As a locavore, I'm tempted to drink more North Carolina wine to keep the eco flame burning. But with this lofty goal, I wondered if flavor would be sacrificed in the name of green? I combed North Carolina's Yadkin Valley to see if decent juice could be uncovered. What I found surprised me.
Every wine region across the globe has issues. Hail frequently obliterates France's Burgundy and Bordeaux vines, insects dine mercilessly on Australia's fruit, brutal heat waves shrivel whole bunches in southern Europe and pretty much everyone battles freezes. Whereas most regions only have one challenge to overcome, North Carolina seems to garner a larger share. Despite what the press releases tout, it ain't easy growing grapes in this state. The dense red clay soils prevent vine roots from growing deep enough to develop strong character, plentiful rain suborns mildew, freezes frequently cut crops in half, and Japanese beetles and thryps ravage unprotected plants. It costs a lot of money and requires loads of work to produce wine in this state.
Not that grapegrowers weren't warned. Back in the late '70s, the North Carolina agriculture folks thought these freaks were trippin' on disco drugs. But grape pioneers, fresh from romantic California wine country vacations, shook off the naysayers, planted grape vines and began dreaming of the future. Ten wineries braved the fickle wine markets, peddling sweet muscadine grogs and unfamiliar hybrid varieties like Vidal Blanc and Chambourcin, fruit genetically altered to withstand the humid Southern climate.
Today, 72 wineries dot the North Carolina hill country -- up from 60 the last time Creative Loafing reported on wine country in mid-2007 -- and many have graduated to vitis vinifera grapes, the variety grown in Europe and the west coast of the United States. Marketing-driven names like "Carolina Red" and "Carolinius" now stand next to bottles labeled Cabernet Franc, Viognier and Chardonnay.
The wines sell fairly well at the wineries for vacationers and diehard fans (especially the sweet ones), but Charlotte consumers haven't made the leap to local. This is glaringly reflected by the selections at wine shops. Reid's Fine Foods in Uptown stocks a small yet carefully vetted crew of North Carolina wines. Shelton Vineyards, Rockhouse and Childress Vineyards lie dusty among the woefully unnoticed locals. Owner Chuck Richards says they do sell, but mostly as souvenir items. And with Reid's huge, well-chosen and less-expensive selection of wines from around the world, I'm not surprised North Carolina wines falter. It's a tougher wine market here, as Richards pointed out, since cheaper Spanish and Australian wines have moved into the market.
Many retailers don't consider local wine an option. Katie at the Wine Shop at Foxcroft doesn't even stock Yadkin Valley wines since they don't sell. And Matt Janssen, the enthusiastic, self-taught wine buyer at Common Market, puts it simply, "I can't justify spending more money on North Carolina wines just because they're local."
But maybe we should? The quality has definitely increased in the last four years, with the best coming from cabernet franc, chardonnay and, surprisingly, the fragrant white grape viognier. Perhaps Charlotte should open its mind to the bounty at our backdoor. I'm not holding my breath, but I wish I could.
The Pick of the Local Crop
Childress Vineyards 2005 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay Creamy, lemony, vanilla, peaches. $12.50.
Childress Pinnacle NV Fruity, black cherry, leather, licorice, full-bodied, good drinkin'. $12.50.
Westbend 2006 Viognier Uber dry, buttery peaches with a steely aftertaste. $16.95.
Westbend Vintner's Signature Red Tobacco, black cherry, excellent depth, cinnamon, brawny tannins. $29.95.
RayLen 2005 Chardonnay Pear, red apple, crisp with no hint of oak. $12.
RayLen 2006 Category 5 Smooth, juicy with intense cherry. A bit sweet. Merlot based. $18.
Shelton 2007 Riesling Peaches, red apple, citrus finish. $12.75.
Rockhouse 2006 Meritage Tasty cherry and vanilla. $17.50.