There are 116 wineries listed on the North Carolina Wine Trail. I didnt want to drive far from York County, and seeing Horace Greelys directive to go West, I decided to head toward the mountains.
I read up on a few winery websites before being captivated by WoodMill Winery in Vale, N.C., north of Gastonia and south of Hickory. WoodMill is one of a few wineries in North Carolina that grow the grapes used in their wines.
WoodMill also holds several community events, including the annual grape stomp. Rumor had it a certain crazy red-headed lady was going to be there to show how it should be done.
Once off Interstate 85 and through historic downtown Lincolnton, N.C., before I could say Its not really wine, its muscadine five times fast, I was at WoodMill Winery.
I drove between rows of vines heavy with grapes. Todays stomp event was in full swing with exhibitors and attractions. I met Max Schronce, a woodturner from Lincolnton, who showed me a wooden vessel turned from Ambrosia Maple. Red Hands Co-op showcased wine bottle holders made from antlers amid the paintings photography and pottery. There also were food vendors, gardeners, hand crafters, weavers, potters, a petting zoo, horse and carriage rides, a climbing wall hosted by the National Guard, and of course, wine tastings.
The winery itself is spacious with a main room available for events such as weddings, dinner parties and meetings. Inside are artful displays from local potters set up to complement WoodMills wine.
On this September day, the tasting room was packed.
I met with owner Larry Cagle Jr. on an enclosed patio overlooking the bucolic property. He said they just celebrated being open six years. All of the wines are made from local fruit WoodMill has more than 10 acres of their own vines not concentrates, or out of state fruit. The wines, he said, are also low in sulphur.
He said the focus is on creating wine high in the anti-oxidant resveratrol, which is shown to prevent heart disease. Research also shows resveratrol slows aging and macular degeneration of the eye and reverses effects of inflammatory arthritis.
Cagles dad, Larry Sr., had heart problems and suffered from arthritis. Doctors suggested he drink red wine every day. Unfortunately, he found most red wines to be too dry. While researching the heart benefits of red wine, Cagle Jr. (at that time, a nuclear engineer) read about the muscadine grape, native to the Carolinas. It is the healthiest grape with the highest levels of the antioxidant resveratrol. That was all he needed. In a short time, he was making wine in an unused room in their garage (where Larry Sr. had a cabinet business.) The first bottles of muscadine wine were produced, and Dad got his sweet with the heart healthy benefits.
Cagle bottled a few more and gave some away. They were so well received, Cagle bottled more and then more. After a few years of giving the wine away, and having folk come by asking about the wine, Cagle purchased 52 acres of land to play with. Very soon after, that little room of wine-making grew into WoodMill Winery, one of the fastest growing wineries in the state.
Stop by midweek and see the bottling process, while also having the opportunity to purchase the freshest bottled wines. Though busy all year bottling their signature wines, WoodMill is probably the busiest during the harvest late August through early October.
While taking a tour of the winery, I learned it takes 10 acres to produce 50,000 pounds of grapes. Ten barrels of crushed grapes equal seven barrels of wine. At WoodMill, most aspects of the wine-producing process are done by hand. Because the grapes ripen at different times, each week during the harvest, a team of 20 will walk each row and only pick the ripest grapes. The final bottling also is done by hand. Staff vintners can hand bottle 40 to 70 cases a day. The harvest from September is bottled 18 months later.
With an understanding of how wine is made, I was eager to start tasting. WoodMill offers four types of sweetness, from dry to sweet, derived from the golden scuppernong (white) and red muscadine grapes. Blueberry, blackberry and special blends also are bottled here.
Non-alcoholic muscadine and scuppernong ciders (from Lockman Vineyards) also are available.
Casey was my host at the tasting table. I am not a sweet wine lover, so I opted to try the Dry Blueberry first. As she poured, she explained the flavor notes and what to expect. Casey said their blueberry wine is one of the three driest in the country. Wow, it is DRY.
Next, I tasted the dry and semi-dry red muscadine. My pallet was happiest with the semi-dry. Casey said the most popular is the semi-sweet.
During the year, WoodMill offers small batch special blends, such as the Carolina Jubilee. Around Christmas, there is Carolina Christmas and Blue Christmas (made with Blueberries).
Time to stomp
I heard the call for grape stomp contestants. Parents stepped back and children eagerly stepped forward. Ricky, WoodMills master winemaker, set up the vat, a childrens pool, with a deep layer of grape pieces covered with whole scuppernong and muscadine grapes.
Lucy (local actress Joan Schuermeyer of the Newton/Conover area) with her red hair swept back, stepped into the vat. She pinned up her skirt and showed the contestants her signature moves for stomping grapes. The crowd went wild.
From that moment on, each contestant had about 15 seconds to show off grape stomping, belly flopping, body twisting skills to impress the judges.
Next up is the Spooktacular from noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 27, hosted by the Lincoln/Gaston Partnership for Children. Admission is free and includes more than 15 child-friendly vendors from Gaston and Lincoln counties, plus police, firefighters and more. Last year, more than 2,000 came out.
The last event of the year is the annual Christmas open house from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Dec. 1. A popular event, this years open house will include up to 25 vendors with Christmas-related items such as custom cards, wreaths, decorations and jewelry, as well as gifts, including of course, WoodMills Christmas wine.
After purchasing my two bottles of semi-dry red Muscadine table wine and a Grape Stomp T-shirt while heading to the parking lot, I heard the announcer call the next group of grape stomp contestants. And the crowd went wild.
Address: 1350 WoodMill Winery Lane, Vale, N.C. 28168
Hours: Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 1-6 p.m. Sunday. Wine tastings and winery tours are held daily. Tours (about 45 minutes) cost $5 and include a WoodMill Winery logo wine glass and tasting.
Online: WoodMillwinery.com (Directions available)
2 bottles of WoodMill Winery Sweet Red Muscadine Wine
1 cup sugar
1 quart of fruit punch
1 quart of ginger ale
Mix the wine, sugar, and fruit punch and stir vigorously to dissolve sugar. Wash the fruit, cut off the ends and discard them. Slice remaining fruit and add to beverage mixture, just before serving add the ginger ale. The sangria is much more flavorful if you prepare the base mixture with the fruit the night before you are serving, to allow the citrus juices of the fruit more time to blend with the base. Then add the ginger ale prior to serving. You may also add 1/4 cup brandy and 1/4 cup triple sec for an extra kick.
Muscadine Wine Cake (James Wilson)
1cup chopped walnuts
1 18 oz. box of white or yellow cake mix
1 3.5 pkg. instant vanilla pudding mix
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup wine, Golden Scuppernong Sweet or Red Muscadine Sweet
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flower 12 cup bundt pan (or use cooking spray.) Sprinkle nuts over the bottom of the pan. Mix cake mix, pudding, eggs, oil and wine in large mixing bowl. Mix on low speed until moist, then on high speed for two minutes. Pour batter over nuts. Bake for one hour. Cool 15 minutes and then invert onto a serving plate.
1/2 stick butter
1cup wine (same as above)
Melt butter in sauce pan. Stir in sugar and wine. Bring to boil and stir constantly for five minutes. Remove from heat. Prick cake with skewer and pour glaze over top and sides.
Recipes courtesy of WoodMill Winery