wine: A New Crop 

A state-of-the-art, $20 million winery has popped up in the unlikeliest of places.

Shawn McRitchie is general manager and head vineyard guru. His father, Dr. Bob, heads up their viticulture school at the local college, teaching the local tobacco farmers how to plant and grow grapes. If you are going to grow grapes in the East it pays to bring in the pros. Both McRitchies have several combined decades of experience in Oregon. It doesn't get any better than that.

Their resident vines present all of the problem children that take special care in the East: merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet sauvignon and viognier. Only chardonnay gives you a little rest. An education program for growing these difficult grapes will pay huge dividends.

The Shelton brothers come across as folksy, making sure I knew that the family originated in Rural Retreat, Va. Charlie says with a half-chuckle, "We don't go in much for plans, we just get up in the morning and do what we do." What they are doing is setting out to transform a region and way of life, while maintaining both its integrity and roots.

As 30,000-to-50,000-case wineries go this one is state of the art. Every last piece of equipment is of the best quality. The most telling thing is the carefully laid-out room for expansion. There are at present 22 wineries in North Carolina with 800 acres in grapes; the Sheltons own 200 of them. They are planning to add a lot more acreage as their training program reaches maturity.

The Oregon connection is strong, with their consulting winemaker Ken Bernards a veteran of both Oregon and California wineries. After trooping all over the vineyard and winery, my feet are tired; it's time to sit down and taste this stuff and see if they're for real.

It's one thing to talk like a top winery and yet another to compare your work in the glass with some serious competition. As a tough, grizzled wine judge, I find this my equivalent of crunch time. First, the Shelton Vineyards Chardonnay, North Carolina, 2000, $18.99. In a blind tasting, it easily bested their two California rivals. This is mature winemaking, a wine with wonderful expansive fruit and oak balance. I have since had a bottle at home with some salmon and that tasting was no fluke. This stuff is delicious.

Their Cabernet Sauvignon, North Carolina, 2000, $21.50 with its soft fruit and tannins came in second — to a $150.00 dollar bottle of reserve California cabernet and bested a very popular premium wine. With more vine age this cabernet is really going to be something. Merlot is always a challenge to grow in the East, but theirs at $21.50 had the berry fruit and "drink now" charm. Their Madison Lee red is Beaujolais-like at $15.99 and their viognier (from Georgia fruit) is all the honeysuckle that you could want at $17.99.

At the end of the tasting George Denka, the vice president of sales and marketing (yet another pro), looks down at his glass and announces, "This place is like a giant chemistry set. We don't yet know how the flavors will develop as the vines mature."

It is refreshing in this day and age to see business people like Charles and Edwin Shelton putting their resources into helping people in their community and not just focusing on whether their stock will go up 20 cents. The wine in the glass doesn't lie — these are wines made with care and dedication. And, yes, this place is definitely worth a visit. You can e-mail them at www.sheltonvineyards.com or call (336) 366-4724. S


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