Most folks associate North Carolina’s agricultural history with a few clear-cut trades: cotton, hogs, and tobacco. Nestled in the soft curves and valleys between the foothills and the piedmont, the Yadkin River Valley traditionally adhered to those industries, specifically tobacco. Located just west of Carolina’s tobacco capital, Winston-Salem, the lush and fertile valley was home to a thriving tobacco industry for decades. But as cigarette manufacturing declined and tobacco production with it, the region began exploring other agricultural outlets. The surprising successor? Grapes.
Varieties of grapes that are native to North Carolina, sharply sweet fruits like scuppernong and muscadine, had flourished in the region for centuries. But the European wine grape Vitis vinifera had mixed response to the South’s soil. Growers had been trying it out for years, including Thomas Jefferson in the fields of Monticello in Virginia, to motley results. By the late twentieth century, however, viticultural research and development had manipulated the grape enough to make it conducive to central North Carolina’s climate, soil, and pests. With tobacco’s industry withering like its plants in a drought, farmers turned to the noble and ancient art of wine-making.
The rich valley proved to be the ideal location for grape-growing and wine-siring. Many experts compared the soil and sun to regions like France’s Burgundy and Italy’s piedmont and named it the best terroir in the state. Now over three dozen wineries and vineyards are scattered throughout the rolling hills of the Yadkin River Valley. These small to medium-sized wineries produce a range of wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Viognier. You’ll find bottles of sparkling wine, local and native breeds, and even a few sugary, sweet fruit varieties. The entire region has come to rely on and support the budding grape business; every month a different festival or event seems to take over the valley, from a Pumpkin Festival in the fall to BalloonFest and even Moonshine Rallies (honoring the region’s other native libation!).
The true testament to the Yadkin River Valley’s success as a wine region came in 2003, when the U.S. government named over one million acres in Surry, Yadkin, Wilkes, Davie, Davidson, and Forsyth counties as the Yadkin Valley American Viticulture Area—the first AVA in North Carolina. Five years later, in 2008, the Swan Creek AVA was assigned, the regions mingling to form a massive, accredited viticultural domain in the heart of North Carolina.
As the wine industry snaked like vines through the Yadkin Valley, so did another industry: tourism. Following the success of the region’s wineries and her accolades by wine connoisseurs and the government alike, it was only natural that locals and visitors would want to partake in those very vintages. The Yadkin Valley Wine Trail traces an arc across the center of the state, where tourists can take the country lanes from winery to winery on a warm Saturday afternoon, sampling some of the state’s best wines. What makes these vineyards and wineries so special, however, isn’t just their wines, it’s their devotion to their history.
Many of the most popular wineries throughout the River Valley have one delicate foot in the past, even as they embrace their wine-stained future. Brushy Mountain Winery, for example, holds its operations and tastings in the historic Harris Building in downtown Elkin. Their wines are names for local legends, hailing from historic moments like the Civil and Revolutionary Wars, and their labels were designed after the labels of cans of old Elkin Canning Co. Elkin Creek Vineyard is based in a century-old mill, while Grassy Creek Vineyard & Winery calls the historic Klondike Cabins & Farm home. In the early 1920’s, John Hanes of Hanes Hosiery purchased a one-room cabin on a thousand acres, and his brother-in-law (Thurmond Chatham of Chatham Manufacturing Co.) later began a dairy farm on the land that was rumored to produce the best chocolate milk in the country. Today the farm no longer produces chocolate milk, but a beverage just as delicious or more so, while the historic Klondike Cabins still stand.
Whether it’s tobacco or grapes, hogs or cotton, North Carolina’s devotion to agriculture and the simple acts of making always have, and always will, define her people. If you’re sipping scuppernong or biting bacon, savor that flavor a little longer and relish the storied history that made that moment possible.
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