In the late afternoon, Frank and Lita Lilly should start to sag. They’ve been pouring wine and entertaining tasters at their Overmountain Vineyards all day, a beautiful, sunlit Saturday that showed undulating rows of grape vines in a Hollywood light. And now the light coming into the Lilly’s corner of Polk County is starting to fade.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]nd truthfully, so is Frank. Energetic by nature and sporting a rakish weekend stubble on his chiseled cheeks, he is returning from the winery to the tasting room with fresh supplies when he’s asked to slow down for a portrait with his wife. Watching Lita expound upon the winery’s origins to a group of guests–no doubt for the umpteenth time that day–Frank gives off the faintest hint of impatience. Business at Overmountain Winery has been so brisk that, quite frankly, he’s looking forward to climbing into the hot tub with Lita later that night.
Frank notwithstanding, spirits are rising all over the region. Western North Carolina may have made its bones on moonshine and the fast cars that delivered it, but those raw beginnings have mellowed into a rich array of fine wine, craft brews and refined spirits (including some of the smoothest–and most legal–moonshine you’ll ever drink). Sake and cider are among the newest elixirs filling a region’s cup that overflows with lively local libations. From the genteel horse farms of Polk County to the reinvented County of Wilkes–once proudly the Moonshine Capital of the world–to the grand vineyards of the Biltmore Estate, the mountains are reinventing tippling into something more refined and far more varied than ever before.
The party has attracted the attention of national food, travel and industry magazines, as well as the investment dollars of big-time brewers who are either already in production here (Oskar Blues Brewery, in Brevard) or who are completing or building their East Coast operations (Sierra Nevada Brewing and New Belgium Brewing, respectively).
“It’s all part of the local foods experience,” said Jeff Frisbee, owner of Addison Farms Vineyard in Leicester. People travel now to sample the tastes a place has to offer, and that includes beverages, he noted. “Folks that are interested in that can appreciate craft brewing, local wines, and distilling, equally,” he said. Here’s a taste of just a few of the brewers, distillers and vintners who have made Western North Carolina as much a destination for drink as it is for dining.
If Biltmore Estate, with the most visited winery in the nation, is the granddaddy of local libations in the mountains’ modern era, the godfather of the region’s rising spirits has to be Oscar Wong, credited with starting the area’s craft brewing movement. Wong opened Asheville’s first brewery – Highland Brewing – in 1994 in a tiny basement walkout beneath Barley’s Taproom in downtown Asheville. Wong, an engineer, had recently retired, having sold his nuclear waste processing business in Charlotte. He’d planned to putter around the 10-acre organic farm he and his wife had bought.
“I was going to grow vegetables and commune with nature,” he said, chuckling. “Be a gentleman farmer.”
His wife thought otherwise–he needed to get out of the house and do something, she decided. About that time a mutual friend introduced him to John McDermott, an award-winning brewer who worked professionally in Charlotte’s small but growing beer scene. McDermott knew his hops; Wong knew business. And Wong loved a good beer, having dabbled in brewing while in graduate school at Notre Dame. (“It wasn’t good beer or real beer, but it had booze in it,” he said.)
A small brewery might work in Asheville, Wong concluded after meeting with McDermott. The water was good, and the town attracted a lot of tourists. Wong planned to offer a couple of local alternatives to mass-produced beer available in restaurants in town. When Highland Brewing opened, it was one of just a few breweries in North Carolina, but small-batch brewing was gaining steam–some 18 other breweries had applications into the state.
With McDermott making the beer–an ale and a porter–in old dairy tanks and Wong running the business, Highland did well but it didn’t break even for eight years. Wong took on some partners he said were eager to get in–and who his wife was eager to let in. “In her own inimitable way, she said I don’t want to be married to the only idiot in the business,” he said, laughing.
Highland, available in the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee, grew so quickly that it ran out of space in its basement digs and moved into a large space at a film studio in east Asheville. This time, “we bought real beer equipment,” Wong said, more than doubling its capacity. And it broke even for the first time.
Now it makes five times the amount of beer it made downtown. And with new tanks arriving in August, it will make six times as much and, by next year, more than seven times as much. How much bigger it will grow (its beers are available in nine states) is, Wong said, up to his daughter, Leah Wong Ashburn, company vice president.
“My thought was to be double (in size) to what we are now,” he said. “But with the other guys (Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues and New Belgium) moving in, we have to go three and a half times where we are now. Rest assured, they’re not going to sit around and let us have the local market. They’re proud companies.”
Wong said he “never in a million years” thought brewing in Asheville would have the craft beer scene it has. “My idea was to have a small brewery so I would have something to do,” he said.
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