Childress Vineyards turns wine dummy Lee Adams into sniffing, swirling, flavor-guessing connoisseur

by Lee Adams

Settling back into one of the iron chairs on the patio of Café Europa I decide to go for the hanger steak with shallot sauce and fries. The special comes with a glass of French house wine. I choose the red. The strong cherry aroma is pleasant to my senses as light breezes waft it my way. Taking it by the stem I swirl the glass, lift it to the sky to catch its color and notice the foot running somewhat moderately down the side. It’s running a little fast, perhaps this bottle is on the decline, but I determine it’s still an excellent vintage and put my nose deep beneath the rim to inhale its full body and awake my palate. Lightly sipping, I run the liquid across my tongue combining it with air to get the full flavor. It’s fruity, heavy on the taste of cherry with a light hint of oak at the finish. I take another sip, and my mouth is even livelier with the flavors.

I’ve made a perfect selection, I surmise, as I take another sip after eating a bite of my steak. Yes, this wine goes well with my meal. I’m feeling pretty smug and debonair. Of course, I’m alone on the patio so it’s easier not to feel so intimidated.

I have never, that’s right, never, had a glass of wine with a meal before. Not knowing what I’m doing I’ve tasted it before, at Christmas shows and such, but even though it’s always intrigued me I really know nothing about wine whatsoever. When I go out for dinner I often look over the wine list, pretending I know what I’m looking at. But it might as well be Chinese because I don’t understand it. And often, after contemplating the list, I simply turn to my waiter and say: ‘“I think I’ll just have a sweet tea this evening.’”

After all, they don’t have time to educate me, they’ve got tables to wait. I am an idiot in sophisticated disguise, and I am scared of wine. But today I am anxious to try out my newly-found skill of tasting since learning I have such a sophisticated palate.

Just two days ago I had the full tasting experience at Childress Vineyards in Lexington where the very patient and informative Lisa Chobanian walked me through the entire process with 15 different wines.

She asked me if I had any gum in my mouth or had eaten a mint lately. This, she said as she lined the bottles across the countertop, would impede the tasting process. On a napkin in front of me she placed a glass, complete with the Childress logo, and beside me she laid out a small platter of oyster crackers. A decanter of water sat to my right along with a fancy-looking bucket. Some people spit in the bucket she told me, and I could, too, if I wanted, but she seemed to imply that the method was rather undignified and that I should just use it for emptying my glass of any unused portion after each tasting.

We would start with dry and move to sweet, she told me, and she poured a half-ounce of Pinot Gris into my glass. After instructing me to take the glass by the stem, so my hands wouldn’t warm the contents, Chobanian showed me how to swirl the glass, moving it in a quick, circular motion on the counter. Then she lifted the glass into the air, pointing out the thin separation on the surface between the juice and the alcohol, and pointed out how clear and pure the wine looked. The legs, she said, were nice and long as they should be in a good glass of wine. Looking closely at the bottom of the beverage I couldn’t figure out what the legs were. Was she pointing out the nice stem of the glass? Did the wine have trellises running through it, like carbonation bubbles that go up from the bottom? I thought she said it was supposed to be clear, and it was because I couldn’t see anything in there.

Then she told me to smell the wine and I put my nose deep into the glass and breathed deeply. I could smell the aroma of fresh cut Bartlett pears and spring flowers. Wow. Taking a sip of water, she demonstrated how I should let the liquid roll across my tongue while gently sucking in air to evenly taste the wine. Piece of cake, I thought, and nearly choked myself as I gurgled it right into the back of my throat. My eyes watered and she told me I took too large of a sip.

On the next sip I should be able to taste more of the flavors, she said, flavors of cinnamon with a light acidity. I was surprised as it was rather smooth and quite flavorful, I tried but just couldn’t distinguish any of the tastes. This wine, Chobanian told me, would pair well with pasta, zucchini, squash and other light foods marinated in an Italian dressing.

Moving on to the Sauvignon Blanc I once again swirled my glass and lifted it against the room light, but this time I figured out what the legs were. They were the tiny drops of liquid running back down the glass from near the top. Yes, they were very smooth and long, and I watched them in amazement for several seconds and they slowly slid down the inside of the glass. Sipping the wine across my tongue, I did it right this second time and was able to taste the notes of fresh sweet grass. I was getting good at this. This one would go well with shrimp scampi and lobster tail, Chobanian told me.

The next two samples were the Viognier, pronounced vee-own-yay, that goes well with spicy foods and curry and a Chardonnay with lemony aromas that would yield nicely to lobster ravioli and grilled seafood. All of Chobanian’s dish suggestions were making me hungry, and I was only a fourth of the way through the tasting. Thankfully, it was time to move on to the reds, which meant I got a chance to clean my palate, which means I got to eat a couple of the oyster crackers.

After taking a sip of water and rinsing my glass into the bucket we began the next tasting with Childress’ classic house red wine. This one had a full cherry aroma and flavor and had a smoky taste from being aged in oak barrels. Whoa! This was different and I could taste the cherry and the wood very distinctly. This would fare well with grilled hickory or mesquite meats or even a hamburger or hot dog, Chobanian said.

From there we moved to the Pinnacle, a blend of Bordeaux varietals including 62 percent Cabernet Franc, 19 percent Merlot, 16 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 3 percent Moure-dre. This is a ‘Meritage’ wine, or a ‘marriage’ of different wines.

Then I tried each one individually: the Cabernet Franc, the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Merlot. The Merlot is a medium-bodied red wine with accents of herbs and black cherries, barrel-aged. It was quite pleasant, I thought, given that I expected the reds to be very strong and bitter. This Merlot had a smooth finish, just as Chobanian said it would, whereas some Merlots, she tells me, tend to have a ‘“bite’” to them.

Then she let me try the Merlot Signature Series, which is a first-run batch of numbered wines retailing for about three times the price of the regular Merlot. I thought for sure it was just a ploy to rack up on sales of bottles personally signed by Richard Childress, but there was quite a difference in taste. The flavors were much more prominent and lively and, for lack of sophisticated terminology, it was really good.

That was it for the dry wines. It was time for the sweets and times to munch a few more crackers to clean my palate. We had six left to go, and I felt like a pro ‘— swirling, smelling, tasting and nodding my approval. A few patrons came in for smaller tastings and I noticed several glances my way. I had more bottles in front of me that anyone else, plus my notepad and pen, so I think they thought I was a professional wine taster. And I won’t lie, I was playing it for all it was worth. Story? What story? I mentioned my story to no one. I was a professional. I was a very important man.

The Classic white house wine was noticeably sweeter. This was a good desert wine, a wedding wine, Chobanian told me. It seemed almost too sweet after tasting all the drys.

Then there was the Serendipity white. This is the one I longed to taste, a muscadine white wine with Chardonnay and Vidal Blanc, made from North Carolina’s native grape, the Scuppernong ‘— one I grew up hunting in the woods as a kid. Chobanian told me the flavor was a combination of honey, peach and apricot, fruity, very fruity and would go well with light appetizers, strawberry shortcake or pound cake. It was very sweet, and I didn’t taste much more of anything other than the scuppernong, which is all I wanted to taste. The Serendipity red, made with Cabernet Franc, was not as quite as sweet and therefore more appealing to me. But it didn’t have as strong of a muscadine flavor as the previous, so I was torn between which I would choose if I could only have one.

Leading up to the Serendipity red I tried the Classic Blush, a blend of Cabernet Franc with berry flavors, and Chardonnay with an apple flavor. The result was a very sweet strawberry taste. Good, but not for me.

The last sample was the Polaris Late Harvest white desert wine. This wine can be served with a desert or as a desert itself. It is extremely sweet and, though good, I felt like I should have eaten a full meal first. Its companion, the red, was not readily available for tasting but is said to have a blueberry flavor to it as opposed to the apricot and peach flavors of the white.

And with that I became a bonifide connoisseur of fine wines. As I struggled to keep up with the terms Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Viognier and Pinot Gris, I finally learned that these are simply the names of the variety of grapes that are being grown out in the vineyard. Signs at the end of each section of vines plainly say this. But, truthfully, I thought a grape was a grape, a scuppernong a scuppernong, and that was that. And despite the array of flavors in each kind of wine there is nothing in the wine but grapes. No pears or apricots or cherries. Just grapes.

The white wines and the reds come from the same grapes, but the whites have the skins removed and the reds are from grapes with the skins. These skins are where the red wines get those heart-healthy tannins that are so good for you.

There are 68 acres of rolling hills covered in vines on the Childress property in rural Lexington and new vines are being planted to bring the vineyard up to 100 acres. And that property is owned by Richard Childress. Yes, that is the Richard Childress, the racecar owner. And yes, he does hang out at the vineyard. He’s there almost daily, from what marketing coordinator Penny Allen told me.

Childress wandered into the gift shop and tasting room and was recognized immediately. Several shoppers brought him bottles of wine to sign, which he did gladly. As Childress made small talk with the patrons I noticed him to be a very quiet and humble man. It was a much different encounter with the celebrity than one might expect on the racetrack.

Childress developed his love for wine during his racing career as he traveled to Riverside and Sonoma Valley. He and Dale Earnhardt often shared a glass and toured vineyards together and before long the downtime hobby began to grow into a passion. Childress finally decided to turn that passion into his own vineyard, selecting North Carolina because of his ties to home and the potential the Yadkin Valley area has for producing wines that rival those of California vineyards.

‘“I loves wines,’” he simply stated as he reached to sign a bottle of Classic White for customer Sharon Hodges.

But for passion to become tangible Childress would need the help of an expert. So he and business partner Greg Johns found award-winning winemaker Mark Friszolowski, who was working at the famous Pindar Vineyards on Long Island, and began calling him. Friszolowski had never heard of Richard Childress and wasn’t interested in his idea at first. But Childress was persistent.

Friszolowski gained an interest in winemaking through his father, a wine collector. Studying the science of the trade, Friszolowski traveled the world early on in his career helping on farms and bottling wines. Eleven countries later Friszolowski ended up back on Long Island. During his career he’s won hundreds of awards, including two in the top 10 out of 2,200 in the Golden Harvest Awards in California. His wines have also been on Wine Spectator’s 50 Best Wines list and one of his single wines won 13 gold medals.

In order to come to North Carolina, Friszolowski had to know Childress was serious. North Carolina winemaker Steve Shepard of RayLen Vineyards, and formerly of Westbend, had given Friszolowski wines to taste and Friszolowski thought the state had a lot of potential. But convincing the locals has been taking time.

‘“Oh, if it’s here it can’t be good,’” Friszolowski says quoting skeptics who often don’t realize what’s in their own backyard and the good wines this state is already offering.

But wine is not new to the state of North Carolina. In fact, the scuppernong was discovered in the Cape Fear River Valley in 1524 by French explorer Giovanni de Verrazano. This was important to settlers because wine was the only beverage that could last from year to year, and the discovery of the muscadine vine meant survival for our forefathers.

Sir Walter Raleigh later discovered the vine on Roanoke Island, with a trunk two feet thick and covering half an acre, and was able to introduce it to other areas. North Carolina wines also played a large part of triangular trade between the new world and Britain.

Tim Dineen, a former wine columnist for Triad Style and a wine buyer for Café D’Arte, is studying for his PhD in American History at UNCG and is well versed in North Carolina wine history.

‘“Bread and wine are the staff of life,’” he says, reinstating the importance of the vine to the colonists.

The first commercial winery in North Carolina was Medoc Vineyards in 1835, and by 1904 North Carolina was leading the US in wine production. But winemaking soon died off in North Carolina. One reason was prohibition, which left some growers having to ship their juices to other states before it fermented.

Another reason, according to Dineen, is that American tastes were changing. World Wars I and II introduced many to new foods and wines in other parts of the world, and as people continued to seek these new tastes during the forties and into the fifties North Carolina wineries slowly faded away.

Today, science and technology have helped the industry rise to its feet again. Many of the European grapes would not grow in our region before. Thomas Jefferson was one of the first to try on his plantation in Monticello, but those crops failed. Ironically, the vine louse phyloxera made it possible for those varieties to thrive here. The louse made its way across the globe, nearly destroying crops in Europe. The scuppernong, however, was resistant to the louse, so to save the crops the European varieties had to be grafted with the American vine to make them resistant as well, Dineen says.

North Carolina has good soil for growing, almost too good, according to Dineen. While vines in Europe are used to growing on rocky and barren soils and have had to strive to reproduce, our state’s soil causes growers to have to find artificial stressors for the plants. Though growing good grapes is important, there are also other reasons for this business. Many tobacco farmers have lost their jobs over the past few years and are turning their fields into vineyards for income. Many wineries, like Childress, buy from these farmers to subsidize their businesses. Agribusiness is also a growing trend in North Carolina, with the idea being to bring people out to the farm for visits, which encourages tourism and shopping.

‘“It’s hard to start a new business, a business like this,’” Friszolowski said. ‘“It’s tough.’”

After tasting those first North Carolina wines and recognizing the passion, business sense and capital that Childress could invest, Friszolowski was ready to make the move.

There’s a wine for everybody, Friszolowski said, and he maintains the vineyards goals are to make that wine, focusing on quality and slow, steady growth over the next few years.

Childress Vineyards are coming up on their first anniversary this fall and harvesting for next year’s vintage began on the Sept. 18. With those dreams now becoming tangible the winery is beginning to enlighten race fans as well.

Back in the tasting room Cindy Layton pours samples for Allen Neuenschwander and Rick Godsey, who’d been visiting a race shop nearby. When asked if he’s a wine connoisseur the ball-cap clad Godsey laughs, ‘“Oh no, oh no. I’m more of a beer connoisseur.’”

And with another taste two more budding wine aficionados are born.

Childress Vineyards

Lexington, NC


Winery Hours: Mon.-Sat. 10-6; Sun. noon-6