"The Yadkin Valley is like a treasure hunt," says Kim Myers of Laurel Gray Vineyards. "Each winery is as distinct as its owner's tastes."
Fog settles over the sleepy river valley in early morning, creating a striking November scene. The last few clusters of bruised purple grapes cling to vines, a treat for the birds more than the winemakers. Sound like France or California? Think again. This is North Carolina's Yadkin Valley, home to some of the South's finest vines and most creative winemakers.
Take a journey through this blessed stretch between Lexington, North Carolina, and the Virginia state line, where the roots of two dozen boutique wineries reach deep into the rich soil. The French call the essence of their wine regions' soils and climates "terroir," but in these parts, we know it simply as good Tar Heel taste.
"The Yadkin Valley is like a treasure hunt," says Kim Myers of Laurel Gray Vineyards. "Each winery is as distinct as its owner's tastes." Some reside in plush châteaus with dozens of employees, while others are so small you meet the proprietors at the tastings. Welcoming first-timers and sophisticates alike, all the stops are hospitable.
Childress Vineyards: A Tuscan-style villa graces a hillside surrounded by neat rows of grapevines in Lexington. Owner Richard Childress (yes, of NASCAR fame) fell in love with California wines while racing there, and he became a vintner back home. It's a good place to start your spirited journey, especially if this is your first visit. Step up to the dark-wood bar, and choose from three tastings. From delectable sweets to a reserve merlot, talented winemaker Mark Friszolowski crafts something for everyone.
Our Pick: 2004 Merlot ($17)―smooth, very food friendly; Pinnacle Meritage ($15)―long finish, a nicely crafted wine, good with Stilton cheese or a big steak.
Shelton Vineyards: At the north end of the valley in Dobson, Shelton Vineyards boasts a gorgeous setting, complete with a babbling brook coursing under fall trees. Brothers Charlie and Ed Shelton converted this 400-acre former dairy farm into a gravity-flow winery in 1999 (it uses the incline of a hillside to move the juice and wine). There's a restaurant on site as well as a new Hampton Inn & Suites with a wine bar nearby at I-77.
Our Pick: Salem Fork Blush ($8)―very peachy and sweet; Yadkin Valley Reisling ($12)―refreshing with just a hint of sweetness.
Westbend Vineyards: As the oldest vineyard in the valley, Westbend, near Winston-Salem, started growing grapes in 1972 and helped smaller operations get their starts. Owner Lillian Kroustalis and winemaker Mark Terry continue to win awards. "We do custom-crush service for smaller wine producers," says Lillian. The rural setting, with a handsome patio and pavilion, invites you to linger after a tasting.
Our Picks: 2004 Merlot ($15)―a nice red, very drinkable; 2004 Pinot Noir ($16)―perfect with Thanksgiving flavors, a good crossover wine for white and red meats.
RayLen Vineyards and Winery: RayLen's 38 acres of grapes produce excellent estate wines. The red blends are the most popular, with the Category 5, a full Bordeaux-style, offering fine aging potential. Whites intrigue too, including the Yadkin Gold. The gift shop features furniture and accessories made from oak barrels at affordable prices.
Our Pick: Yadkin Gold 2004 ($13)―a tad sweet, would be nice over ice.
RagApple Lassie Vineyards: The success of growing grapes enables Frank and Lenna Hobson to continue to plant corn, wheat, tobacco, and soybeans. Named for Frank's pet Holstein, this vineyard features agrarian architecture. Stairs in a silo lead down to the aging cellar, while guests stroll on a catwalk above the winemaking facility. An outdoor stage features concerts and folk art fairs throughout the year.
Our Pick: 2004 Chardonnay ($15)―a good balance of fruit and oak with a nice finish.
Raffaldini Vineyards: Save the airline ticket to Italy, and visit Raffaldini in the Swan Creek area of the Yadkin Valley. You'll meet a family that's been making wine for more than 650 years. Their tasting room opens onto a sunny deck and gardens with a stunning view of the Yadkin River beyond.
Our Pick: 2005 Fiori ($13)―good with cold salads and spicy Asian foods; 2005 Chiara ($13)―sweet, tastes more like a blush than a traditional rosé.
Our Pick: Michael's Blend Meritage 2002 ($16)―very different, fruity, would be nice with roasted meat.
Laurel Gray Vineyards: Benny and Kim Myers welcome you to the Swan Creek area to taste wine in a former milking parlor that is surrounded by a relaxing porch. As you sip, gaze at the view of Scarlet Mountain and a pond with cattails and ducks. Catch, too, the last rose blossoms before the frost settles on Benny's family's farm, dating to the 1700s.
Our Pick: 2005 Scarlet Mountain ($17)―well balanced and dark berry flavors.
Flint Hill Vineyards: Owners Tim and Brenda Doub added a tasting room to Tim's family's farmhouse where Brenda cultivates the surrounding vineyards. "My husband grew up in this house," she says. "His grandfather was a distiller here. We grow grapes to keep our farm alive." Sweet wine lovers adore their Old Yadkin. "My husband calls it a gossip wine. The more you drink, the more you gossip," she says. At press time, the Doubs had just added a restaurant called the Century Kitchen. If it's as good as their wines, we are in for a tasty meal.
Our Pick: 2005 Viognier ($17)―well balanced, a good alternate to Chardonnay.
Elkin Creek Vineyard: Taste Mark Greene's wines with dinner at his restaurant, The Kitchen (the best in the valley). If you just want to sample, drop by the basement tasting room. It's the smallest winery, and Mark arguably occupies the smallest space. He sometimes sleeps in a teepee in a field nearby. Save time to explore his century-old mill too―one of the prettiest sights around.
Our Pick: 2005 Chardonnay ($15)―has a taste of smoky oak, would cozy up to any bottle from California.
Bonus Pick―Grassy Creek Vineyard & Winery: On the north side of Elkin, Grassy Creek Vineyard & Winery gives new purpose to an old dairy farm. Two couples―the Douthits and the Rices―merge talents here. If the spirit's willing, you may blend your own barrel here for less than $5,000 (with advice from the winemaker). Your yield: 25 cases and visiting rights while it's being made. Add your own name and label―and live the dream of the Yadkin Valley.
Our Pick: 2005 Merlot ($14)―spicy, pair with meaty pizza or flank steak
"Carolina's Wine Country" is from the November 2007 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.