The oak-shaded lawn in front of Overmountain Vineyards’ tasting room was covered with guests from around the world on the day that Frank and Lita were pouring wine. There was a group from Sweden, a couple from Australia and a group of Methodists from Gastonia. Dan and Louisa Suggs, among the latter group, were enjoying the early evening breezes with good friends.
“We heard about this place while we were on a brews tour in Asheville,” Louisa said, a glass of Chardonnay etched with Overmountain logo in her hand. “We love taking tours of all the local vineyards, and this place,” she said, waving the glass to encompass the convivial and relaxed crowd. “This place is so well planned and delightful. The wines are excellent. They’re not afraid to experiment.”
Frank and Lita Lilly have 15 of their 75 acres in Petit Verdot, Merlot and other varietals. Frank grew up outside of Raleigh in an equestrian family that, in the French tradition, poured an ounce of wine into water for the children. “I grew up knowing that wine was food,” he said. He made wine in his basement for 20 years before taking viticulture and enology classes at Surry Community College in Dobson. On weekdays, he and his wife sell critical care diagnostic equipment to hospitals. On weekends, they’re at the tasting room full-time.
“We thought we’d leave our jobs on Fridays and then on Saturdays, after coffee and a leisurely breakfast, sell a couple of cases of wine and sleep in the next morning,” he said. “But it wasn’t like that. We grew by a factor of five in two years. We never thought we’d be this busy. And we’re about to get bigger.”
Overmountain hopes to bottle about 3,000 cases this year (up from 500 when it started) for consumption in local restaurants. It wants to stay small (everything it does is by hand, with a handful of full- and part-time people). It may sell as far afield as Asheville, but it wants to remain local, Frank said. It is one of three wineries in Polk County, and a fourth is coming in the fall. “You can make a whole day out of seeing them,” he said. “People bring picnics to our winery. We welcome that.”
In mid-June, Hi-Wire Brewing in downtown Asheville was a tizzy of construction. Workers were building bars and installing signs, all in a push to get Hi-Wire’s tasting room open by the end of the month. “Today is total transformation day,” Adam Charnack, one of three business partners, said as workers clamored all around. “Tomorrow this place will be totally different.”
Moving through the maze of power equipment and building supplies, workers had installed a large garage door-like window that opens the tasting room to the street outside. Pounding away in the old Craggie Brewing Co. on Hilliard Avenue, carpenters had installed a long bar made of wood reclaimed from an old barn in Mills River. In the back of the house among the large tanks, employees were working the bottling machine, filling longnecks with Hi-Wire Lager, one of four year-round beers the brewery will offer. Behind the bar will be a few guest taps, as well as a couple of seasonal and small-batch Hi-Wire beers that will give Hi-Wire’s brewers a little creative freedom and may become part of the regular rotation.[quote float=”left”]Hi-Wire’s handcrafted beers fit the do-it-yourself ethos of the Southern Appalachians, which has traditionally been a place where people made, brewed or distilled what they needed themselves. [/quote] “We want to be the craft beer of choice for beer that people know is good,” Charnack, who moved to Asheville originally to develop affordable housing, said. His two partners, Chris Frosaker and Matt Kiger, are pharmacists who, like Charnack, are homebrewers. Unlike most start-up breweries in Asheville, they’ll be offering six-packs from the get-go, sending their beer out into the region in a sort of viral advertising that they hope will win over an ever-expanding ring of customers.
“This town is amazing,” Charnack said. “There is so much craft brewing here, and they’re all amazing. You go to another town, and they have maybe three breweries, making just a few beers. Here’s, it’s the opposite. You’d be hard-pressed not to find whatever beer you’re looking for on tap.”
Hi-Wire is in Asheville’s newly minted Brewery District, where half a dozen breweries are within walking distance. Hi-Wire’s handcrafted beers fit the do-it-yourself ethos of the Southern Appalachians, which has traditionally been a place where people made, brewed, or distilled what they needed themselves. That tradition has made Western North Carolina a national center of handmade goods, and local brewing fits perfectly within that sphere, Charnack said.
“With the big boys coming in, the pie will just get bigger,” he said of the national breweries the city has landed. “We’re going to be the Napa Valley of beer.”
HOWLING MOON DISTILLERY
When the propane burners are fired up to boil the mash, it’s so hot in Howling Moon Distillery that Cody Bradford and Chivous Downey think a 90-degree day is cool. They make moonshine in a cinder block building in Woodfin without a distinguishing feature other than its plainness. On the inside, however, are three handsome stills, one of which contains a copper condenser that Bradford’s whiskey-making great-great-grandfather, Turner Edwards, used to make moonshine in Burnsville about 150 years ago.
Mountain farmers with corn to sell found that they could make more money turning it into white liquor than they could selling it as produce, assuming they could get it to market before it went bad. Bradford and Downey, both from moonshine-making families, left corporate jobs in the nursing home business to open Howling Moon Distillery about a year and a half ago. They’re having a lot more fun now, they said.
“Moonshine’s been in my family for a long, long time,” Bradford explained, patching pipe joints with rye paste to keep the alcohol steam from escaping. His family passed Turner Edwards’ equipment down through the generations, each using it for its intended purpose. All that experience yielded one fine family recipe, and Bradford and Downey, buddies since high school, think they’ve got a couple of winners in their Mountain Moonshine and Apple Pie Moonshine. They’ve just started making a strawberry moonshine, using fresh fruit, just as they do with the apple liquor.
They filter and cool their ‘shine in old oak barrels, bought from the Heaven Hill distillery in Kentucky. Recycling is part of their mantra–they use local corn, grind it in a local mill and send their spent mash to a farm for hog feed. That’s how the moonshiners in their families did it back in the day.
Their products, packaged in clear glass jars, are sold in ABC stores throughout Western North Carolina and elsewhere. They make about 320 cases a month and should be up to 400 cases soon. They sell about everything they make. It’s been that way since they started, Bradford said.
“Moonshining gets in your blood,” he said, sweating in the heat. “Appalachian culture still alive today – I love it.”[quote]“With the big boys coming in, the pie will just get bigger. We’re going to be the Napa Valley of beer.”[/quote]