Anyone stuck in the weekend traffic on Highway 29 naturally assumes that the most popular wineries for visitors would be local favorites such as Mondavi or Beringer.
In truth, however, more people visit Biltmore Estate Winery in Asheville, N.C., than any other winery in America.
Detractors often dismiss the Disneyland-like architecture of some Napa wineries because of their roles in attracting visitors, but at Biltmore, it's the other way around. Most people who tour the authentic and historic tourist destination also visit its winery and tasting room, attracting 600,000 visitors per year — and most buy a bottle or two of wine. By contrast, Mondavi claims 100,000 visitors and Beringer isn't talking.
Biltmore Estate Winery lies on the magnificent Biltmore Estate, the largest private home in America. Completed for George Washington Vanderbilt in 1895, it is still owned by the family, though they live elsewhere.
The 250-room antique- and art-filled house contains 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms, and was built with electric lighting and sophisticated plumbing, a rarity at that time even in mansions.
It's located on an 8,000-acre private preserve. It once totaled 125,000 acres, or 195 square miles, one-fifth the size of Rhode Island, but Vanderbilt donated the rest to form what is now the Pisgah National Forest. That forest includes Mount Pisgah, the inspiration for the recent movie, "Cold Mountain."
A newcomer to wine
The Biltmore Estate has always been largely self-sufficient in agriculture, but its first vineyards were planted as recently as 1971 and the winery itself is even newer.
North Carolina, of course, is a southern state where alcoholic beverages have been popular but illicit even since the great Revival of the late 1800s, but surprisingly, wine has a long tradition in North Carolina.
Many of its early settlers were Moravians, Huguenots and others who drank wine both for pleasure and in their religious ceremonies. The first commercial winery was the Medoc Vineyard founded in 1835.
By 1904, the state was the nation's largest wine producer, albeit with Virginia Dare, a wine made with musky native Scuppernong muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia).
Prohibition killed the wineries, however, and the first new winery after it ended in 1933 was Westbend Vineyards in Lewisville, founded in 1972. Biltmore opened shortly after.
It first planted French-American hybrid grapes that are tougher than pure European varieties, but in 1977, Biltmore hired Philippe Jourdain as winemaker. The sixth-generation winemaker from Provence began the serious cultivation of wine grapes, phasing out the hybrids to plant vinifera. All the vines are now vinifera.
When Jordain retired in 1995, he was replaced by another Frenchman. Bernard Delille, who had worked in various parts of France after receiving his master's degree. Sharon Fenchak assists him.
Today, Biltmore Estate produces about 140,000 cases of wine each year, selling 55,000 to 60,000 at the winery. The modern, 90,000-square foot winery occupies a former dairy barn.
The winery produces a wide variety of wine, from popular sweet "Blanc de Noirs" of Zinfandel and other sweetish wines to respectable sparkling wines and dry table wines.
The tasting rooms are large and offer many options beyond the basic tasting included with the $40 admission to the Biltmore Estate. They also sell many wine- and food-related items and some of the same tourist things featured at many Napa winery tasting rooms established before wineries were restricted to wine and related items.
The wines are also sold in the Southeast as well at the winery and over the Internet.
Biltmore Estate Winery grows about 20 percent of the grapes it uses on 80 acres of vineyards, one of the largest plantings of vinifera grapes east of the Mississippi River. The vines average 24 years old.
The winery harvests about 300 tons a year of Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Viognier from its own vineyards, which lie at about 2,200 ft. in a valley across the French Broad Lick River from the estate house. They are continually being improved after experiments by vineyard manager Dennis Wynne.
It also purchases grapes from other North Carolina and Southern growers, and imports juice and grapes under refrigeration from California, Washington, Oregon and other states.
Delille adds that North Carolina is exploding in vineyards and wineries. "Because of problems with the markets for tobacco and apples, growers are turning to grapes." Conditions vary widely throughout the state, however. What works well in the Yadkin Valley in eastern North Carolina doesn't apply to the mountains.
The altitude of the vineyards, with its cold winters, creates viticultural challenges beyond those endured by most eastern vinifera grape growers, such as humidity and bugs.
Delille says that Cabernet Franc does very well at the site, and all the cab Franc wines the winery makes comes from its own grapes. "Cabernet sauvignon needs more sun; it ripens after the Cabernet Franc and the first frost can come too soon." He says Merlot is borderline but Chardonnay does well.
Delille says the area, like much of Europe, requires more spraying for pests including fungus than dry areas like California, and winter kill is always a possibility. The vines are planted on rootstock, and the winery has tried burying young vines, particularly after the hard freeze of 1985 killed some vines. The older vines survived.
Another problem is spring frost. A 35-acre artificial lake provides water for frost protection, always a concern in an area where it frost can occur until May 15.
Among the winery's biggest pests are Canada geese, which are attracted by the ponds and lakes on the property and lush conditions on the estate. "They don't bother to migrate," notes Delille. "They just stay here and breed."
He's discovered that they don't like the taste of Concord grapes, however, so the winery actually sprays that juice on the vines to repel them.
He says there is some insect pressure, but the big problems are fungi and rain. The vineyards receive a lot of rain during the summer. "It's good for fungi, not grapes," he says.
"We made some mistakes," says Delille. "We planted Pinot Noir and Riesling and they're not very suited to this kind of climate. We have to avoid grapes with tight clusters and thin skins."
He could also use a bit more sun at bloom.
Not surprisingly, the wines aren't high in alcohol. "Some years we can get the Chardonnay to 23 or 24 Brix, but we're happy with 21 percent." He says the Cabernet Sauvignon is ripe at 21 degrees, but it has high pH that has to be corrected. Regulations allow him to correct either sugar or pH, however, not both. He doesn't usually have to chaptalize, or add sugar. "If we reach 22, we generally don't chaptalize."
The wines are in three tiers:
The basic Biltmore Estate whites are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, Chardonnay, Chardonnay Sur Lies, Riesling and Chenin Blanc. As is true at most wineries, the blush wines are very popular and the winery makes both White Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon "Blanc de Noir." Entry red varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir and proprietary Cardinal's Crest.
The winery also produces special wines such as sweet and floral wines for holidays. They are very popular.
The next tier up includes the Biltmore Estate Château Reserve Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Claret and Cabernet Franc
George Washington Vanderbilt, the top wines, are from California: 2002 Napa Valley Chardonnay, 2001 North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon and 2001 North Coast Syrah.
The winery also makes méthode Champenoise sparkling wine, including a nice Brut made from Chardonnay grapes grown in the mountains of North Carolina, as well as Brut and Sec Blanc de Blancs, Brut and Blanc de Noir from California fruit.
The estate and North Carolina wines tasted were clean, well made and "European" in character. They seemed light to a Napa palate, but that's not a complaint.
None were overoaked or overpowering, and no off flavors were noted, though the Cabernet Franc, probably the best example of the estate fruit, was slightly herbaceous and a bit dusty, similar to what you might find from the Loire or eastern Bordeaux.
Delille readily admits that the wines don't rank as the best in the world but he says it's fun to make the wines under the somewhat-challenging conditions. "You can be very proud of what you do when you make a good wine."
If you visit
Few people would go to Asheville just to visit Biltmore Estate Winery, but the Biltmore Estate is another matter. It's a magnificent and fascinating mansion, easily worth more than a day to see everything, from the exquisite formal rooms to the basement shops where servants performed all the chores that made it function.
There are also numerous restaurants and shops discreetly located on the property, and a relatively new inn so you don't have to leave the Estate at night.
If you do, you'll find mountainous Asheville a progressive city sometimes called the Austin of North Carolina. It's a gateway to the Smokey Mountains as well as an attraction on its own.
For more about Biltmore Estate and its winery, click www.biltmore.com.
For Asheville, try www.asheville.com.