On a Saturday afternoon in Lexington, N.C., the sizeable tasting room at Childress Vineyards is buzzing with wine lovers, sipping and swirling and laughing. A rowdy group is celebrating a friend’s 60th birthday in the Renaissance-style room, while a young couple is bellied up to the bar. They don’t say much; they’re busy sniffing half-ounce pours of whites, then reds, popping pillow-shaped saltines between tastes.
About 5 miles from NASCAR’s Richard Childress Racing operations, a three-tier fountain greets you at the main entrance of Childress Vineyards. The interior, in an old Italian-villa style, is dotted with heavy accents—iron and oak—most of which bear the Childress logo and were handcrafted by members of the RCR Racing team.
Outside, 100 acres of rolling hills are home to 41 acres of 12 European-style varietals. It’s a serene panorama with a large gazebo and lake, which plays a role in the vineyard’s irrigation. Today, a small group of wine club members relaxes around a table, learning about wine as its poured. This is how Childress envisioned it.
“When we used to travel through California back in the day to race, we had some free time on the weekends and would go visit different vineyards,” Childress says. “That’s when they used to give out free samples of wine and, of course, we thought that was just great.” He became increasingly intrigued about wine and the winemaking process. “It was during this time in California I really developed a liking for wine and thought it would be something if I could have a winery myself someday,” he says.
At first, he looked into purchasing a winery in New York or California, but after learning that the soil in North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley is comparable to that of southern France, he took a chance back South. “North Carolina is home, and I do a lot of business here,” he adds. “It has a long history of growing grapes for wine. I’m happy we were able to get it right.” Today, the winery sees about 130,000 visitors per year.
The busiest times coincide with Charlotte’s two NASCAR races, in May and October, and it’s especially active in October because of Lexington’s BBQ Fest. The winery offers a special “fine swine wine” especially blended to pair well with Lexington-style barbecue.
During May and June, the winery is host to Music in the Vineyards, featuring mostly local bands and solo acts playing outside. Other events take place throughout the year, too, including the “cork hunt” at Easter, and festive decorations during the Christmas season.
During your visit, sign up for a winery tour—held every day at noon and 3 pm and on the hour from noon to 4 pm on weekends—where you’ll learn all about the winemaking process. You’ll start with the fermentation room. Forty large, steel tanks line a chilly warehouse where the winemaker, Mark Friszolowski, starts the three-week process.
Childress Vineyards uses mostly French oak—the oaks give the wine its distinct flavor—but the winery makes use of Hungarian and American barrels on occasion, too. “French oak is a tighter grained barrel which gives our wines more vanillins …,” says Kent Smith, assistant winemaker. Vanillin is a fancy chemical term for a flavor agent. “We often get a hazelnut and buttered almond character in our Chardonnay.”
In the barrel room, 600 portly barrels, banded and nearly bursting, rest on racks stacked to the ceiling. It’s chilly in this room, too. “The cellar stays pretty cold most of the year due to cold stabilizing the wines in the stainless-steel tanks,” says Smith. “With the wine at around 31 degrees Fahrenheit, the cellar usually stays around 58 degrees.”
The most popular label at the winery is Pinnacle—a Bordeaux-style red blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec—but Childress produces 30 wines ranging from house blends and reserves to sweet Muscadine wines.
The next stop brings you to the bottling room, a NASCAR-level engineered conveyor-belt affair that cleans, dries, fills and labels the bottles once the wine is ready for distribution. Employees then fill cases with the newly bottled wine and ship it out to several regional wine shops and grocery stores.
Childress says he’s fond of the entire winery, but he has a few favorite spots. “My two favorite places are the library in the Barrel Cave downstairs,” he says, “where I keep a large collection of wines we’ve made, as well as gifts from other vineyards and friends.”
Getting There From Charlotte: Take I-85 N to Business 85 N/Hwy 52 N. Follow Hwy 52 N towards Winston-Salem. Take Exit 89. Turn left. The winery is on the right. The winery is open Mo through Sa from 10 am to 5 pm, and Su from noon to 5 pm. No outside food or beverages are permitted, but there is an on-site bistro that serves lunch from 11 am to 3 pm. No pets. $12-$15. childressvineyards.com, 336-236-9463
Wine Stops: More Wineries and Vineyards Near Charlotte
The largest family-owned estate winery in North Carolina, Shelton Vineyards is a local favorite. Started by Charlottean brothers with North Carolina roots, the vineyard is large enough to spend several hours and offers live music outside and dozens of European-style wines. Fine-dining restaurant and hotel available.
Driving time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
286 Cabernet Lane, Dobson
Raffaldini Vineyards & Winery
Known for making “Chianti in the Carolinas,” this villa-style favorite is one not to miss. The Raffaldini family, which dates to the 14th century in Mantua, off the northern province of Lombardy, Italy, is the group behind the winery today.
Driving time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
450 Groce Road, Ronda
Elkin Creek Vineyard
Small and quaint, Elkin Creek overlooks its namesake, in addition to the century-old Elkin Creek Mill. The vineyards are made up of six acres of Merlot, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Viognier. Driving time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
318 Elkin Creek Mill Road, Elkin
RayLen Vineyards and Winery
Inspired by a trip to Italy, Joe and Joyce Neely opened RayLen along the Yadkin Valley Wine Trail in 2001. Today, the passion project offers 16 award-winning options.
Driving time: 1 hour
3577 Highway 158, Mocksville
Visit ncwine.com for more options.