JW Ray moved to North Carolina with dreams of planting row upon row of his favorite grape, Pinot Noir. The weather had other plans.
“We get more rain in a day than California gets in a year,” explained the self-taught winemaker, showing me around JOLO Winery & Vineyards.
There are around three dozen, mostly boutique, wineries in the Yadkin Valley, which rises and dips across seven counties in the northwestern part of the state.
The area has a growing reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Unfortunately for Ray, it also has a reputation for high rainfall and humid summers – ideal conditions for grapes to rot on the vine. Delicate, thin-skinned Pinot Noir demands drier, cooler conditions.
“I spoke to other vineyard owners before we started planting, and some of them had ripped up Pinot Noir vines after several bad years,” said Ray, who sold his Florida software company to move here with wife Kristen and their two sons Joey and Logan, after whom the vineyard is named.
Ray’s consolation was the hardier French-American hybrid Chambourcin, fermented for Crimson Creek. The wine’s herby, subtly earthy aromas should please pinot fans. Other wines, including Golden Hallows, a crisp and elegant white blend, have garnered multiple awards since the winery opened in 2014.
But JOLO’s most beguiling wine – and its most storied – is Pilot Fog. Each sip of the velvety red is infused with centuries of U.S. history.
Photo courtesy of JOLO Vineyards
This is a taste of America’s forgotten grape, the rather unsexily-named Norton – sometimes referred to as Cynthiana, who sounds like the sort of girl Norton could only dream of dating.
Native grapes don’t have the best reputation, with American vines primarily planted for their resistance to destructive diseases. More highly prized European species, or Vitis vinifera, are grafted onto this rootstock.
But this wasn’t always the case.
Dr. Daniel Norton studied and grew different strains on his small farm near Richmond, Virginia in the early 1800s. The variety now named after him proved hardy and capable of producing big, bold, full-bodied reds with high acidity and a lovely, lingering finish.
Its reputation grew, as did plantings of the grape across Virginia, Arkansas and Missouri. It was, said Ray, the “Cabernet of the Ozarks,” for the mountain range that sprawls across these states.
Then came Prohibition, forcing growers to rip up their vines. Tobacco production took over, and winemaking – along with the native grape – was largely neglected.
Only in the last couple of decades, with the Yadkin Valley designated an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 2003, has the area been rebuilding its reputation for wine.
Now winemakers like Ray are proving that native grape varieties can hold their own.
Over the border in Middleburg, Virginia, Chrysalis Vineyards claims to have the biggest planting of Norton grapes in the world, having declared a commitment to restoring “the real American grape” to its former glory.
“Cloaked in myth and mystery for decades, Norton thrives in the mid-Atlantic and Midwestern regions, and produces a robust red wine with big fruit flavors that ages beautifully over the years,” says its website.
At JOLO, the winery’s 90 acres also include plantings of Vidal Blanc and Traminette.
After touring the barrelhouse and tasting room, I settled on the sunny terrace to taste Pilot Fog. A rich ruby in color, the wine has notes of ripe blueberry, warm spices and chocolate – like a comforting, wintry fruit crumble in a glass.
I was still clutching my glass as we jumped in a red pickup and rattled down dirt paths towards the family home, nestled in the valley beyond glassy Cox Lake.
This is where the Norton/Cynthiana grapes are grown. The wine is named after the shroud of morning fog that drifts down from Pilot Mountain, lingering longer in this part of the vineyard. The mountain dominates the landscape to the southeast, its craggy peak peeking above a thick forest overcoat.I was staying at the winery’s “Newlywed Chateau,” an adorable dusky-pink cottage with a wooden terrace jutting into woodland, and it was nearly time to say goodnight. But not before Ray topped up my glass, giving me one last, unforgettable taste of a grape America nearly forgot.