According to the latest list issued by the North Carolina Wine & Grape Counsel, there are 89 wineries in the Tar Heel State. By last count, we’ve visited 54 of the current inventory and probably 10 or so that have come and gone in the last six or seven years. It’s a tough business for success, but being a vineyard/winery entrepreneur in North Carolina must have more positives than negatives because that list expands at a faster rate than it contracts.
Visiting wineries is one of my favorite pastimes. While wine and its production is a growing business in North Carolina, my preference is to frequent the smaller wineries where you get to know the owners, where you can take your time enjoying the various tasting room decors, where you can actually ask questions about their wine-making techniques and abilities and actually get answers, and where you can enjoy a sip or two of various tastings without being rushed because another group stands on the other side of the room, waiting to be rushed though the process.
A few years ago, by just mapping a strategy and sticking to the Yadkin Valley area, a self-made tour included 14 wineries in two days. To some that’s a lot, but when you plan your travels, starting with selections that open at 10 a.m. on a Friday and Saturday and ending at locations that close at 6 p.m., stopping at seven in a day is not hard to do. In most visits, the entire amount of wine tasted is about a glass full and no more than two. If you’re the primary driver, a taste is enough. What’s left goes into the spittoon.
Not ever small winery is small and not every large one is large. In other words, there are small facilities that produce a lot and have a “big time” look, feel and attitude. On the other hand, there are some larger facilities with huge acreage of vineyards branching away from the tasting room and winery, but the atmosphere is low-key, friendly and inviting.
One of those large but small is RayLen Vineyards & Winery located just north of Mocksville along North Carolina highway 158. Actually, RayLen borders both NC 158 and Interstate 40 (driving east, you can see the vineyards from the highway) between exits 174 and 180. When you turn off of NC 158 and onto the property, you’re confronted by beautiful vineyards, especially now that the leaves have sprouted. The rolling fields offer a calming setting. And, soon the winery and tasting room come into view. It looks large sitting among the vineyards but it’s small in comparison to other large wineries.
However, RayLen is not small when it comes to the wines it produces. It is a favorite winery because of one primary rating rule: From top to bottom, are the wines enjoyable. Likening it to rating a golf course where I include the question “would I enjoy playing the course every day,” I rate wineries with: Would I enjoy drinking any of their wines every day?
For Raylen, the answer is yes. From top to bottom, even the sweeter concoction Pale Red, a Rosé that’s fine in moderation. I’m just not a sweet wine drinker but with RayLen, I’ll go along with it because everything else is so very good.
Especially, Carolinius, a dry red that’s a blend of Cabernet Saivignon, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The experts at RayLen will tell you, and I’ll confirm for you, that Carolinius is good with everything. They’ll even tell you that Carolinius is a red wine that will help convert the determined white wine consumer to red, or to at least have a glass every now and then.
On the other hand, I’m not much of a white wine consumer, but RayLen’s Yadkin Gold, a blend of Riesling, Viognier and Pinot Grigio grapes moves me to have a glass of the blond colored nectar on occasion such as two nights ago when I drank half a bottle. And that may be because it’s semi-sweet and is easy to use as a substiutute for sweet tea.
There are three other blends on RayLen’s menu of 16 wines. Those are: Category 5, a more mature version of Carolinius; Eagle’s Select, a Meritage blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petite Verdot aged in oak for 18 months; and Sparkling Brut, a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Muscat Canelli. Category 5 is not only more full-bodied than Carolinius, it actually gets better with a bit more age. The Sparkling Brut is good for a small glass at that special moment or celebration.
The other selections at RayLen include Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Riesling, Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Franc (one of my favorite’s at RayLen) and Cabernet Sauvignon. And, it’s all good. But what’s even better, is the quaintness of the atmosphere and presentation.
RayLen is a great place to visit, tour, taste and learn. It doesn’t matter if you’re on your first visit to RayLen or if you’re a frequent visitor and a member of its Case Club or Wine Club because, when you’re there, your treated as if they want you back. It’s not like going to a theme park and being ushered in, waiting for a tour, and tasting with 20 others. The pours are just the right amount; the presentations are not rehearsed; there’s plenty of time for Q&A. They want you to really enjoy their experience.
I stopped by RayLen last week on my way home from a business trip—same travel during which I had lunch at the Surry Diner in Dobson—and brought home a case: 2 bottles of 2008 Barrel Chardonnay; 2 bottles of 2008 Yadkin Gold; 3 bottles of 2006 Carolinius; 1 bottle of 2006 Cabernet Franc; 2 bottles of 2007 Cabernet Franc; and, 2 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Making its first wine in 2000 and opening its tasting room in 2001, RayLen remains among the list of about 90 NC wineries, and from all indications, it’ll be there for a long time. It offers excellent wines with a very friendly touch. It’s not about big presentation at RayLen, ushering visitors through a tour in large groups and hurriedly pouring tastes to accommodate other visitors. RayLen is a very personable experience with their effort to convince you to return for the pure enjoyment of learning more about North Carolina wines and to encourage you to leave with several selections and return later for more of the same. Enjoy!
While at RayLen, I picked up North Carolina winepress, a magazine in its infancy with a dazzling appearance and a variety of information about wines and wineries in the Tar Heel State and other stuff related to NC wine. In the May/June issue as in every issue is a map of North Carolina wineries and a listing. To see it on-line, visit NCWinepress. Subscribing is nice, or pick up a copy on your next visit to a North Carolina Winery.
I’m declaring June as “Take a Bottle of North Carolina Wine To Dinner Month.” Some restaurants allow patrons to bring their own bottle of wine as long as it’s not one on the restaurant’s wine offering. So, when allowed, we always take a bottle or two or three (depending on the number of people in the group) of North Carolina wine. We make sure the owner/manager gets a look at the selection, and we encourage him/her to add North Carolina wine to the restaurant’s list.
It’s just our small effort to promote the North Carolina wine industry. So, in June, if you’re going out to dinner, call ahead and ask about bringing your own wine. A small corkage fee usually applies, but in many instances, when the food bill is significant, the wait person will not add it to the bill. A better tip may be in order. Just make sure your wine is North Carolina wine.