is 84 years old. Although he made his first batch of wine with his grandmother, Ida, at the age of 8 years old, he lived in a land of moonshine and learned how to make wine as a kid in the ‘40s. “I grew up on the Toe River, and it was a moonshine world,” Wiseman said.

After he served as an Army medic in the Korean War, he worked as sheet-metal mechanic in a California shipyard, and on the weekends, he would visit the vineyards and wineries of Napa and Sonoma valleys, where some of his friends and relatives worked. With his knowledge of the spirits and distillation acumen, Wiseman said he felt right at home visiting the wineries like Christian Brothers and hanging out at the brandy distilleries. He even reciprocated the knowledge by making two or three moonshine stills.

This was back when the California wine industry was in its infancy; the famous Napa and Sonoma Valley AVAs were still 15 to 20 years away when Wiseman befriended a couple of “old Italian boys.” They would pick grapes at the vineyards and then make Dago Red wine. About this time, Robert Mondavi parted ways with his family’s wine operation and started his own winery in Napa Valley. “That was one of my favorite places to go. I met those people, and I would watch and ask them questions,” Wiseman said. “I just fit in because I knew how to make moonshine and brandy when I was in California, and I fell right in with the alcohol crowd.”

Today, Wiseman owns Linville Falls Winery in Avery County. It’s situated near the Blue Ridge Parkway at about 3,200 feet. Wiseman opened the winery in 2012, and the 40-acre estate features a Tuscan-inspired tasting room and nearly nine acres of grapevines to make Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and other wines.

Linville Falls Winery

Just as folks thought Wiseman was crazy to plant hundreds of thousands of Christmas trees in the ‘60s prior to the Frasier Fir boom upon returning to his native North Carolina, some also thought he was crazy to create a little Tuscany in Avery County, where alcohol is still considered somewhat taboo.

(In fact, Avery County was the only county government to not provide funds for the research and establishment of the AVA, and Wiseman stepped up, forking over a $1,000 from his own pocket on behalf of Avery County. HCWGA raised about $10,000 for the application process from Allegheny County, Ashe County, Carter County Tourism Development Association (TDA), Grayson County, HCWGA, Johnson County Chamber, Linville Falls Winery, Mitchell County TDA, Mountain Electric and the Watauga County TDA.

“I don’t want it to sound negative, but the people that are what we call our leaders, the [Avery County Board of] Commissioners mainly, need to open their eyes and see what’s happening down here at Linville Falls Winery,” Wiseman said. “Three weeks ago, we had 160 cars from all over the United States, and if they can’t see what that could turn into and supposedly we are a tourist capital with our cool summer climates. We are certainly not a manufacturing county, so if you can attract 160 cars on a little spot in Linville Falls, then somebody needs to open their eyes and say, ‘Hey, that could be big.’”)

You could say the thought of attempting to grow grapes in the High Country in the 21st century was considered just as crazy to some. Dr. Dick Wolfe, a founding co-owner of Banner Elk Winery and Villa, remembers that pervasiveness well. Wolfe taught adult classes on grape growing, among other duties, at Appalachian State University and Lees-McRae College, where some of his fellow students operate vineyards and wineries in the High Country today.

Dick Wolfe of Banner Elk Winery

Like Wiseman, Wolfe grew up in Appalachia. His father worked in the West Virginia coalmines with Italians who migrated to the coalfields. His father befriended some of the immigrants, including one family with the Milano surname in 1950. “They wanted to put in a vineyard,” Wolfe recalled. “They said, ‘We can’t have a meal without a glass of wine,’ and up in West Virginia, we had moonshine.” So the Milanos started a little vineyard, and as a child, Wolfe helped to plant grapes and make wine.

Thus began Wolfe’s lifelong passion and skills for grape growing and wine that evolved after a career in nuclear engineering. He had a hand in the first winery started in Abingdon, Va., and after securing a grant from the state to create test vineyard in Matney, Wolfe planted the first wine grapes (not counting the concord variety) in the High Country in 2002. The 50 vines planted consisted of four varietals of French-American hybrid grapes that Wolfe thought could withstand the cooler, mountain temperatures. Three of those four varieties did well, and the grape-growing industry in the High Country slowly blossomed from there. 

Thinking back about being on the forefront of growing grapes and attempting to count the number of medals that our local wineries have been awarded, Wolfe remembered a university study dismissive of the High Country as a potential grape-growing region. “When they did a survey of the entire state, they made a comment that said, ‘Forget about the High Country. It’s just too cold up there to grow grapes,” Wolfe said. “Now that we’ve won gold medals in the state fair, I am sure glad to go back to these guys and say, ‘You all might have been wrong down at N.C. State.”   

Banner Elk Winery and Villa

Pickin’ & Stompin’

At a High Country Wine Growers Association meeting in October 2014, a slight buzz was prevalent, both from the excitement that a possible AVA was looking more like a reality and relief that the rigorous and meticulous application process was complete – at least on their end. The first words out of the mouth of Johnnie James of Bethel Valley Farms as he stood before HCWGA members and updated the group on the AVA application with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau were “It’s official. I filed it this morning.”

James was the lucky soul tasked with seeing the completion and submission of the AVA application. (While James is considered the “catalyst” of getting the extensive application submitted, ASU graduate student Bianca Temple, under the guidance of ASU Geography and Planning Professor Jeff Colby, took this application on as a summer project in 2014. Derek Goddard of Blue Ridge Environmental Consultants was involved in the petition, and Patricia McRitchie was hired for an initial feasibility study.)

James, who has owned a second home on Beech Mountain for about 15 years, decided to start farming after a successful career as a CPA for one of the largest accounting firms in the world. Because he worked heavily with agricultural clients, including primarily family-owned farms, the transition to farming after 30 years crunching numbers seemed natural.

Several years ago, James undertook the monumental task of transforming an old, abandoned farm into a fruit producer. On 12 acres of the 39-acre spread, James planted about 6,500 raspberries, 3,500 blackberries and 1,200 blueberries. And on a suggestion from Steve Tatum at Grandfather Vineyard and Winery, James planted grapevines – 3,500, in fact. “It was a lot of planting and a lot of caring,” he said.

Dylan and Steve Tatum of Grandfather Vineyard & Winery

But before he could even start planting the seeds or staking the fruit-supporting trellises and posts, he had to clear an overgrown, partially timbered property that had been abandoned for more than a decade. The undertaking also included rebuilding an old barn and digging a 1.2-acre irrigation pond. “I lost 25 pounds that first year just clearing [the property],” James said.

Since the initial planting, James is just now starting to see the fruits of his labor. See, grapes don’t grow right away. “They are kind of like citrus in Florida. They both take about four years from the time you plant them to the time they produce their first commercial crop,” James said. “It’s not for the quick footed. It’s a farming of patience. It’s four years. It’s slow go, but we are there now and that’s exciting.” Last year, James was able to harvest a small bounty of wine grapes, but this year will be the first commercial-sized crop.

Around September, James will start randomly pulling off clusters of grapes throughout the vineyard, squish them all together to test them on a refractor for the sugar content – or the grapes’ Brix, as it is called in wine circles. Once the grapes test for the sufficient amount of Brix that vintners look for to create their product, the vines will be picked clean and grapes delivered to wineries like Grandfather Vineyard and Winery, for example, in between Foscoe and Tynecastle.

Once there, the Tatum family and staff, donning overalls stained the color of red wine, will turn thousands of grapes into wine along the banks of the Watauga River. During the fall harvest season, the hours are long, but Dylan Tatum, the winemaker and general manager of Grandfather Vineyard and Winery, looks forward to these fruitful days. “It only comes once a year,” Tatum said during a harvest a couple years ago. “Tis’ the season.” Like all farmers, the Tatums celebrate the fall harvest that is always a culmination of hard work, patience and hopefully a little bit of blessing from Mother Nature.

Before the wine is barreled for aging and bottled, the grapes must be crushed and pressed. Sometimes the crushing takes the form of a grape stomping at a wine festival, but for commercial production vintners usually opt for a slightly more efficient method. The process of crushing, pressing and fermenting the wines takes about three months, and depending on the color of grape, the skin will remains in contact throughout the fermentation process. “That’s where the red wine gets its color,” Dylan said. “When making red wine, we always ferment our red grapes on the skins because it extracts the color and flavor out of the grape.”

Grandfather Winery

Dylan caught the wine bug from his father, Steve Tatum, who first planted grapevines on hillsides near the Watauga River in between Banner Elk and Foscoe in 2003. Asked how he became involved in the wine industry, Steve simply said, “Well, my wife and I always enjoyed having a glass of wine or two.” That led him to research whether or not wine grapes could grow in the High Country. That first year he planted about 200 grapevines, and the following year he planted roughly 2,000 vines. The family has since planted several hundred more on their vineyard.

While a winery seems like a natural progression or expansion from a vineyard operation, the Tatums opened up their winery with a bit of trepidation. “It’s a money thing to start with, and they are money hogs,” Steve Tatum said. “Everything that has the word wine attached to it, you can just go ahead and jack it up several dollars from anything else.”

But as Steve pointed out, his son’s enthusiasm for winemaking alleviated some of the concerns of upstarting a winery. See, Dylan took the love affair with wine one step further by earning degrees in the art of winemaking. He received degrees in viticulture (study of grapes) and oenology (study of winemaking) from Surry Community College – on top of his bachelor’s from App State in business management.

That first year, the Tatums bottled 400 to 500 cases of wine “at the most,” according to Steve; that figure has since grown nearly ten-fold, and Tatum expects more growth. “It’s been a great ride. It has. It continues to grow. We are going to be somewhere between 4,000 to 4,500 cases of wine this year,” Steve said. “I never thought we would be at that size, and we’ll probably grow a little more.”

Wine’s Ripple Effect

For a bottle of wine to showcase the Appalachian High Country label, 85 percent of the grapes used to make wine must be grown within the AVA’s eight-county, tri-state boundary. With the local movement as strong as ever and with only about 10 wineries in the Appalachian High Country region – as of the application filing – the demand for local grapes will certainly increase.

More than 20 vineyards with approximately 71 acres of grapes planted exist within the 2,400-square-mile AVA boundary. That doesn’t count another planned eight vineyards comprised of 37 acres in the future. The elevation range within the AVA boundary is 1,338 to more than 6,000 feet, although elevations below 2,000 feet are excluded. According to the petition, the vineyards are situated between 2,290 and 4,630 feet with a majority at or above 3,000 feet. The average slope is nearly 36 degrees with vineyards planted on sunny slopes ranging 9 to 46 degrees.

Vineyard owners in the Appalachian High Country tend to plant cold-hardy hybrid varietals like Marquette, traminette, seyval blanc, cabernet franc, vidal blanc and Frontenac, according to the petition filed with the TTB. These hybrids can withstand cooler temperatures and reach maturity quick than other varietals. Vintners in this region also take advantage of the cooler weather by producing ice wines from grapes that are naturally frozen on the vine.

“Our climate is brutal on grapes,” Watauga County’s Extension Director Jim Hamilton said, in noting that the grape growers in the region have all had to put in a tremendous amount of investment, labor and research, such as experimenting with the varietals to see what works for their particular microclimate. Here in the mountains, the sunny hillside across the street can have drastically different climates than a shady holler.

While the talk of wine grapes serving as a replacement for, say, a fallen crop like tobacco exists for farmers, Hamilton sees wine grapes as more of an “auxiliary” crop for those looking to diversify. “Wine grape growing is a very expensive endeavor. Like most crops, it’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s even a more fickle commodity than most. I would view it as an auxiliary crop for those that are brave enough and have the financial fortitude to embrace it,”
Hamilton said

Hamilton noted that tourism derived from folks travelling the wine trail – to the wineries and vineyards – in the AVA will compliment other agritourism enterprises like the pumpkin patches, corn mazes, the farm tours, pick-your-own blueberry operations, and choose-and-cut Christmas trees destinations complete with hot chocolate and hay rides. “Any additional element we have that can boost our tourist offerings is good for the economy in general, so it should have ripple effects,” Hamilton said.

Taken together and on a state level, wine and wine-grape farming has more than a $1.7 billion impact on the economy, according to a 2015 report by Frank, Rimerman + Co. LLP. The number of wineries in the state grew from 89 in 2009 to 130 in 2013. The number of grape growers and wineries also increased about 30 percent: from 400 grape growers on 1,800 grape-bearing acres to 525 grape growers with 2,300 grape-bearing acres during that same timeframe.

Wine-related tourism expenditures increased 65 percent in the state from $156 million in 2009 to $257 million in 2013 as the amount of wine-related tourists increased 36 percent from about 1.25 million to 1.71 million during that same time period.

For wineries located a bit off the beaten path, the AVA is expected to have a more pronounced impact as wine connoisseurs follow the wine trail through the Appalachian High Country and beyond. One such winery is the Watauga Lake Winery in Butler, Tenn.

Linda and Wayne Gay of Watauga Lake Winery

“We are not Boone or Banner Elk or Blowing Rock,” acknowledged Linda Gay, who founded Watauga Lake Winery with her husband, Wayne. “[The AVA] should bring a great deal of tourists on the trail and that means more people will eat in our area, get gas in our area and stay at our lodging. So … Carter County and Johnson, as they are passed through, will be visited. It should help the economy immensely.”

In their previous life, prior to founding Villa Nove Vineyards and Watauga Lake Winery in Butler, Linda and Wayne were a couple of importers from Italy in the decorative accessory and furniture industries. In the early 2000’s, the Gays went for a drive after leaving the High Point furniture market, fell in love with the mountains of East Tennessee, which reminded them of the Italian Alps, and ended up purchasing 35 acres overlooking Watauga Lake after seeing a for sale sign on that drive.

They built their “Villa Nove,” an Italian-inspired farmhouse named after the small town in northern Italy where their import business began, and a couple years later, Wayne decided to plant some grapevines. As the couple likes to joke, the landscaping simply got out of hand 4,200 grapevines later.

In 2012, they renovated Johnson County’s old five-room Big Dry Run Schoolhouse into an elegant tasting room and event center, spacious enough to seat 100 guests, with a full caterer’s kitchen for food and wine pairings, gourmet dinners and cooking classes. The renovation was intensive. As Linda said, “Basically, there isn’t an inch of it that has not had to be redone except the exterior. The brick exterior was ok.”

The winery is located about a mile from the vineyard and housed in the Big Dry Run Schoolhouse, and during tours of the processing area and tasting room, guests learn about the haunted schoolhouse, which was built in 1948, as they sample wines. Although the Gays didn’t realize it was officially haunted until the Heritage Hunters Society asked to set up audio and video equipment one night, guests kept bringing up that notion. Patrons tend to experience the paranormal activity when looking at a wall of remembrances for the school’s annual classes that the Gays set up. At an event one evening, a young woman washing dishes ran out of the old classroom restored into a kitchen, absolutely scared to death.

Vill Nove Vineyard at Watauga Lake Winery

“We were not expecting to see or hear anything, but we had constantly had guests asking us if we had ever experienced anything unusual like a cold wind or feeling as if somebody is on your back,” Linda said. “After picking up their cameras and equipment, they called us and said, ‘We really can’t believe all we were able to discern. You have a lot more activity going on in there than we anticipated.’”

Although she won’t reveal more details regarding the hauntings of the old school house in an effort to save the suspense, Linda thinks the Appalachian High Country AVA will have a positive impact beyond the vineyards and wineries. With the advent of the AVA, communities along the wine trail will see more wine enthusiasts and connoisseurs who seek to taste Blue Ridge Mountain wine. These folks will eat at the local restaurants, shop in the local boutiques and sleep in the local inns. The taxes will help to fill the coffers of local county and municipal governments, and new jobs should open up. Linda noted that the establishment of the Appalachian High Country AVA will provide the best of both worlds – enhancing the economy and preserving the “agricultural roots” of the region. “It’s just a wonderful life,” Linda said, “being able to keep our agricultural roots and still have good-paying jobs.”