Just west of a main corridor in the town of Elkin is a gravel road that requires you to steer left at a fork in it.
The road suddenly opens into a hillside that boasts grapes of a vineyard that overlooks a clip that was once a working gristmill.
The center attraction of the Elkin Creek Winery and Vineyard is a tasting room, a superbly decorated room that doubles as its restaurant, filled with collectibles placed by its former and current owners. Most importantly, the location has a brick oven that’s only fired up on Sunday mornings.
“Can you smell the good stuff?” asked Jean Carter who was in town for Elkin’s annual pumpkin festival that was held in Elkin’s downtown section. Jean was sitting on the outside patio of the tasting room.
“I was down there, by the water. Someone took their pizza down there to eat. I wanted to snatch their plate,” laughed Jean. “My husband is down there. He’ll eventually come upstairs. We’re having pizza, you know.”
Richard Carter eventually made his way up after taking snapshots of the sitting area that contains porch chairs around a fire pit. Richard did not want to disconnect from his “Nikon moment” as he would like to call it.
“I can take a gazillion pictures of this spot,” said Richard. He was captivated by the picturesque view of where the property’s two creeks, the Elkin Creek and Grassy Creek, merge together. Add the old gristmill that is now the private residence of its owners, Jean had to call Richard three times to pry him away.
“I hear the pizza is good here,” said Richard. “Is that what you’re here for?”
Nick White, who doubles as the vineyard manager and chef, is mostly found inside the kitchen on Sundays preparing orders, tossing wood into a fire he created, rarely taking a breather.
It’s Sunday though at Elkin Creek. Most people know that Nick has the most pressure on him. Pizza is a huge demand to the Sunday crowd.
White is observed measuring the temperature of the oven’s
Laurel Gray Vineyards in Hamptonville isn’t content with having award-winning wines in its past. It’s expanding its operation to take a whole new fruit-based line of wine varieties thanks to its separate company, Yadkin Valley Wine Company.
Federal law allows wineries to have only one tasting room on their property. Luckily Laurel Gray and its cousin Yadkin Valley Wine are individually registered companies that happen to exist on the same property, allowing them to have two tasting rooms — one each.
Benny Myers, owner of Laurel Gray and Yadkin Valley Wine, is looking to use that fact to create a second tasting room to feature the new line of blueberry, pear and assorted fruit wines the company is producing. The idea stems from Benny’s wife Kim and the old fruit crates people would fill with fruit. Kim took that idea and inspired the “Fruit Crate Wines.”
One is called “Carolina Blue,” a blueberry wine. “Southern Belle” is peach-based. “Starstruck” is made from pears. “All that Rass” is a raspberry wine. There also will be a pomegranate wine.
Myers said the wine and the tasting room will be nothing like Laurel Gray. The wines are designed to cater to customers looking for fun wines that offer unique flavors they won’t find at the average winery.
The tasting room will be located behind Laurel Gray in Yadkin Valley Wine’s building. Eventually Myers plans to move Laurel Gray’s tasting room to Yadkin Valley and vice versa, using the smaller, 1930s milking parlor at Laurel Gray to house the fruit wines.
Myers said the plan is to have the tasting room up and running by mid-October.
Laurel Gray also is making its own brand of sauces. The line of Artisan Vinaigrette, Chocolate Cabernet, Crazy Bout Butts BBQ, and Chardonnay Caramel are available through the winery’s tasting room or online at laurelgraysauces.com.
Recipes also are available online to pair the sauces with the perfect selection of foods. Artisan Vinaigrette is great with fish, vegetables, pork, burgers, and with bread or salad. Chocolate Cabernet can be used on ice cream, cheesecake or fresh berries. Crazy Bout Butts BBQ is a molasses sauce perfect for pork, and Chardonnay Caramel is best with ice cream, cheesecake, apple pie, crepes, bread pudding, or whatever your imagination can think of.
All the sauces are gluten and preservative free.
Laurel Gray Vineyards is as much a picture of Yadkin County in 2013 as it is a prize-winning winery. It’s situated on Old Highway 421 on an old tobacco farm, ran by a retired R.J. Reynolds worker and his wife, produces some of the most awarding winning wines in the world, and owes it all to soil the rest of the country gets green with envy for.
Benny Myers and his wife Kim weren’t sure what they would do with the farmland when they bought it from Benny’s cousin in 1994, but there was no doubt they had to have the acreage. The farm was totally in tobacco at the time. He and his wife were in the Angus cattle business at the time, so purchasing the land made perfect sense.
Little did he and his wife know at the time that years of tobacco planting had prepped the soil for the perfect pH balance. Benny and Kim took classes at the viticulture department of Surry Community College to learn what to do about planting a vineyard. Benny said their instructors couldn’t believe the quality of the soil.
Almost exactly a neutral seven on the scale, the soil was far and away better than the local average of acidic 3.5-4. The Myers began planting their vineyard in 2003 on a two-acre patch of the farm and did not have to alter the soil at all, “just dig holes and put in the vines,” Benny said.
The first two wines that came out of the vineyard won gold medals at the Mid-Atlantic Wine Competition in Winston-Salem.
Benny said the two had planted the vineyard with the intent to sell the grapes, but the wine turned out so well they began looking at making their own wine. They expanded to a 10-acre vineyard and built their own winery and tasting room on the property. They produced about 3,000 cases of wine a year.
The wines have since won numerous awards both here in the U.S. and internationally. Benny displays a bottle of each winner inside the tasting room on a shelf over the serving bar, each wrapped in the medals they received.
But Benny doesn’t just create wine for the sake of medals. His main goal with each bottle is for the customer to take the wine home and savor it, preferably with a meal. Drawing on the customs of European connoisseurs, Benny tries to teach each customer to pair the French dinner wines the vineyard produces with the appropriate foods whenever possible. He says Europeans view wine as an additional food to their plate, not as a beverage all to itself.
If you want to buy a bottle or case you need to visit the tasting room at Laurel Gray. Benny is in the process of talking to restaurants to sell his wine, but currently the tasting room and the vineyard’s website are the only places to pick up the wine. Twenty-one and Main in Elkin serves a Merlot from Laurel Gray also.
The tasting room is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Sunday, the tasting room is open 1 to 5 p.m. The average number of visitors passing through the vineyard in the last three years is 12,000 annually, but this year’s wet weekends have hampered some from getting out to the winery.
Visitors also can join a wine club that meets at the vineyard twice a year. Members can pick wine up five times a year for a total of 10 bottles which Benny selects. Pairing recipes are included with the wines in a further effort to teach customers how to best enjoy the Laurel Gray products.
Laurel Gray makes the wines through a separate company it owns called the Yadkin Valley Wine Company, located on the property across a decorative pond from the tasting room. Laurel Gray owns it but pays to have their wine made there like any other company would. Myers brings in a wine maker to make wine, with the facility crushing the grapes and making the wine on site.
Myers works on the property himself to keep the operation running smoothly. He refuses to take a hands-off approach with his winning wines, choosing long hours and hard work over the ease of letting someone else manage the business.
Benny cuts the grass and tends the vineyard himself, further keeping himself immersed in the growth and success of Laurel Gray. He primarily oversees Yadkin Valley Wine and Kim oversees Laurel Gray’s tasting room. Between them they have grown the businesses into two powerhouses of the Yadkin Valley wine region, with more surprises and expansions always on the horizon.
Chuck Jones knows that when customers pick up a bottle of wine at Jones von Drehle Vineyards, it doesn’t matter if he likes the wine, but how the wine and customer connect with each other. The winery is located at 964 Old Railroad Grade Road in Thurmond. “We don’t sit around over here. Everyone has a part in this wonderful process. However, at some point it all comes together, especially when you look at your customer who just took a sip of a product you so carefully created and smiles in appreciation. That’s what it’s all about. Sure, we want them to buy wine, but the gratitude comes with that exact moment of their happiness.”
Work started at the winery six years ago. Two sisters casually chatting and navigating through the complexities of life had an idea. They wanted to start a business together.
According to Jones, Ronnie von Drehle expected the simplicity of a business, possibly a store, crafts, and selling items in that nature.
With the two sisters planning, Jones stepped into the conversation because he also had an idea — to build a vineyard.
“I just wanted a few acres where I could grow a few things,” said Jones while traveling on a golf cart during a behind the scenes tour of the vineyard. “I mentioned that I can grow the grapes. They can sell the wine.”
The plan gained momentum after the trio pulled in Ronnie’s husband, Raymond. The ambitious four went from a few acres of grapes to a 30-acre location.
“Forget a few bottles of wine. You see all of the workers harvesting? We’re producing about 10,000 cases of wine,” said Jones.
The Thurmond location was acquired in 2007. It’s conveniently located off Highway 21 just south of Stone Mountain State Park. A small sign straddles a wooden post and guides visitors to the vineyard, but unless you have GPS and if you drive too hastily, you can easily miss the sign.
According to Jones, the property was originally a cow pasture. It had a red barn. It had served its purpose to the property owners before him.
“We drove up and down the street. There was nothing here. Then something connected. Any other person would’ve said we were crazy. For a minute, they may have been right,” said Jones.
An undisclosed investment was made to build the vineyard. It required cleaning the land out, installing state-of-the-art irrigation infrastructure, but the process started.
“The construction of the winery didn’t happen until 2012. The entire process has been like watching a baby born leading all the way to its first steps. You watch the progress,” shared Jones as he glanced to his left to capture the view of the pond he built on the property.
“None of this matters without putting together the team of people. We have that team here at the vineyard,” he said.
Winemaker Dan Tallman stepped into the winery knowing his bosses needed to exemplify a major commitment to the industry. He was convinced.
“I can say that the process is easier because they make it easier. They appreciate what we do. They have great respect for the grape,” Tallman said while he was pouring a tasting of a Merlot to guests in the tasting room.
“Dan is involved from the beginning until the pour. From the second the grapes are picked, and right until they are taken to the winery, he’s involved,” said Jones.
During the harvesting, grapes were observed being hand picked. Within 15 minutes from the picking, the grapes were transported for processing.
“That’s a core value for us. We immediately get the grape in,” said Jones.
The tasting room is situated near the highest point of the vineyard overlooking acres of perfectly manicured land. The interior design is traditional in design of area vineyards, soft welcoming colors, ample seating, adequate parking, a patio that allows a more up close and personal view of the entire vineyard.
A typical pour includes all wines grown at the vineyard.
Estate-grown red wines are a 2012 Tempranillo. The wine is a grape of Spanish origin; its name means, the “early one.” It ripens with the Chardonnay and Viognier and is the first grape for the production of red wine to come off of the vineyard. The clones were harvested on Aug. 28, 2012, and field-blended.
Rock & Rail is a 2011 dark red. The complex fruit steeped with aromas of leather, cedar and spice during a tasting. Its a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot for added fruit and mouth feel. According to Jones who conducted the official pours, its perfectly paired with beef, venison, lamb, hard cheese. The wine is aged in a mixture of old and new oak aged for 15 months.
Estate-grown whites are popular.
The Barrel-Select Chardonnay occupies a beautiful hilltop planting in Block C of the vineyard. The soils are a sandy clay loam with embedded fractured rock. Initial fermentation began cold in stainless for 6 days before being transferred to French Oak barrels. The barrels were regularly stirred to invigorate the yeast and take benefit of yeast contact to integrate the finished wine. Add a barrel fermentation lasting an additional 20 days. The barrels were stirred during aging to enhance the complex contribution of the lees. The wine is oak aged for nine months.
Petit Manseng is interesting. It was fermented over a record breaking period of 36 days for the winery. According to Jones, Petit Manseng is a favorite of everyone. The wine was harvested on Sept. 11, 2012, and Sept. 26, 2012, to capture two different expressions of the fruit. One will smell fresh pears with hints of tropical fruit and citrus in the background. It’s a full bodied white wine with an alcohol level to rival most reds.
Other whites are a 2011 and 2012 Chardonnay and a 2012 Viognier.
The winery features a Rosa Dia Rosé and Dulcimer Rosé. The wines are light bodied and both notable summer wines for cool sipping, but both can be found being used throughout the year.
Three Old Railroad types of wine are available at the vineyard: Sweet Red, Blackberry, and Peach. The Sweet Red is a favorite, a nice berry fruit, predominantly blackberry with a touch of strawberry in the background. Hints of currants and dried cranberry are noticed as you breathe in deeply. The wine is a medium-bodied red wine with a hint of French Oak. A touch of sweetness is added to the wine that balances the fruit, making Old Railroad Sweet Red a very smooth red table wine. The wine is labeled “sweet,” but it only contains approximately 0.75 percent sugar, according to Jones.
Blackberry Wine is a dessert bottle with aromas of fresh blackberries. If you give it time, you may be reminded as if you’re eating a blackberry pie. Blackberries were bin-fermented whole, fermented for six days, pressed and cellared until bottling. Harvested over six weeks in the summer of 2012, each picking was flash frozen, eventually yielding a small harvest of 0.65 tons. The berries were hand-picked from a neighbor’s blackberry patch just across the road from the vineyard.
“I’d like to develop in time a major reception hall. That’s a process that will take time, but as you can see we have the land right here,” said Jones.
With weddings, corporate events, anniversaries on the horizon, the competitive side of Jones understands that expansion requires more than a building.
“This is a destination. We know the region is growing significantly through each vineyard that develops. We have the ability to be the next Napa Valley,” said Jones. “We can create additional jobs if economic development is connected with it.”
Jones indicated that this region can become more attractive to people, but you have to have a place for tourists to stay if you want them to make it a destination.
“Why do we want people to only pass through for a few hours? People spend more in our region if we can accommodate them and diversify what they can do when they’re here. If they stop and visit our vineyard, that’s great, but we want them to discover more of what this region has to offer.”