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
At a quarter past 11 in the morning, a good-sized group is already sipping and swirling at Shelton Vineyards in Dobson, North Carolina. Short wineglasses marked with green crests line the long tasting bar, fingers loosely curled around the stems. On the opposite side of the bar, two women cock their heads to the side to better eyeball one-ounce pours. It’s early for drinking, but it’s Friday.
The tasters swirl their reds and whites in small, spastic circles. Glasses go up in unison. Slow, audible whiffs. Then, they sip. Some swish as they study. A younger employee, maybe in her early 20s, throws out terms like “unoaked,” while her middle-aged counterpart, a friendly Yadkin Valley native (“Y’all wanna try some wines?”), asks a couple if they taste “a touch of mocha.” They nod. A middle-aged blonde is sure she tastes blackberry.
Outside, long rows of grapevines dominate rolling Piedmont hills, a little more than an hour from Charlotte. Each variety of grape—Chardonnay, Viognier, Merlot—is labeled by an arched marker with an interlinked-S logo carved in the stone. Five Ss, representing five Shelton children. Up close, fragile leaves struggle to hold heavy grape clusters that will be picked and pressed soon. And up on a hill, two houses are dropped between rows of Riesling vines.
Shelton Vineyards started with the raise of an auction paddle. In 1994, Charlie Shelton, five years older than his brother Ed, bid on hundreds of acres of a defunct dairy farm left in bad shape. Rusted tractors and broken fences junked up the property, and Charlie knew it would take a lot of work to make anything of it. But his gut told him to make an offer, and he won.
Ed Shelton (left) and his brother, Charlie, run quite a business for a couple of "retired" people. Not only does Shelton Vineyards offer standout wines, it has one of the best restaurants around, Harvest Grill.
Today, 14 years after they entered the wine business, the brothers sit outside on the terrace of their 246-acre vineyard in the Yadkin Valley in short-sleeved dress shirts and slacks, looking back. Charlie, 78, remembers how he broke the news to his brother: “I said, ‘I hope you don’t mind; you have a half-interest in a foreclosed dairy farm.’”
Ed, 73, just smiles and lets his brother tell the story. He trusts he’ll get it right.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @virginiarbrown.