Fruit of the loam

Shelton Vineyards is one reason North Carolina is growing a reputation for making fine wines.
By Frank Maley

In 1524, explorer Giovanni da Verrazano wrote in his log that the grapes he found growing along the Cape Fear River “without doubt would yield excellent wines.” A Tar Heel wine industry flourished from Colonial times, and from 1840 until the state voted itself dry in 1909, North Carolina led the nation in wine production. But this was the sweet vino of the native muscadine, not classic Old World wines from vinifera grapes. Neither European varietals nor French-American hybrids would grow here, the experts said: It rained too much, and the nights were too hot — they would succumb to fungi. It was not until the early 1970s that Jack and Lillian Kroustalis proved them wrong. Their Westbend Vineyards in Lewisville became one of the first in the state to make French-style wines.

Others followed, many in the foothills along the Yadkin River. The state’s wine industry took another big step toward regaining its reputation in 2003, when the region won federal recognition as an American viticultural area like Sonoma and Napa in California. Wines bearing the Yadkin Valley appellation must draw at least 85% of their content from grapes grown there. “It gives us an identity,” says George Denka, president of Shelton Vineyards, near Dobson. “It allows us, too, to form some alliances with other wineries from the region and market as a group.” But each winery is responsible for the quality of its product. It takes three years from the time vines are planted for them to produce and up to nine years to fully mature. By that standard, Shelton Vineyards is just a child. It was started in 1999 by Ed and Charlie Shelton, former owners of Charlotte-based Shelco, one of the state’s largest construction companies. Denka won’t discuss revenue, saying only that the Sheltons have invested “many millions.” With 200 acres under cultivation, it is the largest vinifera vineyard (though not the largest winery) in the state.

At harvest time in August and September, any of the 32 full-time employees might find themselves in the field, supplemented by as many as 60 seasonal workers who pick grapes for $1 a bucket. After the fruit is crushed and ready for fermentation, the temperature is stabilized between 50 and 60 degrees and yeast added to break down sugars into alcohol, carbon dioxide and heat. After fermentation — six days to three weeks — delicate white wines such as Riesling are chilled and bottled. Some wines from grapes harvested in August can be ready for sale as soon as December. The rest — about 75% of Shelton Vineyards’ annual output of about 25,000 12-bottle cases — is aged 12 to 14 months in 55-gallon oak barrels. After bottling, 60% of production will be sold through distributors to stores and restaurants. The rest is sold at the winery or through the vineyard’s wine club.

North Carolina ranked 12th in wine production in 2003. More than half the $30 million worth produced came from vinifera grapes. But the state is still better-known for its native varieties. To battle the stereotype, Shelton Vineyards tries to sway consumers through taste tests. Its wines often are chosen over better-known brands in blind tests, Denka says. But when the blindfolds come off and the same tasters sample them again, the better-known brands usually are chosen. “It proves the mind can override the palate,” Denka says. “It proves the power of marketing.”