Lucky for those of us who call the Upstate home, sweet escape can be found at the clusters of wineries that dot the mountainsides within an hour’s drive from Greenville. Some surprisingly good bottles pop out of tasting rooms at places like the new Eagle Mountain Winery on Highway 11, Overmountain Vineyards in Tryon, and Stone Ashe Vineyards, the newest member of the federally designated Crest of the Blue Ridge AVA (American Viticultural Area) created in Henderson County, North Carolina, in 2019. So what are you waiting for? Let a local vineyard carry you away.
Eagle Mountain Vineyards & Winery
Wine possesses myriad powers: it can inspire art, motivate music, elevate a humble meal. And as it happens, art, music, and food are the elements that founder Russ Gardiner and winemaker George Bursick aim to pair with their wine at Eagle Mountain Vineyards. After Gardiner retired from his advertising agency in California, he and his wife, Sheila, looked at land all over the Carolinas in search of just the right plot on which to plant a vineyard. They finally settled on a 100-acre site just off Highway 11, a piece of property that Russ proclaims “checked all the boxes.” What he refers to as a “legacy project,” is a collaboration with acclaimed winemaker George Bursick, a veteran of more than 30 years in the industry, including a 21-year stint as director of winemaking at Ferrari-Carano in Healdsburg, California.
Tastings are currently being held in the elegantly rustic winery building, the first to be completed on-site. In the works is a second structure, which will eventually hold a restaurant, an art gallery, and a large public tasting room (the original tasting room will be devoted to wine club members). At the top of the property, which commands a superb mountain view, Gardiner plans to add a chapel, a wedding venue, and a clutch of cottages. Other plans call for a 500-seat concert amphitheater, named for local singer/songwriter Edwin McCain, and a 20-acre sculpture park, highlighting the works of up to 75 regional artists.
So far, they have planted four blocks of cabernet sauvignon, which Bursick will eventually use to craft Eagle Mountain’s estate wine. Initially, the tasting room will offer three whites and three reds, blended by Bursick from grapes sourced elsewhere. All of Eagle Mountain’s wines will be available exclusively at the winery. “What we care about is making the best possible premium wine,” Russ says, “and to provide the ultimate wine, food, music, and art experience.”
2330 Hwy 11, Travelers Rest, SC. (864) 248-0284, eaglemountainwinery.com
Frank Lilly and his family never intended to have a vineyard. When he purchased the 70-acre property in Tryon, North Carolina, in the 1980s, Lilly was intending to farm the land. As part of the farm, he began growing grapes in 1999, selling most of them to Biltmore Estate and reserving some to make his own wine for fun. That hobby eventually led him back to school to study oenology at Surry Community College in Dobson, North Carolina. Today Frank and his daughter Sofia—who abandoned her plans for a career in medicine to join the family business—make Overmountain’s wine from the five varieties of thick-skinned French grapes they grow on-site: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and an obscure white grape from southwestern France called petit manseng.
The Lillys focus on boutique-style wines, with an annual yield of some 2,200 cases. “We choose to do what the vineyards tell us to do,” says Sofia, “so we don’t produce the same wines every year.” To ensure the quality of their products, everything is done by hand, from picking and sorting the grapes to bottling the wine. “We take a very minimalist approach to winemaking. That means we don’t filter our wines or use chemical additives that change the flavor profile,” she adds.
Overmountain’s wine is only available at the vineyard. Their flagship is petit verdot, a full-bodied red aged in oak for 24 months. For the holidays, they make a white called Camellia, a 50-50 blend of petit manseng and chardonnay that Sofia describes as “a big-bodied white with good acid and aromas of green apple and fresh pear.”
The small tasting room opens onto a spacious covered patio, a lovely spot to linger over a glass of wine while you drink in the undulating slopes of grapevines below.
2012 Sandy Plains Rd, Tryon, NC (visit by reservation only). (828) 863-0523, overmountainvineyards.com
Stone Ashe Vineyards
On a warm fall day at Stone Ashe Vineyards, gray-tinged clouds float like puffs of cotton candy just above the horizon as guests relax on the terrace and the emerald lawn. Named for the site’s stony Ashe series soil, the 67-acre Hendersonville vineyard nestles in a valley hugged by mountain peaks with names like Bear Wallow, Sugarloaf, and Point Lookout. Here, Craig and Tina Little, an oral surgeon and a dental hygienist who moved from Charleston in 2016, produce boutique Bordeaux-style wines on a breathtaking site that shares environmental and climatic conditions with Bordeaux, France. “The site we chose manifested all the criteria that I thought would culminate into producing world-class wines,” says Craig, who aged his passion for wine over years of dinners with the couple’s oenophile friends. “We wanted the altitude and steep slopes,” adds Tina. “Where we sit between the mountains, the wind blows through and protects most of the site from frost.”
At the newest (summer 2020) addition to the Crest of the Blue Ridge AVA in Hendersonville, North Carolina, Tina runs the tasting room, while Craig partners with winemaker Chris Denesha at Plēb Urban Winery in Asheville to create the wines. “Chris and I look at winemaking as a fine chef would looking at cooking, so it’s palate- and not science-based,” explains Craig, who is fermenting plans to have his own winery on-site. “We don’t want to interfere with the aromas and flavors that are intrinsic to the site. We want our wines to express a sense of this special place.”
In the tasting room, choose among a rosé of cabernet franc and three whites—a Chablis-style chardonnay, a dry riesling, and a crisp sauvignon blanc. The Littles also grow cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, and cabernet franc, but those reds are maturing in French oak barrels for at least another year. Stay tuned.
Stone Ashe Vineyards, 736 Green Mountain Rd, Hendersonville, NC. (843) 343-2080, stoneashevineyards.com
Illustration by Timothy Banks.