Richard Childress: Vintner on the Fast Track

Stock car racing and wine making are two of America’s most competitive industries, and one man has left an indelible mark upon both.

Richard Childress, a native of Winston-Salem, purchased his first racecar in 1965 for $20, and within a few short years racked up over 70 top 10 finishes, including 6 top fives. But as much as he loved driving, Childress found greater success as a team owner.

Together with the late Dale Earnhardt, Childress’ team won six national championships in an 8-year span between 1986 and 1994. Today, Richard Childress Racing (RCR) employs several teams who compete in Sprint Cup, XFinity, and Truck Series events, and they have won championships in all three categories.

Not bad for a guy who started out with $20.

But in the midst of the fast paced world of NASCAR, Childress was drawn to the slow paced world of wine, and, in 2004, opened Childress Vine yards

on 72 acres in Davidson County. It was a business decision that had been formulated decades earlier.

“I think going to California back in the early days, and visiting wineries out there, that was the biggest thing. And I just decided one day that if I ever got the funds, I wanted to do a winery. So I was fortunate enough to be able to put it together.”

JL: What are the challenges you faced in starting a winery?

RC: Besides taking a lot of money to do it and do it right, it takes putting together a team – a bunch of really good people who understand the business where I didn’t. I just had a passion for it, but I had to go out and find the right people, like our winemaker Mark Friszolowski. I needed the right people to make it work, and make it happen, and I’ve been fortunate there.

JL: You mention the “team”. You certainly know how to put together a successful racing team, so did those skills translate for you to the wine business?

RC: Yeah, I think that’s the key to our success, has been getting the right people. I’ve got my partner Greg Johns, Max Ferrell our vineyard manager, Bob Burgin our general manager, and Dolph Cummings in sales. Dolph has increased the wholesale side of our business tremendously. So we’ve been fortunate. It’s been pretty good.

JL: I know that motels and shops have sprung up adjacent to the winery. How has Childress Vineyards impacted the local and regional economy?

RC: We brought in about 160,000 visitors last year, and we think we’ll go over 200,000 this year. And people come and spend money doing a lot of different things. The fans come to see the race shop and visit our museum, then they always end up going down to the winery. So they spend money in other areas. There’s economic impact all around.

JL: What about people who don’t know much about racing, but love wines. What does the winery offer those folks as a tourist destination? What can they do and see?

RC: First you can come in and get a tour of the winery, and understand what it’s all about. Then you have a wine tasting. We have sweet tastings, we’ve got regular tastings and signature tastings. You can have lunch at the Bistro. We’re also building an 8400 square foot atrium where we can have music and events, even corporate events. It will hold about 400 people. You can even get married at the winery. We had close to 60 weddings at the winery last year.

JL: 60 weddings a year?

RC: Yeah, we did two and three a week sometimes.

JL: You don’t host any divorces, do you?

RC: (laughs) No, we don’t do those.

The Childress label includes eleven varieties of wines for all palates and all occasions.

JL: There are more than 8,000 wineries in the United States, and over 130 in North Carolina alone. So what makes your wines unique?

RC: Well, it’s like I told Mark at the beginning. I want something that first time drinkers can drink, and we want to have easy drinking wines that people can move up from. If you first gave some folks a heavy, bold wine from California or Italy, they wouldn’t like it as well as ours. Ours is a softer, easy drinking wine.

And like the proud father of two very different children, it’s hard to pin Richard down on which of his two businesses he loves best.

JL: Which was more exciting – winning your first race?, or opening the first bottle of wine with your name on it?

RC: I can tell you which one was the most expensive (laughs). The wine. But both were enjoyable.

Of course, Richard’s two careers are historically linked, sort of. In the early days of racing, some of the good old boys with fast cars ran moonshine, and later were recruited by NASCAR to compete against each other in events where the only liquid on board was gasoline.

JL: As a vintner, if prohibition suddenly returned tomorrow, would you be running wine?

RC: (laughs) No, I’d probably go back to the moonshine days.

For more information on Childress Vineyards, including directions, hours of operation, wine tastings, Bistro and gift shop hours, and how to schedule events, visit www.childressvineyards. com. !