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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Shelton Vineyards is in the middle of nowhere, and that’s the perfect backdrop for an escape from the city. Across the street from the winery, an old man bumps along a gently sloped lot.
He’s hunched over a John Deere mower, and as he rides, he rests his forearms on the steering wheel. It’s July, so sweat keeps his white undershirt drooped close to his chest. He hairpins in long rows, expressionless.
Twenty miles from the Virginia state line, the scene is a portrait of rural living: a tattered red barn against the Blue Ridge mountains, an old stave silo with a rusted cap on a working horse farm, ranch homes flying American flags. A few tobacco fields still grow nearby, their leafy plants lining parts of Twin Oaks Road. But at the intersection of Cabernet Lane, things change.
Just off Exit 93 from Interstate 77, about 85 miles north of Charlotte, there are no pedicabs to dodge, no traffic pileups, no sirens. Just slow country roads—and a lot of grapes. The winery’s iron gate, marked with a golden S, stands ajar, beckoning you to take the winding drive past rows of sinuous grapevines, each row garnished with a rose bush. These plants warn of disease up to two weeks earlier than it would show up on the vines.
Inside the 33,000-square-foot winery building, wine-themed knickknacks like sequined T-shirts (“Love the wine you’re with”) and designer dinner-party napkins stock gift-shop displays. In the tasting room, you’ll likely come across some folks from Charlotte and some out-of-towners. Those who aren’t from North Carolina will be from places like Ohio and Pennsylvania—Rust Belt states. “We must be about halfway to wherever they’re going,” Ed says. It’s a convenient, unintentional marketing strategy.
At the tasting bar, pay $5 to sample five of about a dozen wine options. Ask for Angela. She’s been at Shelton for seven years, and she’s a Surry County native. She can tell you all about the county, pre-wine. She’ll ask if you get the hint of ripe pear in the unoaked Bin 17 Chardonnay. Or the spicy cigar-box aromas in the Estate Merlot. If you ask nicely, she might let you try one of the reserve wines, like the Two-Five-Nine, a name, she’ll explain, that represents two Shelton families, five children, and nine grandchildren.
She also gives great winery tours. If you’re interested in the wine-making process, or in meeting winemaker Gill Giese, take her up on it. She’ll warn you that there are quite a few stairs and guide you through the story of the vineyard—the brothers’ history plus bonuses like the display case of their mother’s thimbles, and Charlie’s collection of hand-painted Hantel figurines. Old family photos line the walls on the way to the storage facility where the massive steel wine tanks fill up a warehouse.
The most impressive part of the tour comes with the “cave room.” That’s what Angela calls it. This dark, dungeon-like room stores the casks of wine that people have purchased through the barrel-adoption plan: They'll mail you a case of your barrel’s wine for four years, then you keep the barrel. You get to name it, too. An enormous, antique barrel from Germany stands in the corner, opposite a ledger where owners log their cask names: “Lil’ P” and “Honeybee & Butterbean 2012.”
Make sure you stop in the restaurant, Harvest Grill, just up the walkway from the winery. Chef Paul Lange prepares anything from microgreen salads with toasted pumpkin seeds to cornmeal-dusted North Carolina rainbow trout garnished with tomato relish and a kind of gourmet-style pork rind. The bonus: a bacon-and-deviled-egg potato salad. Order a glass of Riesling, one of the winery’s most popular wines, or, if you’d rather a red, go for the Madison Lee, named for the Sheltons’ grandfathers’ middle names.
Then head outside and breathe in the fresh foothills air. Dangle your legs from a tall Adirondack-like chair and rest along the edge of the lake. A small stream bubbles in from the left, while lazy weeping-willow branches droop in the water, barely grazing the surface. Watch them gently drag with the breeze. There’s very little else to do today. And that’s the point.
Take a sip of your local wine and glance over your right shoulder. Up on the hill, you’ll see Charlie’s and Ed’s houses, side by side.
Virginia Brown is an associate editor at this magazine. Reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @virginiarbrown.