When chemist Dick Wolfe said he was going to grow grapes and produce wine in the High Country, his Yadkin Valley counterparts and soon-to-be rivals scoffed at the notion and wrote him off as another novice.
Well, Wolfe has proved them wrong, and he has medals to back him up.
Banner Elk Winery recently won the silver for its Chianti vintage and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon at the N.C. State Fair Wine Competition. The winery also won accolades for its Banner Elk White (silver) and 2011 Seyval Blanc (Bronze). In the real hybrid category, Banner Elk won for its 2011 Banner Elk Red and 2011 Marechal Foch (bronze).
In the Rosé/Blush Native American segment of the contest, Banner Elk took home gold for the 2011 High Country variety. The awards were handed out in October.
“I know a thing or two about making wine,” Wolfe said.
He’s not alone either. Since breaking ground on the south slopes of the High Country’s hills, wineries in Foscoe, Linville and Valle Crucis have emerged as venerable winemakers.
Since Wolfe and business partner Angelo Accetturo opened Banner Elk Winery in 2005, the winery has won an accolade every year for its mountain-grown varieties. Most recently, Wolfe entered seven different wines and won a medal for each at the North Carolina State Fair Wine Competition.
“It’s not just me, but other wineries that are getting the awards, too,” Wolfe said.
The 1861 Farmhouse in Valle Crucis brought home five medals from the state fair recently, building its already strong foundation for making quality wine.
The Farmhouse won double gold for its Dutch Creek entry, gold for the Red Porch wine in the Red Vinifera category and silver for the Border Shadow.
Of course, winning is just a great feeling, but it is humbling, too,” said Alison Garrett, co-owner of 1861 Farmhouse.
“We realize that were are in the company of so many great winemakers who are bringing recognition and credibility to the industry, and, in particular, to the state of North Carolina,” Garrett said. “These competitions highlight the work we are all doing in what is becoming an important part of North Carolina’s economy.”
Garrett said wine competitions can be subjective, and that’s something she has learned while also running a restaurant at the Farmhouse.
“With wine competitions, unlike the average restaurant diner, you are dealing with judges who are truly considered the connoisseurs — the experts in their field, with very refined palates,” Garrett said. “They have tasted thousands of wines, and they are experts in the structures, nuances and the detection of faults in wines. But again, still, taste is subjective, so you never really know how they are going to play out.”
Making wine, let alone growing grapes, is no small feat for a High Country winery. Unlike growers in the Piedmont or in California, where growers have the luxury of acres upon acres of flat or gently rolling landscape to grow a multitude of varieties, vineyards in the mountains have to be more creative and selective in the process.
“In the High Country, you have to grow on the south slopes, because it’s too cold to grow on the north,” Wolfe said. “You can’t grow on the valleys either. The frost makes it too difficult.”
There are some advantages, however, to growing in higher elevations and upon rockier terrain. Since growers can’t use large machines to the harvest the grapes, they must pick the varieties by hand. This affords them the opportunity to select the very best possible grape.
“The whole objective of this area should be quality over quantity,” Wolfe said.