When Sofia Lilly confesses that her first crush was at ten years old, she isn’t talking about a childhood sweetheart. She’s inviting you into the pivotal moment she fell in love with winemaking.
“We had a little basket press that I was obsessed with. It’s a lot smaller than what you’d find in bigger wineries, and takes a lot more time to work with, but we made a good amount of wine with it for several years,” Sofia says. Now the head winemaker at Overmountain Vineyards, she reflects back on those early days of making wine with her father on the porch in flip-flops. “My dad has been making wine since I was a child. We’d go down to the basement and there would be tables full of glass carboys with bubbling airlocks, and the whole room smelled like fermenting grapes and yeast.”
Sofia and her father, Frank Lilly, have been crafting distinctive, fresh, French-inspired wines ever since. “I grew up with an inherent love of winemaking, because it was being done in my home,” she says. They planted their first vines in 1999, officially elevating their family homestead (and hobby) to commercial vineyard status.
There are so many women winemakers now, and they are a force making their stamp on our industry.
When you first round the hill of fig trees, bee-studded flowers, and blueberries to see the sweeping mountain views that frame Overmountain Vineyards and the upscale tasting room, it’s hard to imagine the property’s humble origins—but that’s what Sofia loves most. “We created Overmountain from the ground up. We built our home on the farm, and planted the vines all around us. I spent my childhood picking up stones and planting vines. My hands have bled all over this farm. After college, that’s what called me back to winemaking. I feel very tied to this land.”
That connection is evident in Sofia’s commitment to natural winemaking. “We focus on manipulating our wines as little as possible. We don’t use a recipe—we let the vintages dictate how the wine will be. We’re not running our wines through filters that strip it of aromas and flavor profiles,” she says. In fact, 30 years later, how the family makes wine isn’t much different from her childhood: “We only add yeast and grapes, and we hand-bottle and label all of our products.”
The result? A pared-down portfolio of approachable and aromatic, fresh and fruit-forward wines that are light on the palate. “We specialize in stainless-steel fermented white wines and balanced red blends. We don’t produce big, heavy-alcohol wines. We’re going for balance,” Sofia adds.
Balance is at the heart of all Overmountain Vineyards does, it seems. “We use sustainable agriculture techniques, and we’re an ASAP-certified farm [the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project]. We try to do as much as we can to give everything back.” When the team drops fruit to thin the vines, those grapes are either fed to the chickens for manure or composted. “Eventually, we’re hoping to get into distilling spirits [to make brandy] in which case, all the excess fruit would go toward that,” Sofia says.
Years ago, many wouldn’t have thought of women being in the forefront of the wine industry, but that’s changing. “There are so many women winemakers now, and they are a force making their stamp on our industry,” Lilly says, mentioning role models that paved the way: Helen Turley, Heidi Barrett, Merry Edwards. “They have changed the industry for the better.”
Despite her role as head winemaker—and her celebrated wines—Sofia still calls herself a farmer first and foremost. “At the end of day, winemaking starts in the vineyard. If we make sure the grapes on the vines are perfect, then winemaking is easy. That’s the key: to be in your vineyard every single day, watching those grapes, knowing the soil and seasons.”
Overmountain Vineyards, 2012 Sandy Plains Rd #8799, Tryon, North Carolina. overmountainvineyards.com