by Catherine Rabb
images courtesy Craig Distl
It’s impressive that Pat and Clyde Colwell of Carolina Heritage Vineyard & Winery have been able to achieve so much. Not only did they build a demanding business at an age when most consider retirement, the Colwells conquered the challenge of growing grapes organically and learned how to make wonderful wine. Not to mention, they helped create a winemaking community in the Yadkin Valley that encourages and supports each other.
When I express an admiration for their achievements, Pat laughs and says, “We tend to always look forward at what needs to be done, rather than looking back and seeing what we have done. We have been blessed in so many ways, and our desire to work at giving back is pervasive in what we do.”
The story of their journey is interesting. Both had previous careers, Pat with IBM and Clyde in education. In 2003, the year they met and married while living in the Raleigh area, Pat was 55 and Clyde 60. They were eligible for retirement, but had too much energy and a desire to create something they could do together with purpose.
Clyde, who grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York, had always wanted a vineyard and winery. Pat was hesitant at first, but warmed to the idea if they could do it organically without the use of chemicals. That quest began with the couple taking classes, talking to everyone they could, and eventually buying Yadkin Valley property in Surry County just outside of Elkin.
Everything was done by hand. They laid out rows, planted vines, and trained, tended, and pruned the vines. When Carolina Heritage opened in 2005, it was North Carolina’s first USDA certified organic vineyard and winery.
For the first five years, friends and children (his two, her three) helped with the harvest, until they “didn’t have any more friends and the kids were mysteriously busy,” Pat jokes. Today, they have a dozen acres under vine, planted with 14 grape varieties. They also grow organic blueberries and have recently planted apples and pears, as well as elderberries.
Carolina Heritage features a handsome, welcoming tasting room made of North Carolina pine. The tasting room is kid-friendly and pet-friendly, with a vibrant calendar featuring live music most Saturday nights. Clyde is renovating the 1928 farmhouse as a potential guest house, and in her “spare” time, Pat makes organic Kombucha. The Colwells are active in the community, environmental advocates, and ardent supporters of local musicians, artists, and cheesemakers.
Before the first wine was produced, the challenge was growing grapes organically. North Carolina can be a tough place because the humidity creates mildew issues.
“Everyone I talked to said organic grapes could not be grown in North Carolina,” Pat recalls. “And I’m the type of person who digs in my heels when I am told I can’t do something.”
One of the reasons they chose the Elkin area was its elevation. Their property sits at 1,100 feet, a good elevation for organic grapes. They also studied and researched, carefully selecting the organic vines to plant. After taking classes at Cornell and Surry Community College, they decided vitis vinifera, or grapevines of European descent, were not appropriate, as they tend to be susceptible to disease. They opted instead for hybrids, a cross between vitis vinifera and native American varieties, as well as native Muscadine grapes, which grow well in North Carolina. The Colwells experimented with several varietals before settling on 10 hybrids and four Muscadines.
Carolina Heritage is known for its rich, fruity flavorful Chambourcin red. Pat describes it as Merlot-like, with smooth, light tannins. Another popular red is the Cabernet Franc. Traminette, a hybrid from the European grape Gewürztraminer, is a dry, but fruity white, while Cayuga (a Sauvignon Blanc hybrid) is used for a dry, crisp citrus-y white.
And yes, all Carolina Heritage wines come from organic grapes. The organic certification is a national one and requires a deep commitment. The program has a specific set of rules. No chemicals can be used, there must be a 20-foot barrier around the vineyards, precise records must be kept and routine inspections are conducted.
A few years back, I took a viticulture course at Surry Community College to better my ability to teach on the subject of wine. The other students were potential growers, and most worked in the business. Pat and Clyde came for a guest lecture, and I still remember the reaction from the students in class, as if they were rock stars.
One of the most rewarding aspects for the Colwells is working through the entire process of making wine, then sharing it with visitors. “There are very few things in the modern world where you get to do the whole cycle and are able to complete every step in the process, and then share that,” Pat says.
Indeed, the Colwells quite enjoy sharing their labor of love with friends, family, and guests. Local is important to them, and their wines are as local as it gets.
I must admit, I’m a bit in awe of the Colwells’ accomplishments. They took a chance and, through dedication, vision, and hard work, created something special. Along the way, they supported neighbors and friends, while being excellent stewards of the environment.
When you visit, raise a glass to the vision of these good people. In today’s busy world, the gift they give of a handcrafted product, made with care and love, is special and worth celebrating.
Carolina Heritage Vineyard & Winery
170 Heritage Vines Way • Elkin, NC
by Catherine Rabb