Swirling good times for adults in North Carolina.
By Bill Bauer
An invisible line separates the counties that occupy the Piedmont and Mountain regions of Western North Carolina. On either side of that boundary the climate and terrain are ripe for growing grapes, the fruit that’s arguably best put to use in making wine. Burke and McDowell counties, adjacent to Rutherfordton, have been blessed with not only fertile soil, abundant rainfall, ideal temperatures, and sun, but also with a new breed of winemakers with a mission to advance North Carolina’s already budding industry. Four wineries, unique in personality but alike in passion, are a few miles apart and make for the perfect venture for adults who enjoy sampling the fruit of the vine: Silver Fork, Belle Nicho, South Creek, and Lake James Cellars. This quartet of wineries makes up the Catawba Valley Wine Trail and takes great pride in its growing reputation for producing some of the finest wines in the state.
Lake James Cellars, located right downtown in Glen Alpine just outside of Morganton, is the senior member of the quartet and is a genuine family operation that began when friends of Mike and Betty Fowler started getting requests for their homemade wine. It has become, in their son Josh’s words, “a hobby that got out of hand.” Josh is a self-taught winemaker who’s honed his skills for over a decade. Along with son Alex, the Fowler clan has been producing award winning wines since 2005 purchasing and pressing grapes from N.C. vineyards including the Yadkin Valley. “The Italian Barbera is our best seller, right along with Mimosa Red,” says Betty. A blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah, the Mimosa Red is aged for 36 months in French oak and then blended to bring out the best in each variety. Lake James Cellars also produces dry whites like Traminette and Riesling, and an assortment of sweeter varieties, many of which are seasonal. The winery and tasting room occupy one side of a restored, red brick 1915 textile mill that also houses a large antique consignment store. Betty sums it up, “Where else can you shop with a glass of wine in your hand?”
Silver Fork Winery is a “labor of love,” says Jennifer Foulides. Jennifer and her husband Ed Wisnieski, left Manhattan’s corporate America in the dust and headed south, seeking refuge for their dogs to roam and a place to enjoy their favorite wines. Purchasing 32 acres of land that just happened to have 3.5 acres of grapes a few miles from Glen Alpine in nearby Nebo, provided them with both. In 2011, they bottled their first vintage from Chardonnay, Chambourcin, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that were planted in the early ‘90s and cared for by former owner Larry Kehoe. Kehoe was strictly a viticulturist who’d never made wine, but was one of the first to introduce French vinifera varietals to North Carolina. In 2013, Merlot and Cabernet Franc were added to the wine list along with a dry Rose and special blends. Under Kehoe’s mentorship, Jennifer and Ed have planted additional acreage of Petit Verdot, Tourega Nacional, Malbec, and Tempranillo. If they’ve learned one thing in creating classic Bordeaux style wines, it’s that patience is more than a virtue, it’s a necessity in the wine business. “We don’t like to rush our wines into the bottle,” says Jennifer, “And we are constantly learning.” Naming and creating blends is a specialty at Silver Fork. Their signature wine, 4 Dog Red, is a blend of four varietals and honors the four dogs that meander around the winery. Nonsense blends three vintages of three different varietals in three different barrels, the newest release is a luscious blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
Belle Nicho, which loosely translated means Beautiful Place, is located in Nebo and lives up to the hype of its name. Green grass grows down the center of the grape rows and the flora in and around the vineyard is spectacular. Despite its beauty, owner Bridget Dunford points out, “We actually named it after a favorite Aunt and Uncle—Jeannie Bell and Uncle Nick—but being a small farmstead winery our endeavor is to enhance the property through sustainable practices.” Dunford describes Belle Nicho as a place where French Chic meets Southern Hospitality. Since 2012 Belle Nicho Winery has been adding its own Southern Style to wines. Dunford and General Manager Janet Grimes began their venture into the wine business in 2007, following a visit with the Boldens at South Creek Vineyards and Winery. During the spring of 2008, they initiated their first Vineyard Work Day, with many faithful friends assisting in the of planting Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cynthiana, Isabella and Seyval Blanc—all native, French-American hybrid and vinifera grapes. Belle Nicho’s wines range from dry through semi-sweet to a lovely sweet red. “All of our wines are enjoyed, but our Strawberry-Rhubarb and Rosé have been our most recent best sellers,” says Dunford. Belle Nicho Winery has a yearly gathering aptly named Art Uncorked, in which it hosts ten to a dozen local artists including a local jeweler who does a “jewelry wine party.” Throughout 2016 live music will be performed on multiple Sundays.
South Creek Vineyards and Winery is more than a winery: It is home to owners Jim and Mary Rowley and their cherished horses. Driving up the long road to the 100-year-old Italian Renaissance-style house that serves as residence, retail shop, and tasting room, a picturesque pasture provides the idyllic setting for their three mares. Facing a job relocation, the North Carolina residents decided to seek a career change to remain in the state they loved. A picture on the Internet of a vineyard for sale piqued their interest and a trip to Nebo ensued. “We arrived at the vineyard and, although we could not have known it at the time, we were about to take the first step in our new lives. Deciding to take a leap of faith, we invested our future in the North Carolina wine community and purchased South Creek Vineyards & Winery from Frank Bolden, in the summer of 2010.” Bolden, who meticulously managed the vineyards for eight years, owned the operation and provided the foundation for the Rowleys to continue the tradition of producing validated Bordeaux style wines. While Jim considers himself a “self-taught-on-the-job-winemaker,” he credits Bolden’s guidance and a trip to France’s Bordeaux region studying the vines and the wines, with raising his level of expertise. South Fork specializes in gold medal red blends, with musical names like Duet, a 50/50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot aged in all American oak barrels, and is a gold medal winner from the American Wine Society competition. Maestro, a classic Bordeaux blend with all four grapes of the Bordeaux region—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot—won a gold medal at this year’s prestigious Grand CRU International Competition held in California. Two classic Chardonnays, an oak aged 2013 Reserve and a 2013 stainless steel variety, are both clean, bright, and refreshing.
The wineries along the Catawba Valley Wine Trail are event oriented featuring live music, car shows, weddings, and alfresco dining to name just a few. Belle Nicho’s Dunford explains that, “The four wineries in the area have come together to support each other and create joint but unique experiences as we each build our own businesses.” Four times a year they join for a Wine Hop to celebrate the season. A wine lover can blaze his or her own wine trail by picking up a Wine Hop Card at any of the four member wineries, then sip, savor, and taste away while collecting a unique crafted wine glass as a memory of the journey. Each winery provides a special treat to compliment the tasting and participants automatically register for a $25 gift certificate. The 2016 Fall Hop runs from 1-5 p.m. on Sunday, September 25. The cost for the Wine Hop is $20 and it is recommended to register ahead online for the popular event.
While each winery’s website provides directions, the easiest way to hit the wine trail is to head to Glen Alpine, home to Lake James Cellars, just three miles off Exit 100 on Interstate 40 on Highway 70. From there, follow the excellent signage. The Fowlers will point you in the direction of the other three, which are nearby but a little more secluded. The individual days and hours for tasting vary from one to another, so best to plan ahead.
Where To Stay…The Inn at Glen Alpine
– Photos by Bill Bauer
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.