The Enth Degree

News and Notes from the World of Wine

From Smokes to Grapes

North Carolina's farmers hope that wine production will keep them out of the red.

Frank and Lenna Hobbs did not want their family's farmland, tilled for three generations in North Carolina's Yadkin Valley, to be plowed over for a Wal-Mart. When the tobacco market collapsed in the late 1990s, they looked for an alternative to the family's traditional crop. They wanted to remain farmers, and they needed a crop that would provide high cash value, like tobacco. They decided to plant vinifera grapes.
Today, the Hobbses are among dozens of tobacco farmers in the region who have planted grapes alongside their tobacco fields. They have even gone a step further and opened a winery, RagApple Lassie Vineyards, named for Frank's pet Holstein. RagApple Lassie was a finalist for the Wine Appreciation Guild's Best New Winery award in 2004 and is helping to fuel an economic resurgence in this rural corner of northwestern North Carolina known as the Piedmont Triangle.
That rebirth has been aided by North Carolina's funds from the national tobacco lawsuit settlement, with grants supporting grapegrowers and the area's nascent tourism industry. The federal government helped by according Yadkin Valley status as an American Viticultural Area in 2003. Successful entrepreneurs from the high-technology industries in North Carolina's Research Triangle have opened wineries and contracted with these growers in hopes of creating their own "wine country" nearby.
"We don't think tobacco's going away anytime soon, but the economy is in transition," said Valeria Lee, president of the Golden Leaf Foundation in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, which distributes the state's tobacco settlement funds to promote new economic development. "There are a number of farmers who are putting in vineyards to have an alternative crop and not be totally dependent on tobacco." To date, the The Golden Leaf Foundation has awarded $728,000 in grants for the wine industry, most of which funded Surry Community College's two-year viticultural degree program and its working winery.
Going from tobacco farming to grapegrowing has not been an easy transition for local farmers. Tobacco is an annual plant with a guaranteed crop. Planting grapes involves high up-front costs, as much as $20,000 per acre over the three years before harvesting the first crop. But as the Hobbses have found, growing grapes is a little more gratifying.
"You can watch [grapes] develop each day," Lenna Hobbs explained. "Frank's out talking to them every day to see if they need a drink of water or some pruning. Tobacco is just farming. It's more of a rote activity, doing what's necessary to grow the crop and keep the farm." The Yadkin Valley AVA stretches over six mostly rural counties northwest of Winston-Salem. Besides tobacco, the area was dependent economically on textiles and furniture manufacturing, two other industries that have been devastated by international competition. While the wine industry may not be able to provide new jobs for everyone affected by those losses, it has already created a positive ripple effect in the hospitality industry, as new restaurants, hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns open to cater to the weekend crowds. Those crowds should continue to grow following the last fall's opening of Childress Vineyards. Owned by famed NASCAR driver and team owner Richard Childress, a Winston-Salem native, the Tuscan-style winery (a similarly themed resort is under construction) has already started driving NASCAR fans to wine country.
Two years after opening RagApple Lassie Vineyards, the Hobbses now see about 500 people a week visiting their tasting room. Many are from Charlotte, Greensboro or Winston-Salem, "people who don't work weekends and have discretionary income," said Lenna Hobbs. Her tone betrayed a hint of rural mistrust for the urban, an inner regret, perhaps, that the Yadkin Valley's revitalization is dependent in part on the attention and money of outsiders.
Her mistrust was tempered, however, by the realization that tourism and the wine industry go hand in hand.
"There's something about looking out over vineyards that's more appealing than tobacco, soybeans or cotton," Mrs. Hobbs said.

— Dave McIntyre


Reserve-ations Only at Napa's Posh New Club

Got an extra $125,000 lying around? Then you, too, can become a member of California's most exclusive wine club, The Napa Valley Reserve. Created by Bill Harlan and his partners, TNVR is "a learning environment for those who love the land and the pleasures of the wine and food that are its gifts," according to the club's Web site,
The club's director, Philip Norfleet, says that more than 200 people have already forked over the hefty initiation fee, which is refundable on resignation. Members receive "rental rows" of red winegrapes in the TNVR's 50-acre vineyard, located near Harlan's Meadowood Resort, in St. Helena; members also become part of the winemaking process, to whatever degree of involvement that they want. "They can work with our winemaker, helping to choose the barrels, the ultimate blend of the wine, and the size of bottles," Norfleet said. Club members can even design their own labels.
The cost of a finished bottle of wine is about $50, a bargain for an upscale Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaking is directed by Harlan Estate's winemaker, Bob Levy.
Membership in TNVR also includes invitations to frequent seminars, wine and food pairings and other events, and use of the club's lavish headquarters.
The Reserve "is a wine club that aspires to be at a level in the same way as a golf club would aspire to be the Augusta National," said Levy.


— Steve Heimoff

From the WE Bookshelf

A Wine Journey Along the Russian River
In his new book, A Wine Journey Along the Russian River (University of California Press, $25), Wine Enthusiast West Coast Editor Steve Heimoff explores the Russian River Valley, from Alexander Valley to the Sonoma Coast, examining the area's history and culture, and the people who make wines here. As he follows the many twists of the Russian River, the central nervous system of the valley, Heimoff explains why certain wines thrive in certain areas and others have defied the odds through their very existence. His descriptions of the valley are colorful, and his analyses of the wines are vivid and helpful. But what the reader is most likely to come out remembering are the crazy characters that personify the Russian River Valley, and give life to the grapes that have become their labor of love.

The Best Recipes in the World
The Best Recipes in the World (Broadway, $30) is Mark Bittman's follow-up to the James Beard award-winning cookbook, How to Cook Everything. Like its predecessor, The Best Recipes in the World is ambitious: with over 1,000 recipes from all over the globe, it risks becoming an unfocused jumble. However, Bittman's belief that cooking and eating habits are universal functions to bring the countries' cultural traditions closer together. As he says, "Ingredients change, but technique does not. It's all basic." Bittman's approach allows even the novice chef a shot at expanding his horizons. Instead of noshing on the usual mixed nuts during cocktail hour, try crunchy chickpeas. Beef stew? Bittman provides 13 variations. Whatever your pleasure, chances are, this book has it. With most recipes designed to be done in 30 minutes or less, The Best Recipes in the World could become your daily dinner inspiration.

The Seasoning of a Chef: Diner to Ducasse and Beyond
The Seasoning of a Chef (Broadway, $25) guides us through one chef's journey into the restaurant industry's big leagues. Pegged the "anti-Anthony Bourdain," (Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential was a sometimes scathing look behind the scenes), Doug Psaltis relives his rise to success fueled by hard work, perseverance and sacrifice as opposed to Bourdain's frenetic passion and creative excess. The story begins on a cold winter's morning at his grandfather's diner in Queens as Psaltis doggedly hauls a bag of potatoes nearly heavier than himself. We follow the chef from his appointment as the first American chef of Alain Ducasse to his indoctrination at Thomas Keller's foodie Mecca, The French Laundry. Psaltis' book is perceptive and honest, and his writing style unaffected. The Seasoning of a Chef has all the right ingredients of a modern day tale of the American dream.
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