Though maybe not an expert on either, I have spent more than 30 years promoting golf facilities and writing about the sport at every level, all the while indulging my love for and trying to expand my knowledge of wines. Though certainly no sommelier, I like to think I’d carry a single-digit handicap, should the wine industry ever start to rate hobbyist onophiles.
So when Craig Distl, a longtime friend and PR colleague, extended the invitation to see – and taste – what the Yadkin Valley has to offer on both fronts, I gladly accepted, both anxiously excited and yet curiously reserved about what the trip might reveal.
I mean, how good would these North Carolina wines be? When I was growing up, the only wines being produced in the Tar Heel State were the muscadine and scuppernong pressings folks were making from the vines in their backyards. And from my recollections, those ranged from little more than grape juice to something just this side of vinegar.
Though the offerings of professional winemakers would surely be more sophisticated, I still had to wonder how these Yadkin Valley wines would compare to vintages from famed regions with names like Bordeaux and Burgundy, Napa and Sonoma, Tuscany and Friuli or Marlborough and McLaren Vale.
Before getting into the specifics of the trip, a few facts: First, did you know that North Carolina is the only place in the world where every major type of grape is grown? It’s true. And second, North Carolina now boast more than 100 wineries spread across every region of the state.
But it was the 1.4 million‐acre Yadkin Valley, just north of Statesville and west of Winston‐Salem, that was the first area in the state to be designated as an American Viticultural Area. At the heart of North Carolina’s first official AVA is Surry County, where towns like Elkin, Dobson, Pilot Mountain and Mount Airy – Andy Griffith’s real-life hometown and the inspiration for television’s fictitious Mayberry – used to be surrounded by thousands of acres of tobacco fields.
Today, some tobacco is still being grown here and there, but many of the sloping hillsides are now graced by manicured vineyards where carefully trained two-armed vines are producing vitis vinifera – from popular varietals like Chardonnay, Viognier, Petit Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon to lesser known but equally interesting grapes with names like Vidal Blanc, Cynthiana, Tannat and Chambourcin.
And why not? The area is centered at a latitude almost identical to California’s Napa Valley and only eight degrees or so south of the legendary Bordeaux region of France. And while the Carolinas are more humid than California, the generally rocky slopes of the Blue Ridge foothills are ideal for growing grapes.
Just as the area has welcomed grapes from all over the world, it has also attracted talent from many of the famed winemaking regions, both domestically and abroad. But just like the wines, much of the grape growing and winemaking talent is home-grown, thanks to the Viticulture and Enology Program that has been part of the curriculum at Surry Community College in Dobson for a decade now.
Offering three distinct paths of study – viticulture, enology and marketing – the wine-specific degree program is recognized as one of the best on the East Coast.
So with all of that as mental fodder, it was off to experience this “new” North Carolina wine country. The idea was, we would enjoy a round of golf in the morning, and experience the wineries, tasting rooms and restaurants in the afternoon and evening. Distl had put together an ambitious itinerary, but looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. Here goes:
Our first morning in ‘wine country,’ we headed to Cross Creek Country Club in Mount Airy, where Head Professional Brad Edwards gave us a brief description of the Joe Lee course that awaited us. Opened in 1973, it underwent an extensive revision in 2006 by Greensboro’s Kris Spence, who has worked on many classic area courses, including Cape Fear in Wilmington, Mimosa Hills in Morganton and the Grove Park Inn in Asheville.
Cross Creek (pictured left) is a private club with 400 overall members, but with only 120 full golf members, the course is always in great shape and uncrowded, regardless of day or time. And on this perfect Saturday morning – sunny and low 70s – it was serenely so.
Though just under 6,800 yards from the back tees, Cross Creek is a solid test of every part of one’s game. Lee used the topography, particularly on the more hilly back nine, to shape some shots and frame others, all the while demanding one’s full attention if you are to score well. The new green complexes Spence introduced recall classic templates from golf’s Golden Age – like C.B. Macdonald’s “thumbprint” green at 14 or the famed Redan from North Berwick at 15. There’s even a tribute to Augusta National’s 18th green within the contours of the 12th at Cross Creek.
With our first round behind us, it was time to head to our first winery where we would check in for the next two nights.
Yes, you can stay at a number of the area wineries and we were fortunate that the “newlywed chateau” at JOLO Winery & Vineyards (pictured right) was available for two of our nights in wine country. But more about the accommodations later.
Upon arrival at JOLO, overlooking Pilot Mountain, we headed straight for End Posts, the intimate and distinctly up-scale restaurant adjacent to the winery’s elegant tasting room, where white linen and Riedel stems provided perfect foreshadowing of what was to come.
This was not going to be your average Saturday lunch. In fact, the toughest part was deciding what to order, but given we were at a winery, it made sense to work backward, picking our wines first and then deciding on our entrée.
The plan worked to perfection as JOLO’s 2014 Grey Ghost, a Vidal Blanc that develops its dry, crispness thanks to all-stainless fermentation, paired seamlessly with Chef Tony Poleselli’s seared sea scallops served over a citrus risotto. And the berry, pepper and spice undertones of the 2014 JOLOTAGE were the ideal complement to the island spices in the chef’s jerk chicken, served over spring mix greens, with rice fritters. (Expect the rice fritters to be on the menu, solo, as an appetizer soon. They are that good.)
From the lunch table, it was just a couple of steps into the tasting room, where we sampled other JOLO offerings, like the 2014 Crimson Creek, a 100 percent Chambourcin, which recalls the classic pinot noir of Burgundy with its light, dry elegance, and the 2014 Pilot Fog, a deeper red that could be mistaken for a Cotes de Rhone. But there’s no Syrah in this one; it’s exclusively estate grown Cynthiana grapes.
Like the intimate End Posts bistro, JOLO is a boutique winery that produces wines in such limited quantities, some of its offerings, like its namesake JOLOTAGE, come in individually numbered bottles.
Owner/winemaker J.W. Ray, a native Bostonian who looks much younger than his 46 years, owned his own restaurant at 19, worked at two five-star hotel properties and co-founded Learn.com before selling part of his stake in corporate America – he still operates several successful businesses apart from the wine industry – and he and his wife, Kristen, bought 80 acres of Carolina hill country and planted their own vineyards in 2010.
JOLO’s first vintages were corked in the fall of 2013 and now, just two short years later, Ray and JOLO are setting a standard that is going to raise the image of North Carolina wines far beyond the Piedmont foothills.
After the tasting at JOLO, there was hardly time to rest a minute before it was time to head for Shelton Winery in nearby Dobson. After touring the winery, we tasted several wines worthy of one’s cellar, including the unoaked Bin 17 Chardonnay, a fruit-forward quaffer with a clean finish; the Estate Chard, whose oaky vanilla notes gave way to a buttery finish thanks to its barrel fermentation; and a very dry Sauvignon Blanc with a grapefruit and limestone profile that might make one think they were drinking a sauv-blanc from Down Under.
We also tasted some interesting Shelton reds, like the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the Estate Cab Franc, both worthy of any table. But when we sat down to dinner at Shelton’s Harvest Grill, we opted for the limited release Two Five Nine Petit Verdot to go with Chef Paul Lange’s perfectly medium rare Balsamic Grilled Duck Breast and his Bacon-Wrapped Smoked Pork Tenderloin. The last of the wine was even better with the chocolate ganache in the Pralines and Peanut Butter Mousse Torte dessert.
A native New Yorker – the state, not the city – Lange is a CIA-trained chef who worked at Ryan’s Restaurant – the up-scale steakhouse, not the chain buffet – in Winston Salem for eight years before coming to the Harvest Grill, where he’s been delighting guests with his gourmet creations for 10 years. How do Crispy Cornbread Crab Cakes or Buttermilk-dipped Fried Oysters or even Peppercorn Steak and Bleu Cheese “Sushi” Rolls sound? And those are just some of his appetizers.
Sunday started early with a drive to Olde Beau Golf & Country Club, located just a mile or so on the western side of the Eastern Continental Divide in Roaring Gap. The late Billy Satterfield not only developed the private residential community, but designed the course, as well. In doing so, he gave up some prime real estate to the golf course, as several holes afford 100-plus-mile views.
Olde Beau (view of 15th green from 14th tee pictured left), named for Satterfield’s beloved English bulldog, is not a course for the faint of heart. Dramatic elevation changes lead to greens often perched perilously close to mountain drop-offs. But it isn’t as impossible as it first looks either. PGA Tour winner Bill Haas set the course record, shooting 64 on the 6,600-yard, par-72 layout. And Keith Hall, who overcame being left deaf and mute from a childhood bout with meningitis to become the first African-American to earn a full golf scholarship to Ohio State, matched Haas when he played Olde Beau as a collegian.
After golf, we headed for Mount Airy and a combination lunch and wine tasting at Old North State Winery’s downtown tasting room, which doubles as a popular restaurant, deli and all-around meeting place. The menu includes everything from gourmet sandwiches and salads to wraps, flatbread pizza and more.
But when I go back, I’m ordering the Hickory Smoked Pimento Cheese Dip from the appetizer menu – homemade pimento cheese topped with crumbled apple wood-smoked bacon, baked until a perfect crunchy crust just starts to conceal the gooey goodness below – only I’m going to see if I can get it as an entrée. The menu said “served with baked pita chips,” but ours came with toasted crostini – something else I’ll ask for again.
Old North State produces more than a dozen wines, both varietals and blends, most sporting the same Fish Hippie name and logo as the popular apparel line also based in Mount Airy. That’s because the same folks who started the clothing company also founded and own the winery. Among the notable varietals are a medium-bodied Merlot, a lightly spiced Cab Franc and a well-balanced Reisling that offsets a crisp acidity with just a bit of sweetness.
But the real stars at Old North State may be the blends. The Fish Hippie Bare Bones white is an all-stainless presentation of Chardonnay and Vidal Blanc that can be enjoyed with food or completely solo. The Fish Hippie Old Gentleman Spring House is a white with Reisling introduced into the mix and aged in American oak to develop a more complex character that complements a variety of dishes, from seafood and chicken to pastas with cream sauces.
Moving to the reds, the Fish Hippie Soul is a blend of Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cab Franc and Tannat that goes great with just about anything off the grill, thanks to its berries and spice profile. And ONS’s Restless Soul, which drops the Cab Franc from the blend, delivers a smoky, leathery nose, but with its soft tannins, is lighter and more fruity in the mouth, making it a versatile red for all occasions.
The tough part about visiting Old North State was having the discipline to just taste and not drink – especially with the Spring House white. But there was another winery to visit.
At Round Peak Vineyards (pictured right, photo by Sam Dean), we met owner Ken Gulaian, who literally got off the tractor to pour some of his Round Peak and Skull Camp – lighter, generally sweeter wines aimed at younger consumers – wines. Particularly interesting were the Round Peak 2013 Chardonnay, another clean-drinking, all-stainless chard devoid of the butter fats produced by the malolactic fermentation process preferred by so many California wineries, and the just released La Petite Vendange, a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Viognier that delivers citrus and floral notes, both in the nose and on the palate.
But the most intriguing wine at Round Peak was a “crazy” blend – it is named El Vino Loco, after all – of six grapes: Mourvedre, Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Spanish in origin but also grown in the Rhone and Provence regions of France, as well as in the U.S. and Australia, Mourvedre is almost always a supporting character in red blends, probably because of its high tannins and typically high Brix levels. But 32 percent of El Vino Loco is Mourvedre, making it the predominant grape in the blend.
Before we knew it, it was time to leave Round Peak, located just outside Mount Airy, and head back to End Posts for dinner. Why the same restaurant twice in such a short trip, you ask. For one, it’s that good! But more to the point, on Sunday nights, End Post offers a completely different dining experience, a fixed menu that, at $24 a person, is a treat and a value not to be missed.
Tonight’s menu started with pickled veggies over field greens, followed by a duo of pork – smoked pork belly and roasted pork loin – with Brussels sprouts, potato rosti and peach compote. Needless to say, the entrée offered the perfect opportunity to order another bottle of JOLOTAGE, the last of which perfectly complemented the Salame al Cioccolato our waitress, End Post captain Justine Gilliland, suggested.
(Interesting tidbit here: when we raved about the “chocolate salami” dessert, Gilliland replied, “Thanks. That’s all mine.” Turns out, our “waitress” is a Culinary Institute of America-trained pastry chef and her dessert, which really looks like slices of a chocolate salami and is served with her own nut brittle, once won first place at the Denver Food and Wine Festival. Talk about a high-end restaurant.)
As he was designing Forest Oaks Country Club in Greensboro in 1962 and Grandfather Golf and Country Club near Linville in ’69, Ellis Maples was creating Cedarbrook Country Club in Elkin, which is where we headed Monday morning.
No it didn’t take him eight years to do the golf course. He simply did it in stages – one nine in ’62 and the other in ’69. The result is a near 6,900-yard layout that hugs the rolling foothills in such a way playing strategy is dictated as much by the land itself as the features Maples introduced with his classic design. The land is so perfect for golf that the architect imposed only minimal bunkering, often choosing instead to allow the slopes and runoffs to protect the intended target areas.
Whether traversing open heathland, like at the first and ninth holes, or wending its way through tree-lined corridors, as the majority of holes do, the golf course blends into its surroundings in a seamless manner that is easy on the eye, yet testing of one’s skill. And the staff, headed up by general manager Zim Zimmerman, takes every opportunity to make even the first-time visitor feel like they’ve been a member for years.
After golf and lunch at Cedarbrook, we headed to Grassy Creek Vineyards, located just outside Elkin on the site of the former Klondike Dairy farm. There, we met Wayne and Joyce Moore, who were kind enough to open up the tasting room on a day it would ordinarily be closed to guests.
And once again, we were impressed with the overall quality of wines we experienced. Sitting in a tasting room that was once part of the farm’s red horse barn, we sampled several Grassy Creek wines, including an unoaked 2008 Chardonnay, whose subtle honey, pear and light floral notes left room for the grape to speak for itself. The 2011 Barrel Chard was fuller, more complex, with a butter-and-oak character gave away its cooperage.
The 2010 Red Barn Blend could be termed a “reverse” super Tuscan, if you will, since Merlot (60 percent), not Sangiovese, is the predominant juice. In fact, Sangiovese, just 10 percent of the blend, plays a supporting role in this one, which is 30 percent Syrah. The Red Barn Blend is also lighter in tannins and easier to drink than most super Tuscans, making this one easy to pair with anything from burgers and pizza to a steak.
The Yadkin Valley Golf tourism group offers several golf-and-wine packages from as low as $207 per person for two rounds of golf, two wine tastings and two nights’ lodging. There are a number of lodging partners within the group, including hotels and bed and breakfasts, as well as accommodations at some of the vineyards and wineries.
During our recent trip to the area, we spent the first two of our three nights at the “newlywed chateau” at JOLO Winery & Vineyards. Located just steps from the tasting lodge and End Posts bistro, the cottage is an elegant king bedroom and bath suite, with its own private deck. With the exception of colorful shutters and small window boxes, the relatively unadorned exterior belies what awaits guests inside – vaulted ceilings, chandeliers in both the bedroom and vanity area, a large walk-in shower with body jets, Keurig coffee maker and a large, flat-screen TV.
Like the boutique winery surrounding it, the newlywed chateau represents a unique experience for discerning guests.
Our last night in wine country was spent at the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Elkin. Again, “unique” describes this particular Fairfield, which was developed as a prototype property by a local ownership group, which invested more than three times the cost of a typical Fairfield into the construction of the 84-room hotel located just minutes off of I-77 at Exit 85. To date, no property in the entire Fairfield chain matches the amenities offered here.
Each room is comfortably appointed with a 42-inch LCD HDTV with complimentary premium channels, a Bose sound system, microwave, refrigerator-freezer, coffee/tea and more. Our suite had a second TV and a sectional couch in the seating area. In the morning, there’s a complimentary hot buffet breakfast – a “real” hot breakfast; not a continental breakfast and a microwave – in the dining area just off the lobby. Guests can also take advantage of an exercise room, pool, spa and business center. And if you want fresh air, there’s an expansive patio, with a fireplace and seating and garden areas, out back.
For more information or to book your own golf-and-wine getaway to North Carolina’s premier AVA, go to www.YadkinValleyNC.com or www.YadinValleyGolf.com. You might be just as surprised as we were.