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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Friday, September 14, 2012

A Tour of Three North Carolina Wineries

(Image courtesy of Bottlenotes)
Everybody talks about California wines. Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley. But in our rush to praise West Coast wines, let's not forget the other coast and its superb winemaking facilities.

Most people, even dedicated oenophiles, don't know that winemaking was well established on the East Coast decades before the California wine industry was even a thought. According to the North Carolina Department of Commerce, when Sir Walter Raleigh's expedition explored the coasts of North Carolina and Virginia in 1584, they found an abundance of grapes. One explorer wrote, "The coast of North Carolina was so full of grapes that the very beating and surge of the sea overflowed them.” A huge 400-year-old Scuppernong vine on Roanoke Island, the storied “Mother Vine,” was the first cultivated grapevine in the United States.

From it, and others like it, came wines so fine as to induce Thomas Jefferson to write of North Carolina's burgeoning wine industry, its "wine would be distinguished on the best tables in Europe, for its fine aroma, and chrystalline transparence."

North Carolina's Medoc Vineyard, established in 1835, was the state's first commercial winery and led the nation in wine production. By the time the sixth federal census was conducted in 1840, North Carolina was the leading wine producing state in the U.S.

The discovery in the late 19th century that vinifera, or European grapes, could be grafted onto native stock gave a huge boost to the local wine industry.

By the turn of the 20th century, North Carolina was becoming widely recognized for its quality wines. North Carolina wines won prizes in Paris in 1900. A bottle of North Carolina's “Virginia Dare” wine won the grand prize at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in 1904. For a time, “Virginia Dare” label wines were the best-selling wines in the United States.

Prohibition briefly derailed the American wine industry, but today North Carolina is well on its way to re-establishing itself as a force in the wine world. Numerous incentives to grape growing, including a program to convert land formerly used for tobacco production to grape production, have been extremely successful. North Carolina, currently 7th in the United States in wine production, is home to three designated American Viticultural Areas and currently boasts more than a hundred wineries.

So it was on a recent late-Spring day that my wife and I, accompanied by one of our delightful wine expert friends, embarked on a tour of three of those wineries.
Our first stop was Shelton Vineyards, a 383-acre estate located in the Yadkin Valley near Dobson, NC. Established in 1999 by brothers Charlie and Ed Shelton, it is the largest family-owned winery in North Carolina. The winery itself is housed in a contemporary 33,000 square foot building, There are ten varietals planted and they are handpicked one variety at a time every season. The winery is a gravity flow facility, meaning the multiple levels of the building utilize gravity to aid in the gentle flow of grapes and wine through the processing steps.

The walking tour of the winery begins and ends in the nicely appointed tasting room/gift shop. The tour takes about a half hour. Our guide on this occasion was a very personable and knowledgeable woman who explained each step of the process clearly, adding interesting little facts and details as the tour progressed. We learned about the rose bushes planted at the end of the wine rows. These delicate flowers serve as “canaries” for the grapes. If something happens in the fields, the roses will be affected first, thus enabling the vintner to assess a situation before it damages the grapes. And we learned about the windmills that serve as frost protectors, keeping the air currents moving and inhibiting frost development.

On a previous visit, our tour was conducted by a young lady who gave us a much abbreviated version of the experience afforded by our guide on this occasion, a fact that I pointed out. Our current guide's polite response was that every tour guide has an individual style based on their experience. As one with some personal experience as a tour guide, I recommend a good script and the ability to deliver it without sounding scripted, but that's just me. At any rate, the tour was interesting.

Back in the tasting room, a wine tasting flight of five varieties will cost you $5 – and you get to keep your glass. If you're interested in a tasting of the reserve wines, it's $20. Wine is also available by the glass. Prices vary from $6 to $10 per glass, depending upon the variety.

We opted for the dry reds that included a Dry Rosé made from Cabernet Franc grapes; a Harvest Red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec; the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon; the Estate Merlot; and the house label Madison Lee Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Syrah, and Tannat. The last selection turned out to be the preferred choice and the one that went home with us for a reasonable $10.99 per bottle.

There is a fine-dining restaurant – the Harvest Grill – attached to the winery and a newly-opened brick-oven pizzeria and ristorante – Bello Vino – located near the entrance. We dined at Bello Vino, where the food was good and the service was not. But it was only their second day open, so the green was still apparent on the young waitstaff. I'll give it another try later.

Beyond food and wine, Shelton offers a busy schedule of special events that includes a summer concert series, a fall harvest festival, and a holiday open house.

Open daily (except for New Year's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas), Shelton Vineyards is located in Dobson, NC at exit 93 off I-77. It's just a few miles north of Winston-Salem and a short distance south of Mt. Airy and the Virginia state line. They are at 286 Cabernet Lane, Dobson, NC 27017. (336) 366-4724 is the phone number and they are on the Web at www.sheltonvineyards.com.

Our next stop was a short distance further south on I-77 at Raffaldini Vineyards and Winery. Now, whereas Shelton was a bit off the beaten path, there isn't even much of a path leading to Raffaldini. Google Maps driving directions, a good GPS system, and a decent sense of direction helped us negotiate the turns off the Interstate onto a couple of two-lane highways and a dirt trail replete with single-lane bridges. We were thinking of turning back and finding a sherpa – or at least a local Boy Scout – when we finally stumbled upon our destination. It was definitely worth the journey.

The approach to the facility leads through a beautiful garden – very Italian. You exit the garden and are stunned by the edifice before you: Lordy, Lordy! Somebody done went and stuck a big ol' Eye-talian villa right out thar in the middle of North Carolina! Ten points for “wow factor.” Raffaldini's website features an appropriate quote from Anthony Baratta, National 1st Vice-President, the Order of Sons of Italy in America; “Honey, I've just died and gone to Tuscany.” And it gets better.

La famiglia Raffaldini is the real deal, tracing their roots back to 14th century Mantua. To say they've been making wine for a long time would be an understatement. They've only been making it at their 43-acre vineyard in the Swan Creek AVA since 2001, but their ancient winemaking heritage is apparent in every aspect of their operation. The aforementioned practice of grafting European grapes onto American root stock is in full swing here. Raffaldini currently produces five single varietal wines and several proprietary blends including: Vermentino, Sangiovese, Sangiovese Riserva, Montepulciano, and Pinot Grigio. The vineyard also produces Sagrantino, Nero D'Avola, Moscato, and Malbec grapes. Some of these varietals are not only unique to the East Coast, but are also the first plantings in the United States.

The magnificent Tuscan villa houses a delightful tasting room which opens onto a spacious terrazzo commanding breathtaking views of the vineyard and surrounding countryside. The view alone is worth the trip. But we were there for Italian wine, and we were not disappointed.

Again, a wine tasting was $5 and included seven wines; four reds, two whites, and a dessert wine. The medium-bodied, “Chianti” style 2009 Sangiovese was very good, but we were most impressed with the mellow, rich “Il Mezzogiorno.” The unique red blend possesses a fruity bouquet reminiscent of berries and currants. It has a soft, subtle beginning that evolves into a fruity, oaky flavor and progresses to a long, spicy finish. At $14 a bottle, several went out the door with us.

Another favorite was the dolce or dessert selection. Called La Dolce Vita, it is a semi-sweet lightly sparkling wine in the style of a Moscato d'Asti. The $15 price tag ensured that a few bottles of that variety were leaving with us, too.

There is no on-site eatery at Raffaldini, but there is an adequate selection of Italian foodstuffs available in the tasting room. We thoroughly enjoyed some flatbread and a fig spread as we sat on the terrazzo and drank in not only our delicious wine but the astounding scenery as well. Nobody wanted to leave.

Like Shelton, Raffaldini has more to offer than tastings and tours. The beautiful grounds at Raffaldini lend themselves to lots of events. The Knot magazine, a publication serving the wedding planning industry, has named Raffaldini as one of its Top Ten Wedding Venues in NC. The winery also schedules a number of special seasonal events including their popular “Festa Italiana” in the fall.

Raffaldini Vineyards is open daily, except Tuesday. They are closed for New Year's Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. Hours of operation vary. As noted, tastings are $5 and include a commemorative glass. Walking tours of the vineyard are conducted Wednesdays through Sundays. (Naturally, we were there on a Monday. Next time, for sure.) Raffaldini is located near Ronda, North Carolina, not far from Winston-Salem. They are at 450 Groce Rd, Ronda, NC 28670. Exit I-77 at 73B, the exit for US 421. It gets tricky from there. Go online for complete directions. Call (336) 835-9463 or visit them on the Web at www.raffaldini.com.

Continuing south, our final stop was at a place we'd been before and one I've previously reviewed. (http://ronjamesitaliankitchen.blogspot.com/2011/04/visit-to-north-carolinas-childress.html) Childress Vineyards is still located near Lexington, NC off US 52 at exit 89. And it's still huge. The winery itself measures 35,000 square feet, including the tasting room/gift shop and the upscale dining and banquet facilities. Of course, the Tuscan villa architecture isn't quite as impressive anymore on the heels of a visit to Raffaldini, but it's still pretty far up the list. After all, Wine Enthusiast Magazine includes the tasting room at Childress among its Top 25 in America.

On my last visit I commented on the friendly, knowledgeable, efficient staff. That goes double for this occasion. We got to Childress quite late in the day; so late, in fact that we missed the last scheduled tour and were pretty close to the cutoff time for tastings. No matter. When I explained that we had come quite some distance to see the winery and that we had just gotten delayed by traffic (which was true), the staff arranged a private tour for us after we had finished our tasting. And it wasn't an “okay, I'm off the clock so let's get this over with” kind of tour. It was very detailed and informative and included all the points and places covered on their regular scheduled tours, including a stop in their beautiful “barrel room,” a feature no other winery I've toured could equal. The extra service and accommodation on the part of the staff was very much appreciated.

While the tour is free, the tasting at Childress is a little more expensive than some others. For a $10 “classic” ticket, we sampled five wines; including a classic white, a classic blush, and a classic red. The $12 “barrel select” tasting also includes five more expensive varietals, and the $15 “signature tasting” offers a selection of five premium wines. Each tasting, of course, includes a crystal souvenir glass which has been upsized and upgraded since my previous visit.

Childress produces good stuff. Their wines have garnered more than 650 medals in the relatively short time the winery has been around, including over 60 golds and double golds and four Best of Show honors. They currently have 77 acres under vine with twelve varietals planted.

I guess it depends upon what you're looking for in a wine, but after sampling the exquisite Italian varietals at Raffaldini, the more common wines at Childress failed to impress our oenophile friend. In fact, he was a little put off by what he perceived as a “tobacco” flavor lingering on his palate after sampling some of the wines. But this is from a guy who is deeply into wine and really knows his stuff. He is very.......shall we say “discerning”........about his wines.

Childress cultivates the local muscadine or vitis rotundifolia. My wife has had some unpleasant experiences with other muscadine wine, but she always enjoys the muscadine wines produced by Childress.

As with other area wineries, there's more to Childress than just wine. They have a busy schedule of activities that includes live music events and much more.

Childress Vineyards is located at 1000 Childress Vineyards Road, Lexington, NC 27295. Call (336) 236-9463 or log on to http://www.childressvineyards.com.

Like the grapes themselves, North Carolina wineries seem to grow in bunches. I lost count of the number of roadside signs we saw advertising other wineries as we traveled among the three we visited that day. And we won't even mention crossing the state line into Virginia, a state which boasts even more vigorous viticulture than North Carolina. All I can do is paraphrase Horace Greeley's advice to young men seeking their fortunes: “Go east, young wine lover, go east and experience the bountiful wine country.”

Mangiare, bere, e divertirsi!

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