- Associated Press - Sunday, March 8, 2015

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) - Changes are afoot at RayLen Vineyards and Winery, some of which are obvious, others not so much.

The vineyards at 3577 U.S. 158 between Bermuda Run and Mocksville, has had a busy offseason as it heads into its 15th year of producing wines.

That milestone makes it among the oldest and most established wineries in the state. When Joe and Joyce Neely started the winery on an old dairy farm in 2000, the state had 25 wineries. Today, that number is up to 130, said Steve Shepard, RayLen’s general manager

The latest is Chestnut Trail, a new winery on Cedar Grove Church Road in Mocksville, that opened on Feb. 6, becoming Davie County’s fifth winery.

Shepard said the state is nowhere close to a saturation point.

“North Carolina wines make up less than .04 percent of all the wines consumed in North Carolina each year,” Shepard said. “It has a huge growth potential. If people would drink a bottle a month of North Carolina wines, we couldn’t grow enough grapes.”

One way to increase consumption is to educate people on the variety of wines the state is producing, Shepard said. People tend to group North Carolina wines together, thinking every winery makes Muscadine wine, for example.

“We are seeing an influx of more serious wine drinkers here,” Shepard said.

Which means the onus is on wineries to produce good wines.

“If you don’t make good wine, it pulls everybody down,” he said.

RayLen is most known for its red wines - cabernets, merlots and red blends - as well as dry white wines.

Since the harvest season ended in the fall, workers at RayLen have been busy on the grounds of the vineyards. Most noticeable is the installation of solar panels that will generate 430,000 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power 50 homes for a year. RayLen is selling that electricity to Duke Energy, as a side business to its wine-making.

Built on land that is not suitable for growing grapes, the solar farm is believed to be the biggest on a vineyard in the state, Shepard said.

It’s the second set of solar panels on the grounds. About four years ago, RayLen installed two arrays - or rows - of panels, which generate 10,000 kilowatts of electricity, enough to cover about 25 percent of the energy needs for the winery’s main building. State regulations prohibit RayLen from using two different solar sources to power one building, which is why it is selling the electricity from the newest array of solar panels to Duke Energy.

“We’re trying to be sustainable here,” Shepard said. “I think sometimes farming and agriculture get a bad rap. But we produce products from the earth. When you buy a bottle of wine here, it didn’t require a lot of diesel fuel. When you buy a wine from Australia or Argentina or California? The carbon footprint of those wines is far more than what we have here.”

Some of the less obvious changes at RayLen involve the vineyard itself. Over the last several weeks, workers pulled out about 6,000 vines and replanted about 2,000, leaving 4,000 more to replant.

Overall, the vineyard has about 35,000 grape vines on 35 acres.

The vines that were pulled were not producing satisfactory grapes, Shepard said.

“Grape vines are like planting trees. It takes 10 years to produce good fruit. So you are looking at 10 to 12 years before you can make an evaluation,” Shepard said. “We’re in phase two now. The first 10 years are a learning curve, and you spend the next 10 correcting that curve.”

RayLen is in the midst of its pruning season, with the growing season beginning in mid- to late April, depending on the weather. More visitors start to come by then as well, drawn by the warm weather and pastoral landscape and mountainous views. On clear days, Grandfather Mountain is visible on the horizon, Shepard said.

Because the vineyard’s beauty is part of its draw, workers recently cleared trees and brush to improve the view for passers-by on Interstate 40.

That was move to attract people not familiar with RayLen. Locals know about it and are coming more frequently to have a glass of wine. Shepard said there’s one group of retired folks from the area who come by regularly to drink wine and play cards.

“We have a huge local following,” he said. “The place is a gem, a pretty place, and we make a really nice wine.”


Information from: Winston-Salem Journal, https://www.journalnow.com

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