Take a journey through this blessed stretch between Lexington, North Carolina, and the Virginia state line, where the roots of two dozen boutique wineries reach deep into the rich soil. The French call the essence of their wine regions' soils and climates "terroir," but in these parts, we know it simply as good Tar Heel taste.
"The Yadkin Valley is like a treasure hunt," says Kim Myers of Laurel Gray Vineyards. "Each winery is as distinct as its owner's tastes." Some reside in plush châteaus with dozens of employees, while others are so small you meet the proprietors at the tastings. Welcoming first-timers and sophisticates alike, all the stops are hospitable.
To explore the Yadkin Valley, you need only a sense of adventure and a playful palate. Come with us as we sample, from the largest to the smallest. Note comments from our Foods and Travel staffs; we tasted an abundance to offer you our favorites.
Childress Vineyards: A Tuscan-style villa graces a hillside surrounded by neat rows of grapevines in Lexington. Owner Richard Childress (yes, of NASCAR fame) fell in love with California wines while racing there, and he became a vintner back home. It's a good place to start your spirited journey, especially if this is your first visit. Step up to the dark-wood bar, and choose from three tastings. From delectable sweets to a reserve merlot, talented winemaker Mark Friszolowski crafts something for everyone.
Shelton Vineyards: At the north end of the valley in Dobson, Shelton Vineyards boasts a gorgeous setting, complete with a babbling brook coursing under fall trees. Brothers Charlie and Ed Shelton converted this 400-acre former dairy farm into a gravity-flow winery in 1999 (it uses the incline of a hillside to move the juice and wine). There's a restaurant on site as well as a new Hampton Inn & Suites with a wine bar nearby at I-77.
Westbend Vineyards: As the oldest vineyard in the valley, Westbend, near Winston-Salem, started growing grapes in 1972 and helped smaller operations get their starts. Owner Lillian Kroustalis and winemaker Mark Terry continue to win awards. "We do custom-crush service for smaller wine producers," says Lillian. The rural setting, with a handsome patio and pavilion, invites you to linger after a tasting.
RayLen Vineyards and Winery: RayLen's 38 acres of grapes produce excellent estate wines. The red blends are the most popular, with the Category 5, a full Bordeaux-style, offering fine aging potential. Whites intrigue too, including the Yadkin Gold. The gift shop features furniture and accessories made from oak barrels at affordable prices.
RagApple Lassie Vineyards: The success of growing grapes enables Frank and Lenna Hobson to continue to plant corn, wheat, tobacco, and soybeans. Named for Frank's pet Holstein, this vineyard features agrarian architecture. Stairs in a silo lead down to the aging cellar, while guests stroll on a catwalk above the winemaking facility. An outdoor stage features concerts and folk art fairs throughout the year.
Raffaldini Vineyards: Save the airline ticket to Italy, and visit Raffaldini in the Swan Creek area of the Yadkin Valley. You'll meet a family that's been making wine for more than 650 years. Their tasting room opens onto a sunny deck and gardens with a stunning view of the Yadkin River beyond.
Hanover Park Vineyard: In a 1890s farmhouse in Yadkinville, two former art teachers live their dream. Amy and Michael Helton fell in love with winemaking on their 1996 honeymoon in France. Amy meets and greets, and Michael's paintings hang on the walls while he crafts the wine. This is the kind of place where plants grow out of bottles in sunlit windows, and shelves of balsamic vinaigrette and bread invite impromptu picnics.
Laurel Gray Vineyards: Benny and Kim Myers welcome you to the Swan Creek area to taste wine in a former milking parlor that is surrounded by a relaxing porch. As you sip, gaze at the view of Scarlet Mountain and a pond with cattails and ducks. Catch, too, the last rose blossoms before the frost settles on Benny's family's farm, dating to the 1700s.
Flint Hill Vineyards: Owners Tim and Brenda Doub added a tasting room to Tim's family's farmhouse where Brenda cultivates the surrounding vineyards. "My husband grew up in this house," she says. "His grandfather was a distiller here. We grow grapes to keep our farm alive." Sweet wine lovers adore their Old Yadkin. "My husband calls it a gossip wine. The more you drink, the more you gossip," she says. At press time, the Doubs had just added a restaurant called the Century Kitchen. If it's as good as their wines, we are in for a tasty meal.
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Elkin Creek Vineyard: Taste Mark Greene's wines with dinner at his restaurant, The Kitchen (the best in the valley). If you just want to sample, drop by the basement tasting room. It's the smallest winery, and Mark arguably occupies the smallest space. He sometimes sleeps in a teepee in a field nearby. Save time to explore his century-old mill too—one of the prettiest sights around.
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Bonus Pick—Grassy Creek Vineyard & Winery: On the north side of Elkin, Grassy Creek Vineyard & Winery gives new purpose to an old dairy farm. Two couples—the Douthits and the Rices—merge talents here. If the spirit's willing, you may blend your own barrel here for less than $5,000 (with advice from the winemaker). Your yield: 25 cases and visiting rights while it's being made. Add your own name and label—and live the dream of the Yadkin Valley.
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‘At Home on Elkin Creek’
Excerpt taken from ‘Wining and Dining’ by Ed Williams — Our State magazine, Sept. 2007
At 3:40 pm we climb gravel drive to Elkin Creek Vineyard, a mile outside Elkin. If you weren’t looking hard, you might miss it. Nonetheless, this vineyard-winery-restaurant has tongues wagging, so folks look hard.
We arrive at the vineyard with a few hours to relax before our dinner at the on-site restaurant, The Kitchen at Elkin Creek Restaurant, and it’s here that the surreal game of Wiffle Ball takes place. After the game, we leave Elkin Creek to locate our lodging — Frog Holler Cabins, two minutes away across Big Elkin Creek.
At the cabins, we enjoy wine on the deck overlooking the swirling eddies and waterfalls below. There is a hot tub here, but if we get in, we’ll never get out for dinner.
Our reservations are for 6:30 pm, but Elkin Creek’s owner, Mark Greene, has other plans for us when we arrive. He whisks us to a private tasting in a cool barrel room to sample wines influenced by Italian heritage.
We top off the Sangiovese — and off we go to Jolly Mill upon Greene’s invitation.
Jolly Mill, an early 1900s grain mill, today sits silent. Greene can point fondly to the spot where a dam once corralled the surging Big Elkin Creek waters heaving life into the mill. Photographs in this rambling haunt show kids frolicking in the waters that moved the mill that ground the grain that fed a hungry countryside.
Greene may be one of the last Renaissance men — a former banker and restaurant owner turned farmer-carpenter-entrepreneur, turned who-knows-what-else-next. He passionately embraces a today — and a yesteryear — he might trap, if not in a bottle, then in this dusty, musky, cobwebbed mill, where machines are lovingly labeled to tell how it all once shook, rattled and rolled. One day, I’ll ask why he stays in that tee under animal-skin rigs with his tom-tom and single-malt scotch. But that’s a tale for another day.
Returning to The Kitchen, we encounter an elderly woman sitting on the restaurant’s steps, gazing into the hillside vineyard. “You made the world a prettier place,” she tells Greene.
“That,” he confides, “is the greatest compliment I’ve ever been paid.”
The Kitchen’s menu is wildly eclectic. Usually, I’m embarrassingly un-adventuresome, but tonight I impulsively order honey-lacquered rabbit, with a starter of seafood ceviche.
Leslie waggles an eyebrow: “Raw shrimp? And then Thumper?” She starts with asparagus-truffle risotto, finishing with brick-oven chicken and succotash.
Chefs Jesse Williams and Robert Schriver are craftsmen. Waiter Hugh Hampton’s banter add to a revelry lubricated by Elkin Creek’s Pinot Grigio. When I look up, it’s 10 pm, and I’m not sure where the time’s gone.
Armed with a flashlight, we trek across the creek, the crisp night air inviting us to fire up our hot tub.
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North Carolina Wine Makers are Right on the Mark
By Ed Williams — Winston-Salem Journal
En route to visit two guys named Mark, a recent Yadkin Valley road trip seems at first a journey in juxtaposition.
But by day's end, I see two guys named Mark traveling the same road to discovery. What's old is new; what's new is old.
When we first meet, Mark Greene is perched on a slope, fiddling with vines. Visits to his tiny Elkin Creek Vineyard are by reservation only, but that doesn't stop the curious from creeping up a lonely, one-lane, gravel path to see what he has carved into a hillside outside of Elkin.
What Greene, who was formerly in the restaurant business, has quietly built - brick by brick, joist by beam, post by vine, all with his own two hands — awes visitors. His web site (www.elkincreekvineyard.com) doesn't do it justice. Nor words here.
The curious, hearing rumor and wild tale, simply appear. And Greene is welcoming.
No winery in North Carolina can boast the character and charm I find here, an ambience lovingly crafted by a curious man with such unbridled talent that you might fear it will be intimidating but instead find it inspiring.
The first floor and deck overlook a spirited creek and old grist mill and the guts of the wine-making below. The brick exterior comes courtesy of an old school-house demolition, and the cathedral ceiling looks as if it was built from timbers of the ark.
A spacious hospitality lobby area opens off the kitchen to one side. Open-fire brick ovens will provide the bread that will serve the guests who will drink the wine that will toast the winemaker who will, somehow, still be tinkering with the winery that Greene built.
On this day, he seems miffed when I infer that this opulent lobby is his "tasting room." So, I'm whisked downstairs past fermentation tanks and into the barrel room. There amid slumbering wine stands a slab of tree, sliced, sanded, laid on its side, resting across two upright barrels and serving as tasting bar.
In the dim light and cool temperatures, this simplicity seems only right from so humble and plain-spoken a winemaker.
And the Pinot Grigio and Barbera he taps from a steel tank on this day - and the Chardonnay he steals from a barrel with a wine thief — offer an equally inspiring glimpse into what he can achieve beyond all this bricklaying and woodworking and landscaping.
From five acres of vines planted in 2001, Greene figures to produce about 800 to 1,000 cases annually, much of it Italian-styled wines.
Maybe in April, some of the juice in the tank and barrel will find its way into bottles. Maybe by then, Elkin Creek will be ready by Greene's exacting standards and will open to the public.
For now, Greene hosts curious visitors with a wine thief in one hand and some very good wine in the other.
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Vineyard Cooking Up in Kitchen
By Lonnie Adamson, The Tribune, Elkin, NC
Fine dining while enjoying the experience of a vineyard is the idea behind The Kitchen at Elkin Creek. The Mediterranean-style restaurant will open next Thursday for lunch and dinner.
It is just the latest venture by Mark Greene, owner of Elkin Creek Vineyard, just over the Wilkes County line, off of Carter Mill Road on Elkin's north side. He also plans the public release of his first vintage on April 29.
The focal point and most unique aspect of the restaurant is the brick, woodfired oven, built by Greene himself. He learned about the oven and its use after studying ast a restaurant and bakery in Florida. He has been fine-tuning the process in his meticulous way since.
Key to uniqueness of the oven is the radiant heat it provides for cooking, the vineyards general manager and executive chef, Jesse Williams, said Thursday.
The radiance provides an even heat all around the dish being prepared, and the burning wood provides flavors you cant get with gas or electricity, he said.
Williams has an 11-year history of cooking for his brothers restaurant in New York and in different style restaurants in Florida and Mexico before coming to the Carolinas. He studied under several very good chefs in Asheville and Durham.
Williams said the restaurant will be serving the highest quality products, prepared consistently and with good service.
Breads prepared in the oven will be featured at dinner, along with pizza, some pasta dishes and braised meats, cooked with simple flavors. Hamburgers will also be offered.
For lunch, the kitchen will specialize in paninis, a pressed and grilled sand- wich with meats, mushrooms and scrumptious cheeses. A Sunday brunch will take a different twist with the likes of shrimp and grits, and Eggs Benedict.
Wine can accompany any meal, Williams said. Guests can choose the 50-person dining room or eat on the deck. They could also grab a sandwich and throw a blanket out on the grass or go down by the creek, Williams said. We want everyone to enjoy the surroundings.
The restaurant will serve a selection of eight international wines from France, Germany and Italy, some ranging up to $100 per bottle. We hope theirs come up to the quality of ours, Greene said. The Elkin Creek new releases Rossa, a blend, and Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sangiovese and Barbera will be the staples.
The restaurant will be open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. - 3 p.m. for lunch and 5:30 p.m. - 9 p.m. for dinner. Sunday brunch is 10:30 a.m. - 3 p.m.
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