Wine Country: Shelton Vineyards
An area once ruled by purveyors of tobacco now beckons wine lovers as an American Viticultural Area destination. Shelton Vineyards leads the way
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The Sheltons, fun-loving brothers who made their names in Charlotte construction, were raised in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, the quaint-turned-Hollywood-quaint home of Andy Griffith. Their mother was a homemaker who sometimes helped in the town’s flower shop. She collected thimbles. (Her collection is displayed in a curio cabinet at the winery today.) Their father was a barber in town. And every summer, the young boys helped out on their grandfather’s tobacco farm.
“I remember we had to get up really early to milk the cow,” Ed says.
“Cows,” Charlie interjects, stressing the plural with a long Z sound. “We had several cows.”
“But only one at a time,” Ed adds with a chuckle. The brothers don’t bicker; they banter. “We grew all sorts of things. Charlie grew cabbage once.”
A golden S marks the entrance to the vineyard.
“I was a tenant farmer,” Charlie says with a laugh. His slow drawl makes all of his Rs sound like “ahs.”
“When we were fooling around with tobacco, you could make 25 cents an hour,” Charlie says. “But I’d give anything in the world not to do it again.” After high school, Charlie was set to attend North Carolina State University. But before even attending a class, he asked for his tuition deposit back and used that cash to start building his first house. Several years later, Ed tried a stint at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk. Then he got kicked out. “I just didn’t have the grades,” he shrugs, as if to say, I turned out all right. When that happened, Charlie asked his brother to join him in the homebuilding business, and Ed obliged. He trusted his brother’s gut.
“[Our parents] always told us we could do whatever we wanted to do,” Ed says. Nothing was out of reach. So they borrowed $2,000 from their folks and started Fortis Homes in Stokes County in 1962. There, Fortis grew into a successful residential company. They dabbled in a few other companies before moving to Winston-Salem and starting Shelco, a commercial development and construction company. By 1991, they had packed up the headquarters and moved it to Charlotte from Forsyth County. “Charlotte would just give our young people much better opportunities,” Charlie says.
While in Charlotte, Shelco developed the Morrocroft Harris Teeter—the brothers’ neighborhood grocery store—as well as the Hearst tower and the Odell building uptown. In all, they estimate around $400 million or so in Charlotte building projects. Eventually, Shelco expanded to multiple offices, from Raleigh to Hilton Head, S.C.
Years later, Charlie was relaxing, watching a basketball tournament. University of California Davis was playing and he saw a promotion for the school's viticultural program. It got him thinking about growing grapes in North Carolina and inspired dreams of farming back home: How successful would the Piedmont be in growing grapes? Until recently, that land had been mostly filled with tobacco farms, but the national push against smoking left some farmers looking for other options. Plus, Charlie says he knew his home county could use some jobs. The brothers had no plans to retire but were approaching “that age,” so in 1999, they transformed their farmland to start a vineyard. In 2004, they sold Shelco, looking for a change of scenery from Charlotte, a slower pace.
Now, just up the hill from the patio of the winery they’ve built, their two houses are about a football field apart. “We’ve always lived side by side,” Charlie says. Ed glances down, nods, then adds: “It’s because our mom told him to look after me.”
Grapes grew along the east coast of North Carolina nearly a century before early settlers planted tobacco. In the mid-16th century, explorers discovered the state’s native muscadine varietal—Scuppernong—growing in the Cape Fear River Valley. Scuppernong grapes yield sweet wines, like Duplin's "Scuppernong Blush" (you’ve probably seen the Hatteras-and-gull labels in Harris Teeter), sold around Charlotte. They’re the nation’s oldest cultivated wine grape and North Carolina’s state fruit.
The first mention of grapes growing near the coast is found in French explorer Giovanni da Verrazano’s logbook, in which he wrote that he saw “many vines growing naturally there that without doubt would yield excellent wines.” Muscadine grapes do thrive along the hot, sandy coastal plain, and eventually people started trying to cash in on the native crop. The state’s first commercial winery, Medoc Vineyard, opened in 1835 in Halifax County. In 20 more years, North Carolina had 25 wineries.
About 300 miles west, the Yadkin Valley’s first winery, Westbend Vineyards, wasn’t opened until 1972. Earlier attempts to grow Vitis vinifera—the kinds of grapes that have grown for centuries in Europe—in the Southeast varied in success. Thomas Jefferson tried to grow them in southern Virginia. They grew, but it was a difficult process. But Jack Kroustalis, founder of Westbend Vineyards in Lewisville, was able to stray from the common coastal practices and cultivate Vitis vinifera grapes in the Yadkin
River Valley, an area with similar weather patterns and climate to parts of France.
The Yadkin Valley spans 1.1 million acres, an area slightly larger than the Grand Canyon National Park, and includes parts of seven counties. Dozens of vineyards dot the countryside now, growing everything from Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to Sangiovese and Syrah. And recent decades of research, including a viticulture and enology program at Surry Community College—which the Shelton brothers helped launch—have improved the knowledge about growing these types of grapes in nonnative soil. Viticulture courses help perfect grape-growing techniques in the Piedmont soil, which is much deeper and more medium-textured than coastal soil. That takes time.
The biggest challenge, Charlie says, has been “convincing the people of North Carolina that we can make a good wine.”
For two years, the Shelton brothers pushed a petition to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that, in 2003, led to the Yadkin Valley’s classification as an American Viticultural Area—just like Napa Valley. Ten years later, the Yadkin Valley’s reputation for European-style wines continues to grow. And the industry has done a lot for the local economy. The North Carolina Wine and Grape Council released a report a couple of years ago stating that the wine industry supported nearly 7,600 jobs in 2009. In Surry County, Charlie says, one of the only alternatives is working in a chicken-processing plant. Wine also contributed $1.28 billion to the state’s economy, and all told, 1.26 million wine tourists spent nearly $156 million in North Carolina that year.
Today, the state claims more than 400 vineyards and 100 wineries, and it’s one of the most diverse grape-growing regions in the world.