Sunday, January 15, 2012

How long does an open bottle of wine last?

An avid reader of Actions and Reactions recently said he really enjoys when I pen about travels, especially in North Carolina, especially about stops at wineries and interesting places to dine. So, a couple of weeks ago, my wife, Nancy, and I set out on an overnight excursion, heading east on highway US 70. We had in mind a one night stay in Atlantic Beach in early January.

Our journey included two North Carolina wineries—both unknown to us though we can document exploring over 60 of the more than 100 wineries here—near the coast, watching the sunset at Harkers Island, enjoying two meals at the Ruddy Duck Tavern in Morehead City, and walking along the beach and through the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. We encountered interesting people and returned to Cary with some funny stories and some so-so wine.

Wine Selections At Lake Road Winery
It was about 11 a.m. on Friday, January 6 when we hit the road. Jill, our trusty GPS system, explained the drive to Lake Road Winery in Newport NC, would take about three hours. Jill, with a mind of her own, sometimes doesn’t get the directions correct, but she is usually spot on with travel time. After a stop for lunch at a Chick-fil-A in New Bern, we soon turned right off of US 70 and took off down a winding Lake Road, south and west of Havelock.

The proprietor and wine-maker, Mitchell Smith, was sitting at his desk, working on financials, completing reports for the federal and state governments. We didn’t want to interrupt his train of thought but he was excited to have a couple of visitors. “I’m tired of this stuff anyway,” he said, inviting us to join him at the tasting bar. “I’ve got to do that bookkeeping work twice. The feds require reporting by the gallon and the State requires it by the liters. It’s not surprising the two aren’t the same, but it makes me do a lot of figuring.”

For the next 75 minutes, Nancy and I tasted Lake Road Winery’s wines and enjoyed Mitchell Smith’s wit and wisdom about his venture that began in 2009. His wine is just okay, a mixture of the dry whites and reds along with sweet wines of the muscadine and fruit. His humor was dry and sweet.

“I was asked once ‘How long does an open bottle of wine last?’” Mitchell Smith came forth, explaining that he opens many bottles for tasting and sometimes finds visitors few and far between. It’s the red wines, left out on the counter but corked after opening, with which he’s most concerned. The drier wines such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Viognier are his favorites. He also enjoys blended wines and offers one: Croatan, a Bordeaux style that mixes Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. He came up with Croatan one evening at home, after pouring samples a particular Saturday afternoon. Since Lake Road Winery is open only Wednesday-Saturday, he gathered the opened bottles and carried them home. Shortly thereafter, the leftover reds were combined for his pleasure and a blend was born.

Mitchell Smith, who relies on advice from winemakers throughout NCs Yadkin Valley, doesn’t have any vineyards. He buys his grapes from North Carolina vineyards, and he crafts his wine on site. Most of his time is spent developing the dry varietals and not so much when it comes to wine made with muscadine grapes.“Muscadine,” he said, “that wine pretty much makes itself. You can’t mess it up.”

We made a small purchase, a bottle of Croatan, Viognier, and, though we are not sweet wine consumers, Rose Marie, described in his literature and on his website as “a sweet blend of red and white muscadine grapes produce a beautiful rosé color and a fruity and unique taste.” The Viognier didn’t make it back to Cary. It was pretty good later that evening as we toasted our trip with it using paper cups at the Hampton Inn& Suites in Salter Path.

We travel with no agenda, taking the roads less traveled and finding ourselves in places to which we have never been. From the Lake Road Winery, we made our way to and through Morehead City and then through Beaufort, continuing along rural eastern NC, in an area with many fishing villages. Eventually, we crossed the North River and turned right onto Harkers Island Road, leading us to Harkers Island, very unfamiliar territory.

We saw a mixture of pricy homes along with many shacks. In early January, there’s seemed to be not much happening. We drove and drove and drove to the end of the Island and eventually into Federal Park land and to where the Harkers Island Cape Lookout Ferry would have taken us to Cape Lookout if it had been running and if time permitted. With neither available, we found a spot from which to watch the sunset.
Sunset At Harkers Island

In the distance the lighthouse at Cape Lookout was on the horizon. We watched seagulls swoop across the water of the Atlantic Ocean looking for dinner. Sometimes, along the Atlantic coast, it’s easy to lose one’s bearings. Watching the sunset into the ocean on the east coast may seem odd, but that area of North Carolina’s coast runs East-West, and at that time of year, the sun dips right into the Atlantic late in the afternoon. It was beautiful and romantic.

Back-tracking was intended and enjoyable as we reviewed the day and glanced at Beaufort and Morehead City as we approached from the east. We drove across the Atlantic Beach Bridge, turning south on NC Highway 58 as we looked for the Hampton Inn. The drive across the bridge gave us another impressive site as darkness was settling in and a few lights along the coast popped on. The temperatures were pleasant, but we were one couple of a few taking advantage of low rates and peaceful settings. There was plenty of room at the Hampton as we arrived without a reservation and were able to check in immediately.

After tasting the Viognier, we were off to find dinner, looking for seafood. We considered several spots but decided to keep looking after we found restaurants on Atlantic Beach and in Morehead City with few patrons. Eventually we stumbled onto the Morehead City waterfront and Evans Street where we noticed a constant flow of people going into and coming out of the Ruddy Duck Tavern. That must be the place to eat, we decided.

It was the right choice for food and atmosphere if you enjoy a crowded and lively Friday night restaurant. The wait was about 45 minutes and we found two seats at the bar to pass the time. That’s where we found the entertainment. It came in the form of three women—late 40s, early 50s—who the female bartender described as “my three Friday night cougars.” Those women—all of dark roots and different shades of dirty blonde hair, all with the same haircut—seemed to be there with one man who was so attention deprived that he got loud and into the business of nearly everyone within earshot and some outside that distance.

We love to watch people, and we’re sure others are watching us, but we had a good time and, with the help of the bartender, we were seated in less time than we expected. Dinner included two tasty dishes: Fish Tacos made with substantial, fried flounder bites; and, the Asian special, fried shrimp tossed in a Thai Chili sauce and spread across a bed of rice and crunchy green beans. Both were delicious.

We enjoyed dinner so much that we returned Saturday for lunch. The atmosphere was a little less active but the place was packed by 12:30 that afternoon. We had one bowl of tomato bisque (average), Cajun Fish bites—substantial cuts of rock fish dusted in Cajun spices and fried—and a fried mahi-mahi sandwich. The fish bites and the sandwich gave us another delicious meal at the Ruddy Duck Tavern, which seems to want to fry all of its fish selections.

Saturday morning, after a cup of coffee, we walked for an hour on the treadmills at the hotel, waiting for the temperature to rise before taking a leisurely stroll across Highway 58 to the beach and to within a few feet of the waves as the water splashed about. We examined a few jelly fish and enjoyed the peace and serenity of the early morning sun and the cool breezes coming from the Atlantic Ocean.
Sunrise At Pine Knoll Shores

We made our way back to the hotel—which backs up to the Country Club of Crystal Coast—to clean up, dress, have a little breakfast, check out, and explore the area, especially the North Carolina Aquarium just a mile or so away. Our room faced the golf course, another nice and peaceful setting as far as I’m concerned. I pushed back the curtains and gazed at the links below, thinking about playing. A few golfers made their way from tee to green and to the next tee. I noticed a single, a man, driving his cart from a green to the next tee. As he got out of his cart and headed towards his clubs (I thought he would selected a driver for the next shot), he went past the cart and walked towards a wooded area, moving close to a tree, and proceeded to do what men do on the golf course when no facilities are available and Mother Nature calls. You figure it out.

After leaving the hotel, we went to the Ruddy Duck Tavern for lunch. Then it was back across the bridge to Atlantic Beach. We turned left on East Fort Macon Road, drove through Fort Macon State Park, past the United States Coast Guard Base at that end of the island and a little further before turning around with the North Carolina Aquarium our next stop.

North Carolina has three aquariums: Pine Knoll Shores, Fort Fisher at Kure Beach, and on Roanoke Island. It was our first visit to any. It was a wonderful adventure of water life in North Carolina, taking you on a tour from the mountains to the piedmont to the coastal plains, taking you through tidal waters and the ocean. A really cool exhibit is the living shipwreck fish tank with sharks, a Moray eel and many other sea creatures. Soon after we arrived at that part of the walk-through exhibit, four scuba divers entered the tank, joining the fish including the sharks.

A sign nearby explained the fish in the tank, especially the sharks, were fed regularly so the scuba divers, who swam close to the bottom, were not threatened by the sharks. The divers each carried a metal pole about four feet long for protection, I’m sure. The divers swam together, making their way all over the tank, the largest of its kind along the United States East Coast, with the trailing diver always looking back and overhead for any dangerous activity. That day was a good day to be at the Aquarium. Small attendance and it was fun to watch the children in amazement of what they saw. We also were amazed.

We soon continued west on highway 58, traveling through Salter Path, Indian Beach and Emerald Isle, stopping one more time to enjoy a walk on the sandy shore before we exited the coastline and made our way through Cape Carteret, Swansboro, Camp Lejeune, Jacksonville and Richland. It looked as if we would take US Highway 258 to Kinston and home, but the turn to Huffman Vineyards and Winery soon confronted us.

The vineyard of muscadine grapes and winery are on Haw Branch Road; the winery is inside the Mirey Creek gift shop. It’s all a family affair. The mother of Lee Huffman, the winemaker, owns the gift shop that’s been there much longer than the winery. Lee’s sister and mother help out in the winery tasting room. Behind the tasting bar is a beautiful mural created by Lee’s mother, a very talented artist.
Mural Behind Tasting Bar at Huffman Vineyards and Winery

The wines at Huffman are dry to semi-sweet to sweet. On the dry end are Riesling, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, all made from grapes obtained from somewhere else. The semi-sweets include Riesling; Muscat; a blend of blueberries and Pinot Noir; blackberry; and a blend of all the grapes grown on site, mostly the muscadine variety. It’s called Irene: (Emergency Blend!). As Hurricane Irene headed toward North Carolina, either all the grapes on the vines had to be picked or lost. Lee’s mother picked them all which were then pressed for juice and blended to make one wine. The description on the tasting sheet says: Light bodied, mineral undertones with a lingering red delicious finish. Sure enough, even with all those muscadine grapes, it tasted as if eating a red delicious apple. The sweet wines are fruit wines.

The winery and the winemaker are young. The presentation was nice; the gift shop is interesting and full of locally crafted items. The wines are a long way from developing into something good, but they are tasty. We left with a bottle of Irene, Summer Nights (blueberry pinot), Glenn’s Creek (Zinfandel), and Mirey Creek Red (Cabernet Sauvignon). It you’re collecting North Carolina wineries, Huffman is an interesting stop.

Taking Haw Branch Road to highway 24 and then to Interstate 40, we made it back home before 8:00 p.m. It was an interesting trip with lots of activities in less than 33 hours. Knowing that avid reader who enjoys this content of my blog, I’m sure he enjoyed this one and relates to it, especially the whole idea of enjoying the North Carolina coast.

By the way, remember Mitchell Smith at the Lake Road Winery in Newport. He’s the one who said, “I was asked once ‘How long does an open bottle of wine last?” Well, he had an answer for us, one we already knew but one that’s worth repeating.“About 45 minutes,” Mitchell Smith said with a sly grin.

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