Sip and Savor Local FlavorOct 01, 2014 02:42PM ● By Jason Huddle
When Cabarrus County voters passed liquor-by-the-drink in 1994, they opened the door for local restaurants to add quality wines to their menu and nightspot patrons to enjoy a glass of wine while out.
Alan Bishop, vice-president of operations at Union Street Bistro in historic downtown Concord, says that wine accounts for about 70 percent of the restaurant’s total alcohol sales. Most of this is in-house since its catering customers often supply their own alcohol.
The Tuscan Bistro Bar was added in 2007 in the space adjacent to the restaurant where the wines requested by patrons are 60 to 65 percent white varieties and 30 to 35 percent reds.
“With the exception of a few local wines from Dennis Vineyards – we carry six to eight bins of Dennis Vineyards wines – our entire wine list is ‘non-retail,’ so you won’t find them in stores,” Bishop says. “Our house wine is Sycamore Lane and we carry a wide range of brands.”
Aiding Bishop and Executive Chef Skyler Bailes (front cover) in their selection of wines is Kelsey Brown, a local wine rep that has been providing Union Street Bistro with wine since July 2013. In that time, she has seen a rise in domestic products. While she views Napa Valley as the largest wine source in the U.S., it’s followed by Washington and Oregon, which are continuing to experience growth.
Still, North Carolina continues to make its mark. “In the past five years, we have seen an increase of small, locally-owned vineyards,” Brown says. “The most desired wine locally is Muscadine. Due to our climate, the Muscadine varietal is the most successfully produced.
“North Carolinians are very devoted to supporting local business. We are fortunate to have the environment to produce great wines in North Carolina. The most desired North Carolina brands would be Ray Len, Duplin and Dennis Vineyards.”
Dennis Vineyards, a true success story and located in Albemarle, is riding the tide of local customer loyalty and the popularity of Muscadine wines. Producing 100,000 bottles just a couple of years ago, Dennis bottled 270,000 in its most current vintage…at capacity for their winery.
Now in various supermarkets and shops all over the state, their harvests have expanded from Carlos, Noble and Ison Muscadines to purchasing Vinifera for the production of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. They also produce various fruit and berry wines, and blends.
Rocky River Vineyards, located in Midland, also grows Muscadines and, like Dennis, produces dry varietals like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot blend. A recent coup is their becoming an approved wine vendor for Harris Teeter – their wines can be found in those stores regionally. And if you’d like a wine tasting combined with art and music, Rocky River Vineyards’ Fall Festival is being held November 1.
Cougar Run Winery is the new kid on the block, approaching winemaking a little differently than Rocky River or Dennis. For one, Tom and Deb Filkins started out nearly two years ago predominantly selling winemaking supplies from their location on Church Street in Concord. A couple of months later, they introduced handcrafted wines to customers.
Another difference? “Sweet wines will keep us in business,” Deb Filkins says, “but we use no Muscadines.”
Instead, Tom Filkins – who serves as vintner – sweetens wines like Cianti or Muscato. He also creates three- and ten-blend red wines. “You choose your wines to make a meritage, but you have to pick the best wines before you blend them,” Filkins says. “Tom makes some impressive reds. He doesn’t make as much (as whites), but what he does make are things people don’t get. It’s odd to get a Barbera. They go out the door because they’re unusual.”
Besides Merlot, Vieux Chateau du Roi, Gewurztraminer and Riesling – with names like Predator, Blue Ridge Road Trip, Full Moon and Birch Bark – Cougar Run offers hard lemonade and limeade, and fruit wines – like a raspberry Zinfandel called The Cat’s Meow.
Small wineries like Cougar Run are categorized as boutique wineries. They produce smaller batches of wine, which, in turn, creates more intimate relationships with customers.
“The people working at a boutique winery tend to have a great deal of passion and pride concerning their wines and are intensely knowledgeable about them,” bountyhunterwine.com says. “They often view making wine as an art more than as a business.”
Business is definitely good because, in response to North Carolina’s love of the grape – whatever variety it might be – Visit N.C. says, “In celebration of the state’s growing wine and grape industry, Governor Pat McCrory has proclaimed September as North Carolina Wine and Grape Month.
“ ‘The state’s wine and grape industry has grown significantly in recent years. It now employs more than 7,600 workers and has an economic impact of nearly $1.3 billion,’ N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler says. ‘We look forward to seeing it grow even more in the coming years.’ ”
“In my field, I am learning every day. Every day there is a new brand, blend and trend,” Brown adds. That’s good news for the wine lovers of Cabarrus County.