Shelton Vineyards: Field of Dreams
Author: Lindsey Hawkins | Photographer: Maggie Washo & Kelly Stroud
Few things are more breathtaking than a place where nature is practically undisturbed and the air smells like the clay, vegetation, river bed and the five mountain ranges it encompasses. A place where you can hear yourself think, but if you choose to listen to nature’s song instead, you just might hear the wind whisper in your ear to stop and capture the rare, serene moment of peace while drinking a bottle of award-winning, local Cabernet Franc.
Just a short five-and-a-half hour drive up the East Coast from our own island getaway is another getaway in Dobson, North Carolina that is a complete 180 degrees from the flat beach and crashing waves of Hilton Head Island. This haven is called Yadkin Valley, framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the heart of it all are 400 pristine, rolling acres of family-owned and operated viniculture called Shelton Vineyards.
Over the last 10 years, the “retired” Shelton Brothers, Charlie and Ed, have transformed this once dairy farm into a fairytale legacy that has already impacted the local wine industry and economy so dramatically that both humble brother’s were named co-recipient’s of Mount Airy’s Citizen of the Year award for 2010. During CH2’s weekend sabbatical to the tasty retreat, we found out that there is more to be gained than meets the palate when it comes to Shelton Vineyards.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
The Shelton revolution started blindly in 1994 when the brothers decided to purchase the 400-acre property at an auction near their hometown in Surry County, where actor Andy Griffith grew up. The proud duo started with a pot of money, an undying will to help revitalize their hometown and a work ethic incapable of housing the stiffness of retirement.
“We had no idea what we were going to do with it [for the first four years],” Ed explained. “Charlie was flippin’ the channels watching UC Davis playing in the NIT one night back in ’98, and a promo commercial came on about their viticulture school. Charlie called me up and said, ‘What do you think about growing grapes?’ And I said, ‘I think you’re crazy as hell.’”
At the time there was only one other winery in the Yadkin Valley. After some intense industry research, not to mention utilizing some fond memories of past European travels to many wine vineyards, the Shelton brothers began to recognize the incredible resemblance of their property’s climate to that of the soils of Burgundy, France. Knowing a wine vineyard wasn’t something you could just throw together like a scratch biscuit, Charlie and Ed knew experimentation with the vigorous soils of their land that sits 1200 to 1400 feet above sea level was imperative if they were going to overcome some of the bad reputations North Carolina had earned for its wine in the past.
“I’m gonna be honest with you. A lot of this in the beginning was trial and error,” Charlie said. “Ed and I didn’t know anything about making wines, even though we’ve been to every known wine region in the world. So we hired a good winemaker. We haven’t ever been the ones who want to know how to do everything; we want to look at the bigger picture, judge what comes out of it and make adjustments to get it where it needs to be.”
By the summer of ’99, Shelton Vineyards broke ground, and in 2000, the first small batch of Shelton wines had been bottled.
MEET THE WINEMAKER
Winemaker Murphy Moore
Now because the trial and error phase of any unpredictable, weather-controlled project can be so challenging, you can imagine that the Sheltons hire only the very best winemaking minds to be as successful and award-winning as the winery has been in just over a decade. One such talent is the vineyard winemaker Murphy Moore. One might say Moore is a uniquely educated, passionate winemaker with an inventive palate. When you get to know her through her passion, she is a whole lot of fun.
Starting out in ’95 as a “crusher,” Moore has worked her way through the ranks to gain her education and to mature her palate to become the winemaker she is today, recognized by Wine Enthusiast.
“I was actually unemployed when I fell into it as crush help,” Moore said. “It was long, wet, sticky-nasty days, but no one doing it was a whiner; and so I realized I was nuts—or just meant to do this.”
From crushing to bottling, head grunt to laborer with a brain, cellar master assistant to cellar master, across Oregon, California and Washington, Moore landed in the Yadkin Valley with full creative reign of Shelton Vineyards’ fantastic collection of wines.
The winemaking starts in cultivating the harvest, and “Murphy’s law” is to treat every grape as a reserve. Each varietal has a separate vineyard and is harvested at a different time. Native rootstock is grafted with European varietal vines to pull the taste of the area out of the ground into each barrel of wine made, so you actually taste the flavor profile of the sun, climate and nutrients in the soil with each sip. But the creativity comes from the yeast variations added to the juice of the harvest during the fermentation and barreling process, and this is where Moore’s lab work and unique palate come into play.
“You cannot make great wine from crappy grapes, but you can make crappy wine from great grapes,” Moore explained.
Moore believes that there aren’t really any trade secrets in winemaking; there are just different styles preferred by each winemaker—for example, how many types of yeast are used to build the complexity and palate structure of the wine.
“I could take grapes from the same vineyard on the same day as 10 other winemakers, add in the same yeast, the same enzymes, the same oak, the same everything, and we are all going to make different wines, because we frame the photograph differently,” Moore said. “Now how we do that, I can’t define.”
Moore’s law is to use different variations of yeasts from the same species, or genetic strand, and utilize them in the winemaking process as a chef would utilize a spice rack. Now there is adequate technology and scientific measurement behind the process. But Moore’s palate is God-given, and she is looking for balance in her wines, making sure there isn’t one particular taste smacking you in the face.
“Every winemaker’s number one goal is to not screw it up. I look for a symphony, not a solo,” Moore explained. “Although I am a fan of acid because that’s what makes wine food friendly, I am looking for balance of sugar and acid, fruit and alcohol, oak and fruit.”
Though Moore is the winemaker at Shelton Vineyards, she does utilize a tasting panel during the barrel blending process. “I’m always trying to make the best bottle of wine I can make, which is a subjective thing; if I can’t sell it, then I shouldn’t be making it,” Moore said.
Well sell it she does, alongside Charlie, Ed and Shelton Vineyards Vice President of Sales and Distribution, Chris Cunningham. Shelton wines have also become quite popular at a large number of restaurants on Hilton Head Island through Ben Arnold distributors. And when you’re out to eat, keep your eyes peeled for Charlie and Ed Shelton. The brothers own a home here and visit once a month to eat at local restaurants and enjoy support of their fellow Carolinians.
LEGACY IN THE MAKING
Ed Shelton, Chris Cunningham and Charlie Shelton at the Tasting Bar of The Wine Shop at Shelton Vineyards.
When a man leaves his legacy, a trail of hard work typically precedes the outcome, but to leave one worth having in the first place, there must lay motivation driving the project. The motivation for Charlie and Ed was giving something tangible back to their hometown and our Carolina locals, though you’ll never hear them take actual credit for their project.
Maya Angelou, world renowned author and Shelton Vineyards visitor, might have considered Charlie and Ed when she said, “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.”
“Don’t ever be above your customers,” Charlie explained. “I heard some great advice a while back that if you want to make your community grow and be better, you support and help your local people and your area will thrive.
“In the last decade, it’s been a lot of pioneering and engineering of what grows and thrives well here,” Charlie continued. “But when we started, we really looked at this county where the unemployment rate is high because the tobacco, furniture and textile industries are gone, and we looked at something we could do here, in this county where we grew up, to bring back some jobs and tourism. It just so happened our idea worked real well.”
With 12 million people living in a 150-mile radius of the winery, Shelton Vineyards has definitely become a road tripper’s favorite stop, both as a final destination and favorite stop to and from other destinations, specifically Hilton Head Island tourists traveling down and back from the north. Attraction to the winery has rapidly sparked other local agricultural endeavors such as truffle and spinach farms, candy and pie makers, golf resorts, bed and breakfasts, hotels and 100 other wineries.
“It’s amazing to see that the wine industry of North Carolina has put the economic benefit at $850 million, including all the tourism, affiliated businesses and jobs associated with the wineries,” Charlie said.
Not only did the Shelton brothers seem to jump start the economy in the Yadkin Valley, but they are responsible for getting the Yadkin Valley recognized as an official AVA, American Viticulture Area—geographic locations that have the same climate, soil, and elevation and similar properties that give the wine a certain characteristic. And it’s just a short worthwhile drive to experience these certain sensational characteristics for yourself.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Upon entering the 33-thousand-square-foot winery where tours and tastings are given daily, you will notice that Charlie, Ed and Moore are most likely hanging out with you, and not just because they live on the vineyard. They are there to guide you through what has become a beautiful lifestyle that will surely be an experience remembered and repeated. The wine shop, located just beyond the entry of the building, is loaded with industry books, wine accessories, glassware, gifts and wine for days, of course. Display cases showcase awards, while seven leather-bound picture albums show record of the last decade in the center of it all. The wine tasting bar stretches and wraps almost halfway through and around the wine shop with a dramatic chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling to light the way, and this is where the tour begins.
As you travel through the winery, you learn and witness the entire wine making process from start to finish, including the growing of the varietals, the crushing of the grapes, the fermentation tanks with gravity line technology, the barreling process, the bottling process, and the tasting process. After your tour, the vineyard is your playground. Personal picnics are allowed on the property, but only if you want to skip the Three Diamond AAA restaurant, Harvest Grill, offering gourmet spins on North Carolina comfort food like Truffled Grilled Cheese and Country Ham Sandwich for lunch or Blue Ridge Mountain Rubbed, Braised North Carolina Beef Short Ribs for dinner.
In addition, a yearly calendar of events includes Vintage Car Shows, Sunset Beach Music Concerts, the Annual Harvest Festival—and this year, the Shelton Vineyards 10th Anniversary Celebration.
The vineyard is perfect for families, couples and groups of friends looking to have an extraordinary, breathtaking time, and the surrounding activities and accommodations are a bonus. Enjoy scenic drives, hiking through state parks, fly fishing, kayaking and eating and drinking local fare.
A few things are certain: You will feel like you have been on vacation for weeks with just one glimpse of the five mountain ranges, visible from the reservation-only gazebo tasting located at the highest point on the vineyard grounds. You will be thoroughly impressed with the hometown feel of the perfectly manicured grounds and welcoming staff. You will not leave empty handed or with an empty stomach.
Don’t be surprised when Charlie and Ed personally wheel your purchase out to the car for you or pass you a free jar of homemade fig preserves. This is their hometown, after all.
For more information on Shelton Vineyards and how to get there, please visit sheltonvineyards.com.
WHERE TO FIND SHELTON VINEYARDS WINE ON HILTON HEAD ISLAND
• The Wine and Spirit Shop in Shelter Cove Plaza • Down the Hatch in Moss Creek Village • Rollers • Antonio’s • SERG restaurants • Captain Woody’s in Hilton Head and Bluffton • Kingfisher • Charlie’s Le Toille Verte, • Le Bistro • Sunset Grille • Sea Grass Grille • Palmetto Bay Sunrise Café • Hudson’s
The CH2 Crew would like to send a giant, heartfelt THANK-YOU to everyone at Shelton Vineyards who made us feel so at home during our visit. We will always have fond memories of our chat with Charlie & Ed, the five hour wine tour with Murphy & Chris (“Can we try another barrel?!”), the six-course dinner with a side of gossip prepared by the lovely Maria Cunningham, and our beautiful hotel room with a view of the mountains. Thank-you, Thank-you, Thank-you. We shall return for the harvest!